Scene 4: Speculation

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Port Drebon University was located right off the Loop. It was an oasis of grass and trees amidst a desert of gray buildings. The campus consisted of six buildings, one of those belonging to the College of Magics. It was all stone with elegant spires and narrow windows. Unfortunately, today Amalia didn’t need to go to that building. She walked under the archway and past the fountain, turning left onto the gravel path that cut across the grass.

The L-shaped building on the corner of campus was home to all the professors’ offices. Grand Meister Marcellus wasn’t a professor anymore though, he was the Grand Meister of Magics. Technically it wasn’t his job to collect the loyalty screening papers, but she suspected he just wanted to speak to her because she was a di Danti.

It was strange how life just went on as normal, even when Amalia felt like it shouldn’t be. Surely everything else should pause so she could handle the journal problem. It didn’t stop. She still had to meet Marcellus.

Amalia pushed open the large wooden door into the entrance hall. It was grand, but that was to be expected. This was the best university in the world. Tall marble pillars on her left and right held up the second floor hallways. She checked the slip of paper with the room number. Marcellus’ office was on the second floor. The door looked old and heavy. Amalia took a deep breath and knocked.

“You may enter.” A reedy, muffled voice from inside beckoned her in. Amalia opened the door. The office was covered wall to wall in bookshelves, every one of them filled with books. Some books were even stacked on the floor. It smelled like parchment and dust. She sneezed. Grand Meister Marcellus was an old man with gray hair. He sat behind his desk, which was also covered in books. Amalia cleared her throat.

He stood quickly, beckoning her in.

“Hello, Grand Meister Marcellus. I am Amalia di Danti, of House di Danti, daughter of Marion di Danti. I have come-”

“Yes.” He wheezed. “It was in my appointment books.” He shuffled through some papers. “Ah, yes! Here. Amalia di Danti, studying engimancy.”

Amalia scrambled for something to say. He’d cut her off. It was rude.

“Well, young lady, welcome to Port Drebon University. Please sit down.”

“Of course. Thank you, sir.” She moved a couple books off of the cushy seat in front of his desk and sank into it.

“Do you have your papers?”

“Yes, sir.” She scrambled to get them out of her bag. He was appraising her with beady eyes. She handed them over and he nodded, barely giving them a glance before tossing them in the growing pile of disorganized papers on his desk.

“It seems everything is in order. Now, I wanted to discuss with you your project. It is quite fascinating, I must say. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

“Thank you, sir.” It was her thesis, which was what got her into the university. It was just blueprints and theory now, but eventually it would become working machine that could detect levels of magic in an area. She calculated that the current range of the device would be about two blocks, but she suspected that she could extend that further.

“Have you considered what you will do with it once it’s completed?”

“I’ll give it to the Department of Magics as an aid in investigations, sir. It’s commonly known that Black Magic is quite different from normal magics, so it’s my hope they can use this device to detect the usage of Black Magic, enabling them to better fight crime.” She sat up straighter as she spoke.

“An admirable goal.” He didn’t say anything about her slip.

“Thank you, sir.” Perhaps he didn’t care much for formality. He certainly didn’t seem to care for following protocol.

“Do you have other projects planned during your stay?”

“Well,” This was a risk. She bit her lip. “I thought to learn more about Compulsion screening, or perhaps watchmirrors, sir.”

“Very interesting topics, yes. I think you have some prior experience with watchmirrors, don’t you?”

“Well, yes, but only accidentally. My involvement is supposed to be kept secret, sir.”

“I see. Well, it is possibly the worst kept secret in the University. We’ve had your name down as a potential student since that event.”

“It was an accident, though. I was only playing with a watchmirror Judge di Danti brought home from work. I shouldn’t have even been near it, sir.” She wanted to also tell him that the device she was creating was only a combination of several existing technologies. It wasn’t anything new, per se. She was coming up with any of this in a vacuum. She just got lucky and thought of it before someone else did. She wasn’t even sure if the device would work once it was made.

“Perhaps, but why the interest in Compulsions, if I may? They are restricted magics.”

“Well, I plan to be working in the Department of Magics. I want to increase the efficiency of our department. That means making devices that allow for the easy capture of Black Mages, and perhaps making it quicker to screen people. I thought that if I were allowed to study how Compulsions work, I may create a better machine capable of doing it faster, with less time lost, sir.” She congratulated herself for quickly coming up with a reasonable explanation. Compulsions always lasted exactly 60 minutes. It was a bit inconvenient for both the investigators and the citizens being Compelled. If anyone ever got hurt while under the spell, the investigators would be held liable. So they had to wait in the office under supervision. That meant the whole process lasted longer that it should.

Finding a better way to do it was a good idea, actually. She supposed if she did study Compulsions she ought to figure out how to make them more efficient, if she could. It would be a form of penance.

“I see. That is quite an ambitious goal, Miss di Danti.”

“Not quite. I suspect I will not accomplish most of it, but I will try, and hopefully uncover information that will allow others to carry on in my stead, sir.”

The Grand Meister slowly got to his feet and went to fetch a teapot and two cups. He poured the tea and then passed one to Amalia.

“Thank you, sir.”

He took a sip of his own tea, contemplating. “You remind me of her, you know.” Said the old mage, staring at her intently.

“Sorry sir, who?” Amalia’s brow furrowed.

“And old student of mine, but you may remember her as our former Prime Minister, Meciel Recham.” He took another sip of tea. “You were but a mere child then. Do you remember?”

“I was eleven, I think. I can’t say I do, sir.”  Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She remembered father came home one night, telling mother the prime minister had resigned. It was some big hushed conversation, and her parents shuttled Amalia off to bed before she could hear anything interesting.

“Yes, after many years of service. She was a hero to us all. It is said that Meciel Recham single-handedly saved us from destruction, ridding our nation of black hearts.”

“I heard.” Her tone was dry, “father always says it’s a gross exaggeration, sir.”  Amalia was beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable.

He chuckled, “Oh yes, he would. But Meciel was a prodigy! Why, that girl was the brightest student I’ve ever taught!”

“I had no idea Prime Minister Recham studied here.” She was mildly intrigued. Her father and mother never spoke of the woman, but her tutors almost never shut up about her. She was hailed as the brightest star of Jaborre.

“Yes, as I said, my brightest student.” He cleared his throat. “Well, barring one exception.” He gave her a meaningful look. Amalia spluttered over her tea.

“I wouldn’t be so audacious as to compare myself to the former Prime Minister!” Said the part of her that was completely embarrassed, overriding the part of her that was flattered to be compared to the former prime minister. Well, to be realistic he was probably only saying that because she was a di Danti.

“You both have the same brilliance, the same drive, albeit put to different purposes, though each noble.”

“I’m not driven, not really, sir. I don’t even know what I want.”

“Neither did she, but Meciel put in all of her effort, regardless- not just to learning what was assigned, but going above-…” He cut himself off. “I think,” he paused, taking a breath, “it was part of her brilliance, that she saw what danger black arts pose to humankind, unlike those before her. She saw what she could do was limitless, and realized there would be others just as clever, but lacking in scruples.”

Some part of Amalia should have noticed what Grand Meister Marcellus had just said was significant, but she was still focused on the conflict between the pieces of herself that were trying to appear humble and the pieces that were basking in praise. She also realized that she wasn’t following proper protocol. Again. She wasn’t used to having to refer to people as sir.

“I still don’t see it. I won’t be the next Meciel Recham. I don’t think I could, not even if I tried, sir.” Okay, that was pushing it a bit too far. She should probably stop soliciting compliments from the Grand Meister, now.

“You are of greater import than you believe, Amalia di Danti. You were born of Judge Titus di Danti and Lady Marion di Danti.” Of course. Can’t forget why he’s doing this.

“Not only that,” he continued “but you inherited your father’s talent at solving puzzles and your mother’s sharp intellect. You forget, you are one of the youngest to enter this university. You are already creating new inventions at eighteen! That is far more than I accomplished in my youth, more than even your parents accomplished in their youth.”

“I know. I know these things but-…” But I’ve lived in di Danti Manor my whole life. I’ve seen precious little of the world outside, and I fear that I am ill equipped to survive this world. The embarrassed parts of her had a point. Barely two days in the city and she was stealing contraband and trying to cover up a crime. He was complimenting her and she didn’t deserve it. This guilt was not nearly as crippling as the guilt she felt when she was around her father, but it was still there.

“But what? What has sparked these questions, Amalia di Danti, if you already know the answers?”

“I just- well, what do you think of the black arts, Grand Meister Marcellus?” Her hands felt cold on her lap and her tongue felt like cotton in her mouth. Of all the responses that crossed her mind, that was the last one she wanted to voice.

“That’s-…” A heavy sigh, “do you ever wonder why we have such grand buildings at the University, but so few students? They spoke twice in the last 22 years of closing it. Can you imagine? No magic taught past secondary school in our very capital!”

“I didn’t know. Where did all the other mages go?” A large University meant they had room for many students, students that were no longer there. She had a sinking feeling she knew what he was going to say, that many of the students secretly practiced the black arts, that the growing distaste for all magics and mages was not founded in blind bigotry, but in truth.

“Some are dead.” The old mage’s tone was heavy with grief. “Some fled to Sutanni or Luwana. I do not say I disagree with what was done. It was all they could do after the Harkow Tragedy. My only wish is that so many had not died. But then, it was our own foolishness, our own fault. It is the message I meant to impart to you, that you use your intelligence wisely, for good, like our prime minister.”

Our fault. Our fault? Her brain completely skipped over the advice, finally connecting the dots from when he first implied that Meciel Recham, the prime minister, had practiced Black Magic. The former prime minister was a Black Mage. He couldn’t mean…

“Wait- you’re saying that- you- they-” Her voice rose a whole octave. “Black magic was was taughthere?” How did that even work? Didn’t they notice when the students learning about Black Magic went crazy? No. That couldn’t be true. Black magic wasn’t legal, ever. At least, she never learned the year when it was banned, and always assumed that it had always been banned.

He spoke softly. “There are a great many things I cannot say.” Which means yes, her brain informed her, as she sat there, numb, on her cushioned seat.

“But, how could you believe such a thing?” Said her mouth, blatantly ignoring her brain, which was telling her to not raise her voice when speaking to the eminent Grand Meister Marcellus of Port Drebon University, and that she forgot to call him sir, which was a complete social faux pas and if her Aunt Basileia were here, the woman would rap her her knuckles hard.

“Surely, daughter of Judge Titus di Danti, you know the history of our nation?”

“Of course.” She knew how the government started cracking down on Black Mages after one blew up half of Harkow City, in 872. But Black Mage organizations were always criminal fringe groups, detested by all, and widely known to be violent. Before Harkow, people were too busy worrying about the unrest between various countries to pay much mind to black mages, and that’s how the black mages managed to do so much damage.

A long pause. Grand Meister Marcellus took another sip of his tea.

“Before the Harkow Tragedy, many things were permitted that are not today. After that terrible day, the people cleansed this nation of that terrible evil.”

That was impossible. Black magic wasn’t legal before Harkow, it just wasn’t. He was insane. This entire conversation was nonsense.

“But, how could you not know? I mean, before the Tragedy. Do you honestly think people permitted the practice of something so destructive?”

Then the second shoe dropped. Marcellus said that Meciel Recham was a Black Mage. That was just utter bullshit. There was absolutely no way any of this was true. Was this man right in the head?

Unless, somehow, she’d been mislead. Perhaps Meciel Recham was immune to the destructive nature of Black Magics. It was possible, but it turned her stomach to think about it. She wasn’t quite sure why the idea made her feel so uncomfortable. Her brain didn’t even want to go there. And of course, that meant she had to think about it.

What if not everyone who practices Black Magic is a murderer or monster? It would mean that either her father and every other official in-the-know was lying, or it meant that they all were mistaken. But that was entirely improbable. Someone would have spilled the beans.

Well, it was also possible that Amalia was only getting small pieces of the puzzle, and was putting it together wrong. There might be something she was missing.

Luckily, it was far more likely that old Marcellus was just going senile. One man being sentimental about his lost colleagues made more sense than her father lying to her. Not to mention, it was absurd imagining that Meciel Recham could be a Black Mage. She was the former Prime Minister, for goodness’ sake!

Maybe a couple of his old students or coworkers had been black mages in disguise, and he couldn’t bring himself to believe that they were actually monsters. He seemed like the sort to refuse to believe something out of pride.

With that, Amalia realized she’d said her professor’s beloved dead colleagues were terrible people. Obviously he didn’t believe they were deranged murderers, even if they were. She was immediately struck with a deep mortification, and cursed her mind for being so slow as to completely miss the point.

“I was young, foolish. And Miss di Danti, these questions of yours, they are dangerous. I do not wish to speak of such things.”

“I didn’t mean- I apologize, sir.”

“It is only the exuberance of youth. You are forgiven, Miss di Danti. I have said a great many things I regret in my youth, as well.” Yes, he seemed exactly like the sort of person who would want to always appear right.

But there was still that niggling doubt in the back of her mind. She had to ask.

“Sorry sir, but I must ask. Why do you believe Black Magic wasn’t banned before the Harkow Tragedy?” She felt like she was digging herself deeper into a hole, but she couldn’t help it. She was too curious. And a part of her mind informed her that this was exactly the sort of behavior that got her in trouble when she stole that journal. She needed to take a step back and think before she said anything else stupid.

“I cannot tell you. You are not allowed to know why Black Magic was banned, no one is. It is for the safety of all that this knowledge was locked away.”

Amalia pursed her lips. She wanted so desperately to argue, to insist, but she knew she couldn’t. That was enough questions. She had learned her lesson the first time she did something stupid thanks to her curiosity.

“I apologise, sir. I won’t speak of it again.”

“Thank you. You may go, Miss di Danti.”

Amalia got up to leave.

“Miss di Danti?”

“Yes, sir?”

“I will put in a request for a waiver. Compulsion magics are restricted, but I trust you are responsible enough to learn of it.”

“Thank you, sir.” As she turned away, she grinned. It might not be so impossible to avoid detection, after all. Well, so long as the senile old man actually remembered to put in the request. Obviously, there was something seriously wrong with his head.

Once Amalia left the professor’s office, she thought about a number of things. First, that Grand Meister Marcellus was terrible at keeping secrets. Clearly he shouldn’t have told her any of that, not that she was going to complain. She doubted Compulsion screenings involved obscure questions about their former Prime Minister.

But more importantly, why did Marcellus believe Meciel Recham was a Black Mage? She had been in charge of their government, and the High Council of Judges would’ve known. So basically, she couldn’t have been a black mage. They definitely did loyalty screenings on candidates for the prime minister. If they did it on people attending college, they did it on important figures in the government.

The whole point was the consideration that Marcellus believed Black Magic was once taught. Amalia doubted Marcellus would make something like that up out of thin air, which made it slightly more probable that Meciel Recham was actually a Black Mage. But the very thought that Black Magic was taught at the university baffled Amalia. How did no one know it was dangerous? The idea sparked so many more questions she didn’t even know where to start.

Now, more than ever, Amalia wanted to read that journal. She squashed that desire viciously. Once she managed to cover her tracks, then she would read it. Maybe.

This was frustrating. It was all so unlikely. It was unlikely that Marcellus was lying, because really, who would make this stuff up? If he was speaking to her about it, then he was speaking to other people, too.

That really made her worry, because the board of education should have sacked him by now, especially if he were rambling about Black Mages being taught at the university. Well, he was old and perhaps senile, and a member of the Marcellus family. Maybe they didn’t sack him out of pity?

The sad part was that she could almost see the logic in what he said. Anything associated with the Harkow Tragedy was considered malevolent, so maybe there was a more mundane explanation for this. Perhaps, she thought, the stigma of Black Magic resulted in self selection. People thought Black Magic was evil, so only people who were very desperate or cruel would take an interest in it. That would, of course, result in the maintenance of a terrible reputation for Black Mages.

There was, of course, a more obvious conclusion that fit the evidence better. She had been operating under the assumption that the moment someone read about Black Magic, they started going crazy. But what if it was a gradual change, over decades instead of months. It would be much more difficult to find the link between Black Magic and insanity if the effects only showed up much later in life.

Even if by later in life that meant “five years” it would still explain how the government didn’t realize it for so long. In addition, it explained how her father and other officials could combat Black Magic. You can’t fight something you know nothing about. (It occurred to Amalia that before this moment, she never thought about how her father fought Black Magic, and she wondered what other conclusions she’d failed to realize due to something not occurring to her.)

Amalia could further make the assumption that the more one studied the black arts, the greater the risk for insanity. It would explain why, if Meciel Recham had studied black magic, she and the government officials who fought Black Magic were not all deranged murderers.

Even the policy to execute Black Mages made sense, since the people who they were executing would be beyond help. They knew how to hurt people and had no reserve in doing so. Executing people who were not at the stage where they were beyond reason would be a sufficient deterrent to prevent more people from crossing the line into insanity.

It was, however, much more likely that Marcellus was just an old man who was confused, but now she was bothered by the question of how her father and the rest hunted down black mages if they knew nothing of their methods. It made her wonder.

Perhaps one could learn wickedness but not become it.

When she got back to the townhouse, there was a note in her mailbox from Jeptha. He wanted her to go to the parade tomorrow with him and Philomena. Amalia had to admit, she was curious about Lothar, especially given her newest questions. She hid his journal and refused to look at it, but she was still curious. It burned at the back of consciousness.

Watchmirrors, Compulsion magics, and Black Magic was on her mind as she made herself dinner.

That’s when Amalia got an idea.

She grinned. She knew exactly how to cover her tracks and prevent anyone from finding out she stole that journal. It was deliciously simple.

She’d go to Henrik’s office in the morning and write out a second timesheet for the day she stole the journal. Then she’d slip it into the folder where he kept them all. When he goes to check and realizes there’s two worksheets for the same day- one only filled in to noon, he’d suspect he was compelled. It would be a crime with no real culprit. The man said he always went to lunch at a specific diner. Someone could easily just follow him and Compel him once he got into the restaurant.

A part of Amalia wondered why, if the solution was so obvious, did real Black Mages not use this strategy to infiltrate Council Hall. Was there some protection she was not aware of, or were the Black Mages really that stupid?

Or maybe they were using this exploit, but knew to avoid leaving evidence behind. Amalia favored the last explanation, because it made her feel less like she was making a mistake. At the same time, she knew that wanting something to be true didn’t make it true. She was taking a major risk with this plot, but she couldn’t think of any better options.

But there was too much at stake to hedge it all on this one plan. She desperately wanted to stop thinking about it and just go through with it and hope it worked, because it was the first idea she’d gotten all day and she was starting feel desperate. It was between do this and maybe get caught or do nothing and definitely get caught.

Amalia made a promise to herself. She’d think on it overnight. If she came up with any more obvious flaws, she would find another way.

And you know what else? After this, she would be obeying the law to the letter. It was just not safe to keep acting on impulse and idle curiosity. Her father did not know what she did, but Amalia knew, and she vowed to make it up to him. She’d do something to make him proud. She’d uphold the law and avoid Black Magic, even if it didn’t make people go insane. The journal would be tossed in the river, unread.

In the end, she decided to tell Jeptha that she would attend the parade. She supposed it was morbid curiosity. Plus, it would be the first city parade she would attend. Philomena and Jeptha were both going, and she didn’t want to be left out. She was in the city, now. Amalia hadn’t been a part of their “city” lives before, and she wanted to be be included.

 

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3 thoughts on “Scene 4: Speculation

  1. I recently began reading and so far I’m really enjoying it! I love your pacing, and the magical system you’re building is astounding! These are also HUGE chapters for a biweekly-updated serial, so that’s quite impressive as well.

    I did notice that the formatting on this chapter seems to be a little messed up though…it looks like perhaps some newlines got lost?

    • Oh wow! Thank you! Some of the chapters get edited over later, like the prologue had quite a few words added on after it was first published. Chances are there will be *more* changes, even. (Not changes to the plot, but to minor things.)

      …and I didn’t check over this chapter. Yikes! Well, that teaches me a lesson. Even if the last few came out okay, that doesn’t mean to stop checking. Thanks for the review!

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