Warning: the following work has not been edited, formatted, or otherwise perfected for your reading experience. There are gaping holes in the narrative, characters are inconsistent from scene to scene, and the plot needs major revision. HOWEVER! If you are not frightened by these blood-curdling warnings, then I invite you to experience the alpha version of this novel. Feel free to comment on anything that seems wrong; criticism is the only proven way to improve a story!
The Capital was peaceful, today. The sprawling city was filled with people energetically going about their business, whether that business be work or pleasure. Guardsmen walked briskly up and down the roads, encouraging the peace to continue. The sun was shining, the weather warm, and a gentle breeze could be felt all over.
In one part of the Capital, just beside the Noble District, a vast ground had been set aside for the buildings and grounds of the War, Magic, and Commerce Academy, where young men and women from all walks of life gathered together to learn, grow, and become the brightest prospects on the entire continent. Not only the children of Reclamation Kingdom, but all the countries nearby sent their best and brightest to receive their education in this place, the greatest center of learning since the Great Disaster.
Throughout the halls and classrooms of the great school, young men and women listened diligently to instructors, practiced incantations, trained with weapons, read reports, and generally behaved like the elites they were. Partly this was do to the legendary harshness of the Academy staff, who had very firm beliefs about proper behavior when on the campus; the punishment halls were never empty for long. But for the most part, these young men and women had been very thoroughly impressed upon by their families, and certain other concerned parties, that wasting this opportunity would be a mistake they most certainly would not recover from. Even the most pampered noble, or unruly common-born, would not dare to treat their situation as the most pressing threat they had ever faced.
With one exception.
In a corner of the Academy, in a quiet garden set aside for meditation, a young man lay on a bench, reading a book. He was tall but spindly, and he squinted at his book through unfashionable glasses. His clothes were of a high quality and cut for a noble, but the youth had allowed them to become creased and rumpled. He was handsome, in a vague way, but obviously did nothing to cultivate his looks. All in all, he was an extremely unimposing character.
Anyone seeing him for the first time would probably take him for a magic scholar, of the type that would get lost in his books and experiments to the point where some well-meaning soul would have to remind him to eat. That he was actually the son of one of the most powerful dukes in Reclamation Kingdom would no doubt shock that observer to the core. This young man absolutely did not give off the imposing aura of a noble.
This observer might then recognize another, even more shocking truth: this young man had an impossibly slight magical aura, to the point where it could not be sensed at all!
Every human had an inborn magical aura, which would determine their facility with the greatest gift of the gods, the casting of magic spells. The strength of this aura was set at birth, and would never change. Commoner families would normally have weak auras, barely able to use a limited number of spells to make their lives easier. On the other end of the spectrum were the nobility, born with incredible auras and able to use spells with vast and terrible power … in theory.
Aura strength tended to run in families, but it was possible for a commoner to be born with relatively strong power, or a noble with comparably week power. But for a powerful man like a duke to have a son who was almost completely powerless was unthinkable!
The young man turned a page in his book, and glanced over at the other person currently sitting in the garden. The other young man sat cross-legged on the ground, his eyes shut, while currents of wind coiled tightly around him. In contrast to the duke’s son, this youth had an extremely powerful magic aura, strong enough to be considered a duke himself. But his clean, unwrinkled clothes were unmistakably the uniform of a servant. His looks were ordinary, but his strong aura gave an imposing feeling to any witness.
The magic-less young man on the bench was Karis, second son of Duke Maes du Migel dan Fernifar. The meditating young man was Briar Sevon, the strongest student at the Academy in a century. Karis was known as the biggest good-for-nothing in the Capital, if not in the entire Kingdom; and yet, Briar Sevon was employed as his servant. This situation filled many with a great sense of injustice, and the attempts to snatch Sevon away from the du Migel family never ceased.
Briar Sevon was currently engaged in a meditative trance, a state in which pure magic power could be manipulated directly. Strong mages would undergo these trances in order to become more comfortable with their power, so that they could recite their incantations more quickly and easily. However, while a mage was in this trance, they were extremely susceptible to suffering from a backlash of power if their meditation was disturbed by an outside influence; thus, they would take precautions to only meditate in a safe, quiet environment where they would not be disturbed. They would especially never meditate while someone else was nearby. And yet Briar had not sent Karis away.
Sure enough, Karis had only read a couple more pages before he suddenly spoke out in a loud voice: “According to this, blueclaw jackals can be repelled by burning a combination of kurs weed and slivers of blood ore. Would that actually work, I wonder?”
The currents of wind around Briar immediately dissipated, and his eyes opened. He gazed calmly at his master, who had rudely interrupted his meditation, and immediately responded, “Sir, while I do not have any experience with blood ore, I have handled kurs weed before, and I believe it would be very difficult to get it to burn.” Oddly, there was no sign that Briar had suffered a painful backlash, as though he had been expecting the interruption.
“I suppose so,” muttered Karis, “but there are at least three different varieties of kurs weed, so maybe one might burn more easily? Further, I’m not exactly sure what the author means by ‘blood ore’. I know of two types of naturally occurring rock that might be referred to as blood ore, but the author implies that the material is actually harvested from some sort of monster. Very strange.”
Karis stared at his book while muttering under his breath. Briar gazed calmly at him, then tilted his head slightly.
“May I ask a question, sir?”
“Mm? Of course, Mr. Sevon.”
“That is a book of fiction, correct?”
“Historical fiction, but yes.”
“Perhaps the author simply made it up, then?”
Karis blinked. “You mean, just threw them in because they sounded good?”
Karis clicked his tongue. “She certainly may have done that, but …” He mused for a moment, then spoke again. “It seems an odd detail to include. There was no need to explain how the powder was made; simply stating that it was a secret recipe that could repel the jackals would have been more than sufficient. But since she gave specific details, I suddenly want to know if it could work.”
Briar nodded. “I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable around anyone who could make kurs weed actually burn.”
Karis hesitated, then stated, “I’m fairly certain that wasn’t the point … Well, it’s not a big deal, I suppose.”
The two were lost in thought for a moment, but then Briar asked, “Do you know the author, sir?”
“Not personally, of course, but I’m quite familiar with her work. She lives in the Southern Reaches, apparently, and her historical fictions of famous heroes are well thought of in her native land, as well as here in the Kingdom.”
He tapped his chin in thought. “I understand she’s one of the numerous authors banned in the Eastern Authority Sections, due to certain unflattering portrayals of some of their greatest heroes … Well, but I’ve read them, and I think they are some of the most historically accurate books she’s written. So it’s all to your point of view, I suppose.”
“As you say, sir.”
“No need to agree, I’m just thinking out loud. But you really should continue meditating, you know,” said Karis with a bright smile, completely ignoring the fact that he was the one who had interrupted Briar in the first place.
“Indeed, please excuse me.”
Briar Sevon closed his eyes again, and quickly began to sink back into his meditation. However, just as the currents started to form once more, Karis spoke up again. “Oh, by the way.”
The currents disappeared again, and once more Briar opened his eyes without any apparent pain. “Yes, sir?”
Karis had shut his book and was currently looking into the distant blue sky. “You received a message earlier, correct?”
“Indeed, sir. It is nothing to concern yourself with, just more of the same.”
“Mm, more of the same, is it?” Karis sat up, and turned his body to face Briar; however, his eyes stared down at the book in his lap. “I suspect … that it was a message from Miss Maledicta Foursquare, asking you to join her family’s business.”
Briar blinked. “… That’s right, sir.”
“This would make … the fourth time, right? Have you made any response? Personally, I mean.”
“As Duke Maes has instructed for these situations, I had an official message sent to the young lady through the dan Fernifar house the first time, then simply ignored the others.”
Karis nodded, then shook his head. “That might work for us in the Kingdom, with our obsessive formality, but the heir of a merchant house of the Southern Reaches is not going to be put off so easily. The Foursquare house, especially, has quite the reputation …”
Briar actually grimaced for a moment, before his habitual calm expression returned. “I shall heed your advice, sir.”
“Mm.” Karis seemed to be thinking about something else. He looked up and gazed keenly at Briar. “Mr. Sevon, have you had much contact with Miss Foursquare?”
“No, I’ve never met the young lady.” Briar didn’t quite understand why Karis was asking.
“I see, I see. Personally, I’ve noticed her at a couple of the Commerce-focus lectures, and she always seemed very dedicated and engaged. Not the type of girl to skip lessons to go chasing after a guy, if you understand.”
As if the maneuver was practiced in advance, both young men turned to face the entrance to the closed meditation garden. There, standing in the archway, was a lovely young woman. Her strong eyes were currently glaring at Karis, who seemed quite amused.
“And so I’m slightly surprised to see you here, Miss Foursquare. Can I help you with something?”
Maledicta frowned at Karis, and said, with a lovely accented voice, “I don’t appreciate your tone, Mr. Karis Migel.”
“Karis du Migel,” Briar muttered under his breath.
Karis ignored the implied slight, and instead smiled warmly at Maledicta. “I’m certain I have no idea what you mean …”
The young lady snorted, and continued speaking. “I’m not here to bandy words with you, Mr. Migel. I’m here to speak with Mr. Sevon.”
“Well, he’s right here,” replied Karis with a wave, “so speak away.” He even moved to one side, as though to remove himself from the conversation. Briar barely managed to keep from rolling his eyes.
Maledicta nodded briskly, and focused her sharp gaze on Briar. “Mr. Sevon, please consider joining my family.”
“No.” Briar’s reply was brisk and certain. Karis’ smile shifted into a crooked grin.
“Come now, Mr. Sevon, how can you reject such a straightforward marriage proposal?”
Maledicta’s jaw dropped, and even Briar’s eyes widened in surprise. Maledicta started spluttering in her rush to get her words out. “W-w-what are you saying!? That’s n-not what I meant at all!”
“Is that so,” mused Karis. “Too bad, Mr. Sevon. Ah well, easy come, easy go, as they say.”
Maledicta glared at Karis, and even Briar had a hint of exasperation on his face. “Sir, please stop confusing the issue.”
“Oh, but it’s so fun though,” murmured Karis, but Briar had already turned back to Maledicta, who had internally decided to ignore Karis for the time being.
“Miss Foursquare, I have been employed by Duke Maes of House Fernifar, who has supported both my studies and my life. It would be a supreme act of disloyalty to one-sidedly leave his employ.”
“The duke is wasting your talents,” Maledicta responded flatly. “You are the most promising mage of the last hundred years, and your future should be unlimitedly bright. But the duke has limited your growth by forcing you to serve this … this …”
“Good-for-nothing? Waste of space? Magicless cripple?” Karis asked innocently. Maledicta flinched, but continued to gaze straight at Briar.
“… Yes. Even in other nations, Mr. Migel would be seen as a liability. Here in the Reclamation Kingdom, he is close to a non-entity. And you will be stained by your association with him.”
“She has a point, you know,” nodded Karis in mock-agreement. Both of the other two continued to ignore him.
“Do you have a point, Miss Foursquare?” inquired Briar evenly, without the slightest emotion crossing either face or voice.
Maledicta cleared her throat, and spoke as if reading from a script. “The Foursquare Cartel has a three hundred year history in the Southern Reaches, with branches in all five nations including this Reclamation Kingdom. We deal in all sorts of commodities, and we are the biggest supplier of magical tools in both the Southern Reaches and the Taskmaker Empire.”
“That’s nothing,” interrupted Karis. “I understand your ancestors operated at a loss for over fifty years in the southern Eastern Authority Sections, just to establish your presence. Now you are one of the few foreign companies those weirdos allow to operate in their territory, and you have what amounts to a monopoly in consumer goods in that entire nation. Now that is an impressive accomplishment. I understand nearly 15% of your yearly profits come from the area. It would probably be higher if the trade in magic tools in the Empire wasn’t so lucrative.”
As Karis spoke, Maledicta’s eyes widened, and she couldn’t hide her shock. Even she didn’t know off the top her head the exact profit ratio of her company. “How … how do you know all that?”
“Oh, I just keep an ear out, you know.” Karis smile shifted into an expression Maledicta couldn’t read. “Welcome to Reclamation Kingdom, where decent information comes to die.”
Confused, Maledicta opened her mouth to question him further, only to be forestalled by Briar raising his hand. “Please, don’t get him started. The entire lecture last about two hours, and I would like to be able to have lunch today.” His voice dripped with irony, shocking Maledicta in the contrast to the usual tone.
“Oh come now, Mr. Sevon, she might even appreciate it, being a merchant’s daughter and all …”
“No, sir. Leave the poor young lady alone.”
Maledicta was feeling slightly left behind by the conversation, so she forcefully restarted her pitch. “At any rate, becoming a part of the Foursquare family will definitely be beneficial to your future, without the inconvenience of being attached to a Reclamation noble house. You would be welcome in almost any branch of our organization, and with your innate abilities, you could aspire to a quite high position. Best of all,” she finished triumphantly, “you would be able to choose your own future, rather than have it forced upon you.”
Maledicta stood proudly, as if she had made an ironclad argument. Briar, on the other hand, had listened without expression to her spiel, and once she had finished speaking, he responded. “I have already stated my reasons for serving the duke’s house, Miss Foursquare. I have no intention of betraying them. Also …” Briar hesitated, then continued, “I don’t quite understand what you mean about choosing my future. No one has chosen my future for me, I should think.”
Maledicta shook her head and opened her mouth, but Karis responded first. “It’s a cultural difference, Mr. Sevon. In the Southern Reaches, they are great believers in self-actualization. That is to say, they believe a person is what they make of themselves, rather what they are born to. While here in the Kingdom, if you are born with a certain level of power, you are expected to fulfill the responsibilities of that power, whether you want to or not. If it turns out you are not shrewd enough to handle the responsibilities of your position,” Karis shrugged, “well, there are plenty more where you came from.”
“I see. I hadn’t noticed before.” Briar seemed slightly pensive as he considered these conflicting views.
“Well, your circumstances are a little different. For a number of reasons, you are seen as a potential free agent, and so …” Karis gestured at Maledicta, who was looking a little lost. Everything she had heard about Briar Sevon had indicated that he was being forced to serve the good-for-nothing Karis du Migel in order to limit his growth; a ploy of Duke Maes to both repress Sevon personally, and to make him less valuable to other nobles who desired to oppose the duke.
But having spoken to these two men, there seemed to be very little evidence of coercion. In fact, setting aside the verbal deference Briar offered Karis, the two seemed quite close, almost friendly. Obviously, the various rumors were less than accurate, which frustrated Maledicta quite a bit. She was still determined to have Briar join her family’s cartel in the end, but without friction between him and his master, her work would be much harder. For some reason, Karis’ words repeated themselves in her head: Reclamation Kingdom, where information goes to die.
“Mr. Sevon. Please consider my offer. I will give you time to think about it, and if you have any questions about what my family can offer you, please simply ask, and I will happily answer for you. Although,” she glanced over at Karis, “it seems Mr. Migel has a strong grasp of our capabilities already.”
“Oh, certainly, just leave it to me! I’m sure I can tell him anything he wants to know,” spoke out Karis cheerfully. Maledicta flushed as she realized he was mocking her again, but she wasn’t quite sure how to respond. She had meant to try to dig into his information source a little more, but she had been instantly outmaneuvered. More than a little angry at herself, she opened her mouth to defend herself, but unexpectedly Briar interrupted her.
“Miss Foursquare, I had expected you to know this, but you are aware that the proper form of address for my master is Karis du Migel, correct? So can I take it you are deliberately insulting my lord?” His eyes darkened slightly, and a slight quiver could be felt in the air.
Maledicta started. She had known the proper address, of course; her family would not have allowed her to study in this country without being well-grounded in these manners; nobles in the Kingdom were quite jealous of their prerogatives. But somehow, facing the aura-less Karis, she had instinctively treated him like a commoner. Even if Karis was a noble only in name, her behavior could be seen as rudeness toward House Fernifar, and could even cause a diplomatic incident. She opened her mouth, but no words came out.
To her surprise, Karis himself came to her rescue. “Nonsense, Mr. Sevon. Miss Foursquare comes from a very straightforward culture, and frankly, my name is ridiculously long. Surely she was just being efficient by leaving out the unnecessary bits. Still,” he said, turning to Maledicta, “you should be very careful around most Kingdom nobles. They like to see the forms followed.”
“Sir …” The dark look retreated from Briar’s eyes, replaced by mild exasperation.
Maledicta decided to retreat, before she caused herself even more damage. “I apologize for interrupting your meditation time, Mr. Sevon. Let us meet again.” She turned toward Karis, who looked back at her with a smile. She hesitated, then eventually said, “I’m sorry.”
She wasn’t even sure what she was apologizing for, but Karis simply smiled back at her with warm eyes. “I took no offense. Have a good day, Miss Foursquare.”
Maledicta nodded briskly, and turned to leave the garden. As she walked through the arched entryway, Karis called after her, “Oh, and make sure not to skip classes in the future, the teachers hate that sort of thing!” She nearly stumbled, and thought to herself, That guy is simply too hypocritical!
After she left, the two young man stood together for while. Eventually Karis said, “Well, wasn’t she nice.”
“Not really, sir.”
“Nonsense, even if she was a bit rude, she was barely hostile at all. A breath of fresh air, after dealing with my fellow young nobles day in and day out.”
“It would be better if you weren’t constantly pointing out their shortcomings, sir.”
“No, Mr. Sevon, it would not. This Kingdom, and especially it’s nobles, only recognize personal strength. As someone with no magic to protect me, I am simply a casualty waiting to happen.” Karis shrugged. “Keeping them confused and off-balance actually causes less work for you, you know.”
“Hmph.” Briar snorted at this ridiculous assertion, but didn’t argue. In truth, Karis understood the mentality of his fellow nobles far better than Briar ever would, but he could never be quite sure when his master was simply fishing in troubled waters. “In any case. Should I inform the duke about Miss Foursquare’s offer?”
“Mm, if you must … Actually, let me handle it. I want to suggest to father that it would be better to simply let her be, rather than chasing her off.”
Briar was startled. “Surely she won’t keep pressing the issue? I rejected her quite firmly.”
Karis laughed. “Don’t underestimate that young woman, Mr. Sevon. I expect that she will be quite persistent.”
Briar frowned. “Won’t that cause friction with the other nobles aiming for my service?”
“More than you realize,” grinned Karis. “She’s quite popular, you know.”
Two weeks later, Karis du Migel was attending class at the scheduled time. It wasn’t the class he was supposed to be attending, of course, but the teacher didn’t seem to care, and the other students either glared at him or ignored him; no one approached. The lecture today was a history lesson on the Reclamation Kingdom, focused on the period directly after the death of the last Mage Tyrant, as the suddenly manumitted people of an entire continent attempted to cope with their sudden freedom. It was a confusing period, and Karis amused himself by comparing the official history presented by the lecturer with the slightly less one-sided account he himself had learned. When you got right down to it, Reclamation Kingdom was mostly formed by a batch of extra-powerful bandits; not something you want to proudly announce to the world, as a noble with centuries-long history leading back to said bandits.
Of course, the founder, First King Goldenbeard, was an exception. If anything, the official histories undervalued his influence on the growth of his kingdom. The Great Houses prefered it this way, in the thought that anything that undercut the king’s authority necessarily increased their own. Karis snickered at the thought; the nobility were underestimating the king rather badly. Heaven help them if they ever discovered the truth …
Behind him stood Briar Sevon, looking tired and exasperated. Many young nobles in the lecture hall glanced over towards the two, and sneered in the privacy of their own minds: So that damn servant is finally getting tired of babysitting that piece of trash. Maybe now he will reconsider my offer…
Of course, Karis was only indirectly responsible for Briar’s current lack of spirit. The prime culprit was, of course, Maledicta Foursquare. Since that day in the meditation garden, she had taken the opportunity to waylay Briar at least once a day, to ask him if he had reconsidered, or to present some new persuasion as to why joining the Foursquare Cartel would be of benefit to him. That these reasons all seemed to be variations of the same theme didn’t slow her down at all, and he was getting quite tired of saying no.
Worse yet, Karis was actively encouraging her, nodding along with her points and making his own appeals on her behalf, often with better thought-out reasoning. Maledicta wasn’t sure why he was doing that; he obviously had some game he was playing, but since it didn’t seem like he was being malicious about it, she just chalked it up to a warped sense of humor. She had grown used to him, but was still uncomfortable with how intelligent and well-informed he was.
Of course, while Maledicta herself didn’t believe that the duke’s son was mocking her, other people were less generous in their assessment. As a strong magician, as the heir to a major merchant cartel, and especially as a beautiful young woman, Maledicta was an appealing figure to the young noblemen of the Academy. Many were quite infatuated with her, and several had even advanced marriage proposals.
Unfortunately for these young hopefuls, Maledicta Foursquare had no intention of tying herself any closer to Reclamation Kingdom than she had to. She had come to the Academy for the first-rate education, and for the opportunity to make contacts among the next generation of leaders, but she personally despised the stratified attitudes of the Kingdom’s nobility, and privately couldn’t wait to finish her studies and return home. Getting involved in the convoluted house wars of the Capital was absolutely not on her agenda, and her steadfast refusal to consider any sort of marriage left a number of young man grinding their teeth in frustration.
And so, when they saw the young heiress pursuing the commoner servant of Duke Maes’ son so assiduously, their moods plummeted to the ground immediately. In truth, most nobles wanted to steal young Sevon for their own house, as well, but approaching him directly would be an open insult to House Fernifar, an insult few could afford to make. Maledicta Foursquare, on the other hand, was neither a noble nor a citizen of the Kingdom, so her behavior, while rude, was not automatically a proclamation of war either.
But when Karis joined in, all but encouraging Briar to join Foursquare Cartel, the watching nobles seethed with barely restrained anger. To them, the son of the duke was obviously mocking Miss Foursquare; in their eyes, Briar Sevon was being contained and suppressed by House Fernifar, and Duke Maes in particular, so there was no way Briar could voluntarily leave and join some other house. Otherwise, of course, he would have abandoned that magicless crippled piece of trash long ago, and joined one of their houses. Karis knew this, obviously, and was taunting her in the full knowledge that she could never succeed, which she was too ignorant to pick up on. Tellingly, none of them seemed to realize that this line of thought was completely insulting Maledicta’s intelligence.
Thus the young noblemen muttered to each other, with each rumor fuelling more rumors, until half the Academy seemed to be seething with contempt and hatred for Karis du Migel. The man in question couldn’t care less, knowing things would not be allowed to get too far out of hand; and if an individual or small group thought to take matters into their own hands, well, they would still have to deal with Briar Sevon before they could lay a hand on him. To Maledicta as well, the situation was no big deal. She had long since stopped paying attention to rumors involving Karis du Migel, and she half-expected that he was fanning the flames himself. Possibly for amusement.
Briar Sevon, on the other hand, was being run ragged. Setting aside his master’s lackadasical approach to class attendance, which he understood the truth of anyway, he was constantly forced to refuse Maledicta’s recruitment attempts, while listening to Karis tease both of them, all while remaining vigilant against jealous nobles who might be plotting to harm Karis or himself. Add in his own slightly secretive studies in magic and other arts, and there simply weren’t enough hours in the day.
Fortunately, Karis and Briar returned to the Fernifar Mansion after classes every day, rather than living in a dorm on the Academy property like Maledicta, or he’d never get any rest. The atmosphere of the Manor, at least on the servant levels, was much more peaceful and relaxing than the academy grounds. Karis had other sources of tension to deal with at home, but he never let the pressure show, maintaining a confident smile almost all the time. When Briar asked him about it, Karis winked and replied, “Wild animals can smell fear, you know.” Briar chose not to pursue the matter further, just in case.
And so today was a day like any other, with Karis attending classes he shouldn’t have been, Briar trailing along behind, and everyone else attempting to find out if glaring at Karis might actually cause him to drop dead. So far, it hadn’t been successful, but apparently they were willing to keep trying. If there was anything unusual, it was that Maledicta hadn’t ambushed the two yet this morning. Karis was slightly disappointed, and was considering attending one of the classes she was in later, just to see if she would even try to recruit Briar during class. He was reluctant to get her in trouble with the instructors … but it would be her own fault, of course.
Had Briar known what his master was thinking, his first thought would probably have been to wonder just when Karis had learned Maledicta’s schedule.
Just then, there was a commotion at the door, and two of the Academy’s resident guards entered, flanking an older man with an extremely strong magical aura. This man was the Headmaster of the Academy, Seberian du Damass. He spoke with a commanding voice, “Sorry to interrupt your lecture, Dr. Chebari. I am given to understand that Karis du Migel dan Fernifar is present in your class today?”
The lecturer slowly nodded. “No need to apologize, sir. He and his servant are right over there.”
Headmaster Seberian nodded briskly in return, and marched with his guards over to Karis, who had already stood up. His normal smile was nowhere to be seen, and his eyes narrowed. For the Headmaster to come in person, something extremely important must have happened, and he wasn’t sure what it could be.
“Karis du Migel. Briar Sevon,” rumbled the Headmaster. “Please come with me.”
“Of course, sir,” replied Karis quietly, while Briar bowed slightly in acknowledgement. Flanked by the guards, the three men left the lecture hall. Behind them, excited conversations began to spring up, before the lecture shouted them back into silence again. Everyone wondered what Karis could have done to actually be pulled out by the Headmaster. Perhaps he was being kicked out of the Academy? They could only hope.
The Headmaster’s office was in a building not far from the Academy gates. Unlike the rest of the city, the Academy had a consistent, if overly ornate, building style. Naturally, the Headmaster resided in the biggest and most ornate, which also happened to be his personal home. Karis had once heard Headmaster Seberian complaining to his father about how big and useless the place was, but as the group stepped inside the huge entry hall, he observed that effect was actually quite good, with a minimum of tasteful decorations. Certainly a mansion that could house visiting dignitaries, if necessary.
Karis had expected the Headmaster to lead them up the curving staircases to his office, but instead the older man led the group over to a door partially hidden to one side. From there they traversed a winding path through corridors obviously meant for servants, to a sparsely furnished room somewhere near the back of the mansion. Seberian gestured at a couple of chairs and grunted, “Take a seat.”
Karis and Briar sat. The guards remained outside the room, and Headmaster Seberian remained standing in front of them, glowering down at the two young men. They remained that way for several minutes. Karis wore a smile that, for once, wasn’t quite reaching his eyes; Briar’s expression remained emotionless, but he watched the Headmaster closely, as if anticipating him to strike out at any moment; Seberian, meanwhile, continued to glower down at Karis, as if waiting for him to confess to some wrongdoing.
Finally, the one to break the silence was the Headmaster. “Karis du Migel dan Fernifar. It has been decided,” and his lips twisted as if he was spitting out the word, “that you will escorted off the property by your father’s men. I am told that you will be confined by House Fernifar until the facts of the current situation have been established. I would appreciate it,” he continued, his deep voice dropping even further, “if neither you nor your servant attempted to escape.”
Karis had raised one eyebrow, and seemed quite confused. “I have no intention of evading my father’s men, of course. But, if I may ask, what exactly has happened to necessitate my confinement? I hardly think skipping a few classes should prompt such a harsh response…”
“Hmph. You skip almost all your classes, du Migel. If it weren’t for … other considerations …” Seberian glanced over at Briar Sevon for a moment, and seemed to change his mind about continuing. Instead, he said, “Tell me, du Migel. Are you acquainted with Miss Maledicta Foursquare?” Seberian did not miss the brief moment of shock that passed over Karis’ face, before his habitual smile completely disappeared. Briar, meanwhile, just narrowed his eyes.
“I’d say that we are fairly well acquainted with the young woman, yes. Surely nothing has happened to her?” Karis’ voice was filled with polite concern, but his eyes seemed slightly anxious as he asked.
Headmaster Seberian looked levelly at Karis, and flatly said, “Just a little while earlier, Miss Foursquare was discovered in her room, apparently dead of poison. And you, Karis du Migel dan Fernifar, have been accused of murdering her.”
This is something that happened earlier.
Maldu dan Rettica, second son of House Rettica, was in many ways a very typical Reclamation noble. Respectful of those with greater strength, to the point of obsequiousness; rude and belittling to those below him. If there was anything that set him apart, it was his stature: unlike the majority of Kingdom men, who tended to be tall, broad, and handsome, he was rather short, thin, and surprisingly unattractive. Most of his peers tended to compare him to a rat, though not to his face, of course; proprieties must be maintained, after all.
As the son of a relatively strong house, he had been expected to enter the Academy, and so despite his less than studious nature, he had applied. That he had barely passed the entrance exams, was a secret that House Rettica did not want bandied about, so Maldu’s father, Feldu dan Rettica, had ordered him to keep a low profile.
Fortunately, as it were, Maldu’s limited talents in magic were all skewed toward Shadow and Darkness incantations, which made keeping a low profile quite easy for him. Practicioners of Shadow magics were stereotypically seen as untrustworthy, and those who study Darkness were quietly scorned; but Maldu didn’t care about that, and ended up learning a lot about stealth and espionage. This caused his father all sorts of headaches.
It just so happened that Maldu was one of the young nobles of the Academy who had been completely charmed by the foreign beauty of Maledicta Foursquare, and he begged his father to make an offer for her hand. Feldu dan Rettica didn’t have much hope for the match, but agreed to make the offer in the spirit of backing an outside chance. Needless to say, Maldu’s offer was rejected.
Irritated that the Foursquares had rejected him out of hand, Maldu began approaching Maledicta personally, only to be rebuffed every time. Frustrated, he began to follow the young woman around, only to notice that several other young noblemen seemed to have the same idea. Not wanting to be seen by his peers to be some sort of stalker, he began using his skills and magical arts to conceal his presence as he followed her around campus — whenever he was not scheduled for class, of course. Skipping classes at the Academy was not something Maldu dan Rettica could get away with.
That his current behavior was even more like a stalker than the other nobles, never crossed his mind.
It was not long after this that Maldu realized that, despite having several friends at the Academy, the only person that Maledicta actively approached was the man known as Briar Sevon. He was a servant who accompanied the crippled second son of House Fernifar around the Academy, and a powerful potential mage. Maldu understood that many houses were aiming to recruit Sevon, but he himself didn’t care for the man. He especially disliked Karis du Migel dan Fernifar, whom he felt should not have been admitted to the Academy at all, since he had absolutely no magical aura and was therefore doomed to an early grave anyway.
It was frustrating to Maldu, to watch the woman he admired approaching another man who was undoubtedly stronger than he was, at least in potential. Furthermore, she was continually mocked by the cripple, who should have had the decency to drop dead rather than trouble a beautiful young woman. Maldu began to develop a certain hatred for du Migel and Sevon, who were obviously conspiring against Maledicta together.
And then one day, as was his habit, Maldu had concealed himself outside the female dorm where Maledicta resided. But although he had watched her enter just the night before, today she hadn’t come out, even after her first class of the day had begun. Frowning, Maldu began to wonder if she had left especially early, and he had simply missed her. He therefore snuck across campus to a place where he could observe the class she was meant to be attending, but she didn’t arrive no matter how long he waited.
Maldu considered. By coincidence, he didn’t have any classes until later that morning, and his only reason for being up and about was watching over his idol, Maledicta. He wasn’t worried about her, precisely, but he felt it strange that the exacting young lady had taken a day off. He dithered about for a while, but eventually decided to sneak into her dorm and see if he could find her. That this course of action was probably a crime never crossed his mind.
The dorm Maledicta lived in had numerous security features, both human and magical, but with his training and a certain rat-like ingenuity Maldu circumvented these obstacles and silently invaded, quickly coming to the hallway outside Maledicta’s room. The door was locked and warded, but sadly to Maldu this barely constituted a few moments delay. All but invisible, he slipped into her room. Only to see Maledicta lying on the floor, sprawled out, her skin grey and unhealthy looking. He stared at her for nearly half a minute, before he suddenly realized that she didn’t seem to be breathing.
His exit from the building was even faster than his entry, though still no one saw him.
As he rushed, unseen, across campus towards the main faculty building, his thoughts whirled, trying to comprehend what he had seen. He hadn’t looked closely, but he hadn’t seen any wounds on Maledicta’s body, and her skin color somewhat suggested that she had been poisoned. He thought hard, trying to understand who might have hated her enough to kill her. And then he thought of the two men she had been pestering, who hadn’t even deserved her attention. He thought to himself about the kind of person who might need to use poison. Someone with no power of his own, for example … In his mind, something clicked.
Bursting into the main faculty building, he shouted out to one and all, “Maledicta Foursquare has been poisoned by Karis du Migel dan Fernifar! Someone needs to do something about this!”
There was a moment of silence, and then all hell broke loose.
Several hours after being escorted back from the Academy, Karis returned to his room to find Briar Sevon waiting for him, with a plate of cold sandwiches and a pot of tea. Karis nodded his relieved thanks to his faithful servant, and began to gulp down the food in large bites. After taking the edge off his hunger, he slowed down and began to talk to Briar between bites.
“Father really raked me over the coals this time,” he said with a dark chuckle. “I had to remember every interaction we’ve had with Miss Foursquare, and repeat them back to him verbatim. Apparently I’m going to have to do it again for the Royal Investigators, and possibly again before King Eranimaus. Good thing I have a decent memory,” he added dryly.
“I see,” said Briar thoughtfully. “I suppose I will be called to testify as well? I accompany you almost all the time, after all.”
“Hmmm. That remains to be seen. It isn’t quite clear what the case against me is, yet. Oh,” said Karis, brightening slightly. “There is one piece of good news. It turns out Miss Foursquare didn’t actually die. Your erstwhile fiance might be up and chasing you again sometime soon, you lucky man.”
Briar shuddered slightly. “Please stop calling her that, sir, I’m sure it will only make this a bigger mess if someone hears you. Also, I have no interest in marrying her, or joining her family, for that matter.”
“Really? Too bad, she’s a cute girl after all. You could do much worse, you know.”
“I believe most people would call her ‘beautiful’ rather than ‘cute’, sir.”
“Nonsense, she’s definitely cute.” Karis seemed much more cheerful after bantering with Briar, and his habitual smile was back in place. “You just don’t know cute when you see it.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, sir,” responded Briar, rolling his eyes. The exchange seemed to have relaxed him a bit as well, and his tone was less formal as he said, “I understand that masters Daes and Mordis were called in as well.”
“Ah yes, my dear brothers were in fine form today. Father had already started debriefing me when elder brother Daes stormed in, cursing up a storm and accusing me of deliberately dragging the dan Fernifar name through the mud. I kid you not, he actually stomped over to father and demanded,” said Karis, his voice dripping with irony, “that father strip me of my titles and kick me out into the street to fend for myself.”
Briar winced in sympathy. “Making demands of the duke is … not wise.”
Karis laughed aloud. “Well, there is certainly a reason why Mordis is being groomed as heir to the house, and not Daes. My younger brother is many things, but at least he is not an idiot. Conniving, shrewd and malicious, yes,” he added. “But not an idiot.”
“Yes, of the three of you, he is certainly the one who plans ahead,” agreed Briar. “I’m often surprised you can stand him, seeing as a great deal of his malice is aimed at you.”
“Well, it’s true that I am a safe target for him. But for all his sneering and insults, Mordis has a certain hidden respect for me as well. It may not seem like it, but he always pays careful attention to what I have to say. I think that’s one of the aspects father likes about him, that he always pays attention to everything around him. Unlike elder brother Daes, of course, who seems to believe the world should always behave exactly as he expects it to.” Karis and Briar shook their heads simultaneously, in mock awe of Daes du Migel’s legendary obliviousness.
“So anyway, after father slapped elder brother Daes around a bit, he went back to interrogating me, with Mordis interjecting a ‘helpful’ comment or two every so often. Actually,” mused Karis, “it was Mordis who let me know that Miss Foursquare was still alive. Well, in terms of my inability to accomplish anything properly, but I’ll take what I can get.”
“But according to Headmaster Seberian, she had been poisoned, correct? How did she survive?”
Karis shrugged. “Mordis didn’t go into details. Well, about that point, anyway. He had quite a lot to say about the person who found her. Er … I think I forgot his name, Mildew or something, but it was one of her stalkers — cough, I mean, interested parties, who had noticed she had not emerged from her dorm today, and snuck into her room to find out why. Apparently, the Academy commended him for finding the distressed girl, then slapped him with a rather harsh penalty for entering a female dorm. He will be a resident of the punishment halls for the next two months; Mordis couldn’t stop laughing about it. Father eventually had to threaten to slap him through a wall to get him to shut up.”
“The duke does have such a way with words,” said Briar ruefully.
“Doesn’t he just.” Karis rolled his eyes. “Personally, I believe he threatened to break every single bone in my body at least once every other sentence. Trust me, I spilled my guts just to make sure father wouldn’t do it for me. Well, afterwards he just sent me to my room here and not to bother coming out until he had everything straightened out. You’ll notice when you leave that Mr. Kever and Mr. Bohd are standing right outside my door, so it seems I won’t be going anywhere for a while.”
Briar gave a low whistle. “Two Mage Enforcers … Are they there to keep you from getting out, or anyone else from getting in?”
Karis laughed ruefully. “Probably a little of both. Father believes in covering his bases.
“And on that note,” said Karis, quickly shifting to a serious expression. “I expect father will be calling you, probably tomorrow morning, if not sooner. I’m not certain what he’s going to ask of you, but …” He paused for a moment, then continued, “Just be careful.”
“Of course,” Briar responded confidently. “Then if you don’t mind, I’m going to go get some rest. Allow me to take your plate, sir.”
“Certainly, Mr. Sevon,” replied Karis with mock-formality. But as Briar turned to leave, Karis stopped him, saying, “Oh! I almost forgot! I encountered Aris on the way here, and she asked me to give you a message.” He reached into his shirt, and pulled out a letter with the name Mr. Sevon written neatly on the outside.
“The young miss? How rare,” said Briar with surprise. Aris du Migel was the youngest child of Duke Maes, and the only daughter. She was quiet, and most people meeting her found her to be quite timid. Karis adored his young sister, but unfortunately from a young age Aris had always been quite frightened of her older brother. She had never explained why, but she avoided Karis as much as possible.
“Well, she just asked me to hand you that letter. Although, she also told me ‘good luck’ so I can only feel happy about it. She still wouldn’t let me hug her, though,” finished Karis sadly.
Briar opened the letter, feeling quite curious as to the content. It was actually only two lines:
Make sure to pay attention. But, please don’t push yourself.
Briar’s brow furrowed in confusion. He went to show Karis the note, but the young noble raised his hand to stop him. “If Aris had wanted me to know, she would have told me,” he insisted.
“It really doesn’t make any sense, though …” murmured Briar, still slightly dumbfounded.
“Well, I’m sure it will make sense eventually. Aris is a smart girl, after all,” said Karis with a fond smile.
Briar read the note again, shook his head, and put the note away. “If you say so, sir. Have a good night.”
“You too, Briar. Get some rest, and I’ll see you soon, I’m sure.”
Incidentally, the guarding Mage Enforcers were exactly where Karis had said they would be. Briar exchanged nods with them, and returned to his own room in the servants’ quarters, contemplating the events of the day, and wondering what Karis was anticipating Duke Maes to say to him.
The sun had not yet risen when another servant knocked on Briar Sevon’s door, and told him that Duke Maes wished to speak with him immediately. Pausing only to dress, Brias stood in front of the duke’s door within ten minutes. He knocked, then entered immediately.
Duke Maes du Migel dan Fernifar was a huge, bear-like figure. His face was fairly ugly, by the Kingdom’s standards, but it fit his preference perfectly. Maes didn’t care for beautiful things; even his wife, Lady Kerhua, had been considered quite plain for a noble. But behind the duke’s rugged exterior lay a shrewd and retentive mind. He had more knowledge than his second son, he was more ruthless than his third son, and he had far more sense than his first son. Briar had always felt that Duke Maes was slightly disappointed by the quality of his first and third son, although he loved them in his own harsh way. As for his second son … Karis’ treatment had always seemed strange and inconsistent. Despite openly admitting that Karis was a good-for-nothing and a cripple, Maes often seemed to be shielding his second son from the rest of the Kingdom’s society. Despite the constant undercurrent of hostility he often showed toward Karis, the young man was allowed to learn anything he wanted, even though he would never be able to put any of his knowledge to use. And above all, despite all kinds of pressure, the duke refused to cast Karis out of House Fernifar, to fend for himself.
Duke Maes was also Briar Sevon’s primary instructor in the art of magic, though the only person other than the two of them who knew that was Karis. Briar had a knack for the type of magic that was Maes’ speciality, know as the Esoterica branch. The incantations of Esoterica produced effects that were … unusual, and hard to classify. For instance, Briar had learned a spell that, when cast, indicated if there was an object missing from where it was usually found — for instance, it could show if a book had been removed from its bookshelf. Another spell could detect the residual aura of another mage’s spell, and create a crystal that could later be used to identify that mage. Another simply allowed Briar to know if the person speaking to him was lying, although it was a difficult spell to use.
Duke Maes sat at a wide desk, glaring at papers in turn before throwing them into a number of separate piles. The desk was an old, heavy, rugged wooden thing covered in gouges and scrapes. It contrasted jarringly with the decor of the office, which was tasteful and elegant to a fault. This was because his wife had decorated his office for him; but when Lady Kerhua tried to replace the old desk, Maes had thrown a fit. He absolutely loved the ugly old thing, and refused to give it up. The couple had argued for a full two weeks over the matter, but eventually reached a compromise that allowed Maes to keep his desk where it was. Privately, even Lady Kerhua was forced to admit the damn thing fit her husband’s personality far too well.
Briar waited while the duke continued reading his paper work. Occasionally he would grab a pen, sign something, and put it on an extremely short stack of papers on the side of his desk. Other times, he would curse, crumble up a piece of paper, and toss it over his shoulder into the lit fireplace behind him, never missing once. Incidentally, the room was swelteringly hot, but neither Duke Maes nor Briar seemed to notice. Finally the duke cleared one of the large stacks of paper in front of him, and looked up to glare at Briar.
“I am very disappointed in you, Mr. Sevon,” growled the duke. Even his voice sounded like an angry bear.
Briar immediately bowed low. “My apologies, milord.”
“And do you know why I am disappointed, Mr. Sevon?” Without waiting for a response, the duke continued, “It is because I have given you very specific instructions, Mr. Sevon, about what my useless son may and may not be allowed to do. First and foremost, you were to prevent him from creating a situation in which he might be removed from my control. Did you know, Mr Sevon, that of the 266 noble houses below the rank of Duke, over a hundred are demanding my son’s head, while most of the rest are calling for his immediate and permanent incarceration in the dungeons of the king. Of the five duke houses, three of them are calling for an immediate investigation into the incident, while one, that bastard du Vellan, is actually calling for restrictions on the movements of foreign nationals for what he calls ‘the duration of the crisis.’”
Duke Maes grabbed a piece of paper and shook it at Briar. “Do you see this, Mr. Sevon? This is notice from the office of Prime Minister Mado Ramse, informing me that the Royal Assembly is considering a complete investigation into the affairs of House Fernifar, an investigation we most certainly can’t afford at this time! All of this, incidentally, without even the slightest shred of evidence that my useless son was in any way involved, except for the baseless ravings of a minor idiot noble.
“Do you know what this tells me, Mr. Sevon? It tells me that the person I assigned to watch my son, and to keep him from causing me problems, has not been doing his job! You had one task, Mr. Sevon,” continued the duke bitterly, “and you have failed it completely.”
Briar once again bowed his head, and said, “I have no excuse, milord. How may I make up for my error?”
Duke Maes snorted, “Hmph! Go back in time, and tell my idiot son to stay the hell away from that Foursquare girl.”
Briar blinked. “Is … is that possible, my lord?”
“Not to my knowledge, Mr. Sevon, but perhaps you should ask my wife instead.” Maes sighed, and seemed to calm down a bit. In a more level tone, he said, “I understand that this is not really your fault, Mr. Sevon. Just by existing, my useless son is an insult to the history and traditions of our dear Kingdom.
“But there are clear and important reasons why I cannot cast him out or set him aside, especially not now, and thus I assigned you to provide him with a certain layer of protection. I had hoped that would be sufficient … but unfortunately, you yourself are simply too talented for the role.”
“I apologize, sir.”
“Hmph. One day you will be a High Mage, Mr. Sevon, and with your talents you could aspire to be Great Mage or more. Unfortunately, this has made you a target for every power-hungry house inside the Capital, including me. Especially me, come to that, and you better believe that I’m not going to let you get away. But this has made it twice as hard to keep attention away from my useless son, so I understand your problems.
“Now understand my problems, Mr. Sevon,” sneered the duke. “My house is suddenly beset with enemies at the gates, at a time in which we cannot afford to let our secrets come forth. Fortunately, as it were, our secrets are also King Eranimaus’ secrets, and so my royal cousin will be giving us all the clandestine support he can muster. Unfortunately, we can’t count on that being enough, leaving us in something for a quandary.
“And so, it falls to you now, Mr. Sevon.” Duke Maes opened a drawer in his desk, and pulled out an envelope. He gestured Briar over, and slapped the envelope into the servant’s hands. “Read that. No, not here,” he said, waving his hand to stop Briar from opening the envelope on the spot. “It is a writ of authority from the king, as well as a few sheets of information of what is known so far about this incident. Take them, and go investigate in my name. Find out what actually happened to Maledicta Foursquare. Get me names, get me motives, and get me evidence. Clear my son’s name, Mr. Sevon, so I can get the other vicious bastards off my back. In that way, atone for the error of letting this mess happen in the first place. Do you understand, Mr. Sevon?”
“Yes, milord, I understand perfectly. I swear to accomplish my task without fail.” Briar bowed again, holding the envelope to his chest, as he accepted his new commission.
“Good,” huffed the duke. “Mr. Sevon, the other houses should believe you to be an untrained and ignorant Mage Aspirent, to be suppressed at will. Little do they know that under my tutelage, you have already become a full, adult Mage, and an Esoterica Mage at that! If you can, I’d like to preserve their ignorance for awhile longer, but if not,” Duke Maes’ lips curled up into a cruel grin, “feel free to disabuse them of their preconceptions.”
“It shall be as you say, milord,” nodded Briar in understanding.
“Excellent. Unfortunately, you are still inexperienced in the more combat-focused aspects of Esoterica, but it should be enough to give you an edge over your peers, as long as they are not Enforcers or Destroyers. But I want you to avoid combat; you are too valuable a piece to be sacrificed needlessly.”
“Good. The king has ordered Investigator Parrow, the Mage heading the full investigation, to cooperate in exchanging information with you; start with him, but remember that your investigation is considered separate and unofficial. Especially try to keep that bastard Ramse from dragging you into the official investigation team.” Here Duke Maes sighed, and stretched his neck, cracking it several times. “You know what I hate worst? All this damn paperwork. I shoved as much of it onto Mordis as I could, and I’m still left with all this crap. I’m half tempted to make Karis deal with some of this shit. It’s all his fault, after all, and if there’s one thing that useless kid is good at, it’s making others run around in circles like idiots.”
“He’d probably enjoy that, milord,” said Briar cautiously.
“He would, too, the little bastard,” muttered the Duke tiredly. He shook his head, and then his piercing gaze returned to Briar. “Now. Do you have any questions, Mr. Sevon?”
Briar hesitated, then said, “Just one, milord. Why are you certain that it wasn’t the young master, or myself, who tried to kill the girl?”
The duke rolled his eyes. “Please. I know my son’s personality, and I know yours, Mr. Sevon. Neither of you would have screwed up an assassination this badly.”
Briar blinked. “Was that a compliment, sir?”
“Take it however you like,” said the duke with a smirk. “Now get out there and get to work on making my problems disappear, Mr. Sevon.”
“At your command, milord.” Briar bowed one last time, and silently left Duke Maes to his hated paperwork. Outside the study, he gazed down at the envelope in his hand with a furrowed brow, weighing his next moves. After a while he nodded to himself, and walked quickly and confidently towards Karis’ room. Duke Maes had notably not forbidden him access Karis, and Briar was going to take full advantage of that fact.