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!
Later that morning, Investigator Guw Parrow heard a knock on his office door. He was currently sitting behind his desk, drinking cold coffee, and sorting through the various reports he had received from the rest of his team regarding the Foursquare/du Migel case. The whole thing was giving him a huge headache, with various parties trying to give him orders whether they had the authority or not. It seemed like every noble house wanted some different outcome from his investigation, and were offering all sorts of enticements to … creatively interpret … his findings. Most of them he ended up shredding, but a few he found particularly obvious, or insulting, he kept for a rainy day. After all, a case this political could do serious damage to his position if it all turned tits up, and it would be nice to have someone else to feed to Royal justice should that happen.
It didn’t help that he hadn’t gotten more than three hours of sleep last night. And so, at the knock on his door, he barked a “Come!” back without even looking up from his papers. He expected it was one of his subordinates returning with another report, or perhaps more damn orders calling for results from the higher ups. It seemed like the king himself was the only one he hadn’t heard from yet, for however long that lasted.
An unfamiliar cough suddenly grabbed his attention. Looking up at last, he realized that his office had been invaded by someone unfamiliar. It was a young man with dark hair, perfectly groomed, wearing a sharply pressed uniform that Parrow recognized as belonging to servants of House Fernifar. The man had a strong magical aura, but Parrow couldn’t immediately see through his skills, which was … interesting. Most likely, this was one of Duke Maes’ numerous specialists, though he seemed quite young.
However, Investigator Parrow was not pleased with the duke of House Fernifar at the moment, and he sneered slightly as he said, “I take it his lordship the Duke has some instruction for the Investigation Department, then? How sad, since my request to interrogate Karis du Migel and his servant Briar Sevon was rejected, I’m afraid I don’t have anything I can do for him. Really, my hands are tied. Perhaps his lordship would like to talk to Justice Head Forsymn, or the Prime Minister? No doubt they will be able to accommodate his requests,” he finished sarcastically.
Despite this provocation, the young man’s expression did not change. Instead, he calmly stated, “Perhaps I can be of assistance to you, Investigator. But first, please read these credentials.” He pulled a folded paper out of his jacket, and placed it on Parrow’s desk. Parrow narrowed his eyes, but took the paper and opened it up.
The bearer of this writ, one Briar Sevon, is hereby authorized by Royal Authority to seek out and investigate all circumstances surrounding or pertaining to the attempted murder of Maledicta Foursquare, of the Foursquare Mercantile Cartel. Any attempt to prevent, divert, confound, or otherwise interfere with this commision will be treated as treason against the Royal Authority, and will be punished in full compliance with the law.
There were a couple more paragraphs of fine print detailing the limitations of the writ, but Parrow knew that it was a mere formality. Even if this Sevon were to exceed his granted authority in some way, Duke Maes and King Eranimaus would almost certainly protect their tool.
At the bottom of the page was a complicated seal, stamped with red ink. Parrow reached down to touch the seal, and channelled a slight amount of magic into it. The seal immediately started coruscanting with many colors, and a strange three dimensional figure formed in the air above it. This was certainly the King’s Seal, meaning this writ had been issued directly from the king himself.
Parrow looked up from the paper with narrowed eyes. “So, you are Briar Sevon, servant of House Fernifar. I didn’t expect, after the Duke refused to let me interrogate you, that you would waltz into my office of my own accord.” He sneered, “And now the king himself wants me to hand over my investigation to you … What a joke!”
“I have no intention of interfering in your investigation, Investigator. I have merely been instructed to ask you for any information you have pertaining to the near-fatal poisoning of Maledicta Foursquare, which I will relay to my master the Duke, and then I will be out of your way.”
“Ha!” spit out Parrow. “Do you think I can’t read, boy? Duke Maes obviously believes that I won’t run an upright investigation, so he sent an errand boy to watch over my shoulder by borrowing the king’s good will. Well, the king can’t do just anything he wants, Mr. Sevon, and so I would suggest you don’t get too comfortable with the contents of this paper here. If nothing else, I’m sure Prime Minister Ramse will have a word or two to say about this!”
Sevon’s expression became slightly frosty. “Be that as it may, Investigator Parrow, I must fulfill the terms of my commission until such time as it is withdrawn. Therefore, please give me the information I have requested.”
Parrow threw down the king’s writ and started rapping his fingers on his desk, glaring thoughtfully at Briar Sevon. First of all, why the hell would Duke Maes hand something as important to his house to a Mage Aspirent like this boy? Why would the king support it? There must be something else happening here, something political. He hated to allow this young upstart even the slightest regard, but in the current highly charged atmosphere he couldn’t afford to offend the king by defying his direct orders. No, it will be better to give Sevon what he wanted for now, and send official complaints up the chain of command in order to get him contained later, preferably in a jail cell.
“Alright, Mr. Sevon. I’ll give you the details of the case. But first,” Parrow leveled a finger at Sevon’s chest, “your going to answer a few of my questions. For the good of the case,” he finished bitterly.
Briar Sevon’s eyes narrowed slightly, and he muttered “As expected,” under his breath. Perhaps another man wouldn’t have heard the words clearly, but Parrow had a talent for Air incantations, and he kept a few spells active at all times, among them an eavesdropping spell. As one might expect, it was an invaluable talent in his line of work. Briar continued aloud, “Very well, Investigator. Please ask your questions.”
“Good. Sit down, Mr Sevon.” Parrow smiled grimly, and removed a recording crystal from a drawer in his desk. The crystal was an artifact of Air magic: it sensed the vibrations in the air around it, and recorded any sounds in its vicinity. Afterwards, a simple incantation could cause it to repeat everything it had previously recorded, exactly as it had been, and it was very, very difficult to modify its records without completely destroying the crystal. Thus, it was a staple for recording witness testimony. With a flick of his finger, Parrow activated the crystal, and stated, “26th Marrowmonth, eighth hour. Guw Parrow questioning Briar Sevon, servant of House Fernifar.” He then looked up at Sevon and began his interrogation.
“Mr. Sevon, where were you during the night of the 24th of this month?”
“My master, Karis du Migel, had been made to attend dinner with the duke and his brothers, due to his mother being home that evening. Afterwards, I accompanied him as he prepared for his classes the next day, and left him in his room around the twenty-second hour. I then went to my own room and slept until the fourth hour of the next morning, when I arose to begin preparations for the next day.” Briar Sevon listed out his itinerary without hesitation.
“Isn’t that rather early?” said Parrow, although he wasn’t surprised.
“It’s fairly typical for the servants in our household, Investigator. We try to help each other where we can.”
“You say his mother was home that evening. Is Lady Kerhua often not at home?”
“As you no doubt know, the lady is a Mage Researcher working for the Royal Magic Society, and she has a tendency to keep unusual hours.”
“Out of curiosity, just what field of magic does the lady research?”
Sevon hesitated. “I’m not exactly certain, to be honest. She talks with my master about her job, but it’s difficult for me to understand what they are talking about. Whatever it is, it seems to be highly theoretical.”
“Hmmm. Moving on. Karis du Migel was alone in his room all night?”
Sevon seemed amused by the question. “To the best of my knowledge. If he has a lover, she must be the best spy in the entire capital, because I’ve never seen her once.”
“… Sorry, was that a joke?”
“At least half of one, I suppose,” said Sevon ruefully. “Due to my master’s unusual status, not many people want to risk getting close to him.”
“I see.” Parrow was annoyed that Sevon felt that the situation was amusing, but he decided to let it go for now. “I am given to understand that Karis du Migel does not often attend his own classes.”
“Sadly true. In fairness, he usually attends some class, rather than simply skipping.”
“But you said you helped him prepare for his classes? Why bother, if he isn’t going to attend them?” Investigator Parrow looked sharply at Sevon, as though he were trying to catch him in a lie.
“Don’t misunderstand me, Investigator. He does all the studying for the classes he is enrolled in; he just doesn’t attend the lectures. I think he may have a better understanding of the subjects than some of the teachers.”
“Really.” Parrow’s voice was skeptical, but Sevon simply nodded.
“Indeed. That night, I was assisting him organize his notes regarding the history of the Taskmaker Empire, such as it is.”
“Don’t they have something like fifteen official histories?” asked Parrow, momentarily distracted. Sevon nodded with a ironic twist to his lips.
“In fairness, they only ascribe to one at a time, depending on which branch of the imperial bloodline is in power. I find them endlessly confusing, but my master seems to be able to keep them straight.”
“So is du Migel a good student then?”
Sevon pursed his lips. “I’d say he’s a bad student, but a good learner. He doesn’t hold much respect for the Academy’s staff, and they don’t hold much respect for him. But apparently, as long as he keeps passing tests, they can’t do anything to stop him.”
Investigator Parrow narrowed his eyes. “And why is that, Mr. Sevon? The War, Magic, and Commerce Academy is notorious for not respecting noble authority, or any authority outside their own for that matter. Even the king has to step lightly around that organization, and yet somehow, Duke Maes arranged for them to overlook the transgressions of his cripple son. Frankly, it stinks,” he said with a scowl.
Briar Sevon nodded his head, and admitted, “It is quite strange. The official explanation is that Karis du Migel is simply to weak for the dignified Mage Instructors of the Academy to lower themselves to crush, but of course that is simply nonsense. Even I don’t know the details, but apparently some sort of deal was made between Headmaster Seberian, milord Duke Maes, and his majesty King Eranimaus. And no, before you ask, I don’t know why the king was involved.”
Parrow raised an eyebrow at that. “Really? Duke Maes and the king are cousins, are they not? I understood they are quite close.”
Sevon looked at Parrow for a moment, then replied, “Unfortunately, Investigator, this conversation is entering territory that I cannot afford to comment on. Besides,” he continued smoothly, “I doubt any minor insights of mine on the various complexities of the relationships of the du Migel family have any bearing on this investigation.”
Parrow grunted, as he was really hoping for Sevon to answer that question, but he knew that pushing into the affairs of the great families was a perilous undertaking for everyone involved, so he changed the subject.
“What is your relationship with Miss Maledicta Foursquare?”
Sevon, obviously expecting the question, promptly replied, “Miss Foursquare is a fellow student of my master at the Academy. About two weeks ago, she first approached me about ending my service to House Fernifar, and becoming a member of her own merchant house. Naturally I refused, but she kept seeking me out almost daily to press me to accept her offer.”
“Was Karis du Migel accompanying you during those encounters?”
“Indeed. I seldom leave my master’s side during his excursions outside the Fernifar house, just as a precaution.”
“Basically, you are his bodyguard?”
Sevon shook his head. “Nothing so formal. In the first place, I would probably be insufficient if someone actually meant him true, premeditated harm. I was merely there to prevent … accidents.”
Parrow grunted quietly to himself, as he privately agreed with Briar Sevon’s assessment. In the first place, the presence of bodyguards on the Academy campus was restricted rather severely; the staff wanted to foster trust in their own security measures. Sadly, their prestige had taken quite a hit this time, and Parrow thought it likely that high ranking families would be pushing for allowing “attendants” who, coincidentally enough, had a rather strong combat bias. The Investigator didn’t envy Academy security in the coming months, but fortunately that was one problem that he wouldn’t have to deal with.
“And so, you had repeated contact with Foursquare. What was your opinion of the girl?”
Briar Sevon frowned slightly, then sighed. “Personally, Inspector? I didn’t care for her. She was both rude and pushy, and repeatedly slighted my master without seeming to realize it. My master shrugged it off as ‘cultural differences,’ but I could never quite accept it, especially since she never seemed to make the same mistake in regards to anyone else.”
Parrow narrowed his eyes. “A lot of people must slight Karis du Migel, given his deplorable lack of magic. You are saying that Foursquare was deliberately mocking him as well?”
Sevon surprised Parrow by letting out a frustrated sigh. “No, when the other nobles insult my master, they do it openly and deliberately. In Miss Foursquare’s case, it was more like she couldn’t seem to remember he was a noble at all. Given her personality and heritage, it seems unlikely that she would shun him just for having negligible magic aura.”
Parrow paused. When Sevon put it like that … “Did the two of them actually get along well?” That wasn’t something he had heard from any of the testimony so far.
“Well …” Briar Sevon trailed off. “Sort of? Master Karis kept taking her arguments for why I should join the Foursquare Cartel, and presenting them better than she could, which seemed to greatly frustrate her. Furthermore, he seemed to know more about her company than she did, which must have been mortifying to her. I almost think she was beginning to see him as a rival of some sort.” There was an odd tone in Sevon’s voice that Parrow couldn’t immediately identify. “My master seemed to find the whole situation endlessly amusing, and I believe he asked his father to hold off on forcing her to back away, just for the entertainment.”
“Really?” Parrow pounced on this piece of information. “Karis du Migel requested that she not be interfered with?”
“Indeed. Had it been another noble family of the Kingdom, of course it would be seen as an insult and a provocation if they were to repeatedly approach me and ask me to defect; but since it was a foreigner, it was possible to pass it off. I’m not sure what my master’s true intent was, but I suspect it was a ploy aimed at the other noble houses who sought my employ.”
If so, Parrow couldn’t see how it was supposed to work, and indeed it had backfired quite splendidly on the Fernifar house. He reminded himself that Sevon had admitted it was just speculation, and said, “So du Migel seemed to enjoy the young lady’s company, and you didn’t care for her. Enough to kill her, perhaps?”
“Certainly not, Investigator,” but rather than the accusation, the first part of Parrow’s statement seemed to surprise Sevon more. “He … enjoyed her company? I never even considered that … I suppose he did seem to be having fun teasing her …” His voice trailed off as he seemed to get lost in his own thoughts. Parrow raised an eyebrow, and coughed to get the young man’s attention back. “Sorry Investigator. No, neither Master Karis nor I had any reason to kill the young woman. She was … irritating, but not unduly so.”
“Hmph.” Parrow scratched his chin slightly. Briar Sevon had been pretty forthcoming, but he wasn’t sure how far the young man’s word could be trusted. However, since getting ahold of Karis du Migel’s testimony seemed nearly impossible at the moment, Sevon’s testimony as to his master’s affairs was a serious windfall for him.
“All right, Mr. Sevon, that’s all the questions I have for you right now. Please make yourself available if we need further information in the future.” With a flick of his wrist, Parrow collected the recording crystal. After carefully marking the crystal with Briar Sevon’s name and the time and date, he placed the crystal inside a wooden stand on his desk filled with similar crystals.
Sevon quietly watched the procedure, and as Parrow pulled out a fresh piece of paper to begin writing on, the young man reminded him, “Investigator, I still need the details of Miss Foursquare’s poisoning. I have been authorized to learn at least that much.”
Parrow glared at the king’s writ, and through gritted teeth he replied, “Fine.” Setting aside his new notes, he grabbed a paper sitting by itself on his desk and gave it a quick look before he began to speak.
“On 25th Marrowmonth, a student of the War, Magic, and Commerce Academy discovered Maledicta Foursquare, future heir of the Foursquare Merchant Cartel, lying on the floor of her dorm room at the Academy. Believing Foursquare to be dead, that student ran to the main staff building, where he informed the assembled teachers that Foursquare was dead, and his belief that she had been murdered by Karis du Migel dan Fernifar.
“The staff members present secured the reporting student, and dispatched a medical team to Foursquare’s dorm to confirm his story. Upon arrival, they examined Foursquare’s body, and were surprised to find that she was still alive, though only barely. Members of the medical team performed emergency healing magics to sustain her life, and afterwards evacuated her to an undisclosed location for further medical treatment.”
“Undisclosed?” interrupted Sevon. “You don’t know where she is?”
Parrow grimaced. “Given Foursquare’s status in the Southern Reaches, someone must have thought it would be better if she disappeared from sight for a while, just in case. I know she was taken to the Royal Medical Palace originally, but she was quickly moved once her condition was stabilized. Currently, no one in the Civil Investigations Unit knows her exact location,” Parrow paused, “nor do we need to know. Our investigation is only concerned with the events leading up to her attempted assassination, not her current status.”
Sevon nodded. “That is true. Pardon my interruption, please continue.”
“Hmph. Not much else to say, except that when we questioned the student who found her, we learned that he fingered Karis du Migel as the murderer, firstly because du Migel is too weak to use magic and therefore would have to use something like poison in order to kill someone; secondly because he knew that Foursquare had been approaching you, and he felt that your master must have been upset by her rude behavior; and thirdly, because he really, really hated du Migel.”
Sevon looked slightly disgusted. “In other words, he had no evidence at all.”
“Well, plenty of people were ready to believe him, though, as long as it would cause problems for Karis du Migel and the Fernifar house.” Parrow barely managed to keep from rolling his eyes. He privately admitted that the case against du Migel was ridiculously unlikely, but he was receiving a lot of pressure to continue investigating him anyway. But it was now apparent that the king was watching, too, as well as the various houses, large and small. Whatever results he came up with, he felt that they would have to be extremely well supported if he wanted to keep his job.
Shaking off a slightly helpless feeling, he glared at Briar Sevon, and said, “Will that do, Mr. Sevon? The longer you distract me, the longer it will be until your master’s guilt or innocence will be proven.”
“Hm,” hummed Sevon, obviously thinking. “Two more things, I think. Do you know anything about the poison that was used on Miss Foursquare? And do you know why she survived it?”
“Apparently, the poison was a complex blend of at least three different poisons, causing certain synergetic effects, delivery method currently unknown.. As to why she survived,” Parrow shrugged, “we have no idea. We are talking to her people in the capital, but we don’t have a good idea of what sorts of magic she was capable of, so it’s hard to say how she might have fought it off. There is a team currently trying to analyze Foursquare’s blood and tissues to see if they can work out the components of the poison; maybe we’ll know more if they succeed.
“And now, Mr. Sevon,” finished Investigator Parrow, “you will exit this office and stay the hell away from my investigation. Disturb my people, and I will personally garrote you with your own spine, understand? Oh,” he said, picking the king’s writ up off his desk and tossing it at the young man, “and get this damn thing out of here too.”
“I see. So she was poisoned.” Karis had sad expression on his face. After Briar’s meeting with Investigator Parrow, he had immediately returned to the Fernifar Mansion and reported what he had discovered to Karis. The duke’s son’s unshakeable smile was nowhere to be seen today, and he nibbled on a plate of lunch as he listened to Briar’s report.
“Indeed. The Investigator claimed that they didn’t know what poison was used, only that it was an unusual mixture.”
Karis removed his glasses and polished them with a cloth while he thought this through. Finally he said, “Unfortunately, I don’t think this is an angle we will be able to pursue. I know of a few different poisons that might cause a greying of the skin as a side effect, but they would be completely lethal at that point. Without access–”
“You do?” interrupted Briar in surprise.
“Certainly. I’ve read a few herbologies with dangerous plants listed, not to mention various bestiaries with poisonous animals and monsters.”
“Why don’t I remember that?” wondered Briar. Karis finally smiled a bit.
“Probably because it was during your meditation times. I know father has taught you to be aware of the world during meditation, but it doesn’t mean that you are actually conscious of your surroundings, you know.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” murmured Briar ruefully. “But what were you saying?”
“Ah, yes. Since we don’t have access to Miss Foursquare, understanding the poison she was inflicted with, and her survival, will be very difficult. I suspect you will eventually have to receive that information from our good Investigator.”
Briar frowned. “That might be difficult, sir. He was not very pleased about sharing information with me, even after I allowed him to interrogate me about you. As you suggested.”
Karis shrugged. “That’s hardly surprising, given that you are certainly one of his suspects. I imagine he must have been livid. Never mind the good Investigator, Mr. Sevon, we will cross that bridge when we come to it. There are plenty of other loose threads for us to pick up.”
“Hm, the scene of the crime, for one. No doubt Civil Investigations has been through it with a fine comb, but you may learn different things than they can. As far as I know, they don’t have an Esoterica Mage, after all.
“Another point of investigation would be my accuser, the one who discovered Miss Foursquare,” he continued, tapping his chin slightly.
“Unfortunately, sir, Investigator Parrow concealed the name of that student, and it seemed futile to ask him.”
“Yes, he was probably trying to shield him and his family from possible reprisal,” nodded Karis. “However, Mordis stopped by earlier,” he grimaced slightly, and Briar nodded in understanding, “and he had already discovered the culprit: one Maldu dan Rettica.”
“I don’t recognize the name,” admitted Briar. “House name, but no family name. New nobility, then?”
“Not really. It’s a little complicated, but the main family was stripped of it’s title while the house remained intact under a branch, which dropped their family name to disassociate themselves from the previous head’s crimes. Well, it was some eighty years ago, though, under King Eranimaus’ father.”
“I honestly wonder sometimes where you get your information, sir … So what about this Maldu, then?”
“Honestly, I don’t know much about him. He keeps an extremely low profile, and as a Mage Aspirent studying both Shadow and Darkness, it seems to come naturally to him. Frankly, I didn’t even realize he was one of the young men pursuing Miss Foursquare, and I had thought I had identified all the nobles at the Academy with intentions in that direction. Oversights, oversights … Anyway, his discovery of Miss Foursquare’s condition is obviously quite suspicious, so it might be worth your time to have a word with him.”
“Of course, sir,” Briar replied, but he seemed to be thinking about something else. Karis tilted his head inquiringly, and Briar finally asked him, “Sir … if I may ask, why exactly do you know who has been approaching Miss Foursquare?”
Karis calmly replied, “Because I’ve been paying attention, Mr. Sevon.”
“Yes, but why, sir? Why are you paying so much attention to this woman? Do you …” Briar hesitated, then asked, “Do you like her, sir?”
Karis looked calmly at Briar, and repeated back, “Do I like her, Mr. Sevon?” He gave the matter some thought, then replied, “Yes, I would say I do. She is a strong, confident young woman, who works hard to achieve her goals despite having an advantageous birth. Many of the youth of this Kingdom could learn from her dedication. Furthermore, she is broad-minded enough not to treat me like a cripple — though of course, in the Southern Reaches, it is a great deal more common for people with weak auras to appear. Finally, she is outside the common power structure of the Capital, and can therefore be approached as something like a neutral party.
“But I know that wasn’t what you were asking,” Karis added as Briar opened his mouth to object. “You want to know if I am romantically interested in the woman.”
Briar closed his mouth, then nodded silently.
Karis sighed. “Briar, I will never be allowed to have a wife, nor children. Any affection I may have for Miss Foursquare, it will never amount to anything more than friendship at best.”
Briar was shocked. “I … This is the first time I’ve heard this, Karis. What do you mean, you won’t be allowed to …” He trailed off, unable to finish.
“This was decided before I was even a year old, Briar. Long before you were taken in by father, and the House, I had the rules of my continued existence explained to me. They are … harsh, at times. I will never have a wife, I will never leave the Capital, and …” Karis failed to finish his sentence, his expression sad.
“Isn’t this too much!?” shouted Briar in anger. “Just because you were born without magic, they curtail your life so completely? That’s ridiculous, Karis!”
Behind his glasses, Karis’ eyes narrowed, and his expression looked grim. “No, Briar, it isn’t. There are very, very good reasons for the restrictions I live under. Trust me, it isn’t an overreaction.”
“But what …” Briar couldn’t finish, staring appalled at his friend and master. Karis sighed again, and shook his head.
“Not today, Briar. I’ll tell you some day, I promise … But today, we have more important matters to deal with.”
Briar shook his head, and forced his expression back into its usual calm. “… Yes, sir. Then, besides Miss Foursquare’s room, and Mr. dan Rettica, do we have any other leads to investigate?”
“Hmmm,” mused Karis, gratefully accepting the change of subject. “I’d like you to speak to the Foursquare Cartel’s agents here in the Capital, especially,” he checked a piece of paper in front of him, “Roger Bladefang. He is a Mage Enforcer of the Foursquare family who accompanied Maledicta here from their main house, he might have some insight to share. Though I don’t know if he would choose to do so; I understand he is somewhat disgusted by our dear Kingdom’s attitudes.
“The worst part is that we don’t know the motive behind her poisoning, making it hard to postulate a culprit. I have a few ideas, but … nothing concrete.” Karis pushed up his glasses, and stared seriously at Briar. “I have one other place I would like you to make inquiries, but it will be very dangerous.”
Briar nodded. “Of course, sir.”
Karis’ serious expression twisted a little. “At least find out where, Briar.” His face lost the momentary humor, and he continued. “I believe you have been approached by the Gatebreakers, correct?”
Briar was surprised. “The assassin’s guild, sir? How did you know?” He continued hurriedly, “Yes, I received a message from them, but I burnt it immediately and never responded.”
“Mm, thought so,” nodded Karis. “You’ve been approached by almost every other major power in the kingdom, I didn’t think the Gatebreakers would be an exception.” He ignored Briar’s spluttered denials and continued, “Well, I think it is time for you to take them up on their offer.”
“I have no intention of becoming an assassin, dammit!”
Karis had to laugh. “That’s not what I’m asking, Briar. I’m sure their offer was not to immediately drop everything and join them, but to meet with their leader, the First Blade, correct?”
Briar was becoming stupified. “Seriously, how do you know that?”
“I told you, I pay attention.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” snapped Briar.
“True,” said Karis happily. He went on, “I would like you to confirm that Miss Foursquare’s death was not a commision of theirs. It seems unlikely, but possibly worth checking into.”
“And how, exactly, am I going to locate the First Blade? There were instructions to meet someone on the invitation I received, but that was over a year ago. I’m sure the contact wouldn’t sit there forever,” Briar said, slightly sarcastically.”
“Just ask father,” returned Karis, unperturbed.
“The duke?” asked Briar, aghast. Duke Maes was absolutely the last person that Briar wanted to know that he had been scouted by the Gatebreakers.
Karis seemed to read his mind, and gave him an arch smile. “Of course, father is aware that the First Blade contacted you. The Gatebreaker Guild is an old, old organization, dating back to the Reclamation itself, and it has long been tied to the nobility in … subtle ways. Trust me, father will be able to guide you in the right direction.”
Briar swallowed. He was not looking forward to his next conversation with the duke. “I see why you said it was dangerous, sir.”
“What? No, that wasn’t it …” Karis stopped and looked at Briar’s sudden nervousness, then shrugged his shoulders. “You know what? Never mind. Go talk to father, Mr. Sevon. I’m sure he’s waiting quite patiently for your report.”
Briar nodded, and left quickly, passing the guards outside Karis’ room with a single nod. As he strode down the corridor towards the duke’s study, he failed to notice a pale face watching him from the shadows. After he turned a corner and was out of sight, a young girl stepped out from behind a statue, and glanced after him, worry plain on her face. Her gaze shifted toward the door to Karis’ room, and an expression mingling fear and determination appeared on her face. She walked forward, only to be greeted by the guards.
“Good evening, Miss Aris. What brings you here?”
Aris du Migel nodded to the two men. “Mr. Kever, Mr. Bohd, good evening. Is it alright, if I speak with my elder brother?”
The guards wore a look of surprise. One said, in a troubled tone of voice, “His lordship the duke didn’t suggest that you would be visiting, and we are supposed to be keeping people away from the second young master at this time. But …” He hesitated. “He did give Master Daes and Master Mordis permission to converse with Master Karis, although only Master Mordis has done so. I suspect the duke wouldn’t mind giving you permission …”
“Please,” said Aris softly. “I only wish to speak with elder brother Karis for a short time.”
The two Mage Enforcers looked at each other, then nodded. The spokesman turned to Aris with a kind smile. “Just this once, young miss. Next time, please get your father’s permission first.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bohd.” said Aris solemnly. She reached out a delicate hand and knocked on her brother’s door. A muffled “Enter!” was heard from inside, and she turned the latch and entered, shutting the door behind her.
The two men guarding Karis’ room looked at each other again, this time with perplexed expressions. The one named Bohd said, “That’s certainly odd. I thought the young miss hated being near Master Karis.”
His partner hushed him with a low, mellow voice. “Don’t pry, Bohd. The young miss is just sensitive, that’s all. She knows that everyone treats him differently.”
“It’s more than that, though, Kever,” Bohd mused idly. “Even as a kid, she used to cry if he entered the room, y’know? Swear it broke his heart, though.”
Kever sighed. “Kids can be like that, though. My own little girl was scared of the dog for the longest time. Never mind he was the gentlest, soppiest little puppy you’ve ever seen.”
“Kever, you dog is a Giant Earth Hound. Even I’m scared of it.”
“Tsk, you coward.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the door, Aris was sweating with fear. She almost closed her eyes, but forced them to stay open by will alone. Aris had unusual vision, although few realized it; some quirk of her blood had caused them to be sensitive to all sorts of magical phenomena.
And so, although she could see her elder brother smiling at her from across the room, she could also see the dark shapes coiling around him, seething with malevolence, seemingly waiting for just the wrong moment to lash out and destroy everything around them. This wasn’t magic, as it was practiced in Reclamation Kingdom; it was something far worse, and far, far older.
“Aris!” said Karis with a certain joy, “I’m happy to see you! What brings you to my little prison today?”
Aris took a deep breath, reminding herself that her brother’s welcome was genuine, and not a trap, then mustered all her bravery and took a step toward that seething malevolence. “I’ve come about Mr. Sevon, and you and that woman who was hurt.
“I want to help.”
In the end, Briar’s interview with the duke went better than he had anticipated. He reported the few facts he had learned so far, and requested aid in contacting the First Blade as Karis had suggested. Duke Maes grumbled for a while, but eventually handed Briar a folded piece of paper, along with a few perfunctory blood-curdling threats. The paper had directions to a certain building in the Merchant Quarter, along with a few passwords, and a time.
That time, however, was quite late at night, and so Briar had some time to kill before this ominous meeting. After leaving the duke’s study, Briar decided to visit the Academy, and try to get access to Maledicta’s dorm. He wasn’t quite sure who to ask for permission, though, since he was certain that Investigator Parrow had had the room sealed off. He absently tapped the king’s writ, concealed under his jacket; hopefully it would help clear the way.
As he approached the gates of the Academy, he noticed that there were twice as many guards as usual, and every person passing through was being scrutinized quite closely. Students were being required to show their school badges, and other visitors had to have written authorization; everyone else was turned away. Briar was not, officially, a student of the Academy, so he didn’t have a badge. It seemed he would have to count on the writ’s authority after all.
He lined up with a number of people waiting to enter. The line was moving fairly quickly, so he expected that it wouldn’t take too long. What he hadn’t expected was for one of the guards to notice him standing there, and quickly approach him.
“Mr. Briar Sevon? You’ve been expected.”
Briar was startled, but he followed the guard past the main gate and into a little office on the side. There, the guard left him in the company of a rugged old man dressed in faded leather armor with a beat-up metal breastplate. He looked at Briar with a wide smile, and said, “What kept you, Sevon? I expected you ages ago.”
Although the man appeared to be just another guard, Briar would have been able to tell from his magic aura that he was actually a powerful High Mage even if he hadn’t met him before. This man was Sir Arata, known as Twice-Dead Arata, and he was the head of Academy security as well as one of the highest level instructors of Combat Specialized Magic. He taught, and was proficient in, magics favored by Mage Enforcers as well as Mage Destroyers. It was said that facing him on the battlefield would result in you being dead twice over; thus his nickname, Twice-Dead.
Briar had gotten to know Sir Arata back when Karis first entered the Academy. He had argued against bringing in a personal guard, since it would set a bad precedent; additionally, he had insisted that Briar should be admitted as a normal student. It had taken weeks of arguments with Headmaster Seberian, and at least two giant shouting matches with Duke Maes himself, before Sir Arata had been forced to give way on the matter. However, he had insisted that the two would have to attend a special class taught by himself each week, ostensibly to make sure Briar’s skills were sufficient to protect the magicless Karis.
In reality, Sir Arata would assign Karis essays detailing various conflicts in Reclamation Kingdom’s past, while Briar was subjected to various exercise routines that could be mistaken for torture, if you were inclined to view it that way. Briar had, at least until he had accompanied Karis to one of Sir Arata’s advanced classes for Mage Enforcers; the strenuous, dangerous routines that those students went through made him realize that the old man was actually going easy on him. Of course, the Mage Enforcer students were almost all talented in the Reinforcement branch of magic, something that Briar was not especially compatible with, while the rest could strengthen themselves with specialized Earth and Metal spells.
In truth, Sir Arata seemed to like the two young men, and did not blame them for the problems they caused for his security arrangements. He was actually disappointed that Briar wasn’t interested in becoming a Combat Mage; in addition to his speciality for Esoterica magic, Briar had talent in the common branches of Air and Water, meaning he could aspire to be Mage Destroyer if he were so inclined. But frankly, Briar’s personality was not very compatible with the mass-destruction spells prized on the battlefield, and he prefered the more complex and subtle combat aspects of Esoterica.
As for Karis, Sir Arata had often lamented the fate that had left the duke’s son with no magic to his name. He was sure that, had Karis a magic aura commensurate to his intellect, he would have become a legendary commander. The young man’s thorough and thoughtful essays never failed to please Sir Arata’s military sensibilities; but sadly, the social mores prevalent in the military forces of Reclamation Kingdom would never accept a commander who was personally weaker than his soldiers.
And so Briar bowed his head to the old man, and said, “I didn’t realize you were expecting me, Instructor, or I would have certainly come sooner. I’ve been a bit … busy, today, and it looks like it’s going to be a long night as well.”
“I imagine,” said the old warrior drily. “I doubt the boyo is going to take this nonsense lying down. Looking for proof that he didn’t hurt the little girl, are you?”
“More like, looking for proof that someone else did, sir. It seems that there isn’t any proof that Master Karis poisoned her in the first place, but no one seems to care.” Briar shook his head, then looked inquisitively at Sir Arata. “You seem convinced that he wasn’t the one who poisoned her? Why is that, may I ask?”
Sir Arata grinned widely. “Because I know how that boyo thinks, Sevon, just like I know how you think. If du Migel wanted the girl dead, she’d be dead, and no one would know how, no one would know why, and no one would ever find out that it was him.”
Briar furrowed his brow. “We don’t know why, we don’t have a very good idea of how, and we can’t prove whether it was him or not.”
Sir Arata shrugged. “Oh. Well, maybe it was him then.”
“I’m just kidding, Sevon,” said the old man with a laugh. “I know your friend wouldn’t actually kill the girl without a good reason, and poison really isn’t his style either.” Sir Arata stood up briskly, and beckoned his young student. “Come, Sevon. You’re here to have a look at her room, right? It’ll go smoother if I’m along for the ride.”
If Briar had wondered why Sir Arata had chosen to accompany him personally, he would have understood when he found out who was waiting for them outside the front door of the dorm where Maledicta had been staying. Investigator Guh Parrow leaned against the fence surrounding the building, sipping from a cup in one hand while holding a saucer in the other. Beside him stood a professional-looking woman, who was currently writing a small notebook in response to muttered comments from Parrow. He glanced in Briar’s direction, but ignored his approach until he and Arata were right in front of him, at which point he said, “Aren’t you a little late, Mr. Sevon? Although I thought I told you to stay the hell away from my investigation.”
Briar frowned. “Why does everyone seem more conversant with my schedule than I am? I only just received the request to examine Miss Foursquare’s room, but it seems that both you and Sir Arata were waiting for me to appear here.”
Parrow smirked. “I don’t know about the illustrious Twice-Dead, but in my case it was a simple deduction. If you were going to investigate Foursquare’s attempted murder, you’d have to check here first. It’s the only place where physical evidence can be gathered, for one thing.”
Sir Arata chuckled. “Give the boy a break, Guw, it wasn’t his choice to start honing in on your territory. If you want to complain, go complain to Duke Maes.” His eyes sparkled as he continued, “I’d suggest you go complain to the king, but I think your self-preservation instincts are slightly better than that.”
“With respect, sir, shut the hell up,” growled Parrow while giving Sir Arata a frustrated glance. Briar blinked, and looked at the old knight.
“You know Investigator Parrow, Instructor?”
Sir Arata nodded. “He was a subordinate of mine, back in the day. Garuda Squad, wasn’t it, Guw? Not exactly the most promising soldier, but he was quite the survivor, as it turned out.”
“Seriously, sir, shut up!” Parrow looked pained and angry, and Sir Arata gave him a sympathetic look. Briar watched the two and wondered what had happened between them, but his speculation was cut short by a polite cough. The three of them turned to look at the woman who had been accompanying Parrow.
“I believe Miss Firewheel is waiting for us upstairs, gentlemen. I suggest we move this conversation inside, so that Mr. Sevon can do whatever it is he is supposed to do, and we can all move on to more important matters.” Her voice was strong yet cool, and it was clear that she was just as unhappy about Briar’s special treatment as Parrow was.
“Right. Sir Arata, I believe you know Investigator Tair du Keylos before?” asked Parrow perfunctorily.
The old man nodded and smiled. “Indeed, I had the honor of having Ms. Tair in my class before. Actually, I also recommended her to the Civil Investigations Unit. Ah, Duke Magohord was certainly not pleased with me that day,” he said with a nostalgic sparkle in his eye.
Parrow eyed him askance, and said with a twisted smile, “You really just enjoy watching people get angry, don’t you, sir.”
“Guilty,” chuckled the old knight. Parrow’s eyes met Briar’s, and they both sighed and shook their heads. Sir Arata grinned, and said conspiratorially, “It’s actually not that bad, I just do it for their own benefit. It’s good to get angry every once–”
“A-HEM.” Investigator du Keylos gave the old man an unamused glare, and ordered, “Move. Now.”
“Yes, ma’am,” laughed Sir Arata, gesturing for her to lead the way. As the four made their way into the building, the old knight dropped a hand each onto Briar and Parrow’s shoulders, and said in a mock whisper, “She’s got quite a bad temper, you know. Best to do what she says.”
Parrow immediately shrugged his shoulder free of Sir Arata’s grasp. “Leave me out of this, you old bastard.” Briar didn’t say anything, but quietly slipped away from the old man as well, feeling that staying near him would be a little dangerous. He thought he could see Investigator du Keylos’ shoulders twitching a bit …
As they passed through the main door, Briar felt a shuddery feeling pass over his body, and realized he had been scanned by magic. It didn’t feel hostile, but … “I take it the identity of everyone who enters is logged?”
Sir Arata seemed to switch modes instantly. “The spells aren’t sophisticated enough to actually identify unknown persons, but they do keep track of individual auras, and make sure that everyone that enters actually leaves. Mm, and the residents are specifically logged, so the administration and my team can keep an eye on them. Well, the system isn’t foolproof, though, obviously.”
“Does it only check the front door?” asked Briar thoughtfully.
“Nope, front door, service entrance, kitchen, dorm administrator office, and strategic points in the various hallways. Oh, and staircases,” he added, as the group felt the magical ward sweep over them again as they climbed up to the second floor. “Basically, it makes sure that people aren’t randomly appearing and disappearing inside the dorm, and it brings anomalies to the attention of my team. Normally, it isn’t so blatant, but the residents are feeling a little skittish at the moment, and we want to reassure them that we are paying close attention to their safety.
“There were no anomalies recorded on the morning in question, however, or the night before. Whoever did this, they knew enough about the system to avoid it,” Sir Arata growled.
Briar nodded absently. “I see. What about Maldu dan Rettica? Did he register in the ward when he entered to discover the body?”
Sir Arata’s eyes glinted, while Parrow and du Keylos shot each other a quick look. “Knew about that, did you? My boys in the Security Division are very interested in how the boy circumvented the wards, and they’d probably still be interrogating — ahem, I mean questioning the lad about it if his father hadn’t sprung him about as quickly as your boss sprung you and the boyo. Not to worry, we’ll have him back eventually,” the old man finished, chuckling darkly.
While reflecting internally that the Instructor was rather creepy sometimes, Briar contemplated the dorm’s security measures. Honestly, he wasn’t sure if they were strong or weak, but as long as he understood them, he could report back to Karis and get his opinion. Personally, he thought he could at least conceal his true aura from the scan, but perhaps that was naive; Sir Arata was not a fool, and any security that had his seal of approval would at least be effective.
After two more magical scans, the four reached the short hall which led to Maledicta’s room. Waiting for them outside was a tough-looking, dark-skinned woman dressed in leather armor and silver bracelets. She was tapping her foot impatiently, and when she saw Parrow and du Keylos, she immediately began to complain in a heavily-accented voice. “You’re late! You said it would only be a short wait, and I’ve been stuck here for nearly an hour now! Are you Kingdom fools all talk?”
Parrow snorted, unimpressed, but du Keylos was more diplomatic. “Please pardon us for the wait, Miss Firewheel. Once the specialist has examined the room, you will be free to remove your mistress’ belongings.”
“It’s about time,” the young woman snapped. Then, she narrowed her eyes. “What kind of specialist?”
Investigator du Keylos gestured for Briar to step forward. “This is Briar Sevon, seconded from the Fernifar House. He is a practitioner of Esoterica magic. Mr. Sevon, this is Miss Aya Firewheel, an agent of the Foursquare Cartel.”
Briar nodded his head and murmured a polite greeting, but Aya Firewheel only sneered. “A damn fortuneteller? And a ridiculously young one, at that? You bastards honestly don’t give a damn about finding out who hurt Maledicta, do you.”
Parrow and du Keylos both had dark looks pass over their faces, but before either could retort, Briar calmly responded, “Unfortunately, I can’t do anything like fortune telling, Miss Firewheel, but I do believe I might be able to offer some insights into Miss Foursquare’s situation.”
Aya laughed bitterly. Her mistress and best friend had been poisoned nearly to death, and the best they could do was find a useless Esoterica Mage Aspirent to find out who did it? What was he going to do, read her tea leaves? She was almost ready to cry.
Angry and frustrated, the young woman lashed out at Briar with a single finger, poking him in the chest. His eyes widened, and he staggered as he felt his body becoming numb. Briar had experienced the feeling before, training with the duke: Numbing Strike, an internally incanted spell associated with Fire magic, and a staple of Mage Enforcer practices. It wasn’t lethal on its own, but it could create openings for much more critical attacks.
Fortunately, Aya Firewheel was not actually trying to kill him, just vent her frustrations. She glared at the other three, as though daring them to complain or step forward. To her surprise, their reactions were not what she expected. Investigator Parrow had shut his eyes and put his palm to his forehead, while Investigator du Keylos remained completely expressionless. Meanwhile, Sir Arata grinned, as if he were watching an excellent show.
Parrow shook his head, and looked at Briar. “You need a hand?” he asked. He was prepared to intervene, but Briar shook his head calmly.
“No, Investigator, that is not necessary,” he replied. Aya snorted, and opened her mouth to ridicule him, when suddenly the whole world seemed to warp around her. She found herself unable to move, as if a giant hand had closed around her whole body. Panicking, she tried to call her magic forth, but she couldn’t form the incantations in her mind.
Suddenly she felt herself focus on Briar, standing quietly in front of her, as if he were the only thing in the world. His eyes suddenly seemed deep, mysterious and unknowable, and she felt her sense of herself start to slip away. She watched, almost terrified, as he took a step towards her, and it felt like the entire world moved while he stayed in the same place, as though she were being drawn inevitably to her death. Her eyes filled with tears as he reached towards her face …
And suddenly Briar flicked her in the forehead with his finger. With a snap audible only to her, everything was back to normal, and she staggered backwards in fear. Almost subconsciously she uttered a few key phrases, and felt her well-trained magical defenses slide into place. Briar made no further move, or she would have attacked him right there; she barely resisted the impulse to flee the other direction. Panting, she stared at the young man, and realized he could have killed her with ease. “What … was that?”
“Esoterica,” said Briar softly. Without further explanation, he addressed Parrow, “This was her room?”
Parrow nodded. “Yep, room 224. It has a barrier right now, so let du Keylos go first.”
Briar agreed, and he and the two Investigators stepped past Aya Firewheel without looking at the young woman. She in turn stared straight ahead, trying to come to grips with what had just happened. Suddenly, she felt a hand on her shoulder, and she looked up into the kind smile of Sir Arata.
“You did fairly well, actually,” consoled the old knight. “He had you dead to rights, true, but once he released you, you immediately got your defenses back up and started looking for a way out. I’ve seen soldiers react worse, that’s for certain.”
“Was that …” Aya began, and then swallowed, before continuing, “Was that actually Esoterica magic? I thought it was supposed to be … reading tea leaves, or telling people’s future, and stuff like that. That felt …”
“It felt like the whole world suddenly turned against you, right?” When she nodded, Sir Arata continued, “The Esoterica branch is something of a double-edged sword. It is primarily about gaining knowledge, and the knowing of things; but it is very easy to know too much. That’s why Esoterica mages tend to be either extremely limited in scope, or more than a little bit crazy. But in this case …”
Sir Arata rubbed in chin in thought, while continuing, “What young Sevon did, dear girl, is something called Soul Prism, and it allows its target, you in this case, to perceive more about the world than they could previously.”
“What? But that doesn’t make sense,” Aya protested. “I couldn’t move at all, and I could barely see anything other than that guy reaching for me …”
“Well, look at it this way,” said the old knight. “Imagine you had been blind — no, that you had been deaf since birth. Then, all of the sudden, after 23 years of silence you can suddenly hear everything around you. Worse yet, you were in the middle of a fight, and suddenly you had to process this new form of perception while keeping the other guy from stabbing you in the heart. Could you do it?”
Aya shivered. “That’s … insidious.”
“Haha, I don’t think I’d go that far. It’s fairly easy to defend against if you expect it, since it doesn’t actually affect your body or magic, just your mind. But if you aren’t prepared …” He shrugged. “Long story short, an Enforcer like you or I should always be prepared to defend ourselves from having our senses stolen. Your other defenses are sufficient, if a little immature yet, but leaving your mind unguarded is a rookie mistake. Were you my student, young Enforcer, you’d be sent back to basics for a couple weeks to straighten you out.”
Aya frowned, embarrassed at being lectured by the foreign knight. “We don’t use classifications like Mage Enforcer in the Southern Reaches,” she muttered in discontent.
Sir Arata shrugged again, and replied, “A lot of the classifications we use in the Kingdom seem arbitrary, and in many ways, they are. But knowing your strengths and weaknesses is important for anyone, we’ve just formalized it, that’s all. And now,” he finished, “let’s catch up with the Investigators. I’m sure it won’t take Mr. Sevon too long to finish up his little tricks, and then you can hurry back to Mr. Bladefang.”
Sir Arata paused, and his expression lost its habitual amiability and became extremely serious. “Miss Firewheel. I said this to Mr. Bladefang, but I’ll say this to you too. I am sincerely grieved and embarrassed by what has happened to Maledicta Foursquare. She was under my protection, and she came to harm. And I will not rest, until the ones responsible are found and punished.” Aya stared into his eyes, and suddenly realized that this affable and jocular old man was in fact, secretly enraged, and she shivered involuntarily. Sir Arata seemed to have lost focus on the girl, and continued in a low voice, “Whoever they are, they have no idea just how many powers they just provoked. Even the king has started to move …”
Sir Arata’s vision suddenly snapped back to Aya, and she jumped. He didn’t seem to notice, and said, “And that is why Briar Sevon is here, Miss Firewheel. He is representing at least two powerful interests, if not more, and he is here due to his skills, not political necessity. The people he represents transcend the traditional politics of Reclamation Kingdom. So don’t think Miss Foursquare’s plight will be ignored or belittled; we will find out what happened, and the guilty will be punished. Do you understand, Miss Firewheel?”
Completely intimidated, she could only nod in agreement. Sir Arata watched her for a few moments, then nodded briskly. “Excellent,” he said, regaining his good humor. “Now, let’s go see what Mr. Sevon has managed to dig up.”