Amalia froze, terror gripping her at the sound of the gunshot, but she wasn’t bleeding. The blonde Watchguard pointing the gun at her jerked violently, and with a strangled sort of sound, crumpled down next to Lothar’s body. Her father, the Judge, walked out of the alley connecting to East Drebon Street. His revolver was held in his hand tightly, and his face was grim.
He was tall and imposing, dressed in the ceremonial robes of a Judge, golden braiding and embroidery lining the deep blue robes, making his red-fading-to-gray hair seem more shocking by the contrast. His robes, she noted absently, were covered in dust and torn, and face was covered in scratches. There was blood trickling down his neck from his left ear.
“Put down your weapons.” He ordered the other three watchguards, who had never fully lowered their weapons.
“Now.” The Judge ordered, pointing his revolver at the first guard when he hesitated. The Watchguard, trembling, dropped his revolver. Amalia stood there, panting shallow breaths, the stinging burns in her arms and the aches in her joints making themselves apparent once she realized her father was there.
She was safe. And now those awful watchguards would feel the fear she felt when they pointed their revolvers at her, her brain remarked with a spark of vindictive pleasure. Well, three would. The first one was dead. Her father had killed a watchguard. Surely, there was a law against that.
Suddenly, the ground was a lot closer. Oh. She’d fallen to her knees. When had that happened?
Her father had broken the law in her defense. She felt sick. He could have just told them to stop. He didn’t have to shoot them. Another more vicious part said that he got what he deserved. She squelched that thought immediately.
“Amalia. Tell me what happened.” Her father’s voice was stern.
“I- There was- I tried to- You’re the law. I tried to stop them and they wouldn’t listen. I tried and they said they’d- worse than death.” She couldn’t get enough air in her lungs, and her brain wasn’t cooperating.
“What did you try to do?” He said, tone calm. The other watchguards tried interjecting. “She was defending a-”
“Silence. I will hear my daughter speak.” They stilled.
Amalia took a deep breath. “The law states that a Black Mage must fulfill their sentence. His sentence was death, at the hands of the executioner at Byron’s Circle. They sho- shot him. He was injured- down- and couldn’t get up. I told them to wait for you, but they- right in front of me. They wouldn’t listen. I ordered them, and they wouldn’t listen. They said I wasn’t your daughter, and that they’d-” She didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t want to think about it. Her heart started pounding and she tried to control her breathing. It was over. She was safe. Stop panicking.
“I see.” Her father turned to the three watchguards. “You are dismissed. Have a crew come to pick up your partner. You will report to my office first thing tomorrow morning, and you will speak of this incident to no one unless you want to be charged with treason.” There were three mumbled, equal parts indignant and terrified, “yessirs!” and the three remaining watchguards left.
Father turned back to her. “Never do that again. Do you understand me?”
She let out a breath. “Yes. But I was just trying to-”
“To what? Defend a Black Mage? What were you thinking?”
“Of course not! I was trying to uphold the law, to stop a miscarriage of justice.”
“Miscarriage of- Amalia! He was going to be executed, either way. And what were you doing in an alleyway near a Black Mage?”
“It is a miscarriage! He was supposed to be executed in Byron’s Circle. It is the hallmark of a civilized nation to only ever follow the law to the letter. That’s what you’ve always said.”
“Amalia, if a Black Mage tries to escape, the watchguards have standing orders to shoot to kill.”
Amalia opened her mouth, the shut it. “I didn’t know.”
“You wouldn’t. And that’s partially my fault. I’ve shielded you from the world. I thought it would protect you.”
Amalia hung her head. She felt like an idiot.
“Now explain to me how you ended up in an alleyway with four watchguards and a Black Mage.”
“I saw him running from the carriage so I enlisted some watchguards with my signet ring and chased him down.” She was still slightly proud of that part, though when the other people started using the alley to escape, she felt distinctly less clever.
Her father was silent for a moment, just staring at her.
“You did what? Do you realize the kind of danger you put yourself in? I should send you back home. You’re obviously not ready to live in the city.”
Every word felt like a blow and her chest felt heavy. She’d helped! She really had.
“If it weren’t for me, your prisoner would have escaped and you would have lost political capital. I was helping you.” Her words came out hot and angry. She hadn’t felt this angry at her father in years. She had almost died helping him. He should be thanking her. That was the whole point of all this. She’d capture Lothar and her father would see her as an equal. It hadn’t been on her mind at the time she’d run after Lothar, but it felt like a good enough reason, now.
“I do not need your help. What I need is for you to get your education and stay out of trouble.”
“Well to get my education I need to stay here.”
“You can ride in the carriage every morning, then. Don’t forget. We‘re the ones who own that townhouse.”
Their voices steadily rose. “This is absurd! I can’t be expected to cart my research back and forth. It’d be a massive waste of time.”
“You’ll do it because I’ll be damned if I ever see my daughter dead in an alleyway!”
There was silence.
Amalia was shaking from suppressed rage and exhaustion. This wasn’t how this was supposed to be. She wished anything that she could go back in time and just- … but then Lothar would have escaped and the world would be a more dangerous place. That was a selfish, stupid wish.
Her father rubbed his forehead, brushing aside some dirt and blood. “Are you hurt?” His voice had lowered significantly.
“No. I just was scratched. I couldn’t hear for a little bit.”
“You’re covered in blood. I want you to go see the diagnostician. Can you walk?”
“I think so.” Amalia said. She touched her cheek. It wasn’t her blood. She remembered, in a distant sort of way, getting something on her face when they shot Lothar in the head. The image and the touch of blood on her skin combined made her throw up. She let out a dry sob.
She shut her eyes quickly, holding her breath, (she didn’t want to smell her own vomit,) then shakily stood. She wiped her mouth with her sleeve and took a couple shallow breaths. She’d be fine.
“I can walk.” She wasn’t weak. She’d prove it. She wasn’t a fool or weak or whatever else her father thought she was.
She stood on her own, and made an effort to brush the dirt and dust off her clothes.
“You know,” she said to her father. “You might have saved me a lot of trouble if I had a proper handmirror.”
If she had a handmirror, she would have just called her father immediately and told him what was happening. Everything could have been avoided. She wouldn’t have been threatened at gunpoint, and what was the blonde haired watchguard going to say to her father’s face. He was dead. As in, her father killed him. Right in front of her. Two people died in front of her.
Shut up. She couldn’t fall apart in front of her father.
“It wasn’t your responsibility in the first place.”
“Yes, but then I would’ve known in the first place not to chase after him. None of this would’ve happened.”
“Amalia!” A familiar voice called out. Jeptha. He was alive.
He ran up to them, pausing to stare at the two dead bodies. “Woah.”
“Mr. Harland, are you in need of medical attention?” asked her father.
“Already got it. The doctors are back there.” He pointed to the alley that lead to the main road. “What happened?”
“It’s best you don’t ask, Jeptha. Please just escort my daughter to the doctors.” Jeptha gingerly walked around the two pools of blood and wrapped his arm around Amalia, helping her stand straight. She hadn’t even realized she was leaning over.
Might’ve hit my head a bit hard.
“Where were you?” She muttered as they walked past her father, who was barking orders at some new watchguards who’d entered the alleyway after Jeptha.
“Landed on some fat old guy. A plank of wood from that stupid stand fell on top of us. Look at my chin. I’ll bet it’ll leave a wicked scar.” It was bandaged, but blood was already seeping through. She winced.
She had one arm around Jeptha’s shoulders, leaning some of her weight on him as she walked. It felt like all the strength had gone right out of her. What was it called, when people were in a scary situation and afterwards they felt ill? Trauma or shock or something.
Walking out of the alley and onto the street, Amalia almost faltered in her steps. There were people running everywhere, working to pull victims out of the rubble. A lot of bystanders were watching from the sidelines, and watchguards were yelling at them and trying to set up a perimeter. It was chaos.
In all honesty, she felt like she was dreaming. She didn’t know whether it was the head injury or what, but this whole thing felt unreal.
Jeptha squeezed her, lightly. “Guess we’re not going out tonight, after all.”
Amalia let out a short bark of laughter. It should have felt like a release, the moment where she could let it go and relax. It didn’t.
The trauma specialist was standing by an upturned wagon, taking the pulse of a young man lying on his side. He shook his head. The two people standing near him, his assistants maybe, nodded and started signalling another group of people.
The treatment specialist saw us and quickly walked over. “Sir, I must suggest you go home and rest. Leave the rescuing to the watchguards.”
“No, this is my friend.” said Jeptha. “She’s a di Danti.”
The man started. “My apologies, lady di Danti. My name is Dr. Marko, and if you could please follow me.” He hurried towards an area the teams had cleared. There were a number of patients lying on the ground with doctors and assistants doing-
Amalia looked away.
“Just sit down. Can you tell me where it hurts?”
“Her head’s bloody, she can’t walk right, and she’s confused.” Jeptha said, before she got a chance to speak.
“I couldn’t hear, but it came back.” She couldn’t hear as well as she could before explosion. It was still sounding like the words were coming from underwater. Maybe it was just her head.
The doctor’s lips thinned. “Yes, that would be from the explosion.” He started lightly prodding the back of her head. She focused on her hands, and sitting up straight. She hadn’t even realized she’d been slouching. Aunt Basileia would be angry, only she couldn’t work up the energy to care.
“It looks like you have a mild concussion, m’lady. Your ankle is swollen; you probably twisted it. Mostly it’s just cuts and bruises. You’re going to be sore for a few days, but you’ll be just fine.”
She must’ve dozed off because she blinked and her cheek and arms were bandaged. She saw out of the corner of her eye that the specialist had pulled Jeptha aside.
There was dirt under hands, and blood. Was it Lothar’s blood or the blonde watchguard’s? Maybe it was her own. She didn’t know.
There was a great amount of noise around her. Firefighters and watchguards and doctors rushing about. It was odd, seeing this many doctors. There weren’t a great many doctors in Jaborre. Even her parents couldn’t get a personal diagnostician to attend to just them.
When she was eleven or twelve, there was an argument between her parents and Aunt Basileia. Her Aunt was furious about how she couldn’t find a physician that would work only for her, or only for the di Dantis. She said something about gossip and medical records being unsafe, but her parents brushed it off. No one could afford a personal physician, and even families like the di Dantis had to wait months on a waiting list to get an appointment.
She could guess why there weren’t many doctors. It meant working with the diseased, and she supposed people didn’t want to expose themselves or their families to possible sickness. From what she knew, small particles carried sickness from one person to the next, and a doctor could become ill from their patients.
Many people must think it an unnecessary risk. Of course, plenty of people worked dangerous jobs, but few of those jobs required years of learning. From what she knew, being a doctor meant studying complicated magics for at least nine years, which was four years more than Amalia expected to be in school.
Her cousin used to say that doctors weren’t always completely moral, too, which might have some bearing on why so few people chose it as a matter of study. She couldn’t remember who told her, but she remembered hearing from a few people that the magics used by doctors didn’t always work, and sometimes had negative consequences. That was why trusted doctors used less magic in their craft.
She didn’t understand it, because she’d seen some of the magical machines the doctors used to diagnose illnesses, and most were fairly straightforward. Of course, no one complained about the magical machines, and said they were perfectly reliable. So Amalia wasn’t sure what they were complaining about. Magical machines were the extent of magic, shaping ambient energy gathered in crystals into a function.
The things people were afraid of, like growing extra arms or becoming deformed, were simply impossible. The power requirements would be completely undoable. You’d need an entire factory full of crystals to pull it off, at least. Then you’d have the issue of wires melting, because none could withstand that kind of energy flowing through them for long.
And it always rankled her, because it was such a stupid superstition.
One of her earliest ambitions as a child was to change that perception. When she was eleven or twelve, after she heard what her cousin said, she’d informed her parents that she was going to fix it. She’d make people like doctors and then more people would want to be doctors. Then Aunt Basileia could have her own doctor, just like she wanted.
Her mother had simply looked at her father and said “deal with this.” Before shaking her head and walking off. Her father had gently sat her down and explained that it was one of those problems you’re not supposed to solve, like trying to figure out how some black mages were able to become birds and other animals.
The manor had protections that prevented such creatures from entering the property, but she didn’t understand how it was done. It was another thing that should take factories full of energy, and even then it should be impossible. Her father had explicitly forbidden her from thinking about it, like he had compulsions and the lack of doctors.
Of course at the time, that only made her more curious. Though lack of available information and distractions in the form of new puzzles had her push those curiosities aside in favor of more solvable problems.
Jeptha nudged her arm, and she started.
“Come on, we’re going home.” he helped her stand and she leaned on him. They walked slowly, and little was said. The main road wasn’t even slightly marred by the explosion two streets away, though it was dustier than usual. It was such a sharp relief against the chaos that she almost did a double take. None of this felt real.
Two men had broken off from the group of people. When they kept walking slowly, several paces behind them. Amalia and Jeptha were walking slower than the average person, and the two men stood out because they were walking just as slowly. She felt a short burst of panic.
“We’re being followed.” She muttered to Jeptha, as they turned onto her street.
Jeptha glanced behind her. She muttered a curse. She’d been looking discretely and he just turned half his body around. They’d know. If they had revolvers, Amalia wasn’t certain she could move out of the way in time.
“I know.” said Jeptha. “Your father sent them to protect us.” Oh. The tension slowly drained out of her. It didn’t completely abate. She still kept scanning for trouble. They passed two watchguards and she tensed. It was stupid, because logically watchguards couldn’t all be bad, but her last two encounters with them had been markedly negative. Her brain shied away from thinking about the most recent encounter, but even the one with the woman and her baby when they were at the checkpoint seemed more sinister in hindsight.
If she hadn’t intervened, would something have happened to that woman? Would they have started accusing her of being a black mage and taken her behind the booth and-
Stop it. Now she was being unreasonable. Plenty of people entered and left the city every day and nothing happened to them. If there were unpleasant things happening to people, then surely someone would have heard about it by now and done something about it. At the very least, it would receive attention in the newspapers, and Amalia read those every morning.
A loud cry sounded from above. Amalia’s neck snapped back, staring into the sky. Their amulets were spent. Anyone who saw them would know, and that made them targets.The two birds swooped down from the sky, dive bombing them. Amalia grabbed Jeptha’s arm and yanked them both to the ground, cringing at the pain in her ankle and head.
The watchguards that had been following them rushed forwards, holding out their amulets. The smaller bird swerved out of the way, but the larger one smashed into the protective field at full force, snapping it’s neck on impact.
The larger bird turned in the air, letting out another loud cry. It was attracting attention.
“We need to get inside.” She said, grabbing Jeptha’s hand again. She wasn’t letting him go this time.
“Ma’am, it’s fine. We have amulets.” Said the watchguard, who’d knelt beside where they were lying on the ground.
He reached out to help her stand and she flinched back.
“Amalia, it’s fine.” said Jeptha.
She stood on her own, brushing her robes off. It was fine. The watchguards had amulets. It was fine.
“Are they fully charged?” She asked.
“Mostly. We’ll get you home quickly. Let’s go.”
The watchguards walked closely next to them, keeping Amalia and Jeptha within the range of their amulets. The bird followed high above, waiting for a moment where it could strike. The moment never came.
They got back to her townhouse in one piece. Jeptha wanted to stay, saying he could help and that she probably shouldn’t be alone, and the doctor specifically said she ought not be left to her own devices after an incident like that, but Amalia insisted he go.
The watchguards escorted Jeptha and she shut the door.
Amalia walked into the parlor and lowered herself slowly onto the squishy arm chair. She would rest, just for a little while.
Her eyes settled on her hands again. The nails were dirty and there was still flecks of blood on them. She really should clean them. It would be wise to, since who knows what’s in a black mage’s blood? Some kind of poison? She couldn’t bring herself to care.
It was comfortable on the chair. Her arms still stung and her ankle and head throbbed, but she wasn’t in pain like when she tried to walk on it. It was nice, just sitting there.
She didn’t move for a long, long time.