The wheels of the stagecoach clattered down West Drebon Street. The train didn’t pass near di Danti estate, so Amalia took the coach that passed within a mile of it. She could walk the last leg of the journey to her mother’s place.
Typically, di Danti’s did take public stagecoaches. But it was too short notice to hire a personal coach for the day and you couldn’t keep one full-time in the city, because the roads weren’t wide enough in the residential districts for there to be parked coaches on the sides of the road and two lanes of traffic.
Her father, when he found out that she was taking this trip, would be upset with her. But it wouldn’t be that dangerous because she had her guard, Oslin, with her.
He was not dressed like a guard, of course. That would draw undue attention to them. The only thing that separated him from the everyday men in the city was the revolver hidden under his clothes, and the fact that he was obliged to use it should she be threatened.
There were two other people sharing the ride with her. Riding with strangers was odd, but she was treating it like an adventure. She would not complain about the noise or the discomfort, even if she really wanted to- complaining wasn’t something a di Danti did.
A woman with a baby sat in front of them. The baby would make fussing noises and the mother would try to hush the child.
The carriage hit a rut in the ground and the baby let out a sharp wail. Amalia winced. In a private carriage, she could stretch out her legs across the seat and read a book, if she pleased. It was almost always quiet.
Well, the mother was trying to keep the baby silent, at least.
The other passenger was an old man with a bad comb over. He sat, shoulders slumped, staring at his hands. She couldn’t see properly, but it looked like he was playing with a ring.
When Amalia was younger, there was a man in the village who lost his wife to tuberculosis. He always used to play with his ring, looking melancholic whenever his son looked away.
Amalia caught herself biting her lip and stopped. There were plenty of reasons to look sad and fiddle with rings. It could just be an old habit. And besides, there was nothing she could do about it.
They slowed to a stop at the edge of the city. Anyone entering or leaving had to have their papers checked. It was standard procedure. No one wanted Black Mages getting in, nor black market goods. There were a number of procedures, including checking under the carriage for hidden compartments. It was a thoroughness born out of experience.
They all exited the stagecoach, even the driver. Six watchguards stood outside and a fence extended in either direction, preventing them from running. Two of the watchguards went to the coach. They would inspect it for illegal goods while the other two were by the gate, keeping an eye on the general scene. The last two stood by the passengers, who were told to line up outside the security booth.
The woman with the baby dug her crumpled papers out of her bag. The watchguard looked it over and took inside the security booth. A minute later he came out, handed the papers back to her.
“And what’s your business leaving Port Drebon today, ma’am?” he asked.
“Visiting me mam in Appleshire, sir.” She shifted the baby, who made a gurgling noise. The watchguard jotted something down on his notepad.
“And the baby? Is it yours?”
“Yes, sir. me mam want’d to see her.” Her lips thinned. She looked nervous.
“Did you bring with you the correspondence between you and your mam?” Amalia didn’t miss the sneer in his voice. She stopped herself from frowning. The watchguard was simply doing his job. No doubt, he was worried about the safety of the baby. There was a rumor a few years ago about babies being sold to black mages and being used in experiments.
“Yes sir.” She shifted the baby on her hip and dug out a small stack of letters. The watchguard leafed through them. He paused on one, letting out a little snort.
“I might be a bit late, so don’t expect me for breakfast. The lines at checkpoints take forever.” The watchguard looked up, staring at the woman. “Do they, Miss Whitovich?”
“I’m very sorry, sir.”
“I’m not sure we should let you through, with such sentiments.”
Amalia fidgeted. Well, if he was going to read between the lines of every letter like that, then she could see the woman’s point.
The watchguard looked over the letters once again, frowning. “It’s the duty of the watchguards to protect the public. To display such animosity towards our public service, well, I admit I’m a bit disturbed. Especially considering the child.” He turned to the other watchguard. “The mother might be a bad influence, assuming she is the real mother, of course.”
She turned white, holding the baby to her chest. The baby let out another wail.
“It seemed rather like a statement of fact than a criticism, to me.” Amalia said, before her good sense could tell her to shut up.
The watchguard turned, face curled in fury. Her guard quickly stood between the two of them, protecting her.
“Just who the hell do you think you are?” the watchguard hissed.
Amalia walked around her guard, placing a calming hand on his arm. She handed her papers to the watchguard with a flourish, purposely showing her ring. It was the signet ring with her family crest. Only nobles carried signet rings.
He paled immediately.
“Ms Whitovich is right. This line is taking too long. Shall we speed it up?” Amalia gave the guard a smile. It wasn’t the kind sort of smile.
“Yes, m’lady. Right away.”
She nodded. The woman with the baby was sent ahead to the watchmirror station. It was just a booth that would record your face for a moment. She went in, stood there for a few seconds, then the watchguard politely, if sullenly, directed her back to the stagecoach.
Amalia was next.
He handed back her papers. “Just step into the watchmirror booth. Sorry for the bother, m’lady.”
She stepped inside. There were three mirrors. One taking in her left side, one her right, and the other the front of her face.
After that, she went back to her seat in the stagecoach. Shortly after, her guard sat down. The man with the poor comb over was next. The driver came back last and then they were off.
“I must advise against doing that again, m’lady.” Said her guard.
“I’ll keep it in mind.” She said, voice dry. Honestly, she was a noble. Watchguards had to obey her orders. Being the daughter of a Judge and Heir to a House made that doubly so. Even if they had wanted to do something, they couldn’t. They knew the repercussions if they tried.
The woman with the baby turned around in her seat. “M’lady?”
“Thank you for that, back there.”
“It’s no problem. I suspect that watchguard was just nervous, what with all the troubles lately,” Amalia frowned. “Though that is no excuse for his behavior. I apologize on his behalf.”
The woman gave her a strained smile. She had dark bags under her eyes. “Still, thank you.”
“Your welcome.” It was a little thing. Really, anyone in Amalia’s position would have done it. In fact, she enjoyed watching the man’s face go white when he realized just who he was insulting.
The woman turned back to her baby, and Amalia went back to her thoughts. Outside the city was mostly farmland, rolling hills with small farmhouses and barns dotting the landscape. Then the hills of farmland turned into small whitewashed cottages as they approached the only village between the estate and Port Drebon.
Appleshire was a small village, but well known for their annual apple festival, which was in a few days, if she wasn’t mistaken. Amalia watched the villagers running around, likely preparing for it. One was standing on a wooden ladder, putting up white streamers on the roof, while another man on the ground was gesturing wildly. The man on the ladder looked down and said something sharp to the other man. The one standing below the ladder just huffed and stomped off.
Amalia grinned. It reminded her of two women at the estate. They’d always be arguing about something, but somehow they were the best of friends.
The woman with the baby got off at Appleshire, and Amalia enjoyed the quiet, staring out the window. It was only twenty more minutes to the di Danti estate.
The time passed quickly. She almost wished the wait was longer, considering what she’d have to do.
She and Oslin got off at the stop, walking up to the gatehouse. The guards here were under the employ of her family.
“Visiting, m’lady?” said Dawson. He was a middle aged man with a large mustache. He’d been working for the di Danti’s since she was a little girl.
“Yes, I’m visiting Lady di Danti. Do you know if she’s entertaining guests today?”
“No one’s passed through the gates, so I suppose not, m’lady.”
“Do you want a ride up to the manor, m’lady?”
“I would very much appreciate it. Thank you, Dawson.”
They walked through the gates and past the gatehouse towards the stable. The wagon was already hitched, loaded with sacks of flour and vegetables.
Her guard would wait at the gate house. The di Danti estates were protected, so there was no need for him.
“Connor is taking the supplies up to the manor. He’ll give you a lift, m’lady.”
“Take care of yourself, Mr. Dawson.”
“Thank you, m’lady.”
She lifted herself up onto the wagon and sat. Connor was stopped by Mr. Dawson, who gestured at the wagon. The boy nodded vigorously, and hurried over.
“Good day, m’lady.” He gingerly sat next to her, taking the reigns of the horses. He looked green.
At one point she might’ve said to him that she was hardly anyone to be afraid of- she wasn’t like her cousin Francis who got the people who lived at his estate in trouble for nothing. Connor was obviously nervous and uncomfortable with sitting so close to her. She wanted to say something, except last time she joked with the the people living on the estate, it hadn’t turned out well for her.
She’d been fifteen and bored. It was the middle of the summer and too warm to stay inside, so she’d gone out to the fields. The di Danti manor was surrounded by vineyards. It was their primary source of revenue before mother decided that investing in factories might yield greater profits.
Amalia ended up running around with a few of the children that were her age, having quite a bit of fun. Of course, her Aunt Basileia managed to see her running with no shoes through a field. She’d even managed to get dirt on her face and pants.
Aunt Basileia told her mother, and so she was called into the study where her mother calmly told her in that icy voice of hers why di Dantis don’t play in fields. She could still remember her words. “Do you not understand the importance of reputation? What will the townsfolk think of you, now?” Amalia had said they might think her kind, to which her mother replied, “No. They’ll think you’re weak like them, and you are not.”
She was even worse when Amalia explained how she wanted to be an Engimancer.
She had stated her case formally, explaining how she could invent things that only the di Danti’s would have access to, and that her knowledge of magics would be a great value to the family.
Her mother’s response was crushing. “An Engimancer? Amalia, really. Why not just become a plumber or a field worker if you’re so eager to abase yourself. If I want information on magics, I’ll just pay someone for it. And if you think you’re smart enough to invent things that no one else has thought of, you’re only fooling yourself. If you’re one-in-a-million, and you are assuredly not, there are twenty-two of you in Jaborre.”
She told mother that engimancy was not about working with your hands, but about inventing new magics. Mother only agreed when Amalia said that while being a magical theorist is more prestigious, they are also subjected to loyalty screenings quarterly. Engimancers get their license and only get loyalty screenings yearly, the same as any other citizen.
The difference between engimancers and magical theorists was cosmetic, at best.They both suffer through the same lessons, but engimancers have to figure out what kind of magics will work instead of philosophizing about what may work, or what should work.
Amalia said that working as an engimancer would test her critical thinking skills, because she would get immediate feedback on whether or not she was on the right track. Those critical thinking skills would carry over to other work, like managing House di Danti later in life.
Whether it was mentioning being compelled less or critical thinking skills, her mother grudgingly agreed to allow her to study engimnacy.
She wondered if her mother would force her to give up engimancy, now that she had an excuse. What mother wanted was for Amalia to study law, but Amalia never had the knack for it. Mostly it just put her straight to sleep. It was easier for her to learn when she had a specific goal in mind. Just learning for the sake of knowing a bunch of laws always seemed pointless and frustrating. She knew it was useful, but her mind refused to work up the energy required to get interested in it.
Amalia blinked, banishing those thoughts. It wouldn’t help her to be defeated before she even met with her mother.
The wagon was pulling up to the manor. It was stone, more like a castle than a manor, but the proper name for the residence of the Head of House was a manor, so that’s what they called it.
She thanked Connor and walked up the stone steps to the front door, ringing the bell. Not even a minute later and the door opened. It was old Mr. Remley, the butler. They only kept a butler and a cook. Maids came in once a week to clean the house, and were thoroughly vetted before they could set foot on the premises.
“Lady Amalia. Welcome home.”
Amalia smiled. “It feels like I haven’t seen you in ages. How are you?”
“I’m well, thank you m’lady. I hope your are doing well. How long are you staying?”
“I am. Actually, not very long. I plan to head back to the townhouse this evening. I’m sorry to trouble you, but do you know where Lady di Danti is?”
“She’s in her study. Will you be staying for dinner, m’lady?”
Amalia’s lips thinned. “I’m not sure. Probably not. Thank you.”
“If it’s any help, m’lady, she’s in a good mood today.” Mr. Remley eyed her in that practiced way that told her he knew she’d done something wrong.
She gave him a wan smile. “A bit.” He nodded, and walked off.
She let out a gust of air and walked to the study. She stood in front of the door for a few moments. This was it. No turning back.
Amalia opened the door. “Hello, mother.”
“Amalia.” She was at her desk, writing in a thick book. She glanced up. “What is it?”
“I hope I’m not interrupting.”
“You are, but it’s no matter. Sit.”
Amalia walked up to the desk and sat down.
There were two chairs in front of Marion di Danti’s desk. Neither were particularly comfortable, in spite of being squishy. The desk was solid oak. It was carved expertly by craftsman some two hundred years ago. There were bookshelves on the back wall, and the left side of the wall had two large windows, covered by drapes. The right side of the room had a number of drawers where mother kept her files.
Mother stopped writing, putting her pen down. “Stop dawdling and speak.” The whole point was to make her uncomfortable. If she had spoken while her mother was writing, she would have been scolded for interrupting.
“I’ve made a mistake, and I need some advice on how to handle it.” Amalia forced herself to stare at her mother. She wanted to look away.
“I visited father the other day. Did he tell you?”
“I was alone in his office.”
Mother’s lips thinned. She was always rather quick.
“There was a journal. Curious thing, really. I wasn’t even sure why the box would be in his office. It was such an odd thing- ”
“Did you read it?” Mother said, interrupting her.
“No, of course not.”
“Well, at least there’s that.” She sighed. “May I ask what you were thinking?”
“I didn’t- “
“Because I don’t understand how any daughter of mine could be so stupid.”
Amalia frowned. “I get it. I made a major mistake. I’d like to know what we’re going to do about it”
She just sighed. “Consider it fixed. Do you have the journal with you?”
“I’m not that stupid.”
“Good. I’ll arrange for someone to pick it up. Don’t read it in the meantime.”
“I don’t plan on it.”
“Before you leave, I wanted to speak with you about something your father told me.”
“What is it?”
“You were looking into Compulsions.”
“I take it the interest was because of this book?”
“Well, you may cease looking. I’ll take care of that, too.”
Amalia pointedly didn’t wonder how her mother could do that, at least, not in front of her.
“Thank you.” Amalia stood up. There was no point in continuing their conversation. But- Well, “May I ask you something?”
“Yes.” said her mother, from the opposite side of the room.
“Why has father forbidden me from looking into Compulsion magics?”
“For many reasons. I would suggest forgetting them for now.”
“Because during compulsion screenings, they ask you if you know about it.” Amalia guessed.
Marion glanced back at Amalia and smiled. It was one of her rare approving smiles.
“Yes. It is knowledge that is privileged. Very few know the secret, and for a good reason. You won’t tell your children, either.”
“But you know what Compulsion magics are.” Amalia said, staring at her mother intently. “And you are in no trouble.”
“They don’t Compel the Heads of Houses yearly, and you can submit a waiver.”
“Which always gets passed because of father.”
“Exactly. Once I’m dead and you have been compelled for the last time, then you will open a safe I have set aside for you, and you will learn about Compulsion spells. Before then, you must not know.”
And that meant… well, that could mean a lot of things. She would have to stop hunting down information on compulsion magics, unfortunately. It wasn’t that hard a decision to make. She was curious, but she didn’t see any easy way of finding that information. Maybe the library would have something, but it would be locked away somewhere if it was such a big secret.
She wondered if the reason they guarded the secret so closely was because there was a counter to it. Someone clever might be able to undo a Compulsion. Or maybe they just didn’t want the information getting out to Black Mages who would surely misuse them, but that didn’t make a whole lot of sense since she knew that one of her amulets that she wore everyday protected her from rogue compulsions.
“I see.” Amalia frowned. “And that’s how you can stop them from asking me about the journal.”
“Mother?” She said, standing at the door. “Don’t tell father about the journal.”
“I should, but I don’t think he could bare the shame.”
Amalia shut her mouth.
“You wouldn’t know this,” mother said, “but your mistake has put you father in a bad situation at work. You owe him, and you owe me.”
I thought family didn’t hold debts.
With that, she left. Somehow, telling her mother left her feeling no better. She’d thought that she’d be relieved knowing she wasn’t going to jail or wouldn’t be fined. Now she just felt worse, like someone had punched her in the chest, hard.
She’d caused her father trouble at work. It occurred to her then, that it really was odd that her father had that box in his office. He wasn’t an investigator. She knew she wondered about it before, but back then she’d thought he was doing something that he always did, like maybe he personally involved himself in all the high-profile cases. It seemed like something her father would do.
Now she knew he was in trouble for it.
She didn’t know why he had the box of evidence, and she wasn’t about to ask her mother, but now it was in the back of her mind, bothering her.
But there was no real point in worrying about it. She couldn’t fix it. If she could, her mother would’ve told her how right then and there. So instead, Amalia let the stress bleed out of her. There was no more reason to worry about the Journal. Instead, she could look forward to University, classes, and enjoying the company of her friends.
Tomorrow she’d go to the parade with her friends, and by then the journal would be a distant memory.