NaNoWriMo ’16, Part 3

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!

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Maledicta’s room was neat and organized. Considering the occupant was heiress to a major and rich merchant family, it could only be seen as too small and cheap. There was a bed, a shelf for books, and a small writing desk by the window, as well as a set of drawers which no doubt held her clothing. The sole luxury was a thick, beautifully woven carpet on the floor, thick and welcoming. Honestly, Maledicta had a room at the Foursquare branch store out in the capital proper that was much more fitting for her station, but she had found that this small room was actually quite comfortable and conducive to her studies, and had privately theorized that the Academy insisted the students live on campus for just that reason.

Briar looked around approvingly. One thing he did appreciate about Maledicta was how she stayed organized all the time. This personality trait was reflected in her living quarters, and manifested as a neat attention to detail, where everything was in its place. Not only did Briar approve of this attitude personally, it also made it much easier for his spells to detect things that were out of place.

Behind him, Parrow spoke up. “I believe you already know, but Maledicta Foursquare was found, apparently dead, by a student of the Academy. She was lying prone, face down on that carpet. After that, she was evacuated by the academy’s medical emergency team, and the dorm head sealed the room until my people arrived. We discovered nothing of note, however, but we sealed the room ourselves to prevent any further contamination of the crime scene. We are still not sure how the poison entered her system, as medical examination found no wounds on Foursquare indicative of poisoned blades or needles, and there was no sign in her room of having brought food in or eaten. According to her people, she ate with Aya Firewheel that evening, in the living quarters at the Foursquare branch store, and Miss Firewheel confirms that she was well at that time. The cook at the store was questioned, but his high loyalty to Maledicta Foursquare was very obvious, so it is unlikely that her food was poisoned that night.”

“In other words,” said Briar quietly, “it is likely that something happened to her when she was here.”

He walked toward the window, carefully avoiding the carpet as he stepped gingerly across the room. The view outside wasn’t really worth mentioning, mostly consisting of the dorm’s rather sparse backyard. Briar noted that there were no convenient trees near the window, meaning that anyone seeking access would have to fly or cling to the side of the dorm. Certainly not impossible, but it would most likely stand out to anyone passing by, and Briar knew the Academy grounds were patrolled at night.

Investigator du Keylos spoke up, surprising Briar. “The windows are designed not to open wide enough to admit a body. Also, the building wards keep track of when they are opened and shut. According to the records, the window has not been opened in the past week.”

“Hmmm. But I see that the window is unlocked, even if it hasn’t been opened,” responded Briar.

“Yes,” said du Keylos in a neutral tone of voice.

Briar nodded to himself, then returned to face Parrow and du Keylos. “I am going to begin my investigation now. May I please request you to stand outside the doorway?”

Parrow grunted and complied. Du Keylos looked a little reluctant, but she left without saying anything as well. Briar turned away, and began to consider what to examine first. Deciding it would be easiest to examine the magical traces in the room, Briar began to verbalize the incantation for Magical Detection. This spell was common to all branches of magic, and merely sensitized the user to the presence of previous spellcasting. Normally, the spell would be most sensitive to magic types that matched the user’s specialities, but the Esoterica version used by Briar was a bit more robust.

Before Briar’s eyes, mists of various colors floated freely. Wisps of white Light magic, blue Water, and yellow Air made a complex pattern in several places in the room. Above the carpet, traces of gold and silver could be seen, representing Earth and Metal magic. Over the window, a faint shimmer could be seen, undoubtedly Seal magic maintaining the wards. And, just inside the door, a mix of purple and violet mist indicated the presence of Shadow and Darkness magic.

There was very little doubt that the Shadow and Darkness user had been Maldu dan Rettica. There was only the barest trace inside, but it continued into the hallway, where it lingered a bit more obviously. Briar wasn’t sure why it hadn’t been detected by the wards, and hoped he would get the opportunity to ask.

As for the Earth and Metal, it seemed likely to be the magic of Maledicta herself, something she invoked to fight the poison in her body. It lingered strongly on the carpet, which either indicated that it had been a powerful magic, or that it had been sustained over a great length of time.

By process of elimination, the Light, Air, and Water magics were likely to belong to the investigation team. The presence of Air and Water magic was not a surprise, as both were well suited to searching and detecting anomalies, but the Light magic was a surprise. While it could illuminate things unseen, it was far more likely to wipe out lingering traces if it were not handled with subtlety. Apparently there was a talented Light Mage in the Civil Investigations Unit.

As Briar looked at the scene, something began to nag at him. He could see the traces of recent magic quite easily, but they were too crisp. He realized he could not see the older, faded traces of commonly used magic that should be ubiquitous in spaces that are lived in. It was possible, barely, that Maledicta never used her magic in her own room, but it seemed quite unlikely.

Just as Briar was about to release his spell, something about the window caught his eye. Frowning, he moved over to the shimmering ward once more, and stared closely at it. Something about it seemed … strange. He looked over at the door, with it’s similar ward, and then back at the window. It was really hard to make out, but … the two wards didn’t match, in a way that was extremely hard to describe. Even Esoterica Magical Detection had its weaknesses; while the Common branches of magic were easy to distinguish, the Unique branches were much less distinct. Barrier and Seal magics were nearly indistinguishable from each other, for example. Space magic was more obvious, as it appeared as obvious lacerations floating in midair, but it was completely impossible to tell how strong it was. And there were numerous types of Unique magic that Briar had never been exposed to, so he had no idea how they would appear to him at all.

Briar stared at the window, and realized he was beginning to get a headache. That, too, was a clue. Finally realizing what he was looking at, he nodded once and began to release his Magical Detection spell. Once his vision returned to a semblance of normality, he returned to Parrow and du Keylos, who had been by this time joined by Sir Arata and Aya Firewheel.

“First of all, let me confirm one thing,” started Briar. “Investigators, the spells you used while searching for evidence were a combination of Water, Air, and Light magic, correct?”

Parrow narrowed his eyes over his glass of tea, which he had pulled out of midair while waiting for Briar to finish up. Du Keylos glanced at him, but when he didn’t react, she answered Briar, “I do believe the investigation team employed spells of those types, yes. You were able to tell what spells were used?”

“No, just the types of traces left,” denied Briar. “I could make a guess at how strong the spell was, but I don’t have any idea how the magic was used. Then setting aside the traces of the investigation team, there are two other points of interest. Well, four, but one is easily dismissable, and the other I want to wait on for a bit.”

Parrow said, while staring into his cup of tea, “What do you consider ‘easily dismissable’ if I may ask?”

“A source of mixed Shadow and Darkness magic entered the room, paused briefly, and then exited hurridly.”

Investigators Parrow and du Keylos both grimaced, and at the same time said, “Maldu dan Rettica.”

“Precisely.”

“It matches his story,” Sir Arata spoke up unexpectedly. “Are you certain he only entered, and didn’t touch anything inside?”

Briar shrugged. “He might have entered, cancelled his magics, rummaged around inside, and then recast them and left. But he doesn’t appear to have done so, as the traces seem to be contiguous. I’m sorry that I can’t be more certain,” he said apologetically. Sir Arata waved off his apology, and Briar continued with his report.

“The next point would be the carpet where Miss Foursquare was found. There are strong traces of both Earth and Metal magic, with the Metal predominating. I presume that these are the spells that Miss Foursquare used to preserve her life. Unless …” he trailed off as a thought struck him. “Investigator Parrow. Could there have been a magical component to the poison used on Miss Foursquare?”

Parrow’s frown deepened, and with a couple whispered words the teacup in his hands disappeared. “Now that is an interesting question. I’ve never heard of a poison that works by magic before, but I’m hardly an expert. Tair, once we’re done here, pass that one down the line, see what the medical team turned up. Hey, Firewheel,” he said, turning to Aya, “do you know anything about this? Did your mistress know some kind of life-saving spell made with Earth and Metal magic?”

“Hmph. I have no intention of giving Maledicta’s secrets to outsiders,” grumbled Aya. The encounter with Briar had scared her badly, and her expression was extremely sullen.

Before Parrow could get angry at the young woman, Briar interjected, “Would you mind answering a few less sensitive questions, then? I believe you will be instrumental to demonstrating my next point.”

Aya gave the young Esoterica mage a troubled look. She actually wanted nothing to do with him, but she didn’t want to be seen as weak in front of these people, so she gathered herself and said, “What do you want to know?”

“Very simply, did Miss Foursquare practice magic in this room? That is to say, did she use minor magics like illumination spells, or did she ever use the room for magical meditation?”

Aya blinked, then replied, “Of course. You can see that she didn’t keep any oil lamps or candles lit, since she handled a lot of paper at her desk. And she preferred to meditate here, rather than at home; she said there was less potential for distractions.”

“As expected,” nodded Briar. “She was — is, I should say, the very model of efficiency, and this would be a very efficient place to meditate. However, there are no traces of such meditation, or even of minor, convenient spells. Since Miss Firewheel says that she was not abstaining from magic in this room, I am forced to conclude that in the very recent past, all the magical traces in this room were forcibly cleansed.”

Parrow nodded slowly. “Yeah. Our team came to the same conclusion. And I’ll do you one better, Mr. Sevon: all the physical traces have been wiped out as well.”

“What do you mean, ‘physical traces’?” asked Briar with a sinking feeling.

“Fingerprints, footprints, smells, oils, the works. Any sign of human habitation from before Mr. dan Rettica stepped through the door, completely gone. We couldn’t even prove that Foursquare lived here, if her stuff wasn’t in the room.”

Aya’s eyes involuntarily widened. “How is that possible?”

Parrow sneered, “Yeah, let us know if you figure that out.” His voice was angry and frustrated. “I’ve never encountered something like this before. Whoever did this, they must have a really unusual Unique branch spell to rely on.”

The five stood quietly for a few moments. Finally, Sir Arata spoke up. “Is there anything else you can try, Sevon? It sounds like this is becoming a dead end.”

Investigator du Keylos said, “You said there was a fourth matter, as well? What did you mean by ‘put it off’?”

Briar nodded, “Yes, there’s one more magical anomaly in the room, and I think it would be easy for you to guess where. But there is something else I want to try before I talk about it.” He glanced at Aya Firewheel briefly, before continuing to address the investigators. “I have learned a certain Esoterica spell of … dubious utility, that may be of significant help in this situation. The effects are slightly hard to describe, but I should be able to determine if anything has changed inside the room in the recent past.”

Parrow raised an eyebrow. “That seems easy enough to describe.”

Briar hesitated, then reluctantly agreed, “I suppose. The problem with the spell, is that it requires me to be in a quasi-meditative state, leaving me quite vulnerable. Therefore–”

“Therefore you’d like us to keep an eye on each other, and make sure everyone stays out of the way,” Sir Arata cut in, chuckling. “No problem, kiddo, I’ll make sure Miss du Keylos here doesn’t stab you in the back while you’re not paying attention.” Investigator du Keylos glared at her old teacher, but didn’t say anything back. Meanwhile, Aya Firewheel was trying to decide if Briar’s words were actually aimed at her, while Investigator Parrow had once more pulled a cup out of nowhere, coffee this time, and was casually sipping the hot beverage. Briar was getting slightly jealous of Parrow’s apparent skill with Space branch magic, and wondered if his own atrociously bad ability for Space magic would allow him to use the convenient-looking spell.

He forced himself to set that aside, and after a nod to Sir Arata, he turned his back on the other four. He let his eyes lose focus, and began to feel the pulse of magic within his body and mind. With an act of will he synchronized the two separate beats, and began to spin his aura around an imaginary point in the center of his chest. This was the first step of magical meditation. Next, he touched the part of his magic that was aligned to Esoterica, and the distinctive features of that magical branch began to stain his aura.

In a technical sort of way, any Mage could theoretically cast any spell. A magical aura is made up of every type of magic at the same time, and the user simply needed to draw that type forth to power their spell. However, in every Mage there existed a sort of implicit bias; there would be branches of magic that they could call forth easily, and understand more deeply, while at the same time there would be branches that they could barely call forth at all. This bias, often known as ‘aspect’ or ‘talent’, shaped each individual Mage’s approach to magic, and knowing where a Mage is strong or weak could be invaluable information for defeating them.

The branches of magic known as ‘Common’ were easy to learn, comparatively, and it was easy to find teachers and incantations using them, and most mages had a talent for at least three or four of them. There were nine branches held to be Common, including Fire, Air, Water, Wood, Earth, Metal, Light, Shadow, and Darkness. Due to their typically overt effects, they were also known as the ‘Elemental’ magics, although that terminology was only common outside the Kingdom.

Alternately, there existed the ‘Unique’ branches of magic, such as Space, Barriers, and Seals. These were rarer magics to have a talent for, and they tended to be much harder to use than Common magics. These branches varied widely in utility and accessibility: with Space, on one hand, being both popular and useful, causing it to be widespread despite being a relatively rare aspect; on the other hand, the Illusions branch, being poorly thought of and extremely situational, was much harder to train in due to the relative absence of users. At the extreme edge, there were spells that were so unique that they didn’t seem to have a branch associated with them at all, or possibly were branches in and of themselves. These were extremely rare, and tended to be dangerous to the user in all sorts of different ways.

The Esoterica magic that Briar had learned from Duke Maes was one of these Unique branches, and one that was extraordinarily rare in the Kingdom; other than himself and the duke, he had heard of no other major practitioners of the strange magic in the Capital. There was one major reason for this: Esoterica was a very disturbing art to train in.

First of all, it forcibly increased the number of things its user could perceive, resulting in smells becoming more distinct, colors becoming brighter and more diverse, hearing enhanced into different registers, and the like. While on the surface this sounds like a good thing, for the most part Esoterica spells didn’t increase the user’s ability to understand these new sensations, resulting in effective paralysis while the would-be Esoterica Mage tries to understand what his senses were telling him. This dichotomy of senses only grew worse when the Mage was granted senses that humans did not originally have. It was fully possible for an Esoteric Mage to cast spells granting him the ability to sense hostile intent, or truth and lies, or the recent past, or the near future. But unless the Mage has trained a long time with these senses, he will most likely be unable to take advantage of the information they bring.

But even after learning to cope with extra senses, there is another big barrier to mastery of Esoterica: as the user becomes able to more closely observe the world around him, he will begin to feel that he is being observed as well. The stronger the spell, the more Esoterica magic gathered, and the stronger this oppressive feeling became. It was common for Esoterica Mages to become isolated and paranoid, especially if they tried to train too quickly. Thus, the only reason Briar was able to progress quickly in the Esoterica branch was due to secret meditation techniques passed on by Duke Maes, techniques that helped protect Briar’s mind from the side effects of Esoterica overuse.

But even these secret techniques could only reduce the burden, and not eliminate it. And so, as the subtle feeling of Esoterica magic spread through his body, Briar felt powerful and unfriendly eyes fall upon him. The sensation was uncomfortable, extremely so, but Briar ignored it with the ease of practice. He started the incantation for his spell, known as Nature’s Bent, and the magic spiraling around his body began to form unusual and eldritch patterns, brimming with mystical significance.

Slowly, the room around Briar began to change. The edges seemed to stretch, without actually moving or changing shape, and Briar knew he was experiencing a change in perception comparable to, but not exactly like, seeing into the recent past. But even that was deceptive; what he could see was something like an imprint, or like a path created by feet walking the same path day after day. He could now see what was in its customary place, and what was missing or disarrayed.

Carefully maintaining his altered consciousness, he looked over at Maledicta’s bookshelf. He could see several books and manuals, lined up neatly. At the same time, he could see which books were disturbed often, such as a manual on Metal spells, and a book of the history of the Kingdom. On the other hand, there were books that were nearly untouched, such as a book of official peerage as recognized by the King and Assembly. That tome, Briar was unfortunately familiar with as well, and he sympathized with Maledicta’s distaste for what was a thoroughly difficult reference book. Three books were missing from the shelf, although Briar could only tell their approximate size, and not their contents.

Moving over to Maledicta’s bed, he first examined the bag that had been carelessly tossed on top. Within, he discovered three books, two business manuals and a book of magical theory, which were undoubtedly the books missing from the bookshelf. As for the bed itself, he could tell that Maledicta slept here often, and that she moved around a lot during sleep. He could also tell that no one else slept with her, at least not recently, but he tried not to think about it too much, as it felt like a serious indelicacy to acknowledge the fact. Finally, he noted that she slept with a small blade under her pillow, although it was not there now.

Next he moved on to her chest of drawers. He had the feeling that someone behind him might have said something, but he held his meditative state, and the voice was quickly silenced. Irregardless, he poked through the various layers of clothes and undergarments, but nothing stood out particularly; there was nothing in particular missing, and the clothes were used enough that it was impossible to determine if anything specific was missing.

Finally he moved to the desk by the window. From what he could see, Maledicta kept it clear when she was not looking on it, so he only had a vague impression of books and papers and pens, all jumbled together. His eyes were drawn to the corner of the desk right under the window, then to the window itself, and he nodded to himself.

After ascertaining that a body had, indeed, been laying on the carpet for a not insignificant amount of time, and after checking under the bed and desk for anything of interest, he finally allowed Nature’s Bent to release, and dissipated the Esoterica Magic from his body. He felt the sensation of being watched dim and dissipate, and allowed himself a small sigh of relief. After waiting a few more moments, to make sure his mind had stabilized, he turned once more to the people waiting in the doorway.

Investigator Parrow watched Briar’s movement’s closely. Noting the young man’s slightly grim expression, he said, “You found something.” It was not a question.

Briar nodded, but said, “First things first. Miss Firewheel, are you familiar with Miss Foursquare’s room and habits?”

Aya frowned, but nodded. “I helped her move in, and I stop by every so often to check on her. For her family, you see,” she added quickly.

“Then, are you aware that she sleeps with a knife under her pillow?” As Aya’s eyes widened, he continued, “Is that a common habit of hers, or was it something she started recently?”

“Um, she always has one when she’s away from home, but … You can tell that much?” Aya was beginning to lose her self-control after the continued shocks that this man could deliver.

Ignoring her question, Briar turned back to Parrow. “The knife is not currently under her pillow. Was a small dagger of about this size,” he gestured with his hands, “found on Miss Foursquare’s person?”

Parrow sipped his coffee, then deliberately turned to du Keylos, who answered, “Yes, she had a small stiletto strapped to her lower leg. Upon checking, it had no poison on it, and it was not magically enhanced or attuned, so it was returned upon the request of Foursquare’s people. Is it important?”

“Probably not,” confirmed Briar. “My next question, however, could be very important indeed. Miss Firewheel.”

“W-what?” said Aya, suddenly feeling very nervous. Briar’s gaze was suddenly very intense, and she almost reflexively started using Reinforcement magic to protect her mind, just in case he decided to use Soul Prism on her again.

“You already said that you stop by this room, correct? Have you been by recently?”

“Just five days ago, yes,” agreed Aya warily. She didn’t know where this was going, and she was beginning to feel trapped. She glanced nervously behind her, only to see Sir Arata standing, non-threatening, but quite close.

“Then I would like you to stand there and take a look at the room, Miss Firewheel, and tell me what’s missing.” Briar watched her closely as she glanced around the room.

“… Maledicta usually kept her bag by the desk, not on her bed, but otherwise it looks like it normally does.”

“Really? Are you certain?” Briar asked with narrowed eyes.

“Positive.”

“Then,” asked Briar, “what about the potted plant on her desk, by the window?”

Aya’s eyes flared wide. “What plant? Mal didn’t have a plant!”

“Oh, really,” drawled Briar, his face grim. “But according to my spell, it had sat there for at least two weeks, possibly longer.”

“There must be something wrong with your spell, then! Mal didn’t care for decorative plants, she prefered clean surfaces to work on!”

To her surprise, Briar nodded. “I believe you.” He then addressed the Investigators, and said, “So this is what I found: a plant, which Miss Firewheel had never seen yet had sat on Miss Foursquare’s desk for some time; and a window, which according to the building security had not been opened recently, but according to my spell most definitely had been. You asked me,” he said, looking at du Keylos, “about the fourth point of concern I found when examining the traces of magic left in this room. I’ll tell you now: it appears that the Seals magic on the window has been compromised.” He grimaced. “By Illusion magic.”

“Fuck,” growled Sir Arata, who had been half-expecting this conclusion based on Briar’s actions. The two Investigators gave each other a meaningful glance, and Parrow made his cup disappear again. He glared at Briar as he held his empty hands loosely in front of him.

“You’re sure?”

Briar nodded, then shook his head. “As for the window, I’m sure it was opened in the last three days. My guess would be that the plant was removed at that time. Although the window doesn’t open wide enough to admit a body, an arm would be able to reach in and take a small item. As for the ward,” he shrugged, “it’s difficult to say. Illusion magic is difficult to pin down at the best of times, but it’s the best explanation I have for the feeling I get when I look at that ward.”

Aya Firewheel was feeling a mix of relief since she was no longer the center of attention, and confusion at everyone else’s reaction. “Why … what’s the problem with Illusion magic? I know it’s rare, but …”

It was Sir Arata who replied to her question. “Miss Firewheel, there is a certain organization within the Capital known for having a penchant for Illusion magic, and if they are involved, the situation has become extremely complicated. Sevon, no offense, but I’m going to get some experts in to verify your claims about the window. I’m really hoping you’re wrong, but … fuck.” He shook his head, a grim look on his face.

Parrow had a matching look on his own face. “Aya Firewheel, we’re done here. Go ahead and gather up your mistress’ stuff, and then I’ll have you accompany us back to C.I.U. Let’s dig into your mind a bit and see if we can tell anything about Mr. Sevon’s so-called plant.”

“What? No!” cried Aya with a sudden fear. Obviously she wouldn’t want anyone trying to invade her mind. “I won’t let you!”

“Please calm down, Miss Firewheel,” soothed du Keylos. She glared at Parrow, and said, “Sir, please stop phrasing things in ways that give people the wrong idea. It sounded like you were going to crack her head open and start rummaging around inside.”

Parrow’s grim expression faded a bit, replaced by a crooked smile. “No? Well, I guess we’ll make that plan B, then.”

Du Keylos rolled her eyes. “Shut up, sir. Miss Firewheel, we have no intention of actually trying to read your thoughts. What we want to do is enhance your mind, and try to bring out details that you may have missed. You are a Reinforcement Mage, correct? We can even teach you the spell we would use. It will be completely safe.”

“Yes, it’s not like we were going to use Esoterica on you, after all,” said Parrow mock-cheerfully, glancing sidelong at Briar. The Esoterica Mage smiled quietly at the jab, but did not otherwise respond.

Aya continued to glare at the three of them. “I suppose I have no way to refuse, right?” Her accent was thicker than usual.

“Right,” nodded Parrow.

Not right,” snapped du Keylos, glaring at Parrow. “You’re worse than Sir Arata sometimes, you know that?”

Parrow winced. “Ouch,” he murmured. The old knight simply grinned, having recovered his good humor watching Parrow and du Keylos argue. Suddenly, Briar cleared his throat, and everyone looked at him.

“Miss Firewheel,” he said, “I am going to the Civil Investigations building as well, to record a statement of my findings.”

“You are?” muttered Parrow, but du Keylos quickly shushed him.

“If you like, I can accompany you to assure that no harm comes to you,” continued Briar. His face revealed nothing but a cool compassion.

Aya glared at him in return. “You’re even scarier than they are.”

Briar blinked. He wasn’t sure how he was comparing unfavorably with a group of people that could incarcerate and interrogate prisoners with impunity. Sir Arata laughed at his expression. “You did use Soul Prism on her, young man.”

“But it was quite low level. It should not have done permanent damage to her,” protested Briar.

“That is not reassuring,” said Aya in a voice that was nearly a sob. How had she gotten mixed up with these crazy people?

Sir Arata laughed again, but then he looked at Aya with compassion. “Actually, young lady, Mr. Sevon is a very reliable person, who would certainly ensure that no harm comes to you. For that matter, he belongs to the Fernifar household, meaning that if anyone tries to harm you while under his protection, they will have to deal with House Fernifar,” he concluded cheerfully.

“House Fernifar … Wait, Ducal House Fernifar?” Once again Aya paled, realizing that she had attacked someone extremely influential.

“Please relax, Miss Firewheel. I am merely a servant of House Fernifar, and not of any particular importance,” said Briar calmly.

“Sure, sure, not important at all,” agreed Sir Arata. “It’s not like you are secretly the personal disciple of Duke Maes himself, and inheritor of some of his most insidious magics.”

Investigator Parrow did a double take. “What, seriously!?” He looked from the seraphically smiling knight to the young man glaring at him. He suddenly felt like he had taken Briar too lightly. “I thought you were just the attendant of his crippled son …”

“Um. If it’s supposed to be a secret, should I be hearing this?” asked Aya weakly.

“Oh, probably not,” said Sir Arata, not losing a bit of his smile.

“I’m gonna die …” moaned Aya, staggering a bit on her feet.

“You’ll be fine, Miss Firewheel,” insisted Briar. “Sir Arata is wholly exaggerating –”

“Come to think of it, Duke Maes is an Esoterica Mage as well, isn’t he.” Parrow was muttering aloud to himself. “This explains why the king is backing him so easily … No wonder I can’t get him removed from the investi–”

“WILL YOU ALL SHUT THE HELL UP!!” A loud voice roared out, frightening Aya, shocking Briar, and causing Parrow to jump slightly. Even Sir Arata’s smile became a bit wry as he and the others turned to face the woman who had just silenced the chaotic conversation. Teir du Keylos’ face was flushed with rage, and she glared at the other four as though they had just mortally insulted her entire family.

“I am a very busy woman, mostly because my captain is almost completely useless,” here Parrow flinched a bit, but she paid no attention and continued, “and I do not need to listen to any more complaints, meaningless babble, or a certain old man’s attempts to upset people. Sir Arata, go figure out what’s wrong with that window, and report back to me immediately. Miss Firewheel, collect the things you came for now. And as for you two,” she rounded on Briar and Parrow, “there will be no need to protect Miss Firewheel, because the issue will not arise! Do I make myself clear!?” she finished with a shout.

“As crystal, ma’am,” answered Briar, thoroughly cowed. Investigator Parrow said nothing, but he had a mysteriously warm smile as he looked back at du Keylos. Meanwhile behind them, Aya had ran into Maledicta’s former room and muttered a spell that created a warped space near her left hand, which she used to vacuum up books from her bookshelf, clothes from her dresser, and the bag left on her bed, finishing with the beautiful carpet on the floor. She didn’t go near the desk or the window, just in case.

“Done,” she said breathlessly, apparently having forgotten that she was trying to avoid going to the Civil Investigations Unit. Investigator du Keylos nodded briskly, and marched the other three down the hallway on the way out of the dorm.

Behind them stood Sir Arata, shaking his head and smiling a warm smile. “I warned them she had a temper,” he said happily to himself, and then he too walked briskly off to carry out his duties.

The Civil Investigations Unit was based in a government building in the Royal District of the Capital. As was typical in this city, the architectural style did not match the buildings around it. It was low, squat, and depressing, made of dark grey stone, and looked a little like a prison, contrasting with a magnificent wooden mansion on its left and a tall metal tower on its right. It was fairly obvious that Civil Investigations would not be a comfortable government job.

This was Briar’s second visit, and he had found that the inside was a lot more comfortable than the exterior would suggest. The hallways were wide, the various rooms and offices were warm, and he had discovered today that the food in the canteen was surprisingly good. He had gotten his hands on a bowl of stew, and he ate slowly while considering the things he had learned today. Above him, large glass skylights revealed the darkening sky.

Suddenly, a body collapsed into the seat across from him and slumped onto the table. Briar looked down at Aya Firewheel, who had her eyes shut as she lay exhausted on the table. The young Mage couldn’t help but feel a bit of sympathy.

“Are you all right, Miss Firewheel?”

“No,” muttered Aya without opening her eyes. “That has to be the most painful experience I’ve ever had. My head is splitting, I feel like my eyes are going to bleed.”

Briar looked at the young woman for a few moments, and then reached into his pocket and pulled out something wrapped in paper, which he opened. “Chew this.”

Aya cracked open an eye, and looked blearily at the small object Briar held. “What is it?”

“Taper Root. It’s a mental stabilizer.”

“Why the hell are you carrying around a mental stabilizer?” groaned Aya, shutting her eye again.

Briar gave a little twisted smile, which Aya failed to see. “Esoterica is not exactly a painless magic to practice.”

There was silence between the two for nearly a minute, then Aya said, “Fine, give me the damn thing.”

Briar set the ugly-looking root in Aya’s hand, and she tossed it in her mouth. Chewing a couple times, her eyes popped open. “It’s … actually kinda tasty.”

“Indeed,” responded Briar. “Chew it carefully for half a minute, and then spit it out.”

Aya stopped chewing. “What happens after half a minute?” she asked, worriedly.

“Chew,” insisted Briar. Once she had started chewing again, he answered her, “It can start to affect your balance, and eventually make you fall unconscious, if you chew it too long.”

“Not reassuring,” muttered Aya, chewing discontentedly.

“But your head already feels better, doesn’t it?” replied Briar calmly.

“Nh?” Aya realized that her headache had cleared up quite a bit, in an extremely short amount of time. “Wow … seriously, what is this stuff?”

“Here, put it back in this paper,” urged Briar. After receiving back the slightly chewed root, he wrapped it carefully in its paper and gave it back to the young woman. “Taper Root is mainly grown up North, where it is carefully cultivated for its mental stabilizing properties. It’s a bit expensive, but you can keep that piece to confirm what I have told you.”

“Oh … Er, thanks.” Her head had been pounding too hard to realize it, but Aya had followed Briar’s words without even considering the possibility that he would try to harm her. She secretly broke out in a cold sweat, and swore to herself that she would find out everything about Tapir Root, and whether or not what she was holding was, in fact, Tapir Root, as soon as possible.

Briar nodded back to her thanks. “It is nothing. I’ve been in a similar state myself, any number of times. So tell me,” he continued, his tone becoming more formal, “was there any result, Miss Firewheel?”

“Result? Oh. Not really,” she said with a frown. “Even after everything that damn woman put me through, I’m not sure there was really anything there. I can positively say that I never saw a plant in that room, though, even after that woman made me cast a spell that she said would let me remember things I was forced to forget. That’s where the headache came from, by the way.”

Briar nodded. “Mental-designated Reinforcement Magic, Focused Recall. Or more likely a derivative, since Focused Recall is not very effective. I have sympathy for you, Miss Foursquare. I know a similar spell for Esoterica magic that I could have used on you to a similar effect, although,” Briar smiled grimly, “the consequences would be a little more severe than a headache.”

“Then feel free not to cast it,” snapped Aya, slightly angrily. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure that nothing was placed on that corner of her desk, but that doesn’t really mean much. Maledicta was … is very meticulous about not letting her workspace get cluttered.”

“I could see that,” nodded Briar. “Did Investigators Parrow or du Keylos have anything else to ask you?”

“Not really,” she replied. “That Parrow guy left with you and didn’t come back, so it was just du Keylos and another woman Investigator who didn’t introduce herself, who cast a couple spells on me and taught me that damn ‘Recall’ spell, or whatever it was. They asked me a couple things about the magic Maledicta uses, but they didn’t push too hard when I didn’t tell them anything.”

“Mm. They are being fairly gentle, as expected,” said Briar, nodding to himself.

“This is gentle, is it?” complained Aya. “I’m not even from this damn Kingdom. I’m an important adjunct of an extremely powerful family, and I’m being pulled in for questioning like a common thief.”

“Oh, yes, Miss Firewheel, this is gentle. Were you a common citizen of Reclamation Kingdom, the Civil Investigations Unit would not stop at a few innocuous questions. If you were a noble, they would have to step more lightly, at least at first. But in this situation …” Briar narrowed his eyes. “Once the king starts calling for results, even the noble houses will have to bend their heads. Or lose them.”

Aya’s eyes widened. “Sir Arata mentioned that too … Why would the king care? I mean, Maledicta is important back home, but here she’s just another student, right?”

Briar shook his head. “That’s the Academy’s stance, not the Kingdom’s. The Kingdom, or rather the king and the Assembly, are much more pragmatic. Considering the wealth and reach of the Foursquare Cartel, Maledicta Foursquare is a foreign princess for all intents and purposes. Her death in our Academy would result in the worst diplomatic incident in nearly a century, and would possibly end up with the Kingdom at war with at least two other countries. Actually, it’s still fairly terrible even though she survived. I’m actually surprised you didn’t already know this,” he said curiously.

“Ah. I’ve … never paid much attention to politics,” muttered Aya, embarrassed. “It sounds like you have a pretty good grasp of things, though.”

Briar hesitated, then admitted, “Not really. I spend an inordinate amount of time in personal meditation, so I don’t pay attention to anything not connected to the Fernifar House. Most of what I told you was explained to me by my master, who’s much better at seeing the big picture than I.”

“You mean Duke Maes? As one of the top nobles, I suppose he’d have to keep track of things like that.”

Briar was about to explain to the young woman that it was actually Karis who had explained the consequences of Maledicta’s near-assassination to him, but before he opened his mouth he realized that would just make Aya ask more questions he would certainly not want to answer. So instead, he just nodded and said, “Well, since the investigators have released you, shall I see to it that you get back home safely?”

“Huh?” Aya blinked.

“I told you before that I would accompany you to make certain that you would return safely, did I not?”

“Er … Sort of?” Aya shook herself, then gave Briar a hard stare. “I don’t need an escort. I can take care of myself, and I don’t trust you.”

Briar’s expression didn’t change. “I don’t expect you to trust me. But I did promise that you would get back safely, so please allow me to accompany you.”

“No,” flatly denied Aya.

Briar’s eyes narrowed slightly. After a moment, he said, “Very well. I do have another motive in following you. I have been instructed to speak with Mr. Roger Bladefang, and now would be a decent time for me to do so.”

Aya eyed him warily, and told him, “I doubt he’ll talk to you. Captain Bladefang is a pretty private person, even at a normal time, which this isn’t.”

“I understand that,” said Briar firmly. “But I have to ask. It is my duty.”

The two sat in silence for a while, as Aya studied Briar’s expressionless face. Finally, she muttered an agreement, and pushed herself abruptly to her feet. Briar nodded his thanks, and after returning his half-eaten stew to the canteen staff, the two left.

As they were leaving the building, an Investigator Briar had not met before called out to him, and passed him a folded note. It read, About 60% chance that something was on the corner of the desk for the past two months. The note was signed with du Keylos’ name. Briar nodded, thanked the Investigator, and placed the note in his pocket, ignoring Aya’s curious gaze.

The man who became the First King of the Reclamation Kingdom, not long after the defeat of the last Mage Tyrant, commissioned the construction of the city that became the Capital. He gathered hundreds of displaced craftsmen, and paid the entirety of several fortunes to pay thousands of laborers, freed from the whims of the Tyrants and hopeful for a new life, to build a gigantic city.

Those craftsmen had been from all over the world, and their ideas of what constituted an appropriate and beautiful building were widely varying. The First King, rather than establishing a certain style, encouraged the many craftsmen to experiment, and supplied all sorts of different materials to the highly enthusiastic builders. The result was a horrifyingly mismatched and phantasmagoria-esque cityscape that gave most observers the impression that it was built piecemeal from the remains of innumerable other cities. Some of the houses in the Noble District were so idiosyncratic, it was hard to believe they were ever intended for human habitation.

Many people over the years had criticized the First King for letting such a ridiculous eyesore of a city become his Capital, but many of it residents loved the sheer exuberance of the display. Briar Sevon was one of them; he had grown up in the Capital, albeit in the Common district where residences were more subdued, and the chaotic cityscape was not mysterious to him at all. Aya Firewheel, on the other hand, had only arrived in the Capital six months before, when Maledicta had entered the War, Magic, and Commerce Academy. While she had grown to understand the major roads through the Merchant District, and the path to the Academy, she was still likely to get quite confused and lost if she ended up anywhere else.

So it ended up quite fortunate that Briar was willing to guide her back to the Foursquare branch store, although she got extremely nervous once she realized she had no idea where she was. Aya was still slightly frightened of Briar, and she couldn’t help but worry that he was leading her into a trap. Surreptitiously, she started mustering her defensive spells, using only silent incantations to avoid alerting the Esoterica Mage.

Briar, however, made no suspicious actions, and in a few minutes Aya was starting to see unique buildings that she recognized, and she gave a quiet sigh of relief. At least if he tried anything now, she could at least run home on her own.

As she was thinking that thought, Briar suddenly spoke up, causing her to jump. “Miss Firewheel, I was wondering something. Are you a friend of Miss Foursquare?”

“… I am Maledicta’s assistant and bodyguard, assigned by her father, Timon Foursquare. We have a professional relationship, nothing more.”

“Really?” responded Briar idly. “It seemed like your relationship was closer, that’s all. You were quite upset when you felt the Investigators weren’t taking the case seriously.”

“Well, of course,” said Aya irritably. “She’s my employer, after all, and I’m supposed to protect her interests. And the interests of the Foursquare Cartel, of course,” she added as an afterthought.

“I see,” murmured Briar. Then, “You called her ‘Mal,’ you know.”

“I– I did? I mean … I don’t remember doing that,” said Aya, suddenly blushing and flustered.

“Oh? Well, maybe it was my imagination,” said Briar soothingly.

“I’m sure it was,” Aya said firmly.

The two walked on. Aya glanced at Briar’s face from time to time, but she couldn’t figure out what he was thinking behind his expressionless face. Finally, she spoke up again. “Why do you ask?”

“No reason. Just curious,” responded Briar absently. She frowned at his non-answer, but before she could pursue the question, he actually continued. “You remind me a bit of myself, I think.”

This startled Aya quite a bit, who had no idea what he was talking about. “How so?” she asked, legitimately curious.

He didn’t answer for a long time, but just as she thought he wasn’t going to answer at all, he spoke. “Miss Firewheel, you have been assigned to work closely with Maledicta Foursquare, but … as you said, the one who assigned you to her was Mr. Timon Foursquare, her father. In other words, you are not someone she chose for herself, and that makes a wall between you two. Furthermore … Master Karis explained to me that Miss Foursquare is not the only possible heir to the Foursquare Cartel. She has a younger brother, and at least two cousins in the line of succession, correct?”

“… Yes.”

“And so, your instructions are not only to guard Miss Foursquare, but to watch her. To make sure she behaves in the way her father expects her to. To make sure she is … worthy, of being heir.” Seeing Aya’s expression stiffen, he quickly added, “You don’t need to confirm or deny it, this is just me speculating a bit. I suppose you could consider it a bad habit I picked up from my master …”

Aya did not respond.

“Your relationship with your young mistress, reminds me of my own situation, that’s all. I am ordered to watch over and assist Master Karis, but I have also been tasked with watching his actions. If he starts to act outside the boundaries his father set for him, I am the one who will bring him back into line. If necessary, to drag his broken body back to Duke Maes to answer for his actions. That’s a direct quote, incidentally,” he added, slightly bitterly. “Duke Maes is not especially gentle, even to his own flesh and blood.

“And so, even though I’m the closest person to Master Karis, I will never quite be his friend. I just hope he never sees me as his jailor … Seeing you today, Miss Firewheel, I felt like I was seeing someone who had the same feelings I had. Please forgive me for my presumption.”

The two walked along, not looking at each other. As they turned on to the main street leading to the Foursquare branch store, Aya said, “Hey.”

“What is it, Miss Firewheel?”

“Could you knock it off, with the “Miss” thing? It’s really annoying.”

Briar raised his eyebrow. “Really? How should I address you, then?”

“Just call me Aya. It’s my name, after all,” Aya said, staring straight ahead.

Briar laughed, but didn’t answer her back.

The Foursquare branch store in the capital was a large building, even for the Merchant district. The sign posted by the door gave the rather prosaic name: “Foursquare Magical Goods”. The building itself was anything but prosaic, however. It had four floors, each slightly taller than one would expect, and each floor was constructed from stone of a different color. The first floor was made a jade-green stone, and carved with many fantastic plants and trees; the second floor was rust-red, and decorated with various wild animals; the third floor was an unusual deep blue, and covered with frescos of powerful monsters and divine beings. Finally, the fourth floor above all the rest was made of a pure white stone rivaling marble, and carved into its facade were scenes of men pursuing various crafts, like blacksmithing and farming.

“My goodness. I’ve never been to your store before, but it certainly is impressive, isn’t it?” said Briar admiringly.

“Give me a break,” muttered Aya, flushing slightly. “I’m embarrassed to be living in it. How ostentatious can you get? Whoever built this city was obviously crazy …”

“Enthusiastic, rather,” disagreed Briar with a certain amount of cheer. “Perhaps you will get to see the Fernifar estate, someday. I assure you, Foursquare Magical Goods looks perfectly benign in comparison.”

Aya looked at Briar sidelong, then shook her head. “Come on, let’s find out if Captain Bladefang is here. He’s been in and out a lot the past couple days.”

“Because of Miss Foursquare?” asked Briar.

“For the most part,” nodded Aya. “He’s one of the few people who knows where she’s being treated, after all.”

Briar, noticing that she seemed depressed, asked her, “Were you not told where she is being kept? You are her bodyguard, after all.”

Aya shook her head. “Captain Bladefang is the only one who knows where she is. He said that the less people know, the better.”

Briar narrowed his eyes. “Did you consider tailing him, just to make sure?”

Aya’s eyes widened, and she almost whispered in reply, “Of course not! The Captain would notice me instantly, and he’s the most dangerous person I’ve ever met!”

“What, more dangerous than ‘Twice-Dead’ Arata?” asked Briar, slightly bemused.

“I’ve never met ‘Twice-Dead’, so why would I consider him?” said Aya, perplexed.

Briar stopped and gave her a flat look. She looked back at him, uncomprehending. Eventually he said, dryly, “You met him just earlier, you know.”

Aya blinked, and thought back to the people she had met that day. Guw Parrow and Tair du Keylos from the Investigators, Briar Sevon who was standing right in front of her, and the old knight who seemed to be in charge of Security at the Academy. He hadn’t introduced himself, but du Keylos had addressed him a couple times as … Sir Arata …

Briar watched, amused, as the color drained from Aya’s face. She opened and closed her mouth a couple times, before finally blurting out, “But…! I thought he was just in charge of their security…!”

Briar nodded, “Well, yes, he is the head of Security at the Academy. But they wouldn’t give that job to just anyone, you know. He also teaches a bit,” he added cheerfully.

Aya swayed on her feet a bit, and Briar prepared himself to catch her if she actually collapsed. But the moment of weakness seemed to pass, and Aya stood up straight again, although her face remained pale. “… Yes. He was scary too. I just didn’t realize quite how scary he actually was.”

Briar smiled slightly, and said, “There’s no need to be afraid, Miss Firewheel. Sir Arata is actually a quite understanding person. I’m sure he took no offense at your distemperate words.”

“Easy for you to say,” grumbled Aya. Oddly, she did feel a bit better at Briar’s reassurance, but wasn’t willing to admit it. “And I told you to knock it off with the ‘Miss’ stuff.”

Briar smile broadened a bit, and he gestured at the store entrance they were standing before. “Shall we?”

Inside, the first floor was a well-organized showroom of common, everyday items, including tools and products both magical and mundane. A series of black wooden pillars held up the ceiling, and shelves and tables stretched in rows between them. Anything an average household might need was on sale in this place. Looking around, Briar mused, “Interesting. I thought the Foursquare Cartel specialized in high-end goods, but these look mostly affordable.”

“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘affordable’, but things like weapons and dangerous and rare tools are sold on the second floor. Down here is just everyday stuff, you know?” replied Aya absently. She was looking around, as if trying to find someone. The store was mostly empty, with only a few staff working with the remaining customers before closing up for the day. Seeing everyone else was busy, Aya sighed and said, “Follow me.”

The two passed through the store to a door on the far side, labelled “Upper Showroom.” Together they climbed the stairs, and stepped out into a hallway that ran the length of the building. Aya led Briar passed a number of doors, with plaques labeling what kind of product was sold behind them. Briar saw signs for industrial equipment, kitchen fixtures, and transportation enhancement, before reaching a door marked “General Inquiries.” Aya pushed open the door without knocking and peered inside. “Oh good, she’s here.”

Aya led Briar inside the room, which turned out to be a decent sized office. Sitting behind a desk was an older woman with grey hair, who had stopped doing paperwork and looked up when Aya opened the door. Upon seeing the younger woman, she smiled and stood up from the desk. “Aya. Welcome back,” she said in a caring voice. “Did you recover the mistresses belongings?”

“Hi, Mary. Yeah, I got them,” sighed Aya, “but then the Kingdom’s damn Investigators pulled me in ‘to answer a few questions.’” She glared at Briar a little. “Come to think of it, that was your fault too, wasn’t it?”

“My apologies, Miss Firewheel. Unfortunately, you were the only person we could ask,” replied Briar calmly.

The older woman narrowed her eyes, looking directly at Briar for the first time. “Who is this?” she asked, with a cold tone in her voice.

Aya blinked, and realized she had forgotten his name. Something … Sevar? No, that wasn’t it …

Briar furrowed his brow slightly, once he realized that Aya wasn’t going to introduce him. Finally he said, “My name is Briar Sevon, a servant of House Fernifar. Under orders of my lord the Duke, as directed by King Eranimaus, I am investigating the attack on Miss Maledicta Foursquare in parallel with the Civil Investigations Unit. May I inquire–”

“No. You may not.” The grey-haired woman’s tone had dropped from cold to freezing, and she glared at Briar like she was staring at a sworn enemy. Her magical aura began to pulse as she began to ready herself for battle. “Get the hell out of my store.”

Aya’s mouth dropped open. “Mary, what–”

“Be silent, Aya. You, of all people, should have known better than to bring him here.” The glare the older woman gave Aya made her feel like the blood was freezing in her veins, and she snapped her mouth shut. She looked slightly desperately at Briar, wondering what he had said to provoke such a huge response.

Briar, however, did not change his expression. Without appearing intimidated by the grey-haired woman’s show of force, he continued, “Is Roger Bladefang present this evening?”

“No. Get out.”

Briar watched the woman’s eyes, and nodded. “Very well. Let him know that I wish to speak to him. I will return another day.”

“If you cross the threshold of my store again, I will kill you,” stated the woman without hesitation.

Briar raised his eyebrow. “I truly wouldn’t advise it, Miss Mary Lionstar. I currently represent the king, and my death might be seen as … disrespectful. I truly advise you not to test his patience.”

The woman, Mary Lionstar, sneered back at him. “You lie. Your damn King Eranimaus might be arrogant beyond all reason, but even he wouldn’t hand Maledicta’s investigation over to the man who works for the one who tried to kill her.”

“Wait, what?” shouted Aya, eyes flashing to Briar with a hint of betrayal. Briar didn’t look back at her, but stared with narrowed eyes. Slowly he reached inside his jacket, and pulled out a certain paper. Stepping forward into Lionstar’s harsh killing aura, he opened the king’s writ and placed it on her desk where she could read it, and then stepped away again. Without taking her eyes off the young man in front of her, Lionstar reached down and picked up the paper.

The woman scanned the page, and her face turned purple with rage. “This can’t be! They wouldn’t dare … No, this must be fake!” Suddenly her aura surged, and flames appeared around the arm that held the paper.

“No!” shouted Briar, lunging forward, but his hand was intercepted by Aya, who thought he was attacking Lionheart — and then it was too late.

Suddenly the paper in Lionheart’s hand released a harsh white light, and the flames she had tried to burn it with were all blown away. Where before her magical aura had been the strongest in the room, it was overwritten by an even more vast power in an instant. A crackle of lightning arced from the page to Lionheart’s forehead, and a strange, eldritch mark was engraved there. And then, the power withdrew, the light faded from the paper, and Mary Lionheart collapsed.

“No!” shrieked Aya, hurling herself over the desk to catch the older woman as she fell. Aya barely had the presence of mind to make sure her superior was still alive; but fortunately, after a moment Lionheart’s eyes fluttered back open. Aya clenched her teeth, and glared at Briar. “What did you do to her?” she cried, tears in her eyes.

Briar looked at the two women grimly, then sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, they only looked sad, and he walked slowly to the desk to pick up the paper Lionheart had dropped. “It’s called the King’s Seal for a reason, you see. Miss Lionheart’s life is not in danger — but she will not be able to use magic until the Seal is removed. Any magic.”

He did not want to keep looking at Aya’s tear-streaked face, so he turned his back on the two, and addressed the air. “I will have word sent to the castle. In my opinion, Miss Lionheart is not at fault, so the matter should be settled quickly. I understand the removal process can be … unpleasant, and I apologize for that.

“I will, at some point, need to speak with Roger Bladefang. Out of respect to Miss Lionheart’s feelings, I will not enter your store again, so please assist me in arranging a meeting on a more neutral ground. Of course, if he wishes to meet me at the Fernifar Estate, I would not object.”

Having said everything he intended to, he walked to the doorway, intending to leave. However, he paused at the door, and glanced back at the two women. Aya was still glaring at him, a painful mixture of anger, betrayal, and fear distorting her face. Lionstar’s expression, he couldn’t read, as it was too complex; he was sure she was still furious though.

He surprised himself by speaking again. “I must say, I’m disappointed. You have an excellent reputation, Mary Lionstar, as a person of intelligence and insight. I am … surprised … that you actually believe that Master Karis had anything to do with the attack on Miss Foursquare. I would have expected better of you.”

He turned away from the two, finishing, “Of all the people currently concerned for Miss Foursquare, I believe Master Karis is the most sincere.” With that, he finally left, closing the door behind him. His footsteps echoed forlornly as he walked back to the staircase. On his way, a number of people rushed past him, and he heard cries of anger from the room behind him. But no one gave him a single glance.

Maledicta’s room was neat and organized. Considering the occupant was heiress to a major and rich merchant family, it could only be seen as too small and cheap. There was a bed, a shelf for books, and a small writing desk by the window, as well as a set of drawers which no doubt held her clothing. The sole luxury was a thick, beautifully woven carpet on the floor, thick and welcoming. Honestly, Maledicta had a room at the Foursquare branch store out in the capital proper that was much more fitting for her station, but she had found that this small room was actually quite comfortable and conducive to her studies, and had privately theorized that the Academy insisted the students live on campus for just that reason.

Briar looked around approvingly. One thing he did appreciate about Maledicta was how she stayed organized all the time. This personality trait was reflected in her living quarters, and manifested as a neat attention to detail, where everything was in its place. Not only did Briar approve of this attitude personally, it also made it much easier for his spells to detect things that were out of place.

Behind him, Parrow spoke up. “I believe you already know, but Maledicta Foursquare was found, apparently dead, by a student of the Academy. She was lying prone, face down on that carpet. After that, she was evacuated by the academy’s medical emergency team, and the dorm head sealed the room until my people arrived. We discovered nothing of note, however, but we sealed the room ourselves to prevent any further contamination of the crime scene. We are still not sure how the poison entered her system, as medical examination found no wounds on Foursquare indicative of poisoned blades or needles, and there was no sign in her room of having brought food in or eaten. According to her people, she ate with Aya Firewheel that evening, in the living quarters at the Foursquare branch store, and Miss Firewheel confirms that she was well at that time. The cook at the store was questioned, but his high loyalty to Maledicta Foursquare was very obvious, so it is unlikely that her food was poisoned that night.”

“In other words,” said Briar quietly, “it is likely that something happened to her when she was here.”

He walked toward the window, carefully avoiding the carpet as he stepped gingerly across the room. The view outside wasn’t really worth mentioning, mostly consisting of the dorm’s rather sparse backyard. Briar noted that there were no convenient trees near the window, meaning that anyone seeking access would have to fly or cling to the side of the dorm. Certainly not impossible, but it would most likely stand out to anyone passing by, and Briar knew the Academy grounds were patrolled at night.

Investigator du Keylos spoke up, surprising Briar. “The windows are designed not to open wide enough to admit a body. Also, the building wards keep track of when they are opened and shut. According to the records, the window has not been opened in the past week.”

“Hmmm. But I see that the window is unlocked, even if it hasn’t been opened,” responded Briar.

“Yes,” said du Keylos in a neutral tone of voice.

Briar nodded to himself, then returned to face Parrow and du Keylos. “I am going to begin my investigation now. May I please request you to stand outside the doorway?”

Parrow grunted and complied. Du Keylos looked a little reluctant, but she left without saying anything as well. Briar turned away, and began to consider what to examine first. Deciding it would be easiest to examine the magical traces in the room, Briar began to verbalize the incantation for Magical Detection. This spell was common to all branches of magic, and merely sensitized the user to the presence of previous spellcasting. Normally, the spell would be most sensitive to magic types that matched the user’s specialities, but the Esoterica version used by Briar was a bit more robust.

Before Briar’s eyes, mists of various colors floated freely. Wisps of white Light magic, blue Water, and yellow Air made a complex pattern in several places in the room. Above the carpet, traces of gold and silver could be seen, representing Earth and Metal magic. Over the window, a faint shimmer could be seen, undoubtedly Seal magic maintaining the wards. And, just inside the door, a mix of purple and violet mist indicated the presence of Shadow and Darkness magic.

There was very little doubt that the Shadow and Darkness user had been Maldu dan Rettica. There was only the barest trace inside, but it continued into the hallway, where it lingered a bit more obviously. Briar wasn’t sure why it hadn’t been detected by the wards, and hoped he would get the opportunity to ask.

As for the Earth and Metal, it seemed likely to be the magic of Maledicta herself, something she invoked to fight the poison in her body. It lingered strongly on the carpet, which either indicated that it had been a powerful magic, or that it had been sustained over a great length of time.

By process of elimination, the Light, Air, and Water magics were likely to belong to the investigation team. The presence of Air and Water magic was not a surprise, as both were well suited to searching and detecting anomalies, but the Light magic was a surprise. While it could illuminate things unseen, it was far more likely to wipe out lingering traces if it were not handled with subtlety. Apparently there was a talented Light Mage in the Civil Investigations Unit.

As Briar looked at the scene, something began to nag at him. He could see the traces of recent magic quite easily, but they were too crisp. He realized he could not see the older, faded traces of commonly used magic that should be ubiquitous in spaces that are lived in. It was possible, barely, that Maledicta never used her magic in her own room, but it seemed quite unlikely.

Just as Briar was about to release his spell, something about the window caught his eye. Frowning, he moved over to the shimmering ward once more, and stared closely at it. Something about it seemed … strange. He looked over at the door, with it’s similar ward, and then back at the window. It was really hard to make out, but … the two wards didn’t match, in a way that was extremely hard to describe. Even Esoterica Magical Detection had its weaknesses; while the Common branches of magic were easy to distinguish, the Unique branches were much less distinct. Barrier and Seal magics were nearly indistinguishable from each other, for example. Space magic was more obvious, as it appeared as obvious lacerations floating in midair, but it was completely impossible to tell how strong it was. And there were numerous types of Unique magic that Briar had never been exposed to, so he had no idea how they would appear to him at all.

Briar stared at the window, and realized he was beginning to get a headache. That, too, was a clue. Finally realizing what he was looking at, he nodded once and began to release his Magical Detection spell. Once his vision returned to a semblance of normality, he returned to Parrow and du Keylos, who had been by this time joined by Sir Arata and Aya Firewheel.

“First of all, let me confirm one thing,” started Briar. “Investigators, the spells you used while searching for evidence were a combination of Water, Air, and Light magic, correct?”

Parrow narrowed his eyes over his glass of tea, which he had pulled out of midair while waiting for Briar to finish up. Du Keylos glanced at him, but when he didn’t react, she answered Briar, “I do believe the investigation team employed spells of those types, yes. You were able to tell what spells were used?”

“No, just the types of traces left,” denied Briar. “I could make a guess at how strong the spell was, but I don’t have any idea how the magic was used. Then setting aside the traces of the investigation team, there are two other points of interest. Well, four, but one is easily dismissable, and the other I want to wait on for a bit.”

Parrow said, while staring into his cup of tea, “What do you consider ‘easily dismissable’ if I may ask?”

“A source of mixed Shadow and Darkness magic entered the room, paused briefly, and then exited hurridly.”

Investigators Parrow and du Keylos both grimaced, and at the same time said, “Maldu dan Rettica.”

“Precisely.”

“It matches his story,” Sir Arata spoke up unexpectedly. “Are you certain he only entered, and didn’t touch anything inside?”

Briar shrugged. “He might have entered, cancelled his magics, rummaged around inside, and then recast them and left. But he doesn’t appear to have done so, as the traces seem to be contiguous. I’m sorry that I can’t be more certain,” he said apologetically. Sir Arata waved off his apology, and Briar continued with his report.

“The next point would be the carpet where Miss Foursquare was found. There are strong traces of both Earth and Metal magic, with the Metal predominating. I presume that these are the spells that Miss Foursquare used to preserve her life. Unless …” he trailed off as a thought struck him. “Investigator Parrow. Could there have been a magical component to the poison used on Miss Foursquare?”

Parrow’s frown deepened, and with a couple whispered words the teacup in his hands disappeared. “Now that is an interesting question. I’ve never heard of a poison that works by magic before, but I’m hardly an expert. Tair, once we’re done here, pass that one down the line, see what the medical team turned up. Hey, Firewheel,” he said, turning to Aya, “do you know anything about this? Did your mistress know some kind of life-saving spell made with Earth and Metal magic?”

“Hmph. I have no intention of giving Maledicta’s secrets to outsiders,” grumbled Aya. The encounter with Briar had scared her badly, and her expression was extremely sullen.

Before Parrow could get angry at the young woman, Briar interjected, “Would you mind answering a few less sensitive questions, then? I believe you will be instrumental to demonstrating my next point.”

Aya gave the young Esoterica mage a troubled look. She actually wanted nothing to do with him, but she didn’t want to be seen as weak in front of these people, so she gathered herself and said, “What do you want to know?”

“Very simply, did Miss Foursquare practice magic in this room? That is to say, did she use minor magics like illumination spells, or did she ever use the room for magical meditation?”

Aya blinked, then replied, “Of course. You can see that she didn’t keep any oil lamps or candles lit, since she handled a lot of paper at her desk. And she preferred to meditate here, rather than at home; she said there was less potential for distractions.”

“As expected,” nodded Briar. “She was — is, I should say, the very model of efficiency, and this would be a very efficient place to meditate. However, there are no traces of such meditation, or even of minor, convenient spells. Since Miss Firewheel says that she was not abstaining from magic in this room, I am forced to conclude that in the very recent past, all the magical traces in this room were forcibly cleansed.”

Parrow nodded slowly. “Yeah. Our team came to the same conclusion. And I’ll do you one better, Mr. Sevon: all the physical traces have been wiped out as well.”

“What do you mean, ‘physical traces’?” asked Briar with a sinking feeling.

“Fingerprints, footprints, smells, oils, the works. Any sign of human habitation from before Mr. dan Rettica stepped through the door, completely gone. We couldn’t even prove that Foursquare lived here, if her stuff wasn’t in the room.”

Aya’s eyes involuntarily widened. “How is that possible?”

Parrow sneered, “Yeah, let us know if you figure that out.” His voice was angry and frustrated. “I’ve never encountered something like this before. Whoever did this, they must have a really unusual Unique branch spell to rely on.”

The five stood quietly for a few moments. Finally, Sir Arata spoke up. “Is there anything else you can try, Sevon? It sounds like this is becoming a dead end.”

Investigator du Keylos said, “You said there was a fourth matter, as well? What did you mean by ‘put it off’?”

Briar nodded, “Yes, there’s one more magical anomaly in the room, and I think it would be easy for you to guess where. But there is something else I want to try before I talk about it.” He glanced at Aya Firewheel briefly, before continuing to address the investigators. “I have learned a certain Esoterica spell of … dubious utility, that may be of significant help in this situation. The effects are slightly hard to describe, but I should be able to determine if anything has changed inside the room in the recent past.”

Parrow raised an eyebrow. “That seems easy enough to describe.”

Briar hesitated, then reluctantly agreed, “I suppose. The problem with the spell, is that it requires me to be in a quasi-meditative state, leaving me quite vulnerable. Therefore–”

“Therefore you’d like us to keep an eye on each other, and make sure everyone stays out of the way,” Sir Arata cut in, chuckling. “No problem, kiddo, I’ll make sure Miss du Keylos here doesn’t stab you in the back while you’re not paying attention.” Investigator du Keylos glared at her old teacher, but didn’t say anything back. Meanwhile, Aya Firewheel was trying to decide if Briar’s words were actually aimed at her, while Investigator Parrow had once more pulled a cup out of nowhere, coffee this time, and was casually sipping the hot beverage. Briar was getting slightly jealous of Parrow’s apparent skill with Space branch magic, and wondered if his own atrociously bad ability for Space magic would allow him to use the convenient-looking spell.

He forced himself to set that aside, and after a nod to Sir Arata, he turned his back on the other four. He let his eyes lose focus, and began to feel the pulse of magic within his body and mind. With an act of will he synchronized the two separate beats, and began to spin his aura around an imaginary point in the center of his chest. This was the first step of magical meditation. Next, he touched the part of his magic that was aligned to Esoterica, and the distinctive features of that magical branch began to stain his aura.

In a technical sort of way, any Mage could theoretically cast any spell. A magical aura is made up of every type of magic at the same time, and the user simply needed to draw that type forth to power their spell. However, in every Mage there existed a sort of implicit bias; there would be branches of magic that they could call forth easily, and understand more deeply, while at the same time there would be branches that they could barely call forth at all. This bias, often known as ‘aspect’ or ‘talent’, shaped each individual Mage’s approach to magic, and knowing where a Mage is strong or weak could be invaluable information for defeating them.

The branches of magic known as ‘Common’ were easy to learn, comparatively, and it was easy to find teachers and incantations using them, and most mages had a talent for at least three or four of them. There were nine branches held to be Common, including Fire, Air, Water, Wood, Earth, Metal, Light, Shadow, and Darkness. Due to their typically overt effects, they were also known as the ‘Elemental’ magics, although that terminology was only common outside the Kingdom.

Alternately, there existed the ‘Unique’ branches of magic, such as Space, Barriers, and Seals. These were rarer magics to have a talent for, and they tended to be much harder to use than Common magics. These branches varied widely in utility and accessibility: with Space, on one hand, being both popular and useful, causing it to be widespread despite being a relatively rare aspect; on the other hand, the Illusions branch, being poorly thought of and extremely situational, was much harder to train in due to the relative absence of users. At the extreme edge, there were spells that were so unique that they didn’t seem to have a branch associated with them at all, or possibly were branches in and of themselves. These were extremely rare, and tended to be dangerous to the user in all sorts of different ways.

The Esoterica magic that Briar had learned from Duke Maes was one of these Unique branches, and one that was extraordinarily rare in the Kingdom; other than himself and the duke, he had heard of no other major practitioners of the strange magic in the Capital. There was one major reason for this: Esoterica was a very disturbing art to train in.

First of all, it forcibly increased the number of things its user could perceive, resulting in smells becoming more distinct, colors becoming brighter and more diverse, hearing enhanced into different registers, and the like. While on the surface this sounds like a good thing, for the most part Esoterica spells didn’t increase the user’s ability to understand these new sensations, resulting in effective paralysis while the would-be Esoterica Mage tries to understand what his senses were telling him. This dichotomy of senses only grew worse when the Mage was granted senses that humans did not originally have. It was fully possible for an Esoteric Mage to cast spells granting him the ability to sense hostile intent, or truth and lies, or the recent past, or the near future. But unless the Mage has trained a long time with these senses, he will most likely be unable to take advantage of the information they bring.

But even after learning to cope with extra senses, there is another big barrier to mastery of Esoterica: as the user becomes able to more closely observe the world around him, he will begin to feel that he is being observed as well. The stronger the spell, the more Esoterica magic gathered, and the stronger this oppressive feeling became. It was common for Esoterica Mages to become isolated and paranoid, especially if they tried to train too quickly. Thus, the only reason Briar was able to progress quickly in the Esoterica branch was due to secret meditation techniques passed on by Duke Maes, techniques that helped protect Briar’s mind from the side effects of Esoterica overuse.

But even these secret techniques could only reduce the burden, and not eliminate it. And so, as the subtle feeling of Esoterica magic spread through his body, Briar felt powerful and unfriendly eyes fall upon him. The sensation was uncomfortable, extremely so, but Briar ignored it with the ease of practice. He started the incantation for his spell, known as Nature’s Bent, and the magic spiraling around his body began to form unusual and eldritch patterns, brimming with mystical significance.

Slowly, the room around Briar began to change. The edges seemed to stretch, without actually moving or changing shape, and Briar knew he was experiencing a change in perception comparable to, but not exactly like, seeing into the recent past. But even that was deceptive; what he could see was something like an imprint, or like a path created by feet walking the same path day after day. He could now see what was in its customary place, and what was missing or disarrayed.

Carefully maintaining his altered consciousness, he looked over at Maledicta’s bookshelf. He could see several books and manuals, lined up neatly. At the same time, he could see which books were disturbed often, such as a manual on Metal spells, and a book of the history of the Kingdom. On the other hand, there were books that were nearly untouched, such as a book of official peerage as recognized by the King and Assembly. That tome, Briar was unfortunately familiar with as well, and he sympathized with Maledicta’s distaste for what was a thoroughly difficult reference book. Three books were missing from the shelf, although Briar could only tell their approximate size, and not their contents.

Moving over to Maledicta’s bed, he first examined the bag that had been carelessly tossed on top. Within, he discovered three books, two business manuals and a book of magical theory, which were undoubtedly the books missing from the bookshelf. As for the bed itself, he could tell that Maledicta slept here often, and that she moved around a lot during sleep. He could also tell that no one else slept with her, at least not recently, but he tried not to think about it too much, as it felt like a serious indelicacy to acknowledge the fact. Finally, he noted that she slept with a small blade under her pillow, although it was not there now.

Next he moved on to her chest of drawers. He had the feeling that someone behind him might have said something, but he held his meditative state, and the voice was quickly silenced. Irregardless, he poked through the various layers of clothes and undergarments, but nothing stood out particularly; there was nothing in particular missing, and the clothes were used enough that it was impossible to determine if anything specific was missing.

Finally he moved to the desk by the window. From what he could see, Maledicta kept it clear when she was not looking on it, so he only had a vague impression of books and papers and pens, all jumbled together. His eyes were drawn to the corner of the desk right under the window, then to the window itself, and he nodded to himself.

After ascertaining that a body had, indeed, been laying on the carpet for a not insignificant amount of time, and after checking under the bed and desk for anything of interest, he finally allowed Nature’s Bent to release, and dissipated the Esoterica Magic from his body. He felt the sensation of being watched dim and dissipate, and allowed himself a small sigh of relief. After waiting a few more moments, to make sure his mind had stabilized, he turned once more to the people waiting in the doorway.

Investigator Parrow watched Briar’s movement’s closely. Noting the young man’s slightly grim expression, he said, “You found something.” It was not a question.

Briar nodded, but said, “First things first. Miss Firewheel, are you familiar with Miss Foursquare’s room and habits?”

Aya frowned, but nodded. “I helped her move in, and I stop by every so often to check on her. For her family, you see,” she added quickly.

“Then, are you aware that she sleeps with a knife under her pillow?” As Aya’s eyes widened, he continued, “Is that a common habit of hers, or was it something she started recently?”

“Um, she always has one when she’s away from home, but … You can tell that much?” Aya was beginning to lose her self-control after the continued shocks that this man could deliver.

Ignoring her question, Briar turned back to Parrow. “The knife is not currently under her pillow. Was a small dagger of about this size,” he gestured with his hands, “found on Miss Foursquare’s person?”

Parrow sipped his coffee, then deliberately turned to du Keylos, who answered, “Yes, she had a small stiletto strapped to her lower leg. Upon checking, it had no poison on it, and it was not magically enhanced or attuned, so it was returned upon the request of Foursquare’s people. Is it important?”

“Probably not,” confirmed Briar. “My next question, however, could be very important indeed. Miss Firewheel.”

“W-what?” said Aya, suddenly feeling very nervous. Briar’s gaze was suddenly very intense, and she almost reflexively started using Reinforcement magic to protect her mind, just in case he decided to use Soul Prism on her again.

“You already said that you stop by this room, correct? Have you been by recently?”

“Just five days ago, yes,” agreed Aya warily. She didn’t know where this was going, and she was beginning to feel trapped. She glanced nervously behind her, only to see Sir Arata standing, non-threatening, but quite close.

“Then I would like you to stand there and take a look at the room, Miss Firewheel, and tell me what’s missing.” Briar watched her closely as she glanced around the room.

“… Maledicta usually kept her bag by the desk, not on her bed, but otherwise it looks like it normally does.”

“Really? Are you certain?” Briar asked with narrowed eyes.

“Positive.”

“Then,” asked Briar, “what about the potted plant on her desk, by the window?”

Aya’s eyes flared wide. “What plant? Mal didn’t have a plant!”

“Oh, really,” drawled Briar, his face grim. “But according to my spell, it had sat there for at least two weeks, possibly longer.”

“There must be something wrong with your spell, then! Mal didn’t care for decorative plants, she prefered clean surfaces to work on!”

To her surprise, Briar nodded. “I believe you.” He then addressed the Investigators, and said, “So this is what I found: a plant, which Miss Firewheel had never seen yet had sat on Miss Foursquare’s desk for some time; and a window, which according to the building security had not been opened recently, but according to my spell most definitely had been. You asked me,” he said, looking at du Keylos, “about the fourth point of concern I found when examining the traces of magic left in this room. I’ll tell you now: it appears that the Seals magic on the window has been compromised.” He grimaced. “By Illusion magic.”

“Fuck,” growled Sir Arata, who had been half-expecting this conclusion based on Briar’s actions. The two Investigators gave each other a meaningful glance, and Parrow made his cup disappear again. He glared at Briar as he held his empty hands loosely in front of him.

“You’re sure?”

Briar nodded, then shook his head. “As for the window, I’m sure it was opened in the last three days. My guess would be that the plant was removed at that time. Although the window doesn’t open wide enough to admit a body, an arm would be able to reach in and take a small item. As for the ward,” he shrugged, “it’s difficult to say. Illusion magic is difficult to pin down at the best of times, but it’s the best explanation I have for the feeling I get when I look at that ward.”

Aya Firewheel was feeling a mix of relief since she was no longer the center of attention, and confusion at everyone else’s reaction. “Why … what’s the problem with Illusion magic? I know it’s rare, but …”

It was Sir Arata who replied to her question. “Miss Firewheel, there is a certain organization within the Capital known for having a penchant for Illusion magic, and if they are involved, the situation has become extremely complicated. Sevon, no offense, but I’m going to get some experts in to verify your claims about the window. I’m really hoping you’re wrong, but … fuck.” He shook his head, a grim look on his face.

Parrow had a matching look on his own face. “Aya Firewheel, we’re done here. Go ahead and gather up your mistress’ stuff, and then I’ll have you accompany us back to C.I.U. Let’s dig into your mind a bit and see if we can tell anything about Mr. Sevon’s so-called plant.”

“What? No!” cried Aya with a sudden fear. Obviously she wouldn’t want anyone trying to invade her mind. “I won’t let you!”

“Please calm down, Miss Firewheel,” soothed du Keylos. She glared at Parrow, and said, “Sir, please stop phrasing things in ways that give people the wrong idea. It sounded like you were going to crack her head open and start rummaging around inside.”

Parrow’s grim expression faded a bit, replaced by a crooked smile. “No? Well, I guess we’ll make that plan B, then.”

Du Keylos rolled her eyes. “Shut up, sir. Miss Firewheel, we have no intention of actually trying to read your thoughts. What we want to do is enhance your mind, and try to bring out details that you may have missed. You are a Reinforcement Mage, correct? We can even teach you the spell we would use. It will be completely safe.”

“Yes, it’s not like we were going to use Esoterica on you, after all,” said Parrow mock-cheerfully, glancing sidelong at Briar. The Esoterica Mage smiled quietly at the jab, but did not otherwise respond.

Aya continued to glare at the three of them. “I suppose I have no way to refuse, right?” Her accent was thicker than usual.

“Right,” nodded Parrow.

Not right,” snapped du Keylos, glaring at Parrow. “You’re worse than Sir Arata sometimes, you know that?”

Parrow winced. “Ouch,” he murmured. The old knight simply grinned, having recovered his good humor watching Parrow and du Keylos argue. Suddenly, Briar cleared his throat, and everyone looked at him.

“Miss Firewheel,” he said, “I am going to the Civil Investigations building as well, to record a statement of my findings.”

“You are?” muttered Parrow, but du Keylos quickly shushed him.

“If you like, I can accompany you to assure that no harm comes to you,” continued Briar. His face revealed nothing but a cool compassion.

Aya glared at him in return. “You’re even scarier than they are.”

Briar blinked. He wasn’t sure how he was comparing unfavorably with a group of people that could incarcerate and interrogate prisoners with impunity. Sir Arata laughed at his expression. “You did use Soul Prism on her, young man.”

“But it was quite low level. It should not have done permanent damage to her,” protested Briar.

“That is not reassuring,” said Aya in a voice that was nearly a sob. How had she gotten mixed up with these crazy people?

Sir Arata laughed again, but then he looked at Aya with compassion. “Actually, young lady, Mr. Sevon is a very reliable person, who would certainly ensure that no harm comes to you. For that matter, he belongs to the Fernifar household, meaning that if anyone tries to harm you while under his protection, they will have to deal with House Fernifar,” he concluded cheerfully.

“House Fernifar … Wait, Ducal House Fernifar?” Once again Aya paled, realizing that she had attacked someone extremely influential.

“Please relax, Miss Firewheel. I am merely a servant of House Fernifar, and not of any particular importance,” said Briar calmly.

“Sure, sure, not important at all,” agreed Sir Arata. “It’s not like you are secretly the personal disciple of Duke Maes himself, and inheritor of some of his most insidious magics.”

Investigator Parrow did a double take. “What, seriously!?” He looked from the seraphically smiling knight to the young man glaring at him. He suddenly felt like he had taken Briar too lightly. “I thought you were just the attendant of his crippled son …”

“Um. If it’s supposed to be a secret, should I be hearing this?” asked Aya weakly.

“Oh, probably not,” said Sir Arata, not losing a bit of his smile.

“I’m gonna die …” moaned Aya, staggering a bit on her feet.

“You’ll be fine, Miss Firewheel,” insisted Briar. “Sir Arata is wholly exaggerating –”

“Come to think of it, Duke Maes is an Esoterica Mage as well, isn’t he.” Parrow was muttering aloud to himself. “This explains why the king is backing him so easily … No wonder I can’t get him removed from the investi–”

“WILL YOU ALL SHUT THE HELL UP!!” A loud voice roared out, frightening Aya, shocking Briar, and causing Parrow to jump slightly. Even Sir Arata’s smile became a bit wry as he and the others turned to face the woman who had just silenced the chaotic conversation. Teir du Keylos’ face was flushed with rage, and she glared at the other four as though they had just mortally insulted her entire family.

“I am a very busy woman, mostly because my captain is almost completely useless,” here Parrow flinched a bit, but she paid no attention and continued, “and I do not need to listen to any more complaints, meaningless babble, or a certain old man’s attempts to upset people. Sir Arata, go figure out what’s wrong with that window, and report back to me immediately. Miss Firewheel, collect the things you came for now. And as for you two,” she rounded on Briar and Parrow, “there will be no need to protect Miss Firewheel, because the issue will not arise! Do I make myself clear!?” she finished with a shout.

“As crystal, ma’am,” answered Briar, thoroughly cowed. Investigator Parrow said nothing, but he had a mysteriously warm smile as he looked back at du Keylos. Meanwhile behind them, Aya had ran into Maledicta’s former room and muttered a spell that created a warped space near her left hand, which she used to vacuum up books from her bookshelf, clothes from her dresser, and the bag left on her bed, finishing with the beautiful carpet on the floor. She didn’t go near the desk or the window, just in case.

“Done,” she said breathlessly, apparently having forgotten that she was trying to avoid going to the Civil Investigations Unit. Investigator du Keylos nodded briskly, and marched the other three down the hallway on the way out of the dorm.

Behind them stood Sir Arata, shaking his head and smiling a warm smile. “I warned them she had a temper,” he said happily to himself, and then he too walked briskly off to carry out his duties.

The Civil Investigations Unit was based in a government building in the Royal District of the Capital. As was typical in this city, the architectural style did not match the buildings around it. It was low, squat, and depressing, made of dark grey stone, and looked a little like a prison, contrasting with a magnificent wooden mansion on its left and a tall metal tower on its right. It was fairly obvious that Civil Investigations would not be a comfortable government job.

This was Briar’s second visit, and he had found that the inside was a lot more comfortable than the exterior would suggest. The hallways were wide, the various rooms and offices were warm, and he had discovered today that the food in the canteen was surprisingly good. He had gotten his hands on a bowl of stew, and he ate slowly while considering the things he had learned today. Above him, large glass skylights revealed the darkening sky.

Suddenly, a body collapsed into the seat across from him and slumped onto the table. Briar looked down at Aya Firewheel, who had her eyes shut as she lay exhausted on the table. The young Mage couldn’t help but feel a bit of sympathy.

“Are you all right, Miss Firewheel?”

“No,” muttered Aya without opening her eyes. “That has to be the most painful experience I’ve ever had. My head is splitting, I feel like my eyes are going to bleed.”

Briar looked at the young woman for a few moments, and then reached into his pocket and pulled out something wrapped in paper, which he opened. “Chew this.”

Aya cracked open an eye, and looked blearily at the small object Briar held. “What is it?”

“Taper Root. It’s a mental stabilizer.”

“Why the hell are you carrying around a mental stabilizer?” groaned Aya, shutting her eye again.

Briar gave a little twisted smile, which Aya failed to see. “Esoterica is not exactly a painless magic to practice.”

There was silence between the two for nearly a minute, then Aya said, “Fine, give me the damn thing.”

Briar set the ugly-looking root in Aya’s hand, and she tossed it in her mouth. Chewing a couple times, her eyes popped open. “It’s … actually kinda tasty.”

“Indeed,” responded Briar. “Chew it carefully for half a minute, and then spit it out.”

Aya stopped chewing. “What happens after half a minute?” she asked, worriedly.

“Chew,” insisted Briar. Once she had started chewing again, he answered her, “It can start to affect your balance, and eventually make you fall unconscious, if you chew it too long.”

“Not reassuring,” muttered Aya, chewing discontentedly.

“But your head already feels better, doesn’t it?” replied Briar calmly.

“Nh?” Aya realized that her headache had cleared up quite a bit, in an extremely short amount of time. “Wow … seriously, what is this stuff?”

“Here, put it back in this paper,” urged Briar. After receiving back the slightly chewed root, he wrapped it carefully in its paper and gave it back to the young woman. “Taper Root is mainly grown up North, where it is carefully cultivated for its mental stabilizing properties. It’s a bit expensive, but you can keep that piece to confirm what I have told you.”

“Oh … Er, thanks.” Her head had been pounding too hard to realize it, but Aya had followed Briar’s words without even considering the possibility that he would try to harm her. She secretly broke out in a cold sweat, and swore to herself that she would find out everything about Tapir Root, and whether or not what she was holding was, in fact, Tapir Root, as soon as possible.

Briar nodded back to her thanks. “It is nothing. I’ve been in a similar state myself, any number of times. So tell me,” he continued, his tone becoming more formal, “was there any result, Miss Firewheel?”

“Result? Oh. Not really,” she said with a frown. “Even after everything that damn woman put me through, I’m not sure there was really anything there. I can positively say that I never saw a plant in that room, though, even after that woman made me cast a spell that she said would let me remember things I was forced to forget. That’s where the headache came from, by the way.”

Briar nodded. “Mental-designated Reinforcement Magic, Focused Recall. Or more likely a derivative, since Focused Recall is not very effective. I have sympathy for you, Miss Foursquare. I know a similar spell for Esoterica magic that I could have used on you to a similar effect, although,” Briar smiled grimly, “the consequences would be a little more severe than a headache.”

“Then feel free not to cast it,” snapped Aya, slightly angrily. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure that nothing was placed on that corner of her desk, but that doesn’t really mean much. Maledicta was … is very meticulous about not letting her workspace get cluttered.”

“I could see that,” nodded Briar. “Did Investigators Parrow or du Keylos have anything else to ask you?”

“Not really,” she replied. “That Parrow guy left with you and didn’t come back, so it was just du Keylos and another woman Investigator who didn’t introduce herself, who cast a couple spells on me and taught me that damn ‘Recall’ spell, or whatever it was. They asked me a couple things about the magic Maledicta uses, but they didn’t push too hard when I didn’t tell them anything.”

“Mm. They are being fairly gentle, as expected,” said Briar, nodding to himself.

“This is gentle, is it?” complained Aya. “I’m not even from this damn Kingdom. I’m an important adjunct of an extremely powerful family, and I’m being pulled in for questioning like a common thief.”

“Oh, yes, Miss Firewheel, this is gentle. Were you a common citizen of Reclamation Kingdom, the Civil Investigations Unit would not stop at a few innocuous questions. If you were a noble, they would have to step more lightly, at least at first. But in this situation …” Briar narrowed his eyes. “Once the king starts calling for results, even the noble houses will have to bend their heads. Or lose them.”

Aya’s eyes widened. “Sir Arata mentioned that too … Why would the king care? I mean, Maledicta is important back home, but here she’s just another student, right?”

Briar shook his head. “That’s the Academy’s stance, not the Kingdom’s. The Kingdom, or rather the king and the Assembly, are much more pragmatic. Considering the wealth and reach of the Foursquare Cartel, Maledicta Foursquare is a foreign princess for all intents and purposes. Her death in our Academy would result in the worst diplomatic incident in nearly a century, and would possibly end up with the Kingdom at war with at least two other countries. Actually, it’s still fairly terrible even though she survived. I’m actually surprised you didn’t already know this,” he said curiously.

“Ah. I’ve … never paid much attention to politics,” muttered Aya, embarrassed. “It sounds like you have a pretty good grasp of things, though.”

Briar hesitated, then admitted, “Not really. I spend an inordinate amount of time in personal meditation, so I don’t pay attention to anything not connected to the Fernifar House. Most of what I told you was explained to me by my master, who’s much better at seeing the big picture than I.”

“You mean Duke Maes? As one of the top nobles, I suppose he’d have to keep track of things like that.”

Briar was about to explain to the young woman that it was actually Karis who had explained the consequences of Maledicta’s near-assassination to him, but before he opened his mouth he realized that would just make Aya ask more questions he would certainly not want to answer. So instead, he just nodded and said, “Well, since the investigators have released you, shall I see to it that you get back home safely?”

“Huh?” Aya blinked.

“I told you before that I would accompany you to make certain that you would return safely, did I not?”

“Er … Sort of?” Aya shook herself, then gave Briar a hard stare. “I don’t need an escort. I can take care of myself, and I don’t trust you.”

Briar’s expression didn’t change. “I don’t expect you to trust me. But I did promise that you would get back safely, so please allow me to accompany you.”

“No,” flatly denied Aya.

Briar’s eyes narrowed slightly. After a moment, he said, “Very well. I do have another motive in following you. I have been instructed to speak with Mr. Roger Bladefang, and now would be a decent time for me to do so.”

Aya eyed him warily, and told him, “I doubt he’ll talk to you. Captain Bladefang is a pretty private person, even at a normal time, which this isn’t.”

“I understand that,” said Briar firmly. “But I have to ask. It is my duty.”

The two sat in silence for a while, as Aya studied Briar’s expressionless face. Finally, she muttered an agreement, and pushed herself abruptly to her feet. Briar nodded his thanks, and after returning his half-eaten stew to the canteen staff, the two left.

As they were leaving the building, an Investigator Briar had not met before called out to him, and passed him a folded note. It read, About 60% chance that something was on the corner of the desk for the past two months. The note was signed with du Keylos’ name. Briar nodded, thanked the Investigator, and placed the note in his pocket, ignoring Aya’s curious gaze.

The man who became the First King of the Reclamation Kingdom, not long after the defeat of the last Mage Tyrant, commissioned the construction of the city that became the Capital. He gathered hundreds of displaced craftsmen, and paid the entirety of several fortunes to pay thousands of laborers, freed from the whims of the Tyrants and hopeful for a new life, to build a gigantic city.

Those craftsmen had been from all over the world, and their ideas of what constituted an appropriate and beautiful building were widely varying. The First King, rather than establishing a certain style, encouraged the many craftsmen to experiment, and supplied all sorts of different materials to the highly enthusiastic builders. The result was a horrifyingly mismatched and phantasmagoria-esque cityscape that gave most observers the impression that it was built piecemeal from the remains of innumerable other cities. Some of the houses in the Noble District were so idiosyncratic, it was hard to believe they were ever intended for human habitation.

Many people over the years had criticized the First King for letting such a ridiculous eyesore of a city become his Capital, but many of it residents loved the sheer exuberance of the display. Briar Sevon was one of them; he had grown up in the Capital, albeit in the Common district where residences were more subdued, and the chaotic cityscape was not mysterious to him at all. Aya Firewheel, on the other hand, had only arrived in the Capital six months before, when Maledicta had entered the War, Magic, and Commerce Academy. While she had grown to understand the major roads through the Merchant District, and the path to the Academy, she was still likely to get quite confused and lost if she ended up anywhere else.

So it ended up quite fortunate that Briar was willing to guide her back to the Foursquare branch store, although she got extremely nervous once she realized she had no idea where she was. Aya was still slightly frightened of Briar, and she couldn’t help but worry that he was leading her into a trap. Surreptitiously, she started mustering her defensive spells, using only silent incantations to avoid alerting the Esoterica Mage.

Briar, however, made no suspicious actions, and in a few minutes Aya was starting to see unique buildings that she recognized, and she gave a quiet sigh of relief. At least if he tried anything now, she could at least run home on her own.

As she was thinking that thought, Briar suddenly spoke up, causing her to jump. “Miss Firewheel, I was wondering something. Are you a friend of Miss Foursquare?”

“… I am Maledicta’s assistant and bodyguard, assigned by her father, Timon Foursquare. We have a professional relationship, nothing more.”

“Really?” responded Briar idly. “It seemed like your relationship was closer, that’s all. You were quite upset when you felt the Investigators weren’t taking the case seriously.”

“Well, of course,” said Aya irritably. “She’s my employer, after all, and I’m supposed to protect her interests. And the interests of the Foursquare Cartel, of course,” she added as an afterthought.

“I see,” murmured Briar. Then, “You called her ‘Mal,’ you know.”

“I– I did? I mean … I don’t remember doing that,” said Aya, suddenly blushing and flustered.

“Oh? Well, maybe it was my imagination,” said Briar soothingly.

“I’m sure it was,” Aya said firmly.

The two walked on. Aya glanced at Briar’s face from time to time, but she couldn’t figure out what he was thinking behind his expressionless face. Finally, she spoke up again. “Why do you ask?”

“No reason. Just curious,” responded Briar absently. She frowned at his non-answer, but before she could pursue the question, he actually continued. “You remind me a bit of myself, I think.”

This startled Aya quite a bit, who had no idea what he was talking about. “How so?” she asked, legitimately curious.

He didn’t answer for a long time, but just as she thought he wasn’t going to answer at all, he spoke. “Miss Firewheel, you have been assigned to work closely with Maledicta Foursquare, but … as you said, the one who assigned you to her was Mr. Timon Foursquare, her father. In other words, you are not someone she chose for herself, and that makes a wall between you two. Furthermore … Master Karis explained to me that Miss Foursquare is not the only possible heir to the Foursquare Cartel. She has a younger brother, and at least two cousins in the line of succession, correct?”

“… Yes.”

“And so, your instructions are not only to guard Miss Foursquare, but to watch her. To make sure she behaves in the way her father expects her to. To make sure she is … worthy, of being heir.” Seeing Aya’s expression stiffen, he quickly added, “You don’t need to confirm or deny it, this is just me speculating a bit. I suppose you could consider it a bad habit I picked up from my master …”

Aya did not respond.

“Your relationship with your young mistress, reminds me of my own situation, that’s all. I am ordered to watch over and assist Master Karis, but I have also been tasked with watching his actions. If he starts to act outside the boundaries his father set for him, I am the one who will bring him back into line. If necessary, to drag his broken body back to Duke Maes to answer for his actions. That’s a direct quote, incidentally,” he added, slightly bitterly. “Duke Maes is not especially gentle, even to his own flesh and blood.

“And so, even though I’m the closest person to Master Karis, I will never quite be his friend. I just hope he never sees me as his jailor … Seeing you today, Miss Firewheel, I felt like I was seeing someone who had the same feelings I had. Please forgive me for my presumption.”

The two walked along, not looking at each other. As they turned on to the main street leading to the Foursquare branch store, Aya said, “Hey.”

“What is it, Miss Firewheel?”

“Could you knock it off, with the “Miss” thing? It’s really annoying.”

Briar raised his eyebrow. “Really? How should I address you, then?”

“Just call me Aya. It’s my name, after all,” Aya said, staring straight ahead.

Briar laughed, but didn’t answer her back.

The Foursquare branch store in the capital was a large building, even for the Merchant district. The sign posted by the door gave the rather prosaic name: “Foursquare Magical Goods”. The building itself was anything but prosaic, however. It had four floors, each slightly taller than one would expect, and each floor was constructed from stone of a different color. The first floor was made a jade-green stone, and carved with many fantastic plants and trees; the second floor was rust-red, and decorated with various wild animals; the third floor was an unusual deep blue, and covered with frescos of powerful monsters and divine beings. Finally, the fourth floor above all the rest was made of a pure white stone rivaling marble, and carved into its facade were scenes of men pursuing various crafts, like blacksmithing and farming.

“My goodness. I’ve never been to your store before, but it certainly is impressive, isn’t it?” said Briar admiringly.

“Give me a break,” muttered Aya, flushing slightly. “I’m embarrassed to be living in it. How ostentatious can you get? Whoever built this city was obviously crazy …”

“Enthusiastic, rather,” disagreed Briar with a certain amount of cheer. “Perhaps you will get to see the Fernifar estate, someday. I assure you, Foursquare Magical Goods looks perfectly benign in comparison.”

Aya looked at Briar sidelong, then shook her head. “Come on, let’s find out if Captain Bladefang is here. He’s been in and out a lot the past couple days.”

“Because of Miss Foursquare?” asked Briar.

“For the most part,” nodded Aya. “He’s one of the few people who knows where she’s being treated, after all.”

Briar, noticing that she seemed depressed, asked her, “Were you not told where she is being kept? You are her bodyguard, after all.”

Aya shook her head. “Captain Bladefang is the only one who knows where she is. He said that the less people know, the better.”

Briar narrowed his eyes. “Did you consider tailing him, just to make sure?”

Aya’s eyes widened, and she almost whispered in reply, “Of course not! The Captain would notice me instantly, and he’s the most dangerous person I’ve ever met!”

“What, more dangerous than ‘Twice-Dead’ Arata?” asked Briar, slightly bemused.

“I’ve never met ‘Twice-Dead’, so why would I consider him?” said Aya, perplexed.

Briar stopped and gave her a flat look. She looked back at him, uncomprehending. Eventually he said, dryly, “You met him just earlier, you know.”

Aya blinked, and thought back to the people she had met that day. Guw Parrow and Tair du Keylos from the Investigators, Briar Sevon who was standing right in front of her, and the old knight who seemed to be in charge of Security at the Academy. He hadn’t introduced himself, but du Keylos had addressed him a couple times as … Sir Arata …

Briar watched, amused, as the color drained from Aya’s face. She opened and closed her mouth a couple times, before finally blurting out, “But…! I thought he was just in charge of their security…!”

Briar nodded, “Well, yes, he is the head of Security at the Academy. But they wouldn’t give that job to just anyone, you know. He also teaches a bit,” he added cheerfully.

Aya swayed on her feet a bit, and Briar prepared himself to catch her if she actually collapsed. But the moment of weakness seemed to pass, and Aya stood up straight again, although her face remained pale. “… Yes. He was scary too. I just didn’t realize quite how scary he actually was.”

Briar smiled slightly, and said, “There’s no need to be afraid, Miss Firewheel. Sir Arata is actually a quite understanding person. I’m sure he took no offense at your distemperate words.”

“Easy for you to say,” grumbled Aya. Oddly, she did feel a bit better at Briar’s reassurance, but wasn’t willing to admit it. “And I told you to knock it off with the ‘Miss’ stuff.”

Briar smile broadened a bit, and he gestured at the store entrance they were standing before. “Shall we?”

Inside, the first floor was a well-organized showroom of common, everyday items, including tools and products both magical and mundane. A series of black wooden pillars held up the ceiling, and shelves and tables stretched in rows between them. Anything an average household might need was on sale in this place. Looking around, Briar mused, “Interesting. I thought the Foursquare Cartel specialized in high-end goods, but these look mostly affordable.”

“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘affordable’, but things like weapons and dangerous and rare tools are sold on the second floor. Down here is just everyday stuff, you know?” replied Aya absently. She was looking around, as if trying to find someone. The store was mostly empty, with only a few staff working with the remaining customers before closing up for the day. Seeing everyone else was busy, Aya sighed and said, “Follow me.”

The two passed through the store to a door on the far side, labelled “Upper Showroom.” Together they climbed the stairs, and stepped out into a hallway that ran the length of the building. Aya led Briar passed a number of doors, with plaques labeling what kind of product was sold behind them. Briar saw signs for industrial equipment, kitchen fixtures, and transportation enhancement, before reaching a door marked “General Inquiries.” Aya pushed open the door without knocking and peered inside. “Oh good, she’s here.”

Aya led Briar inside the room, which turned out to be a decent sized office. Sitting behind a desk was an older woman with grey hair, who had stopped doing paperwork and looked up when Aya opened the door. Upon seeing the younger woman, she smiled and stood up from the desk. “Aya. Welcome back,” she said in a caring voice. “Did you recover the mistresses belongings?”

“Hi, Mary. Yeah, I got them,” sighed Aya, “but then the Kingdom’s damn Investigators pulled me in ‘to answer a few questions.’” She glared at Briar a little. “Come to think of it, that was your fault too, wasn’t it?”

“My apologies, Miss Firewheel. Unfortunately, you were the only person we could ask,” replied Briar calmly.

The older woman narrowed her eyes, looking directly at Briar for the first time. “Who is this?” she asked, with a cold tone in her voice.

Aya blinked, and realized she had forgotten his name. Something … Sevar? No, that wasn’t it …

Briar furrowed his brow slightly, once he realized that Aya wasn’t going to introduce him. Finally he said, “My name is Briar Sevon, a servant of House Fernifar. Under orders of my lord the Duke, as directed by King Eranimaus, I am investigating the attack on Miss Maledicta Foursquare in parallel with the Civil Investigations Unit. May I inquire–”

“No. You may not.” The grey-haired woman’s tone had dropped from cold to freezing, and she glared at Briar like she was staring at a sworn enemy. Her magical aura began to pulse as she began to ready herself for battle. “Get the hell out of my store.”

Aya’s mouth dropped open. “Mary, what–”

“Be silent, Aya. You, of all people, should have known better than to bring him here.” The glare the older woman gave Aya made her feel like the blood was freezing in her veins, and she snapped her mouth shut. She looked slightly desperately at Briar, wondering what he had said to provoke such a huge response.

Briar, however, did not change his expression. Without appearing intimidated by the grey-haired woman’s show of force, he continued, “Is Roger Bladefang present this evening?”

“No. Get out.”

Briar watched the woman’s eyes, and nodded. “Very well. Let him know that I wish to speak to him. I will return another day.”

“If you cross the threshold of my store again, I will kill you,” stated the woman without hesitation.

Briar raised his eyebrow. “I truly wouldn’t advise it, Miss Mary Lionstar. I currently represent the king, and my death might be seen as … disrespectful. I truly advise you not to test his patience.”

The woman, Mary Lionstar, sneered back at him. “You lie. Your damn King Eranimaus might be arrogant beyond all reason, but even he wouldn’t hand Maledicta’s investigation over to the man who works for the one who tried to kill her.”

“Wait, what?” shouted Aya, eyes flashing to Briar with a hint of betrayal. Briar didn’t look back at her, but stared with narrowed eyes. Slowly he reached inside his jacket, and pulled out a certain paper. Stepping forward into Lionstar’s harsh killing aura, he opened the king’s writ and placed it on her desk where she could read it, and then stepped away again. Without taking her eyes off the young man in front of her, Lionstar reached down and picked up the paper.

The woman scanned the page, and her face turned purple with rage. “This can’t be! They wouldn’t dare … No, this must be fake!” Suddenly her aura surged, and flames appeared around the arm that held the paper.

“No!” shouted Briar, lunging forward, but his hand was intercepted by Aya, who thought he was attacking Lionheart — and then it was too late.

Suddenly the paper in Lionheart’s hand released a harsh white light, and the flames she had tried to burn it with were all blown away. Where before her magical aura had been the strongest in the room, it was overwritten by an even more vast power in an instant. A crackle of lightning arced from the page to Lionheart’s forehead, and a strange, eldritch mark was engraved there. And then, the power withdrew, the light faded from the paper, and Mary Lionheart collapsed.

“No!” shrieked Aya, hurling herself over the desk to catch the older woman as she fell. Aya barely had the presence of mind to make sure her superior was still alive; but fortunately, after a moment Lionheart’s eyes fluttered back open. Aya clenched her teeth, and glared at Briar. “What did you do to her?” she cried, tears in her eyes.

Briar looked at the two women grimly, then sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, they only looked sad, and he walked slowly to the desk to pick up the paper Lionheart had dropped. “It’s called the King’s Seal for a reason, you see. Miss Lionheart’s life is not in danger — but she will not be able to use magic until the Seal is removed. Any magic.”

He did not want to keep looking at Aya’s tear-streaked face, so he turned his back on the two, and addressed the air. “I will have word sent to the castle. In my opinion, Miss Lionheart is not at fault, so the matter should be settled quickly. I understand the removal process can be … unpleasant, and I apologize for that.

“I will, at some point, need to speak with Roger Bladefang. Out of respect to Miss Lionheart’s feelings, I will not enter your store again, so please assist me in arranging a meeting on a more neutral ground. Of course, if he wishes to meet me at the Fernifar Estate, I would not object.”

Having said everything he intended to, he walked to the doorway, intending to leave. However, he paused at the door, and glanced back at the two women. Aya was still glaring at him, a painful mixture of anger, betrayal, and fear distorting her face. Lionstar’s expression, he couldn’t read, as it was too complex; he was sure she was still furious though.

He surprised himself by speaking again. “I must say, I’m disappointed. You have an excellent reputation, Mary Lionstar, as a person of intelligence and insight. I am … surprised … that you actually believe that Master Karis had anything to do with the attack on Miss Foursquare. I would have expected better of you.”

He turned away from the two, finishing, “Of all the people currently concerned for Miss Foursquare, I believe Master Karis is the most sincere.” With that, he finally left, closing the door behind him. His footsteps echoed forlornly as he walked back to the staircase. On his way, a number of people rushed past him, and he heard cries of anger from the room behind him. But no one gave him a single glance.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5

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