NaNoWriMo ’16, Part 5

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!

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5

The silence hung heavily in the large room. Beneath them, the capital appeared to be having an active night, as usual. Magical crystals lit the streets and corners, allowing men and women to walk with a certain assurance, if not perfect safety. For some reason, Briar focused on these distant movements, which seemed far too rational for the story he had just heard. Meanwhile, the Kaiken watched him calmly, his gaze strong but not pressing. He knew that Briar would need time to process what he had just been told.

In the end, Briar took the most expedient method for dealing with the situation: he chose to ignore it. “I was asked to visit you, sir, in order to inquire whether the Gatebreaker Guild had anything to do with the near-fatal poisoning of Maledicta Foursquare, or if you had any insight into the same. Please tell me, if you can, and I’ll be on my way.”

The Kaiken made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. “You, of all people, are not going to be able to ignore the implications of my story, Briar. I will tell you what I know of Miss Foursquare’s situation, but in return, I need you to think about what I just told you.”

“I don’t think it has anything to do with me,” spoke Briar coldly. “I am a servant of Duke Maes du Migel dan Fernifar, and I have no intention of working for anyone else. If that is the price of whatever information you have, then I will take my leave now.”

The Kaiken peered at Briar, frowning slightly. “How stubborn. I can’t allow you to ignore this, Briar Sevon. There is work to be done, and you will be the person to do it.”

Briar sneered as he said, “You say that like I don’t have a choice in the matter.”

“You don’t,” replied the Kaiken firmly. When the young man opened his mouth to retort, the Kaiken narrowed his eyes and said, “Be silent.” Briar suddenly found that he could no longer form words, as though he had forgotten how to speak.

“My lord–” spoke up Rille urgently, while at the same time the voice of the Dark Retreat suddenly said, “I say, my dear, isn’t that a rather rude way to treat a guest–”

Enough, you two,” interrupted the Kaiken sternly. “I have other things to impart to Mr. Sevon, and not enough time to spare. This will be a lot easier for everyone if he just listens for now.”

“At least try to be a little gentle, dear. Here, Briar, let me help you with that.”

Suddenly, Briar had control of his voice again. He coughed a couple of times to confirm it, but he didn’t try to speak again, and he eyed the Kaiken warily.

Seeing that Briar wasn’t going to interrupt him, the older man began again. “I think you understand, Mr. Sevon, that we keep a very close eye on what goes on in Reclamation Kingdom. Inverse Cyan, and this Darkness Retreat, are most easily accessed within the bounds of the Capital itself, which is how we maintain the fiction that the Gatebreakers are based within it. It is also where … no, let’s leave that for another time. There is a more important matter.

“Alright then, Mr. Sevon, please answer me this: why do you think I am so insistent about having you join us?”

Briar glared at the First Blade, and slowly opened his mouth. “The same reason everyone else does, I presume. My magical aura is particularly strong, with a great potential to become–”

“Wrong,” interrupted the Kaiken with a slight tinge of contempt. “I’m amazed that you can still consider yourself strong, after personally walking through Inverse Cyan and then hearing my story. On the scale of power we deal with, yours does not signify in the slightest.”

“Then I have no idea,” said Briar angrily. It had been a long day even before he had come to this godforsaken place, and his control of his temper had begun to wear extremely thin.

“Not even a guess?” said the Kaiken, with a slightly twisted smile on his face.

“None.”

The First Blade shook his head, chuckling to himself. He stood up from his chair, and faced out over the simulated city again, as he had when Briar had entered not so long ago. “I won’t claim that we have information on every person living in Reclamation Kingdom, but I would say we have a little something on everyone that stands out. Our reputation is that of an assassin’s guild; that is to say, we take lives in exchange for money. But in all honesty, money, and other forms of riches, are not something we need; we have generations of wealth behind us, after all. No, Mr. Sevon, what we truly trade is information. Specifically, information about people with unusual or helpful abilities.

“And thus, we know a great deal about you, Mr. Sevon.

“Briar Sevon, born in the poorest streets of the Capital. Your mother was a young, unmarried woman, who worked hard to support herself and you; your father … is not known. She might have told you herself after you grew up, perhaps, but sadly, she died in an accident when you were only five. You were taken in by a certain orphanage, and lived there for five years, eventually supplementing your existence by earning income running errands for various people, which you then shared with the rest of your orphan brothers and sisters.

“And then came the day when that orphanage was shut down, due to its backer, a minor noble, being implicated in a money-laundering scheme. You, and the rest of the orphans, were temporarily taken as wards of the crown, and tested to see if you had the magical aptitude to become servants of the nobility. As it happens, you, Mr. Sevon, tested quite well — not brilliantly, but well — and by some coincidence, the duke of the Fernifar House was looking for someone of a similar age to his second son, to be his servant and eventual valet.

The Kaiken reached out and placed his hands on the false balcony railing, and continued to speak. “Not long after that, it was revealed that the duke’s second son, Karis du Migel dan Fernifar, had a negligible magical aura that would never develop, and he was labeled as a cripple and scorned. Nearly at the same time, it was revealed that his assigned servant, a young orphan known as Briar Sevon, was actually a peerless genius, with a huge potential for magic. And so, the various houses began to conspire to snatch you away, or at least to make sure you wouldn’t go to their rivals.

“That much is known by all,” said the Kaiken coolly. Without warning he spun away from the display of the Capital and strode back over to his desk, looking down with a cold look at Briar. “Shall I tell you what is known by the Gatebreakers, then?”

Briar felt a cold shudder run down his spine, and his stomach seemed to drop as the Kaiken continued to speak. “We know that the duke of Fernifar, Maes, is married to a woman named Kerhua. She was, and is, a particularly gifted researcher for the Royal Magic Society. Not many know her field of expertise, however: she studies the relationship between different branches of magic, and specifically how modern Mages can be talented in certain, well-defined areas, and next to useless in others. You, for example, are extremely adept at using Wind magic and Water magic, but your Fire magic is weak and your talent for Metal is nearly nonexistent,” he added mock-cheerfully. Briar swallowed; the First Blade was exactly right about his strongest and weakest points, driving home just how thoroughly the guild had investigated him.

“Now, it just so happens that Kerhua’s husband, Maes, has a strong talent for an extremely rare branch of magic, what was once called Knowing, and is now called Esoterica. Kerhua was very interested in learning more about his talent, and since Maes loves Kerhua to distraction, he allowed her to perform all sorts of experiments on his aura, to see if she could determine just what, if anything, caused the talent for Esoterica to manifest.”

“And she found it,” said Briar, quietly.

The First Blade shrugged. “She found something, in any case. Something that made her believe that a talent could, perhaps, be induced in someone who doesn’t have it.”

“It worked,” said Briar. He gritted his teeth, trying to suppress the memories.

The Kaiken looked at him for a few moments, then said gently, “You are jumping ahead of the story.

“Working with several colleagues, Kerhua designed an experiment that would either disprove or confirm her hypothesis. It was meant to be painless, harmless experiment,” Briar snorted, but the First Blade ignored him and continued, “but due to a certain number of factors, only a certain type of aura would be sufficient. And, by pure ‘coincidence’, it just so happened that the perfect subject was close at hand: the common-born servant of her second son, a young boy named Briar Sevon.

“And so, with a certain reluctance but a determined heart, Kerhua brought your younger self to her lab at the Royal Magic Society, and prepped you for her experiment. As far as she was concerned, you were in no real danger.”

“Hah,” spit out Briar bitterly, remembering the pain of that day. Caught by his memories, he almost missed the Kaiken’s next words.

“But she had been betrayed.”

Briar blinked, and slowly looked up at the older man. “What?”

The Kaiken nodded. “It seems they didn’t tell you. Yes, she had been sabotaged, by a fellow researcher whom she thought was her friend. He had taken some of the data, and falsified it, causing Kerhua and the others to reach certain erroneous conclusions. Exactly as he had planned.”

Briar’s thoughts were spinning, and he could barely form the word, “… Why?”

The First Blade’s voice became slightly clinical. “As far as we know, there were a number of reasons. For one thing, he was a branch member of House Prichitt, a long-time rival of House Fernifar. It hadn’t been important to Kerhua, but perhaps it had been important to him. For another, he was almost certainly jealous of Kerhua’s influence within the Society, and had sought numerous ways to discredit her in secret. But most of all, he had his own theories about the branches of magic, and he wanted to put them to the test.

“And so, what was supposed to be a simple experiment became a grueling ordeal. For long minutes, you were subject to the unvarnished, unfiltered, absolute truth about the universe. Once she realized what was happening, Kerhua desperately tried to halt the experiment, but the traitor prevented her from doing so by rendering her unconscious. With Kerhua neutralized, he expected that no one else would be able to rescue you in time.

“But he had not reckoned on Maes.

“You see, while Kerhua’s calculations were flawed, the traitor’s understanding was also flawed, and much more badly. Once his terrible experiment started, every strong Esoterica Mage in the Kingdom knew immediately that something was wrong. There aren’t many, of course, but one of them was the duke of Fernifar, who immediately realized something had happened to his wife. It was not five minutes into the experiment before Maes came bursting in, almost literally spitting fire. The traitor was forced to flee, and you were released from your torment. Of course, by then, the damage had been done.

“Or so it should have been.” The Kaiken looked intently into Briar’s eyes, and spoke slowly and clearly. “That ritual, Briar Sevon, should have left you insane, if not completely braindead. And yet, here you are, sane and functional. Furthermore, you even gained from the experience. You actually acquired the talent for Esoterica that was the original goal of that ill-fated experiment, not to mention a strong talent for water and a much greater aura potential than had been seen in centuries.

“Do you know why that is, Briar Sevon?” When Briar shook his head, the Kaiken quickly agreed, “Neither do I. Nor does Lady Kerhua, or Duke Maes, or even King Eranimaus. We do, however, have one clue.

“After the experiment, you spent a great deal of the next several months unconcious. When awake, you were hysterical, crying and speaking in unknown languages. The very presence of Kerhua made you try to flee in terror. But there was one person in whose presence you would calm down: Karis du Migel. And so, in a moment of great irony, the weak master nursed the strong servant back to good health.”

“I don’t remember much of that time,” said Briar quietly. “I only remember that Lady Kerhua hurt me, and Master Karis saved me.”

The First Blade nodded sympathetically. “Yes, I understand. But I want to make this perfectly clear: you shouldn’t have survived, Mr. Sevon. After the terrible things that were done to you, you should have died — no, anyone would have died.

“But you did not. You faced a trial worse than anything you should have ever faced, and you emerged alive — no, you emerged stronger. You are a survivor, Mr. Sevon, and that is what makes you special to us. Powerful Mages can be bought very easily, but true survivors? They are priceless to us.”

The silence once more hung heavily in the room. The First Blade watched Briar, who was struggling with his own memories, feelings of pain, of exposure, of terrible, terrible things which wanted only his destruction. He realized that he was very, very tired, and that his thoughts had become muddled beyond all recognition. He had no idea how to answer this man, who knew the events of his past much more clearly than he himself did.

And perhaps the Darkness Retreat could tell, because its voice suddenly spoke out: “My dear First Blade, if we are to get our guest home by the easy path, he will have to leave soon. Could you leave it at that, for today?”

The Kaiken started, then nodded briskly. “Yes, of course, you are correct. Rille!” The black-masked Gatebreaker stood to attention. “Please escort Mr. Sevon to the Sixth Exterior Door, and deliver him to the people waiting there. Briar Sevon, this is for you.” He pulled a sheaf of paper out of the air, and handed it to Briar. “This is the information we can give you about Miss Maledicta Foursquare, and her people. I would appreciate it if you only shared it with Duke Maes, however. Or, as I suppose it is almost inevitable, with your Master Karis.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Briar automatically in a dull voice.

“Get some rest, Mr. Sevon,” said the First Blade. “You will need it.”

It was still an hour before dawn, in the Capital. In a disused courtyard, in a slightly downscale part of the Noble District, seven cloaked men stood waiting, near a certain doorway. Four of these men wore black cloaks, and they watched outward, vigilant for witnesses. Two men wore grey cloaks, underneath which the colors of House Fernifar occasional peeked through. Those two flanked the last man, and watched the four black-cloaked individuals suspicious. The final figure was a bear of a man, and his sharp, predator eyes stared fixedly at the door in front of him.

A sudden snap echoed around the courtyard, and a sudden tension went through the men waiting there. The unremarkable door opened, revealing only darkness inside. A fifth black-cloaked and masked figure stepped lithely out of the dark opening, and glanced around the courtyard. Apparently finding nothing amiss, the figure reached back through the doorway, and gently pulled Briar Sevon back into the real world.

Briar was completely disoriented by the transition, and he staggered forward a few steps and nearly fell. But before he could hit the ground, his body was caught by a large powerful arm, and he looked up into the angry face of Duke Maes.

Maes held Briar up by his shoulders, and looked carefully into Briar’s eyes. His own eyes narrowed in anger, but he gruffly said, “Welcome back, Mr. Sevon. Mr. Arodor, please assist Mr. Sevon in returning home.”

One of the Fernifar guards quickly stepped forward, and took Briar’s weight away from the duke. Maes straightened up, and glared at the masked individual who had brought Briar home. “Tell your lord that he will be answering for this.” His voice was low and heavy, like a bear’s growl.

The masked Gatebreaker, Rille, bowed in acknowledgement, and made a gesture with one hand. Immediately, the other four men in black cloaks flitted through the doorway behind her, disappearing from the world. Rille bowed once more to Duke Maes, and backed quickly through the doorway, which shut behind her. There was a brief fizzling sound, and then the courtyard was silent. Maes growled under his breath, spun on his heel and strode away, followed closely by his guards and Briar.

Several streets away from that unassuming courtyard, a Conveyance marked with the sigil of House Fernifar was waiting for them. Maes, Briar, and the guard supporting him piled into the passenger section, while the other guard sat up front next to the driver. With a low, powerful hum, the Conveyance sprang to life, and started rolling down the sparsely populated street. Conveyances were convenient for getting around, but due to the twisted and maze-like nature of the Capital’s streets, they were only allowed on specific, wide streets. They were also extremely expensive to run, so under most circumstances, the citizens of the Capital walked almost everywhere.

House Fernifar had a number of Conveyances, but this specific model was a particularly large one, nearly a troop transport. The passenger seats were set in parallel along the sides, and Briar and the other man, Arodor, sat across from Duke Maes, who was glowering angrily at them. With a jerk of his head, he made Arodor sit farther down the benches, away from Briar. The guard immediately obeyed, and Maes quickly cast Seal magic to ensure privacy.

“My apologies, Mr. Sevon,” he rumbled angrily. “I knew that Kaiken bastard wanted to meet with you, but I didn’t expect him to pull you into Inverse Cyan at this time.”

Briar mustered a little energy, and looked up at his duke. “You … know about that place.”

“I’ve been there. Three times, in fact. Did that bastard make you walk through the city itself?” When Briar nodded, the duke continued, “Figures. That bastard made me walk through that place for hours, once, just to make a damn point. I spent the next three hours trying to pound him into jelly,” he added with a grim smile.

Briar blinked at him. “Inside the Dark Retreat? Didn’t anyone try to stop you?”

Maes’ smile got wider. “Nope. In fact, the Retreat itself kept encouraging me. Said that bastard was getting flabby, and needed the exercise. I lost, sadly, but he was certainly the worse for it.” He shook his head at the memory.

Briar sighed. “So … was he telling the truth?”

“About what?”

Briar hesitated. He almost asked about Lady Kerhua and her experiment, and the traitor, but at the last moment he changed his mind. “About the Mage Tyrants. And the Gatebreaker Guild.”

“Probably,” admitted Maes. “The royal family has secret records left by First King Goldenbeard himself. I’ll get Erri — that’s King Eranimaus to you — to let you read them someday. You can confirm what that bastard told you, at least.

“Not today, though. Today, you’re going to rest.”

“But sir,” protested Briar, “I have work to–”

“You certainly do, Mr. Sevon, but you are in no shape to do it,” pronounced Duke Maes with an angry glare. “It’s not your fault that you had to walk unprepared through Inverse Cyan, but that doesn’t change a damn thing. You will go directly to your room, and you will sleep for at least the whole of today. Do I make myself clear, Mr. Sevon?”

“Crystal clear, sir,” said Briar, stiffening his spine automatically.

“Good!” humphed Duke Maes. “What’s with the papers?”

Briar blinked, and looked at the file he still held under his arm. “Oh … This was what the Kaiken gave me, about the case.”

“So you got something useful out of him, at least? Good job, Mr. Sevon. Give them here. I’ll return them to you once you are fit for your duties once more.” Briar obediently handed over the sheaf of paper, which Maes immediately began leafing through. Suddenly feeling like he had been relieved of a great burden, Briar leaned back on his bench, his eyes closing of their own accord.

He was back. Back in the real world, where things were reasonable, and not alien and overbearing. Everyone he knew and loved was here, and safe, for the moment. There faces flowed through his mind: Karis, his friend and master; Duke Maes, his sons and daughter, and even Lady Kerhua; even Maledicta’s face appeared before him for a moment He began to feel some suspicion, about why the Kaiken seemed so sure he would join hands with the Gatebreakers; he intuitively sensed that the First Blade understood him, far better than he understood himself.

Gradually his thoughts slowed and faded, and he fell into a deep sleep before the Conveyance could even reach the Fernifar mansion. His last image was of Aya Firewheel, looking strong but lonely, as he had seen her the previous day…

Dawn had come and past, but Foursquare Magical Goods did not open its doors. A polite sign had been posted, stating that the store would be closed for an indefinite period of time, and apologizing for the inconvenience. Outside, would-be customers, of all walks of life, clustered in groups and discussed the situation in hushed voices, shooting glances at the silent storefront. There was a great deal of gossip, and a lack of actual information, but the general consensus was that Maledicta Foursquare had finally died, and the people of the cartel were preparing to transport her body back to the Southern Reaches — or plotting bloody revenge on the Academy, or the Kingdom, depending on how paranoid the gossiper was.

Meanwhile, inside the bizarrely ornate building itself, the mood was somber. The men and women who worked for the branch store were all low level members of the Foursquare Cartel, but they were all loyal, and furthermore, they all had the greatest respect for Mary Lionstar. And now, their leader had been harmed by a man associated with King Eranimaus himself, and they were all quietly seething.

On the fourth floor, in the small room she had been assigned to when she first arrived in Reclamation Kingdom’s Capital, Aya Firewheel lay curled up on her bed. Her emotions were a chaotic mess of guilt, hate, fear, and generous amounts of self-loathing. Because of her, Mary Lionstar, her mentor, surregate mother, and friend, had her magic sealed away by the power of the king of this godforsaken Kingdom. She should never have agreed to let Briar Sevon come here, it was all her fault … her thoughts circled around and around, giving her no relief.

After ascertaining that she hadn’t been hurt, the vice store leader, a man by the name of Firedeep, had ordered Aya to stay in her room, basically under house arrest, until Roger Bladefang returned. Aya had gone willingly; she couldn’t stand seeing the lost and forsaken look on Mary’s face. Along with protecting Maledicta, Aya was supposed to defend the people and interests of the Foursquare Cartel. Instead, she had brought them calamity, and the involuntary betrayal burned in her mind.

On top of everything else, she had a splitting headache. She felt weirdly grateful to it, actually; it was distracting her from her guilt.

Suddenly, the door was unlocked, and a man entered. He looked expressionlessly at the young woman curled up on her bed, sunk so deep in her misery that she didn’t even notice that anyone had entered her room. After a few moments, an impatient look crossed his face, and he spoke. “Aya Firewheel.”

Aya’s eyes shot open. “Captain!” She hurriedly got to her feet, and faced Roger Bladefang, captain of Foursquare Cartel’s security division here in the Capital. He was a tall man, even by the standards of the Kingdom; in his native Southern Reaches, he was a veritable giant. He had a handsome face, with dark, brooding eyes, and he maintained a crisp, military bearing that spoke well of his confidence in his abilities. Like everyone else in the Foursquare branch store, Aya had nothing but trust and respect for this man, and once she had pulled herself to her feet she quickly saluted him, ignoring the pounding headache in her skull. “Sir, how is Mary?”

Bladefang looked down on Aya, and said ponderously, “It isn’t good, Firewheel. This attack on Lionstar took her completely by surprise, and she wasn’t able to resist in the slightest. Her magic has been completely sealed away, and it seems unlikely that any Mage belonging to Foursquare Cartel will be able to remove the ward on her forehead.”

“But … what about the Kingdom? Briar Sevon said they could release the seal–!”

Bladefang clicked his tongue and sneered. “Do you really believe that? Not only is Lionstar a gifted administrator, she is also a peerless warrior Mage. The rats of this Kingdom must be drinking celebratory toasts now that she’s been swept from the board, in no way would they ever allow her to be restored.

“And as for Briar Sevon … he obviously cajoled you into letting him into the building, getting you to drop your guard, specifically so he could use his trap on Mary Lionstar! You were completely fooled, Aya Firewheel!” he shouted. Aya felt crushed; he was completely right, she had been fooled. Briar had led her by the nose, and she hadn’t even noticed. If only she’d been more suspicious …

“He … he had said, he wanted to speak to you … Maybe you were his actual target, sir …”

“Hmph,” grunted Bladefang, nodding. “That’s entirely possible. I wouldn’t have fallen for such a weak provocation, obviously, but in Sevon’s mind it might have been sufficient to remove Lionstar as a war asset, and to disrupt our operations in this rat-infested city, rather than aim solely at me. A clever move; I would have simply killed him.”

“What!?” gasped Aya. “But he’s backed by the Fernifar House, and even the king! You could start a war!”

“The war has already well begun,” growled Bladefang darkly. “It started when they poisoned Maledicta Foursquare. I have been in contact with her father, and in his capacity as Patriarch, he has ordered me to take any actions necessary to get revenge on this godforsaken Reclamation Kingdom.” Bladefang smiled, and it was a very dark smile. “Within two weeks, our armies will be ready to move out; within two months, our allies will join us. Reclamation Kingdom will be made to pay for its crimes!”

Aya stood with her mouth open. Before she could recover, Bladefang continued. “Firedeep has agreed to cede control of all our Foursquare members here in the Capital to me, and we will be beginning operations soon to undermine the Kingdom from within. Don’t worry, Firewheel; contingency plans have been in place for a long time. We’ll be sure to recover from your mistakes.”

Aya was silent for a few moments. Suddenly she asked, “What about Maledicta? She’s being protected by experts from the Kingdom … what’s going to happen to her? Did she …” Aya swallowed, then asked in a near-whisper, “Did she die?”

Bladefang was silent, staring at Aya with an unreadable expression. Finally, he said, “Yes. She did.”

All the blood rushed out of Aya’s face. She sat down on her bed, staring at something unseeable in the distance, while Bladefang continued in an unemotional voice: “She was dead when they found her. They’ve been covering up her death this whole time. It was Karis du Migel who poisoned her, with the full approval of King Eranimaus. The greedy nobility of this Kingdom have grown too envious of the wealth and power of the Foursquare Cartel, and this is their first move to suppress us for good.”

“No, it can’t be … Mal …” Aya had begun to cry. Bladefang wasn’t even sure that she was hearing his words, and it made him frown.

“Are you listening, Firewheel? I said, Karis du Migel killed Maledicta. And Briar Sevon is his servant. He probably was sent to destroy any evidence linking du Migel to the crime.”

Aya continued to cry, but she nodded at Bladefang’s words.

“I am going to do you a favor, Firewheel. Since Maledicta Foursquare was your charge, whom you failed, I will give you a chance to redeem yourself. Kill Briar Sevon, and Karis du Migel, and all your failures will be forgotten. Do you understand, Aya Firewheel?” Bladefang’s voice seemed deep, and echoed unnaturally in the small room.

After a few moments, Aya nodded. Satisfied, Bladefang turned to go, but as he reached for the door, Aya’s voice interrupted him. “It won’t work, though.”

Bladefang turned back with a deep frown. “What do you mean? I promise you, you will be forgiven–”

“Not that,” said Aya quietly. “I won’t be able to beat Briar Sevon. He’s … stronger than I am.”

Bladefang looked at Aya in shock. “Stronger than you? You are a trained elite!”

“It doesn’t matter,” mumbled Aya, wincing at the scorn in his voice. “I won’t be able to win.”

“Why are you saying that?” demanded Bladefang, a sudden anger on his face.

“I … I picked a fight with him, earlier. It was no contest. He beat me in a single move …” Aya’s voice could barely be heard.

“What kind of technique?” asked Bladefang, a sudden wariness on his face. But Aya did not reply, staring down at her hands as though she had never seen them before.

A number of strong emotions flitted across Bladefang’s face as he glared down at Aya, who refused to look at him. Finally he said, in an icy voice, “Very well. If you’re going to be useless, and let your mistress die unavenged, you can just stay here. You are confined to this room, Aya Firewheel, until I decide what to do with you.”

“Yes, sir,” responded Aya automatically. Her headache was pounding even worse now, and she wondered if she was actually dying. Bladefang apparently didn’t notice Aya’s pain, because he simply clicked his tongue, turned on his heel, and left the room. Outside, he called over two Foursquare members to stand guard on Aya’s room just in case. He frowned at the door for nearly a minute, before leaving to implement his plans.

Back in her room, Aya had collapsed back onto her bed, nearly sobbing with pain. The headache was getting worse, and she didn’t know what to do. Hell, maybe she even deserved it if she died, after she had failed Mal so badly. She should just take poison herself …

The thought of poison suddenly reminded her of something. She sat up again, laboriously, and reached over to the jacket hanging near her bed. Reaching into the pocket, she pulled out a familiar twist of paper, and unrolled it, revealing the small piece of plant that Briar had called “Tapir Root.” She held the dark brown object in front of her eyes. She still had no idea if it actually was what he had claimed, but it had helped her headache before. And if it turned out to actually be harmful to her … well, it served her right, anyway.

She popped the root into her mouth, and began counting to thirty in her mind …

Meanwhile, in the building of the Civil Investigations Unit, Investigator Ruw Parrow was busily cursing every god in existence as he stood at attention in front of his commander, Paztun du Fitt. Du Fitt was a minor houseless noble, but he had connections both within the Parliament, and also within the Siita ducal house, which was how he landed the job of Chief Executive Commander of Civil Investigations. He was generally an affable sort, but the Foursquare case had been testing his limits from the very beginning. Parrow was not looking forward to giving him the latest report.

Du Fitt glowered down at the paper in front of him, then tossed it aside. He folded his arms in front of him, and stared levelly at Parrow. “All right, Investigator, go ahead. What happened last night?”

“Yes, sir,” answered Parrow promptly. “Yesterday, my team cooperated with Briar Sevon to reexamine Maledicta Foursquare’s dorm room, with results indicating the possibility of the involvement of a Illusion Mage. He then accompanied us back here to CI, in order to officially testify to his results. That testimony is recorded upon this crystal,” he pulled out two crystals, and placed them on the desk, “and this is the crystal containing his earlier testimony, regarding Karis du Migel.

“While we were at the scene, we were accompanied by Miss Aya Firewheel, of the Foursquare Cartel, who had come to take back Maledicta Foursquare’s possessions. Her testimony regarding the crime scene conflicted with Sevon’s findings, so we … requested, that she return with us to CI to answer some additional questions. Specifically, Sevon had detected the presence of a plant on Foursquare’s desk, which Firewheel swore was never there. Analysis of her memories indicated that there might have been something invisible on the corner of the desk, but it could not be established as a certainty.”

“Believe it or not, I actually do read your reports, Parrow,” said du Witt irritably. “Tell me what happened after you let them go.”

“… Apparently, Sevon accompanied Firewheel back to the Foursquare store, in an attempt to interrogate Roger Bladefang, and there he encountered Mary Lionstar. After that point, accounts differ. According to a message from House Fernifar, Lionstar started an argument with Sevon, and when he showed her the king’s writ authorizing his investigation, she attempted to destroy it, causing the King’s Seal to suppress her aura. Sevon quickly left at that point, rather than make the situation worse.

“On the other hand, according to the Foursquare people, Briar Sevon tricked Firewheel in order to gain access to their store, and struck down Lionstar with a sneak attack, leaving her on the verge of death.”

Du Witt grunted in understanding. “What are your thoughts, Investigator?”

Parrow rubbed the side of his chin in thought. “Of the two stories, Sevon’s is more believable.”

“Why?” asked du Witt sharply. Parrow started enumerating on his fingers.

“First, I know that Sevon has a writ from the king, and I tested it’s legitimacy. So if Lionstar had tried to burn it, it would have turned out exactly as his side described. Second, I have a report that says that a message from Sevon was sent to the Castle Guard, alerting them to the matter and requesting that Lionstar be released from the Seal. The problem is, Lionstar should know what the King’s Seal looks like, and the proper way of verifying it. Fortunately, the Seal is easy to verify — or it should be, but the Foursquare people are not letting anyone meet Lionstar, on the grounds that she was almost killed by Sevon.”

“Hmmm. But you don’t believe it, Parrow?”

“It’s hard to say, sir. Sevon is an Esoterica Mage, and I believe Duke Maes has been having him hide his actual strength, so a sneak attack is possible. But to the extent of critically injuring Mary Lionstar? The woman is not weak, and she would be unlikely to drop her guard against a potential threat. And she should know that Sevon works for Duke Maes, so she would almost definitely classify him as a threat.

“Frankly, both stories hinge on unusual behavior from Mary Lionstar.” Parrow shrugged with a sneer. “Unless we can get to her, it’s going to be tough telling which party is lying.”

“And they won’t hand her over,” muttered du Witt. “What about Sevon? Can we collar him?”

Parrow narrowed his eyes. “You know we have people watching the Fernifar mansion right now?” At du Witt’s nod, he continued, “Not long before midnight last night, a cloaked figure emerged from the mansion, a man whose figure matched that of Briar Sevon. He was tailed as far as 2nd residential before he slipped away from his followers.”

Du Witt raised an eyebrow. “2nd residential? The slums?”

Parrow shook his head. “No, Parser Street. He entered a certain bar, the Horse’s Head, and never emerged.”

“The Horse’s Head?” Du Witt frowned. “Does that ring a bell with you?”

“It’s been investigated before, quietly, about possible Gatebreaker ties. Nothing was found, though.”

“Very well. So you lost Sevon there. Is there anything else?”

“Yeah,” said Parrow. “Earlier today, not long before dawn, a Conveyance left Fernifar mansion and headed toward 2nd residential. It parked on the east side of Mariden Road, and three figures disembarked and disappeared into the warren. One of which, I might add, was an absolute bear of a man.” Parrow looked meaningfully at du Witt, who nodded in acknowledgement. “Not long after, those men returned with a fourth, who was being supported by one of the others.”

“Let me guess,” said du Witt dryly. “The fourth figure looked a lot like Briar Sevon.”

“Yep.”

“So, chances are high that House Fernifar has contacted the Gatebreakers, for whatever reason.” Du Witt shook his head and sneered. “Someday, somebody is going to have to root those bastards out.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” came an oily voice from the doorway behind them. Parrow turned to look, then stepped aside with a slight bow. The man who entered was short and fat, but his aura was strong, and he moved with the confidence of a man who had power.

“Prime Minister. No one told me you were coming,” said du Witt with a minimal smile. “What brings you to my poor bureau?”

Prime Minister Mado Ramse gave a evil-looking grin. “I thought I’d come in personally to give you the news. No, stay, Mr. Parrow, this involves you too,” he said, holding up a hand to prevent Parrow from sneaking away. Parrow settled back, not letting his carefully empty expression change.

“News?” said du Witt.

Ramse’s smile got wider. “I believe a petition was issued from Civil Investigations, asking that Briar Sevon be removed from the investigation. Well, you can rest at ease. By order of his Majesty, his writ has been recalled from Mr. Sevon, and he shall no longer enjoy the King’s protection. In fact,” he said, looking extraordinarily pleased, “if you happen to encounter Mr. Sevon in the future, you are to arrest him, and contact my office. We have some rather pressing questions for the young man, heh heh heh …”

Du Witt exchanged a glance with Parrow, then nodded his head. “Understood, Prime Minister.”

“Furthermore,” continued the vicious-looking man, “Briar Sevon’s testimony is to be treated as extremely suspect, and effectively non-admissible as evidence.”

“What!?” said Parrow, sharply. “Are you telling us to ignore the only useful information we have right now?”

“Oh, come now, Mr. Parrow,” purred Ramse, “surely you must have more leads than the lies told to you by one of House Fernifar’s killers?” Parrow clenched his teeth, but didn’t respond. Seeing this, Ramse said mock-helpfully, “I should hope you do, or it will be the emperor you will be making excuses to.”

“There’s no need to worry, Prime Minister,” spoke du Witt in a consoling voice. “I have full faith in Investigator Parrow. But since you seem concerned about it,” he continued, with the air of someone being helpful to his superior, “why don’t you take his testimony with you? Those two crystals are the only copies, making it simple, don’t you think?”

Mado Ramse’s eyes lit up. “Is that so? Excellent! Thank you for your cooperative attitude, Mr. du Witt, I shall certainly remember it.” He immediately scooped up the crystals in one hand, and placed them in his pocket. “Well, I won’t be keeping you, gentlemen. Just remember, contact me if you happen to find Mr. Sevon wandering around somewhere — we wouldn’t want the poor boy getting lost, would we, heh heh heh …”

The Investigator and his commander watched the fat man scuttle away in silence. After a few minutes in which the two each individually gathered their own thoughts, Parrow spoke up. “Are we really going to ignore everything Sevon told us, Commander?”

“Of course, Investigator,” replied du Witt in a wry voice. “We were just instructed to, in our king’s name, by the highest civilian official who happens to be at the top of our chain of command. Why would we do otherwise?”

Parrow gave him a questioning look. “You went to school with Ramse, right, sir?”

“Oh, yes, we attended the academy at the same time. He was a good friend of the current Duke of Siita, who I was also acquainted with through the duke’s younger sister, so we met a few times back then. Never really got along with him, but he was certainly competent. A bit of a schemer, though.”

“That fails to surprise me,” muttered Parrow.

“Speaking of which,” du Witt said idly, “those were the only copies of Sevon’s testimonies, right?”

Parrow’s face stiffened slightly. “… Yes, sir.”

“Which is to say, the originals are still in the information vault.”

“… Yes, sir.”

“Hmmm,” hummed du Witt. “Perhaps you might go down and suggest Clerk Briarn do a little … ‘creative refiling’. Just in case. It wouldn’t do to have it unavailable, should the king ask for it in the future …”

He winked at Parrow, who stared at him for a moment in surprise, before grinning himself and saying, “Understood, sir.”

After he had left, du Witt sat back down at his desk. He did not immediately get back to work, however, and instead looked into the distance, as if he could see a certain fat figure scuttling around there. “I don’t give a damn about what you’re scheming, Ramse,” he murmured quietly to the empty room, “but you do not get to screw around with my people. Time to check in with the king, I think …”

Karis was just finishing lunch when his elder brother, Daes, came bursting through his door. “You’ve really done it this time, you worthless piece of trash!” he shouted at the top of his not inconsiderable voice. “When they talk about this war in the future, they’re going to say it was started by the cripple of House Fernifar! You’d better hope that my exploits cover our House in glory, or even father won’t be able to rescue the House from infamy!”

Karis dabbed at his lips with a napkin, while giving his brother a slightly indulgent look. “My, I’ve started a war now, have I? How interesting, I wonder how I managed that, given that I’ve been confined to this room for three days, now?”

“Don’t give me those excuses! You got yourself accused of killing Maledicta Foursquare, and then you had that damn servant of yours actually assault Mary Lionstar! You’re definitely trying to start a war with the Foursquare clan!” Daes was spitting with rage, and he glared at his younger brother as though they were mortal enemies.

“Technically, they call themselves a Cartel, not a clan,” said Karis helpfully. “The difference, in this case, being that they are much more meritocracy-type mentality, to the point where even non-family memebers can hold–”

“SHUT UP! I have no idea what you’re talking about, so just shut up!” The martial-looking young man was becoming more and more incensed with each word from his younger brother’s mouth. “You aren’t getting away with it this time, you damn incompetent! I don’t know why father has bothered protecting you all these years, but that ends today! I swear, I’m not going to let you leave this room intact!”

“You left the door open, you know,” murmured Karis.

“So what? Do you think father’s men are going to save you, or something? HAH! They know better than to raise their hand against me, the true son of the Migel family! I’m worth FIVE TIMES what you or Mordis are, remember that, you trash! And today–”

“By the way,” said Karis brightly, “Did you know that Mr. Kever has a special talisman that lets him communicate instantly with father, in case someone breaks into my room, trying to kill me?”

“Hmph! Such half-hearted measures are definitely appropriate when covering a disgrace such as you. I’d be surprised if Kever even bothered–”

“Elder brother Daes,” interrupted Karis. “Did you know that father could suppress his presence, and move very quietly when he wants to?”

“Don’t interrupt me, you worthless trash–”

“Neither did I, until just now,” said Karis ruefully.

“You–!” Daes’ expression barely had time to change before a fist like a small comet crashed into him from the side. He spun three times in the air, head over heels, before crashing into a full bookcase, which subsequently fell over on top of him. Duke Maes nodded contentedly, the enraged expression on his face fading back to mere anger. He then glared at his second son, who was staring sadly at his broken bookcase.

“Was that really necessary, father?” he asked, then adding, “Some of those books were expensive.”

“Hmph. Make your brother replace them,” said Maes, unmoved. Karis sighed, and then looked at his father with a serious expression.

“Will it be war, then? If Daes knew about it, it must be more or less certain.”

Maes snorted, and walked over to the fallen bookcase. He tossed the broken thing aside, and recovered his eldest son from the pile of books. Tossing the unconscious young man over his shoulder, he walked over to the still-open doorway, and tossed him out into the hall. “Bohd! Haul him back to his room, and tell Sherith to keep him there for the rest of the day!” He then slammed the door shut, and marched back over to the desk where Karis was sitting, grabbing a sturdy chair on his way. Karis obediently took his own chair and placed it on the other side of the desk, acknowledging his father’s authority by taking the supplicant’s position.

Maes plunked down behind the desk, muttering, “At least this one has a smidgen of common sense. Why are my sons all so …” He trailed off, as if he couldn’t find the right word. Karis thought about suggesting that it was their mother’s influence, but decided that he didn’t actually feel like ending up like Daes, and so kept his mouth shut.

Maes stared angrily at Karis, although for once his anger seemed focused somewhere else. Finally, he said, “It doesn’t look good. Not only Foursquare, the other two major Cartels are showing ominous signs, and there is suddenly a great deal of activity along the eastern and western borders as well.”

“The Empire and the Authorities?” said Briar, slightly surprised. “And so quickly … Father, it seems this was planned well before Maledicta was poisoned.”

“So it would seem,” growled Maes angrily. “Raising their hands against this Kingdom, those ungrateful bastards. Do they actually think they can win? Damn, they wouldn’t be able to deal with the consequences even if they did win.”

“Hmmm,” hummed Briar, thinking. “This has been building for a while, hasn’t it. Setting aside the Eastern Authority Sections, who are always hostile, the Empire has been eyeing us for the last several years, trying to negotiate for a superior position. So far, they’ve been held off by the strength of our army, and the wiles of Prime Minister Ramse, but they must have decided that they were strong enough to press the issue. What I don’t understand is the Southern Reaches. They don’t have the military power to compete with us, to begin with, so they will end up losing out no matter who wins. Furthermore, the three great Cartels are the closest thing to a central authority they have, but up til now, they’ve been at each other’s throats. What could have compelled them to work together?”

“As usual, you are suspiciously well-informed,” growled his father. “Pity you’re such a liability, otherwise. Well, don’t concern yourself with the outside realms; the king has various contingencies in place for this sort of thing. If you want to be useful, figure out what’s going on with the Foursquare group here in the city.”

“Oh?” Karis looked at his father with a furrowed brow. “Is something strange happening to them?”

Apparently,” started the duke with heavy irony, “Mr. Sevon nearly killed Mary Lionstar with a sneak attack, and now they’ve turned their store into some sort of stronghold. They are even refusing to let the King’s Guard in.”

“Can they do that?” asked Karis, slightly shocked.

“Strictly speaking? No. They are a merchant group, not an embassy. But King Eranimaus has chosen not to press the issue, and the other four dukes are adopting a ‘wait and see’ sort of attitude.”

“I see, trying to drag us further into this mess.” Karis gazed away into the distance, tapping his fingers on his desk. “However …”

The duke waited patiently as Karis trailed off. A few minutes ticked away as the younger man contemplated, before he said, “I don’t think any of this was actually aimed at us, originally.”

“Why do you say that?” asked the duke, although he instinctively agreed with Karis’ conclusion.

“First of all, if our opponent was actually trying to frame us, there would be actual evidence of our involvement. From the beginning, there was no reason for me to kill Maledicta, and nothing to really point to me being the culprit in the first place. If it wasn’t for Mr. dan Rettica, Miss Foursquare would have been found dead, with no evidence to be found.

“At which point, the Foursquares could accuse us — the Kingdom, that is — of murdering Maledicta and covering up the evidence, and use that as their excuse for war.”

“Wouldn’t they normally boycott the Kingdom first? They are a pretty big supplier, after all,” pointed out Maes.

“Normally, yes; but judging from their reactions, this was never about Maledicta at all, but about starting a war on three fronts against the Kingdom. There had to be some justification to make sure everyone joined in … which means, I think, if that justification was removed, the alliance would have a much harder time operating.”

“In other words, save Maledicta Foursquare’s life, and capture her attacker. Just,” the duke said dryly, “what I intended Mr. Sevon to do in the first place.”

Karis shrugged. “Sorry, I suppose it is fairly obvious. But yes.”

“Hmph,” grunted Maes. “Well, it doesn’t especially matter. United or divided, they are no match for the resources of Reclamation Kingdom. Many of the greatest secrets are known only to the Dukes, and the King.”

“Yes, I’m well aware,” said Karis, slightly bitterly. Forcibly changing the subject, he asked, “How is Briar?”

“Still asleep,” said Duke Maes, irritation written across his face. “I have no idea when he’ll finally wake up, either. You’re mother is watching over him, currently.”

“I … see. Well, I suppose that is for the best. It’s a good thing he’s asleep, though, or no doubt he’d be running away.”

“Nonsense, he hasn’t actually fled Kerhua in years.” Despite his words, Duke Maes looked rather glum.

“Well, he has his reasons,” said Karis with a sigh. Then he brightened up a bit. “Father, if mother is in the mansion, could you ask her to drop by my room? I had some questions for her, after reading the documents that the Gatebreakers sent us.”

Duke Maes’ face hardened. “You’re mother is … busy.”

“I see,” said Karis, disappointed. He opened his mouth to speak further, but then stopped, as if a sudden thought hit him. His eyes flicked around, and gradually widened to stare at his father in disbelief. “She’s here!? Tha– urgh …” His voice choked off as Duke Maes’ wide hand clamped around his throat, and lifted him out of his chair.

The duke looked hard at his son, and said, “I am absolutely certain that you cannot use magic at all, let alone Esoterica magic. How the hell do you keep making these absurd jumps of logic?”

Karis couldn’t answer, on account of being held up by his throat. He concentrated on holding on to his father’s arm and remaining conscious.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. “Enter!” shouted Maes, without taking his eyes off Karis.

The door opened, and a voice rang out from behind Karis. “Ah, dear father, so you’ve finally given up on keeping elder brother Karis alive, then? Why stop there? If you kill off elder brother Daes as well, you can raise both the average magical power, and the average intelligence, of the Fernifar house in one fell swoop.”

“Watch your mouth, Mordis,” growled the duke. “Your elder brothers might be useless wastes of space, but you aren’t that much better.”

“Well, of course not,” said Mordis with a sly laugh. “But you made me heir anyway, showing great wisdom in a trying situation. So what did Karis do this time, father? You’d think being stuck in a single room would keep him out of trouble, but a ‘genius’ can’t be so easily restrained, it seems.”

“None of your business,” growled the duke, but Karis reached out one of his hands and made a few quick hand signals. To Maes they looked random and meaningless, but Mordis widened his eyes, and suddenly burst out laughing.

“So that’s it! Well done, big brother. I guess father’s just pissed because you outsmarted him again. You’d think he’d be used to it by now …”

“Hmph,” said the duke, dropping Karis. His second son coughed a couple times, but he rolled his eyes; as usual, his father hadn’t actually been trying to hurt him. “I choose to believe you just have an unusual way of showing affection, father.”

“What the hell are you talking about,” grumbled the duke, striding toward the door. Before he could go too far, Mordis’ voice stopped him.

“You might as well show him.”

Maes stood there for awhile, not looking at his two sons. Mordis’ permanent sly smile was still on his face, and he looked at his father expectantly. Karis got to his feet, with an unreadable expression on his face.

At last, Duke Maes said, “Fine. Both of you, come with me.”

The three left Karis’ room together. Maes told his guards to take a break, and strode toward the back of the mansion. The path he took led down several sets of stairs, toward rooms belonging to his wife. To be more precise, her laboratories. Karis felt a slight chill as he entered the hidden basements; a lot of terrifying magic had been cast in these rooms, back when they were the secret dungeons of the du Migel family, and a certain sense of malicious intent could still be felt in the air.

Two men were guarding a doorway. Karis didn’t recognize them; they weren’t normal members of the Fernifar House. One of them raised an eyebrow at Karis, but neither said a word as Duke Maes pushed open the door, leading his sons inside.

The room inside was rather large, but warm and comforting in a great departure from the rooms they had passed through to reach it. Karis suspected certain spells to promote physical and mental health had been embedded into this chamber. Two more unfamiliar men were seated against opposite walls, providing an unobstructed view of the door.

Lady Kerhua, wife of Duke Maes and mother of Karis and Mordis, stood by a bed in the chamber, writing in a notepad. She had a plain appearance, but her eyes glowed with an undeniable intelligence. She glanced up at the opening door, and raised her eyebrows as Maes and two of her sons entered. She broke out into a smile. “Karis, Mordis. It’s good to see you.”

“Of course, mother. It’s always good to see you at work,” said Mordis with a tinge of irony. Karis merely smiled back at his mother and nodded. He glanced at the bed she was standing beside, and saw that Briar Sevon was sleeping there. His erstwhile servant’s face seemed haunted, like he was suffering from nightmares. Karis frowned for a moment, then turned his attention to the other occupied bed in the hidden chamber.

A familiar young woman lay on the bed. Karis could see her breathing was shallow, but steady. He walked over to her bedside, and examined her face. It was slightly grey, still, but she seemed to be sleeping peacefully, without pain. He surprised himself by giving a small sigh of relief.

“It’s good to see you alive, Miss Foursquare,” he told the unconscious girl.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5

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