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“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–
“–partial…” Amalia’s voice trailed off. Partial to tea. She blinked. Her muscles were tensed, tensed as though she’d been running across the family manor and her heart was pounding in her chest. A second ago it hadn’t been.
Sweat was drenched through the back of her shirt.
Something was wrong.
She reached up impulsively, feeling the comforting metal of the choker– the one that prevented her from being compelled. It was there. And she cursed herself a second later because Irene could’ve replaced it in the time she’d been compelled. It’s presence meant nothing.
“Yes?” Said Irene from behind her.
She’d impulsively stupidly grabbed her choker before thinking, and if Irene had seen her do it, then Irene would suspect that Amalia suspected that Irene had compelled her. It wasn’t a hundred percent certain that she’d been compelled, and Amalia didn’t want to make anything more obvious by looking down at her watch, but Amalia was sure she’d felt something on the back of her neck for a split second, and then the next she was panting like she’d run a marathon.
It didn’t feel like there was a gap in her memory, but then it never did.
“I’m partial to tea.”
If Irene wanted her dead, she would’ve done it while Amalia was compelled and helpless. She knew that, but her body didn’t relax until she heard Irene’s footsteps leave the room.
Amalia slumped back into her chair.
It was stupid, coming here today. Amalia knew that, but she’d been curious. She was curious about Irene, curious about what she wanted. And-
What sort of person prattled on in a library what someone else is reading and upon learning that Amalia was interested in doing things not quite by the books, invites her to call her? Further, what was the likelihood that someone who knew how to get past compulsions would just happen to be in the library at the same time as someone who was likely on a list of people being investigated for a serious crime of stealing a book on black magic?
It seemed like the most likely explanation. Irene was some sort of agent of the government, and now she had all the information she needed to lock Amalia away and shame her family.
The footsteps returned, and Irene placed the tea on the coffee table, pouring Amalia and herself a cup.
“Thank you. I was wondering, have you spoken to your superiors yet?”
“The Kojites, or perhaps the Department of Internal Affairs. Have you spoken to them yet?” Her heart was pounding in her chest, hands sweaty as she cupped them around the fine china teacup. They were cold and clammy against the heat of the tea.
Irene’s lips quirked. “You think I’m an agent?”
“It’s rather improbable that we’d meet. So improbable, in fact, that I’d wager you were looking for me.”
“And you assume Kojites? What sort of trouble have you been getting yourself into?”
“I suspect you know already.”
“Ah. Well, it seems I made my second blunder of the day.”
“My family has money, as I’m sure you’re aware. If you haven’t spoken to your superiors–”
“I’m going to stop you right there before you humiliate yourself further, Miss. ‘I won’t be like my mother.’ I’m not an agent of the Kojites, nor am I working for the Department of Defense or Magics or any other department.”
Amalia’s face burned. “Why did you compel me?”
“I was just about to get to that. And you’re right. I did follow you. I saw you during the shootout with Lothar. I was curious as to your motives and assumed it was a plot by the di Danti’s. I then contrived a way to meet with you to see what it was. Are you alarmed yet?”
“Concerned. And did you discover what you wanted to know?”
“You’re ignorant. Remarkably so. I suspect that’s on purpose, one of Marion’s smarter strategies.”
“You’re really ingratiating yourself to me at the moment.”
Irene replied with a thin lipped smile, “as are you.”
“So what are you, then? Why the interest in my family?”
“Everyone’s interested in your family. But I suppose since I know all about your little jaunt into theft and illegal engineering, I do owe you some dirt on myself. Consider this an equivalent exchange, something to hold over my head should you feel threatened by my knowing. I’m a journalist, and not the sort that writes for the government. No, before you ask, I don’t write pro-black mage propaganda. We cover pieces on social inequality and the sort of concerns that you have on education. I needed to compel you to make sure you weren’t going to betray me or my secrets.”
“I see. So I passed the test?” She was lying. Journalists didn’t get paid that much. After Jeptha’s little lecture on her ignorance with regards to anything monetary, she’d looked it up.
“And just out of curiosity, which paper do you write for?”
“The Free Voice.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
Irene’s eyebrows rose. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I think I’d know if I heard of it or not.”
“The editor’s your uncle? Lawrence Pelorian?”
What. “I did not know that.”
“He, the man with the boy in the alleyway, and that man’s brother ran The Free Voice and Gaeldor’s Circle for years. They published The Free Voice together before they split up.”
Which might be true. Aunt Basileia said that father had the journal because of something to do with one of their family members, and Amalia had thought he meant Phil’s mother. Except she’d really been talking about her father. Did Phil know? It seemed likely that she knew something. She freaked a little every time Amalia mentioned her research.
“They don’t tell you, I suspect, because they want to protect you.” said Irene.
“I’m sorry, Irene, but I can’t- this is just-” Everyone was lying. Phil had been lying to her, and her Uncle who always played at not caring and being laid back was secretly some sort of dissident who was double crossing her father and mother, who were keeping tabs on him and he was somehow evading them. Or maybe they knew and her parents were about to take down her best friend’s father.
She got up, put the tea down, and started for the door. She’d had it. Philomena was going to talk to her and they were going to sort this thing out because she wasn’t watching her family fall apart in front of her eyes without doing something to stop it.
“We want you in the game.”
“Because you’re not your mother.”
“That’s fantastic. I’ll bet you know every button to push now, everything you need to say to make me want to stay.”
“Maybe. Or maybe I’m telling the truth. Maybe I need someone with the power of a di Danti that isn’t as short sighted as your mother. Now, I could use your father, but I doubt he’d work with me even if he could. He’s sworn oaths and he lives by them. From the stories I’ve heard, back when he didn’t take them so seriously he was a force to be reckoned with. I’m gambling that you’ll have some of those traits, that you’ll make a solid ally.”
“To do what?”
“Did you hear about the factory strike?”
“They shut down New Recham Bridge for an hour two days ago. Is that it?”
“Yes. Do you remember the article?”
“Something about black mages threatening to destroy factories. I skimmed it.”
“They executed nine of the protesters this morning. Among them were no black mages of any kind. Do you want to know why they were executed?”
“The strike was over wages and long working hours. The factory owners, naturally, didn’t want to pay their people more, and they especially didn’t want the bad press. So they accused the organizers of the strike of being black mages. They then told the government that they suspected these so-called black mages had been evading compulsion screenings for some time, so as to prevent the protesters from being revealed as innocents. From what I understand, the investigators’ bosses were bribed.”
“Innocent people were executed.”
“Yes. And as you can imagine, the papers wouldn’t publish that, as they are owned by the government, which has strong ties to the factory owners.”
“So you want me to spy on my mother’s company.”
“I wouldn’t ask that of you because I know what your answer would be. You’re loyal to your family and that’s a good thing. But if you were given the opportunity to benefit your family and benefit the people of Jaborre at the same time, would you?”
“You want me to spy on other companies.”
“In a limited capacity. You get invited to parties I don’t. You’re also well-known to be incredibly single-minded about your machines. When your mother takes you to these events, you spend them staring off into space or doodling equations on napkins. At this point, no one pays you any mind. But I think you don’t pay attention to their conversations because the content never held any value to you before.”
“I see. And what would you be doing with this information?”
“Passing it along to people who may be able to right their wrongs.”
“By murdering them.”
“By applying pressure to them. We find the fulcrum and apply just enough pressure to tip the balance in our favor, the favor of the people. The companies aren’t harmed beyond some dips in income, and the people benefit.”
“Won’t that just… I mean, the people in charge of the company will just end up raising their prices or slashing the wages of their workers.”
“We apply leverage. We tell them they can’t.”
“Will you help?”
“Can I think on it?”
“You may. Though I’ll warn you not to discuss this with anyone.”
“I know.” Irene smiled.
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