A note with Irene’s address arrived in the morning mail.
Amalia was hesitant about it. She hadn’t meant to disclose so much to Irene, and now she felt uncomfortable with the idea of spending more time with the woman. At first she was excited to have someone to talk about her research to, someone who was interested and didn’t tell her to mind her own business or that her research was a waste of time.
It was pretty fucking stupid that all someone had to do was pay a little attention to her to get her to spill her guts. And what did she know about Irene, really?
Well, she knew Irene worked for a former Prime Minister, and the librarian seemed to like her. Not only that, but Irene owned a Handmirror. Those were hard to get ahold of– Amalia knew she only had her’s because her father pulled strings.
The only people with permission to own them were members of noble families and the watchguards. Which was why Amalia was even considering visiting Irene’s house, given that she had never heard of the woman before.
But someone who was trusted by the government with a handmirror probably wouldn’t be talking about black magic that way. Which meant that Irene was either working for the government to entrap dissidents, or that could evade compulsion magics.
If it were the former, well, then Amalia had to convince Irene that she wasn’t interested in black magic, and then she’d have to tell her mother, because if they were sending agents to speak with Amalia, then her mother’s plan had somehow failed and they were in trouble.
If it was the latter, then Amalia wanted to convince Irene to teach her the secret to avoiding compulsions. Because if Amalia could keep knowledge secret from the watchguards, then she could learn whatever she wanted. She would never have to be afraid of learning the wrong thing or thinking the wrong thoughts again.
It was especially salient these days because of her research into emigration and enrollment.
In the end, Amalia hadn’t bothered to look into whether or not nobles had died in the Harkow Tragedy. Not just because the majority of people had left college two years after the Tragedy, but because it was finally occurring to her that she’d stumbled upon something really really dangerous.
If Irene was right, if the mechanism by which watchmirrors and handmirrors worked was black magic, then Amalia was on the cusp of something that people were not meant to know.
Watchmirrors, compulsion magics, the lack of and vilification of doctors, along with the impossible ability of most black mages to do magic that would take factories of crystals to power were all subjects her father said she must not research or know.
What was the likelihood that they were all black magic, and that black magic was somehow related to the ability to do magic without a crystal?
She was willing to bet her soldering iron that black magic was their power source.
Moreover, if the power source itself was dangerous, they wouldn’t be giving handmirrors out to nobles or putting up watchmirrors on every corner of the city, nor would they use compulsions on every citizen once every year.
Which suggested that the reason black magic was banned was not because it made people go insane or because there was a high likelihood of something horrible happening if they were misused, but because they represented a tactical advantage that the Department of Magics wanted to maintain.
Amalia knew it would be nearly impossible to properly keep a conspiracy secret, because information eventually always leaked out. And black magic bans had been enforced for at least (according to Grand Meister Marcellus) thirty years or so.
Speaking of him, both Grand Meister Marcellus and her father said the same thing when she asked why black magic was banned and why she couldn’t learn compulsions.
They said that she couldn’t know, and that they couldn’t tell her.
If black magic really made people go insane, then why wouldn’t the Grand Meister just say so? All the common folk, her included, always believed that black magic was a great evil, and the newspapers never did a thing to disabuse them of that notion.
It was extremely unlikely that a conspiracy existed, because there would always be someone willing to leak information to the public, but if Compulsions were used frequently enough, then it might be possible.
Except, if everyone over thirty years old knew about black magic not being evil, and knew how black magic worked, what was to stop them from accidentally mentioning it to a family member or a child? Surely, someone would’ve heard something by now.
Amalia realized she was being stupid again.
Ask Jeptha how crystal magic worked, and he’d scratch his head and shrug. Philomena was the same. And both of them had a proper education. Most people were the same way. They knew the lights turned on when you flicked the switch, but they didn’t know why it worked beyond “the crystals power it.”
And Amalia also knew that it was around 874 that Watchmirrors started being made, because some of her mother’s factories produced them.
A lack of personal handmirrors for citizens was one thing, but a lack of doctors…
Amalia shuddered. She’d briefly considered being a doctor before she realized that meant dealing with blood and guts, and she didn’t have the stomach for it. But she did remember that people waited months for appointments with a doctor, and that oftentimes people died waiting for an appointment.
It was certainly not the intention of this policy to prevent people from studying to be doctors, but that was the result. And she wasn’t sure how important maintaining the secret of watchmirrors was, but was it worth that many lives?
Which was exactly when Amalia shut down that line of thought because there was a very good chance that all of this was connected. And if it was, then this secret was exactly the sort of thing that people were probably jailed for knowing.
She really, really wanted to make herself immune from compulsions.
Irene’s place was a small townhouse near the train station.
“I’m glad you took me up on my invitation.” said Irene at the door.
“I’m glad you invited me.”
Her living room was sparsely decorated but for a couple couches and a coffee table. It was nice, she supposed, if one liked clean lines and open spaces.
“Would you like something to drink? I have tea.”
And that was around when it occurred to Amalia that she had no idea what to say to this woman. Well, she knew what she wanted to ask. She wanted to ask whether or not the woman was a spy, and if she knew anything about how to evade compulsion magics, but she could hardly say any of that aloud.
“I hear that you’re studying engimancy at Port Drebon University. Are you enjoying it so far?”
“I haven’t been able to attend as many classes as I like, but from what I’ve seen it’s pretty interesting.”
“You haven’t been attending classes?”
“No, I hit my head pretty hard a few days ago, and I needed to rest.” She kept her hands still on her lap and focused on breathing.
“You were at the parade?”
Focus on breathing. The feel of the air being sucked in, expanding her lungs. Blood and bits of skull; a gun aimed at her head.
“It’ll get better.”
“Oh, I’m fine. I just got lost in thought for a moment.”
“I’m sure that’s true, but I’m telling you that it’ll get better.”
“Good. Anyway, I was wondering what sparked your interest in engimancy.”
“I originally intended to be a doctor, but I was advised against it. Illness isn’t something we di Danti’s want to bring into our home.”
“I’m sure. So engimancy was a second choice?”
“Not really. I love it. And it hasn’t escaped my attention that we’ve only talked about me this entire time. So tell me, how did you come to work for the former Prime Minister?”
“I knew the right people and got lucky. Nothing you couldn’t do if you wanted to. In fact, I think your father knew one of the former Prime Ministers.”
Amalia’s lips quirked. “You’re very good. Who tutored you?”
“Not good enough, it seems.”
“It still works to some degree, even if I know what’s going on.” Every noble had the same training, but that didn’t make them immune to each others’ skills. Keeping the conversation focused on the other person, using the word ‘you’ a lot and subtle flattery were all strategies nobles learned from an early age. Aunt Basileia was particularly bald about it. ‘You’re here to learn how to trick people into liking you and doing what you want them to do.’
“Amalia, I don’t want you to feel like I’m manipulating you.”
“And that isn’t what I thought.”
“Good. But you have to understand where I’d be concerned.” Irene leaned back in her chair. “I needed to get a better feel for the kind of person you are.”
“You mean, because I’m a di Danti.”
“No, well, partly. You told me, the other night, what amounts to a state secret. That gives you some degree of power over me. You could, for example, instruct me to do something, and if I didn’t obey you, you could threaten to tell the government that I know. Not only that, but now I’m dependent upon you to tell the Head of your family to get me an exception from certain questions, because otherwise I could get in quite a bit of trouble.”
“That wasn’t my intention at all.”
“I assumed so, but I wanted you to understand the sort of position you’re putting me in, now.”
“But you did the same thing back at me, even. With the mention that watchmirrors are black magic.”
“Yes. A form of insurance.”
“Funny.” Amalia rubbed her eyes. “but if you knew that about watchmirrors, you already were in trouble with the watchguards.”
“Not quite. I may have permission to know certain things, as I work for the Prime Minister.”
“I don’t think you do.”
Irene’s shoulders stiffened. “Pardon?”
“I mean, I don’t think you have permission. If you did, you wouldn’t be the sort of person to invite me over to talk about first edition books and black magic in the first place.”
“So, then what do you think I’m doing?”
“I don’t even know. I’m not interested in hurting people. I never have been. I don’t want to- to make people grow extra arms or summon monsters or any of that. I’ve no interest, and if you want to talk about that I’ll have to report you to my father.”
“No, I don’t think so. Let me be completely clear. I want to help people and bring honor to my family, and I won’t do anything that could–”
Irene was laughing. At her. She was doubled over in her seat actually laughing.
“Are you serious right now?”
“You think I’m some sort of– what, an agent of the Kojites?”
“I was beginning to wonder.”
“Were you afraid I’d report you?”
“I’m still wondering. And you might not have a choice.”
Irene’s lips twitched, like she was going to start laughing again. “I can keep secrets, even from the Kojites. Working for the former Prime Minister gives me certain privileges that ordinary citizens don’t have access to.”
“And how does that work? Aren’t you concerned about telling me things?”
“You know, you’re pretty good too. You keep steering the conversation towards compulsions. Your parents did a good job teaching you.”
“Yes, I can evade compulsions. Would you like to know how?”
Amalia didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
“Well, good, then we have a reason to see each other again.”
She blinked. Right. For a moment she thought she’d actually learn something, that she’d stop being held in suspense.
“Is it urgent that you learn compulsions?”
“Not necessarily. Wait- can you tell me whether or not anyone can tell what I was reading at the library?”
“Everything at the library has been checked over. I sincerely doubt you came across anything banned there.”
“Except, I think I did.”
“Really? What did you find?”
“It’s complicated. I tried explaining the preliminary research to one of my friends, before I realized what I was even looking at– don’t worry, they just think I read boring books– and I don’t know if what I’m seeing is even what–”
“Just talk. I’m more than capable of figuring it out.”
“Over three million people left Jaborre between 874 and 877, and it only stopped because the government made it extremely difficult for people to leave. My family says that it’s because people were mislead by cult leaders, but it’s more than that. Scholarships to the colleges dropped off, and some colleges even started closing. But magic was affected worst of all, and one of my professors mentioned that black magic used to be taught at Port Drebon University. And now we have too few doctors and not enough engimancers to go around. People are actually dying because of this, and I don’t know if it’s some kind of grand conspiracy or just plain incompetence.”
“I see. Well, you’re right in guessing that some people would be unhappy that you knew about this, but it’s nothing you have to fear being jailed over. If, however, you were engaging in other illegal activities and also held these beliefs, I’d harbor some concerns.”
Other illegal activities, like stealing journals of black mages and building amulets without a license?
“I feel betrayed.”
“Did you know that when I was younger, I thought’d be hard to make a meaningful difference in the world? I thought all the hard work had already been completed.”
Irene snorted. “Did you believe people weren’t dying of illnesses as well?”
“No, I grew up thinking that the world was a kind place, and that it was only getting kinder as the years passed.” Amalia fiddled with the edge of her robe. “but I’ve already seen more injustices this week than I have before in my entire life.”
“I’m trying to figure out what to do about it.”
“Who says you have to do anything?”
“Of course I do. I’m a di Danti.” There was even a grimoire in the family manor containing a list of every ancestor and their accomplishments. One day her children’s children would read that book, and all they’d ever know of Amalia di Danti was what was written there. That wasn’t the only reason, but it factored into her decisions, all the same.
“Of course.” Irene’s lips quirked up. “Then what do you intend to do?”
“I don’t know. The obvious problem is the lack of students learning magics in university. Before, I thought the best thing I could do with my life was to invent new technologies, and hope some of them work out to better the world. But that’s just– well, it’s fun for me. Inventing is fun, and I know I’ll eventually have to take my mother’s seat in the Court of Nobles. And it’s there that I’ll be able to actually make a difference in policy changes. I didn’t think there was anything I could do now.”
“Well, if the problem is just money, I can fix that quite easily.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, what do you plan on changing in the courts?”
“I don’t know. I just thought I’d–” be unlike her mother, and vote according to what she thought was right. Her mother, she knew, accepted bribes. But she couldn’t say that. No matter that everyone knew the Heads of Noble Houses took bribes and coerced each other into voting a specific way, it was never spoken of aloud.
“Be the knight riding in on a white horse, doing what’s ethical at a great personal expense?”
“There may not necessarily be an expense, but yes.”
“Of course there will be. If someone does you a favor, the expect a favor in return. That’s just a fact about human brains, not something you can change. Surely, you as a young noble were taught this.”
“And what, you think you’re smarter than all of the researchers who’ve studied how people think?”
“No, I don’t mean it that way. I’ll likely have to help other people to get my way. But I intend to, instead of aiding solely my family’s interests, to serve the interests of the people. Not that other houses serve only their inte–”
“I suddenly understand why you’re studying engimancy and not law.”
“No, I really do wonder. Typically the heirs of noble families study law. You break the pattern.”
“Because I’m particularly skilled at engimancy.”
“I didn’t mean to offend. In any case, I apologize.”
“It’s fine. And I’m not particularly well spoken. I’ve had a habit of putting my foot in my mouth and everyone in my family knows it.” But it wasn’t like they could just give the seat to cousin Francis and her mother couldn’t have another child, so they had to deal with her.
“You do perfectly fine. It’s my own fault. For a moment I forgot that you were only eighteen. I was treating you like I’d treat your mother.”
Amalia grinned. “That’s going a bit too far.”
“Is it? Well, then I’ll have to remember it for next time.”
“That reminds me. You mentioned a book that you wanted me to read. What was it again?”
“Oh. Right. Actually, I think a lot of the questions you’ve been asking might be answered by this. It’s a bit biased, and you ought to read books written by the opposing side to get a better picture of the whole story. Or even, I could just talk to you about it if you trust me enough.”
“That’d be fine, but I do like to have outside sources verify things.”
“The hallmark of a good researcher.”
“Wait right here.” And with that, Irene got up and walked past where Amalia was seated.
“Oh, I forgot. Did I ask you if you wanted anything to drink?”
“Yes, you did. I’m–”
There was a brush against the back of her neck, almost like the chain to a necklace loosening and the feeling of paper being pressed–
“I’m not a black mage.”
A young lady was cuffed to a chair in an interrogation room.
The room looked exactly as you expected it to look. There were two metal chairs, purposefully made so that the people sitting on them couldn’t relax. The walls were painting a violent shade of olive green, and the lights lining the walls were bright enough to force her to squint.
The room in question was in a nondescript building underneath the Bakkeli Opera House. Everyone knew such rooms existed, and that they existed underneath the Bakkeli Opera House.
This particular interrogation room had two occupants, facing eachother across a stark metal table.
The interrogator shuffled his papers and sighed. “Can you name the members of the organization known as the Free Mage Armament?”
“I said I’m not a black mage. I wouldn’t know.”
“Have you ever met a member of the Free Mage Armament?”
“Well, gee, I don’t know, it’s not like people come right up to me and announce they’re members of a–”
“So you’re saying that you might’ve had contact with the Free Mage Armament?”
“Shit, no. I said I don’t know them. I’m not a black mage. Put me under compulsion, I’ll tell you the same thing.”
“Have you ever received correspondence from someone who identified as a member of the Free Mage Armament?”
“Have you been listening to a word I’ve said?”
“Please don’t answer questions with questions. I’ll repeat–”
“No. I haven’t.”
There was a pause.
“Do you suspect anyone you know of being in the Free Mage Armament?”
“Do you regularly contact people involved in dissident behavior, specifically people known to be involved with the Free Mage Armament?”
“No. I don’t know anyone in the Free Mage Armament. You keep asking me the same questions over and over again, using different words. And we’ve been here–- there’s no clock, and don’t tell me that’s not on purpose–- we’ve been here for hours, at least. I’m not a member of the Free Mage Armament. I’m not a black mage. I don’t know anyone who is. Please, just let me go home.”
The interrogator laid the papers out on the table. He let out a sigh and laced his fingers together. The nail on his right pinkie finger was dirty, she wanted to tell him to clean it. “I understand you’re a very brave woman, Miss. Whatever the papers may say, I’ve never seen a black mage who wasn’t extremely courageous. It takes strength of character to fight and die for what you believe in.”
“I’m not a black mage.”
“Most people, though, they have a limit to what they’re willing to sacrifice.” He continued on as if she hadn’t spoken. “And usually that limit is family. Whatever your beliefs, you’ll act to keep your family safe.”
“Are you threatening my brother?”
“No, of course not. It’s just that these cases, they can become very public. A young woman such as yourself found guilty of consorting with the Free Mage Armament gets media attention. And you know how people are, how people think of the families of black mages.”
“But I’m not a black mage. I didn’t do anything. Seriously, put me under compulsion.”
“You might be found innocent. The judges might disagree with me, but by then your case would’ve gone public.”
“Then put me under compulsion.”
“Ms Karlsen, Liza, I would love to, if I knew it’d work. Problem is, a number of black mages have found ways around them. If we could’ve just compelled you to tell us, this would’ve been over hours ago.”
“Search my house, then. Search my papers and my books. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
There was another pause.
“There are patterns in my work. Did you know that?”
She didn’t answer.
“Well, there are. Generally, the reason people can’t stand the families of black mages is because their families hold similar ideologies to that of black mages. They had to get it from somewhere, after all.”
“I’m not a black mage. My brother’s not a black mage. None of us are black mages.”
“Maybe that’s the case. I’m just telling you the patterns we’ve seen, what people will believe. And I want you to know that your black mage friends? They’ve made us desperate. We’re desperate enough to cut a deal with you.”
“I’m telling you I’m not a black mage. How many times do I need to repeat myself?”
“For every name you give us, we’ll protect someone. Give us one name, and we won’t arrest your brother. Two names and we’ll keep your entire case remains anonymous.”
“You’re arresting my brother? For what?” Her voice rose on the last word, tinged with hysteria.
“He’s a black mage, engaging in dissident behavior, consorting with known criminals-”
“You’re doing this because we’re at the protest.” Her hands were trembling slightly with the aborted desire to do something, to strangle the interrogator sitting across from her–
“In part, but that’s only a small fraction of the evidence we have against you and your brother.”
“The protest was about factory worker rights. That has nothing to do with black magic.”
“Yet there were many black mages in the crowd, passing out pamphlets of forbidden knowledge, and the protestors did nothing to stop them.”
“I didn’t see anything like that. It was factory workers and their families, that’s it.”
“Then explain this.” And with that a pamphlet was slapped down on the metal table. Liza wrenched her eyes away before she could see anything. She knew what they’d do to her if she looked. If she read what was in there they’d–
Why would they try to show her it if they weren’t going to kill her anyway?
“Please put it away. I don’t want to know.”
“If you’d just tell us about the black mages, we’d help you. We want to help you here, Liza.”
“Don’t you think that if I knew anything I’d tell you? I’d do anything for my brother, anything, but I don’t know any black mages. I don’t know anything.”
The interrogator shook his head, collected his folder, and stood.
“I hope you understand what you’re doing, here, the chance you’re letting pass you by.”
“Please, I don’t know anything!”
“I’m sure you don’t. Good day, Ms Karlsen.”
And with that, the interrogator walked out of the room, shutting the door behind him with a click.
Leaving her alone.