Scene 11: Facade

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Day of the Parade

It was six in the morning and Philomena was already awake and out the door. Her dad was still asleep in his room, and by the time he got up, he would assume she left to go to the parade. It was just as well, because she could hardly explain to him what she was doing.

Well, she could tell him, but she wasn’t sure what would happen to her if she did.

She walked leisurely down Cyremont Avenue, hoisting her backpack up on her shoulder, heading in the general direction of the University. She would look, for all intents and purposes, like a normal student headed to the library to study, which was exactly what she intended.

The dawn sun was valiantly struggling past the mist that clung to the city every morning, bringing with it the tang of salty air and the sharp scent of the docks. It smelled like home, but that wasn’t enough to relax her.

Philomena hadn’t relaxed in two weeks.

The streets were empty, which meant there were no crowds to slip into. That was inconvenient. She wondered if she were better off doing this later in the day, because maybe there’d be more people out. But there were rarely crowds in Port Drebon, not unless everyone was gathered in one area, so it probably made no difference.

Several wagons were heading towards the Loop, probably to prepare for the festivities surrounding the parade. And she didn’t want to think about that, because then she’d think about what she found on her dad’s desk two weeks ago, and that she wasn’t carrying books in her backpack.

Watchmirrors were on every street corner, and the investigators who studied the recordings would be able to pick her out of a crowd easily, so she kept heading towards the library, maintaining a cheerful and relaxed expression on her face.

In truth, she often kept the fake pleasant look on her face. She couldn’t remember when she first started doing that- probably after her dad mentioned once that the people who monitor watchmirrors red-flagged people who always seemed nervous as potential trouble makers.

Philomena was one of those people who always looked a little tense, and she guessed that her dad didn’t want her to get in trouble. And now it made so much sense that her dad knew the details on watchmirrors, and why he’d be concerned she might be targeted.

Her stomach lurched. This was exactly what she never wanted. Her life was supposed to be normal, safe. That’s all she ever wanted, good friends and a loving family. And now she had to give it all away, because her dad was stupid and left those papers out on his desk, and because she was stupid enough to look at them when she’d come into his office looking for an ink bottle to refill her pen.

She ducked into the clothing store. No one was shopping this early in the morning, and the salesclerk was dozing at her counter. The girl, who looked to be in her early teens, gave Philomena a glance when the bell chimed above the door, and then went back to staring out the window. It was terrible service. Philomena certainly would never shop here if that was how they treated their customers.

Her stomach gave another lurch when she thought how she wouldn’t be here to refuse to shop at the tacky clothes store. She wouldn’t get to see any of them, ever again. Wouldn’t even get to send them a letter, because if she did they’d be in trouble, too.

She made like she was browsing the racks of clothes. They were tacky, the sort of cheap clothes that were made in a factory. The clerk was dozing off again, so Philomena slipped past the changing rooms and towards the back, dropping her backpack on the ground. She knelt down, opening it, and tugged out the long hooded cape and some cheap clothes she’d bought a few days ago from another tacky clothing store.

She ducked into a changing room, quickly shucking off the clothes that would identify her as a member of the upper class, and slipped on the cheap clothes and heavy cloak. The mostly-empty bag was filled with her old clothes. She tucked it under her arm. It wouldn’t do to be identified by her backpack.

She left the changing room and walked towards the back door, leading into the inventory. It wasn’t locked, and she hadn’t considered that it might be.

She mentally kicked herself. This whole thing could’ve gone wrong in the first five minutes. She wasn’t cut out for this. Sneaking around and getting into trouble was Jeptha’s skill, not her own. Amalia would ask something ridiculous, like let’s ask the clerk to open it for us! and Jeptha would shrug and what was she thinking, imagining that her friends would be okay with this?

Jeptha, son of General Harland, would hate her, and Amalia, daughter of Judge di Danti, would look at her like she was some kind of odd specimen.

She looked around the back room for the exit. Stores like this always had a back entrance that lead to an alleyway, but usually the back door was monitored by watchmirrors so people couldn’t do exactly what Philomena was doing.

According to her dad’s notes, this one’s watchmirror wasn’t working. He had a list, actually, of different stores where the backdoor watchmirror was broken. How he obtained that list, well, she didn’t want to know.

Just like she didn’t want to know what she’d read on those papers, though the very thing that damned them saved her, because scrawled between notes on the Lothar Czako’s unlawful imprisonment and execution was a note that read:

Benjamin J. Mordecai (BM??) Smuggles people out of country. Contact through Dominic at Tikkany Bazaar.’

She guessed that BM meant Mordecai was a black mage, and that Tikkany Bazaar was in Old City.

She walked out the backdoor, also unlocked, and one had to wonder at the sense of the proprietor for doing such a thing, because you were asking to be implicated in a crime by keeping the door unlocked. That ignorant clerk girl- even she might get in trouble, thanks to the thoughtlessness of her boss. Not that she wasn’t grateful for that particular idiot, because she needed to get out, but it was the principle of the matter.

People aiding the rebellion like this, they were stupid. They put their families at risk, their friends at risk. Then they did stupid things like leaving documents out on the table or leaving back doors open, and fucked things over for everyone else.

And for what? Did they really think they could change things, stop people who can force you to tell the truth and betray everyone you love with a single spell, people who watched every street and knew where you were all the time?

No, you can’t; it’s that simple.

So instead, the smart people just smile pleasantly when they walk down the streets, and they don’t ask questions. That way, their families don’t get sent off to who-knows-where and they don’t end up in jail or worse. The naive followed their lead, because they didn’t know any better.

But the really stupid, they fight back. And their families and friends pay the price. Philomena refused to let her or her family be among that number.

She walked down the street, hood low over her face, and felt free. Because she was walking with a scowl, face twisted with grief, and no one could see.

She joined the wagons crossing New Recham Bridge into Old City. New Recham Bridge crossed over the Cyremont River, which served as the physical barrier between the good part of the city and the bad.

Well, to say that it was the bad part of the city would be a misnomer. It was run down and poor. No one put money into fixing it, and the only people who lived here were people who were desperate, and that desperation lead to crime.

And crime lead to black magic.

Not that Philomena really cared about black magic. She didn’t care about magic at all, really. That was Amalia’s shtick. It was math, functions and graphs, all of which were boring and complicated. If she wanted to bore herself, she’d go read the accounting books for the Press. At least that was remotely useful.

Entering Old City was like entering another world.

The streets were narrow, with ramshackle stalls propped up outside apartment buildings, selling baubles, clothes, and food. The sides of buildings were covered in graffiti. Some of it was unintelligible, and most of it made no sense, like ‘Remember the Old City 23!’ which was written in caps next to a rather well-drawn rendition of a bridge.

This part of the city smelled foul. She wondered if they had working sewers, because the further she went in, scent of human waste became almost unbearable. The only good part about it was here she didn’t stand out with her hood; most people had one on. Once she’d walked a few blocks into Old City, mindful of where she was going, she stopped in front of a ratty looking stall with a fat man sitting behind it.

“Could you direct me to the Tikkany Bazaar?” She asked, keeping her face in the shadow of the hood. She thought about trying to speak in a lower tone than usual, but knew she’d only sound ridiculous, and sounding ridiculous was more memorable.

The man removed the pipe from his mouth, blowing out smoke through his nose. She coughed.

“Got money?” He growled.

She scowled at him, but withdrew a couple rhasi. It was the lowest denomination. Two rhasi would buy someone a pound of potatoes. It was more than generous, given that the information wasn’t exactly a secret.

The man glared at her. “Four blocks down, turn right. If you miss it, you’re blind.”

She nodded, and elbowed her way back into the crowd of people walking down the street. She kept her head down, focusing on where she was going. Philomena was doing her best not to gawk, but everywhere she turned, there was something to see.

Most of the time it wasn’t pleasant.

There was a woman slumped over on the corner of the street, hair matted, hands shaking from constant tremors. She considered giving the woman a few rhasi, but then stopped herself. They’d only get stolen the moment she walked away.

A few stalls had owners that were shouting the prices of their wares, while the guy at the stall next to him shouted that his were better. It would be almost amusing, if it all weren’t so intimidating.

It never occurred to her before, that people could live like this. She never wanted it to occur to her. What she wanted was to forget this entire experience, forget the woman on the corner and the man who was muttering to himself on the street, turning to stare at things only he could see, laughing at thin air.

Four blocks down, she turned to the right, where a small alleyway opened into a large archway, packed with people. It was actually shocking, seeing this many in one place.

The building under all the fabric and glittering goods was probably an old government center, or perhaps the abandoned home of a noble. It had high ceilings and marble columns. The floor was concrete, and through the dirt you could see the old marks from when the floor was covered in slabs of expensive tile. They’d probably dug it out and sold it.

That said, it was filled with stalls, selling everything from spices and pies to long rolls of fabric and clothing. The man in her father’s note, Dominic, would be behind one of the stalls. She realized she hadn’t planned this well. She didn’t know where she was going, or which stall he was at. Mostly she just let herself be jostled and walked in the general direction the crowd was going, taking it all in.

At some point, it crossed her mind that Cousin Basileia would totally flip if she found out Philomena was wandering around in this part of town. She grinned under the hood. Pissing off Cousin B was a delight, and she always aimed to aggravate the old biddy. That old bat was miserable and rotten to everyone.

Dad wouldn’t let her attend classes with the woman, but Amalia had to, and Philomena had grown up listening to the stories, both horrified and amused at the same time. But Cousin B always said that Philomena was a part of the family, however distant a cousin, and therefore must be brought up the proper way. It involved a long fight between the bat, her dad, and her mother.

Her mother, if she recalled, wanted her to continue the lessons with Cousin Basileia. It had happened before her parents got separated- a young Philomena had crouched at the top of the stairs, straining to hear the hissed conversation.

Her mother said it was better for her two children to be taught the old ways. They would have an easier time fitting into the culture surrounding nobles. Lawrence skived off most of the lessons and alienated himself from noble culture, so he couldn’t teach them. The Head of House Pelorian had all but disinherited her dad’s line- they had to go to the di Danti’s when they needed help- so they couldn’t ask an aunt or uncle to teach the two children.

To eleven-year-old Philomena, this was all news. She’d known her dad was the “black sheep” of the family, and that they were closer to their cousins, the di Danti’s, than they were their family members in their House, but she hadn’t known it was this bad.

But her dad said that they couldn’t go to the di Danti’s for help that time, and that he couldn’t tell her mother why, only that it wasn’t safe. Her mother had become furious, asking him what he’d done and all a manner of accusations, but he denied them, before finally screaming that it wasn’t what he’d done, it was what Amalia’s dad did.

Philomena never forgot that argument, partly because it was so strange, and partly because she’d always wondered if her immature behavior- avoiding lessons in etiquette- had hastened her parents separation. When she got older, she stopped blaming herself, because her parents were adults, and perfectly capable of sorting out their own problems. And her dad was happier since Paige, her mother, left. As far as she knew, her mother was happier, too.

In the end, Amalia’s parents and Philomena’s dad had patched things up, and whatever Titus did was forgotten. Philomena never asked. So they maintained a relationship with the di Danti’s, and Amalia complained about lessons and how Philomena was so lucky to get out of them. And whenever Philomena visited the Manor and ran into her Cousin, the old bat would pull her aside and give her a lesson on the way nobles did this or that, saying that she simply couldn’t survive unless she knew the proper way to greet a noble from a new family versus an old family.

The grin faded when it crossed her mind that she wouldn’t get to see her cousin much longer. No more impromptu lessons on etiquette or how to be a proper noble. She squirmed. You know what? She wouldn’t miss that one bit.

Philomena spotted a friendly-looking man behind a stall. He didn’t have many people there, so maybe he wouldn’t feel uncomfortable giving her directions.

“Hi. Sorry if this is an odd question, but would you mind directing me to Dominic’s stall?” She said with her most winning smile, not that he could really see it under the shadow of the hood.

His face closed up, and he looked around them, before scowling at her nastily. “He’s gone, lady.”

“He’s gone? Gone where?”

“I don’t know, you tell me.” he shrugged. “Couple days ago and he up and disappears. Probably rotting in the limelock by now.”

“The what?”

“Wow. You fucking think I’m stupid? Get out of here. We don’t want your kind here.” Kind? What?

“I asked you a question. Now I expect an answer.”

“The Limelock. You lot call it the Drek Pit, Port Drebon Prison, local tourist attraction, fuck if I know.”

“Oh.” Dominic had been arrested. Shit. How was she supposed to find Benjamin Mordecai, now?

“Right. Now fuck off.” He pointed, aggressively, away from his stall. But she figured if he was going to do something, he’d have done it already.

“One more question. I was going to Dominic to speak to a Benjamin Mordecai. Would you know where to find him?”

Really?” He raised his eyebrows, looking at her like she’d suddenly turned into a new person. “Well, I have no idea who that is, and frankly, I don’t wanna know. He sounds like a shifty fellow, with a name like that.” He was very obviously lying.

“Do you know anyone who might know who he is or where he is?” She pursed her lips. “It’s important, and kind of urgent.”

The man considered her for a few moments. “Get out of the bazaar and go south until you reach the tower. There’s an alley to the right of it. Go down it until you see a pub- it’s called the Red Roost. Someone there might be able to help you.”

“Thank you.” She turned around, and quickly exited the bazaar.

It wasn’t like she was doing this solely for herself. She was trying to save her family. Well, she was trying to save parts of her family. She couldn’t really do much about her mother or her dad.

Her mother wasn’t living with her dad. Last Philomena knew, her mother was in Harkow city living with a man called Jerome. Her dad wouldn’t divorce her, but they were separated, and had been since she was twelve.

Dad probably was to blame, though. Philomena’s mother was shallow and self-serving, dad kept leaving in the middle of the night and wouldn’t tell mother where he’d go. Mother had thought her dad was having an affair. The arguments ended with Paige Pelorian walking out the door, with Philip, Philomena’s older brother, taking up the rear.

Philomena had stayed behind with her dad.

Two months later Philip returned, disillusioned. She hadn’t really asked what had happened, but it was after that when Philip started calling his mother Paige and stopped calling his dad Lawrence.


 

The Red Roost was a tiny tavern scrunched between two tall apartment complexes. Inside it was dark and smoky, with a few patrons slumped over their bar stools. There was a woman at the front with bright canary yellow hair, but no bartender.

“Excuse me, but could you tell me where either the bartender or Benjamin Mordecai is?”

The woman lazily swung around on her seat. Philomena immediately grasped that she’d made a grave error. The woman had a necklace of teeth- human teeth. What was her father thinking, dealing with people like this?

“Oh!” She squealed, like an overexcited child, “Look, an itty bitty baby. What’re you looking for Badname for?”

She didn’t bother to ask what she was talking about. “I’m sorry for bothering you. I’ll ask elsewhere, leave you to your-” she glanced at the bar, “-beer.”

The woman laughed, loud and long. She picked up her beer, lightly stroking the side of the mug, grinning.

“Don’t be grim, little cowl girl. I promise I won’t hurt you.” Her lips curling into a vicious grin betrayed her true intentions. Philomena started slowly backing away.

“Jubilee.” Said a voice from the back of the bar, in a warning tone. “No fights in the bar.”

The canary blonde woman, Jubilee, pouted.

Philomena quickly turned to the man, another blonde who was coming from behind the bar, carrying a crate of wine.

“Hi. I’m sorry. But I need to find Benjamin Mordecai. Do you know where he is?” If her voice came out strangled, she wouldn’t be surprised.

His eyes narrowed. “Ben’s sick. Come another day.”

“It’s important. And urgent.” The same line she’d used with the bazaar guy. If it worked then, it might work now. Maybe it was a codeword for something with these people.

“Is someone dying? Because one of Ben’s people is dying today, and I don’t think he’s taking clients.” Dry sarcasm. Right.

“My family and I will be dead soon if we don’t get to talk to him.” She wasn’t coming back here. She refused. It was bad enough walking past those people on the street. She couldn’t do it.

The man looked at her, rolled his eyes, and pointed behind him. “Backroom. He’s drunk.”

She nodded, went around the bar and entered the narrow hallway leading to the backroom. The lights were dim, and there were no windows.

Sitting on the floor next to a bottle of cheap whiskey was an old balding man with a pot belly, scowling at the wall. He looked up when she entered the room.

“Did yeh find Harvey?” His voice was slurred.

“Sorry. No, I’m a… client.”

Mother had thought her dad was having an affair, though now Philomena knew better. Because on her dad’s desk had been a half-written article that would never be printed in The People’s Press.

‘There is a fierce battle raging in Port Drebon, right below the surface. Regardless of your stance on ritual magics, those of us on the streets will agree that the tyranny of the state has reached an ultimate high. Lothar Czako is just the latest victim.

Czako, 37, lived in Old City with his adopted son and family friend. While he was not a prominent activist, he helped the less fortunate find safer shores in Luwanna and Sutanni, providing refugees from Pankhurst the means to get out of Jaborre. By all accounts, he was not guilty of the recent rash of bombings targeting Port Drebon factories. *According to sources, the groups responsible were the Free Mage Armament acting in conjunction with the Bonedolls.

While providing false papers and passports is illegal, it is not a crime deserving of death penalty. With nowhere to run to and the requirement that people be mind raped to be able to apply for a decent job, people turned to those like Czako, who provided them with the papers they needed for a fraction of the cost.

This situation has been made worse in recent times, due to the devastation in Pankhurst after the tsunami that crashed into the city three weeks ago. Refugees have been…’

The People’s Press would never print an article on Lothar’s innocence and the tyranny of the state. Somehow, her dad thought it was a brilliant idea to write for some kind of underground newspaper. It wasn’t that she disagreed with him, exactly. She just wasn’t about to go out and shout it from the rooftops. Yes, it was tyranny and oppression, and that was exactly why she didn’t go around complaining about it.

Among the notes for the story, written in her dad’s untidy scrawl, was a circled note containing the information on Benjamin. She’d thought for a moment that maybe he was considering leaving Jaborre and going back to Luwanna, like any sensible person would, but the information on Benjamin wasn’t pertaining to his business of helping people emigrate, but on his connection to Lothar.

She only knew that because there was a letter shoved under the stack of papers, addressed to Benjamin J. Mordecai, asking whether or not the information he was presenting in the article will put him in more danger. A copy of the information he planned on including in the article was attached with a paperclip.

The letter was crumpled, like he’d thrown it out then retrieved it from the trash and flattened it out, after. It was signed Writer at the Free Voice, which at least showed her that her dad had enough sense not to sign his own name.

There was a stark difference between the dad she knew and the person writing the article. Her dad was a disillusioned man who paid lip service to the hatred of black mages, but never seemed moved by it. He was the man who locked himself in his office every Winquar the 45th and Sumquar the 60th, and got drunk on cheap whiskey that he bought from a specific store off of Finner Bridge. On those days, he didn’t want to be interrupted by Philomena or Philip unless either of them were dying. It was just one of those quirks people had, she’d thought.

He’d taken her to the Moral Restoration Society once, like it was required of him, but not one more time. He’d said he didn’t feel it was necessary, and that both his children were responsible enough to recognize danger and stay away from it. She wasn’t about to argue because it was boring, but she always thought that he just couldn’t be bothered to walk with her. Knowing that he was a member of the rebellion or resistance, whatever they called themselves, was enlightening. He hadn’t wanted to take her because it was against his ideals.

She hated this. It was like a nightmare from the darkest part of the abyss. She was speaking to someone who smuggled people out of the country, to smuggle her and her family out. She didn’t think she’d get her dad to leave, because if he was doing what he was doing then he was probably neck deep in it, but her brother? her mother?

Well, her mother would probably just report them for the cash reward, the cow, but Philip and his fiance were definitely not involved and she could get them out. He was her big brother. He’d go with his fiance, and they could start over again. It’d be terrible, but it was better than being dead.

“Unless you can tell me where Harvey is, I don’t care.” He rasped.

“My brother, his fiance and I- and maybe my father- need a way out of Jaborre. The Republic of Luwanna would be ideal, because we have family over there, but the Sutanni Empire is acceptable.”

“Are you deaf? I said I don’t care.”

“We can pay you the full sum for passports and papers.”

“Then go to a fucking immigration office and get out.”

“Look, I’m sorry- I heard your friend is dying today, and I’m sorry for your loss, but my family might die, too.” She wanted to say you can’t save your own family but you can save mine but she was pretty sure the man would throw his bottle at her if she tried.

He looked up, studying her with bloodshot eyes. “You know what my boy is doing right now?”

“Sorry.” The word escaped her mouth without conscious control.

“He’s going out to get himself killed. The little shit idiot’s gonna die and then who will I have?”

Philomena looked away, staring at an uneven table that was missing a chair. “And you know it’s only a matter of time before they’re coming for you.”

The man snorted. “Been comin’ for me for years and never found me, the idiots.”

“How did you do it?”

“Not your business.” He lifted his bottle in an imaginary toast, and drank.

“You’re going to die if you keep doing that.”

“You sound like a bastard I knew once. Look like him, too.” He frowned, blinking. “Pelorian’s kid. You’re Pelorian’s kid. Why the fuck are you here?”

He knew her dad. What?

“To get my family and myself out of the country.” She said absently.

“Lawrence? Why the fuck do you need to leave? Them hoity toities got him all set up. He don’t need to leave. Hasn’t done jack shit for us. Watched him die and did nothing, the fucker. Coward.” He spat.

It seemed pointless to lie when he already knew her name.

“My father writes for The Free Voice, I think. I found some papers of his. He’s involved, and he’s going to get caught. We need to get out.”

The man lowered his bottle and stared. Then he barked out a laugh. “You found papers twenty-five years old, kid. He quit, ran out.”

She practically growled. “It was a half written article on Lothar Czako’s false imprisonment and the tsunami in Pankhurst.”

He looked like she’d bowled him over. “Ol’ LJ’s workin at the paper?” He whispered.

“Yes, which is why we need to leave. We’re in a lot of trouble.”

He put down the bottle and rubbed his eyes, muttering. “Gonna die by tomorrow?”

“I don’t think so.”

“The end of the week?”

“Um-” She didn’t want to say no, because he’d probably turn her away.

“Come back in a couple days.”

She breathed a sigh of relief. They’d be safe.

The man staggered to his feet. “Tell that bastard of a father of yours to write old Bennett, would you?”

“Sure.” What else could she say?

“Gonna get those kids- shoulda been back by now with Harvey.” He muttered.

Philomena was dismissed.

She wasn’t saying a word about Benjamin- Bennett, whoever, to her dad, especially not if he knew the guy. Now she’d just need to figure out how to tell Philip and Tom they couldn’t stay in the country. At least that conversation wouldn’t require her to wander through streets full of criminals.

And you know what? She wasn’t going to that stupid parade, either. She was going to lie down, and forget the entire day.

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Scene 10: Straying

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It was noon before Amalia moved.

She slept little; she’d shut her eyes for a few minutes and her mind would invariably go back to the gun pointed in her face.

Lothar’s skull shattered from the impact of the bullet, red blood intermingled with black hair- her eyes snapped open and she let out a breath.

The doorbell rang at noon, so she had to get out of bed. Her limbs felt heavy and the sheets clung to her skin. She was breathing in and out slowly, watching the dust filter through the ray of sunshine. The light fell over her shoulder and warmed her. The sheets were cold, but the sunlight was warm, and the mattress was heated from lying on it all night.

The doorbell didn’t ring again.

Her lungs filled with air, and she held it for a moment before slowly letting it out. The sheet brushed her shoulder as her chest rose and fell, sticking to her. She shifted her shoulder, but the damp sheet didn’t unstick itself.

It didn’t matter. She went back to watching the swirling dust motes and the light shining on the back of her hand. The wood of her nightstand had a slight crack in it. She’d watched dawn rise while tracing patterns in the wood. Her eyes prickled. They were dry, and there was a low pounding headache in her temples. It might be from the head wound or the lack of sleep. She imagined it was from the lack of sleep, so she could avoid thinking about it.

Someone shouted her name.

Amalia sat up before her brain could protest. That was Philomena’s voice. Philomena was at the door, calling her name. The sheets bunched around her waist as she propped herself up on her elbow.

She didn’t want to see her. Her friend would want to talk about the alley and the gun, and she couldn’t touch the edges of that memory without withering, all her strength bleeding out of her. Her hands shook and her mouth went dry.

That was okay. She focused on the strain in her muscles as she propped herself up, scooting back to the headboard using her good ankle. She could just go back to bed, and then she wouldn’t have to speak to Phil. She wouldn’t have to think about it.

And she was in her nightdress. She’d have to get dressed, shower, and brush her hair. Each was another weight, another moment she’d have to focus her attention on anything but the gun and the blonde watchguard’s face.

She redirected her gaze to the sheets, quickly, before the thought could form. They were soaked in cold sweat. She grimaced. Had she been lying in that?

Now that she thought about it, she was rather cold. Her thin nightdress was damp, and her hair stuck to the nape of her neck. She could just put on her robe and lie on the couch. It’d be warmer without the damp clothes and sheets.

Besides, she was awake now. She hadn’t gotten any sleep, and she was unlikely to get some now. It wasn’t surprising that she sweated during the night. It was the end of the warm season, and the sun burned high in the sky, chasing away the morning mist that gathered over the bay.

She stood, stretching. The downside of wakefulness was that it took more to distract her. The memories hovered in the back of her mind, a great mass that was slowly drawing her in.

She took another deep breath, letting it out slowly. She focused on the sensation of the air rushing out of her nose, and of the solid wooden boards beneath her feet. It wouldn’t always be like this, she knew. It was like a wound, and it would scab over and she’d slowly forget. She’d just have to get through now to get there.

She leaned experimentally on her ankle. It was only mildly swollen and bore her weight. It ached, but not so badly that she couldn’t walk on it. Changing her clothes would help her feel more human, and she could get out her favorite cup and make herself some strong tea.

“Amalia, I know you’re in that house! Open the door!” Right. Philomena was at the front door. She felt the tension building, and quickly went back to the sensation of floorboards on bare feet. She put on her robe and quickly walked down the steps, minding the rug that bunched up on the second to last step.

She could hear Philomena shouting at someone outside. Amalia opened the door a crack.

“Philomena.” There was a man standing across from her, between Philomena and the door.

“M’lady,” the guard didn’t turn his head to face her, and kept his eyes trained on her friend. “Please stay inside. This woman might be-”

“It’s fine. She’s fine, a friend. Let her by.”

Philomena raised an eyebrow at the guard before storming past him. Amalia thought she heard Philomena mutter something that sounded suspiciously like “told you so” at the guard.

Her old guard knew Philomena was a friend, and would’ve let her in. Her old guard was dead. She’d found out last night before she’d gone to bed. The new guard knocked on her door, and he’d introduced himself as her new personal bodyguard, and that her father ordered he come right away. It was then she realized then that her old friend was dead. He must’ve forgotten to recharge his amulet.

The new bodyguard’s name was Andrew. She couldn’t remember the rest of their conversation, but that didn’t bother her. He’d left shortly after with the journal, and delivered it to her mother. She hadn’t realized he’d returned.

Philomena stood in front of the door, looking her up and down. Amalia backed away from the door, allowing her friend into the house. Philomena shut the door behind her.

Philomena’s black hair was short and straight, brushing her shoulders. The two girls had cut their hair to the same length. Aunt Basileia had been furious, of course. A noble didn’t cut their hair that short.

They had done it in a fit of pique, after their Aunt said something awful about Jeptha being a commoner. He might not be a noble, but it wasn’t like he was from a bad family. So they cut their hair short, like the commoners were doing. Amalia still remembered her Aunt’s face that day. Amalia’s parents didn’t care, though, and neither did Philomena’s. Jeptha’s mother was a good friend of the family, and her father was pretty upset with Aunt Basileia when he found out what she’d said.

“Amalia?” Philomena was looking at her, features twisted with concern.

“I’m fine.”

“You were staring.” she said, voice gentle. “I asked you a question and you didn’t answer me.”

“I just woke up.” Amalia smiled. “You know how I am when I’m tired.”

Philomena studied her for a moment, then turned around and said “Okay. Well, get dressed and I’ll make you some food. Jeptha’s going to be here in a few minutes, so hurry up.”

“Jeptha’s coming here?”

“Yes. I thought it’d be helpful.” She said from the kitchen. “Where do you keep the raspberry jam?”

“I didn’t buy any. There are some apples, but I had one yesterday and they’re small and kind of sour.” She watched while Philomena opened cabinets. She felt a slight twinge of irritation, because she hadn’t given Phil permission to go through her things. But this was pretty typical of Philomena.

“I can work with that.”

“What will Jeptha help with?” She asked. Philomena stopped puttering around, and turned to face Amalia.

“What happened yesterday, well, Jeptha said you both got pretty banged up.” She said gently.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Amalia folded her arms across her chest. She knew it was defensive, but the rawness was there, encroaching on her mind.

“But you have to. You almost died. When he said that, you have no idea how badly that scared me.”

A slow tendril of anger boiled up from Amalia’s stomach. How scared she was? How scared- the floorboards against her feet and the texture of the scabs on her arms, the low throbbing of her on the back of her head. Crashing through the juice stand. The gun and the blonde watchguard. Lothar’s body on the ground.

“I can’t.” She recognized dimly that her voice sounded funny, a little too high pitched. She focused back on her breathing. Breathing was neutral.

“But it’ll make you feel better, and Amalia, I can’t bear to-”

“I can’t do that right now. I need you to respect that.”

Philomena looked away, sighing. “That’s fine. We’ll talk about other things. But you’re not spending today alone.”

“Okay.” That was okay. She’d just think about the wooden floorboards and the air in her lungs.

“Frankly, I’m shocked no one stayed with you. I mean, it’s so irresponsible, especially after being threatened at gunpoint.” Philomena’s voice came from far away.

There was a gun in her face, but it was overtaken by the sensation of wood under her feet, the slow dull throb of her ankle, and the hem of her robe brushing her calves. The nightdress still stuck to her skin under the robe, and her hair was still damp on the back of her neck.

“Amalia?” Philomena looked worried again. What had they been talking about?

“My father sent the new bodyguard over.”

Philomena raised one delicate eyebrow. “Meat and potatoes out there doesn’t count.”

Amalia didn’t feel like arguing. It was too tiring, and she could already see this going nowhere. So she turned around and went upstairs. She’d take a long shower, and then maybe she’d feel more human.

Philomena and Jeptha were in sitting at the kitchen counter, talking in low tones when Amalia walked in. She wanted to say a number of things to Jeptha. She wanted to apologize. She should have been there for him.

“How’s your chin?” was what ended up coming out of her mouth.

“S’alright. I’ll have battle scars. Hurts like a bitch, though.”

“Sorry.” Amalia said, leaning against the doorframe.

He shrugged. “So Philomena and I were talking, and we just want you to know that we’re here for you after what happened yesterday.”

Her pulse jumped. “Can we talk about something else?”

“Sure,” he said. “I just want you to know, because I don’t want you like, being afraid to leave the house or something, because I heard that can happen to people if they get spooked.”

Amalia didn’t know what to say, so she ignored it. “Are either of you planning on going to the youth event?” They almost never went, because the events were really cheesy. They were hosted by the Moral Restoration Society, and their dances were about as fun as the society’s name implied they’d be. But it was something to talk about.

“Oh, fuck.” Jeptha swore. “My dad’s going to be in town that week.”

Philomena laughed. “You have my pity.” Philomena’s dad never made her go to those events, but whenever Jeptha’s dad was in town, he made Jeptha go. Amalia’s parents used to make her go when she was younger, but stopped when she was about eleven.

The events were part social mixer for children, and part informational lecture. She knew from Jeptha that different age groups were kept separate. The children or young adults would socialize, but eventually be called in for a seminar on the evils of black magic. They had once every quarter, and taught people how to recognize a black mage and what to do if you see one.

It was also an event so highly mocked and parodied by the general public that it’d become a joke. Everyone knew black magic was dangerous. They didn’t need to hold these seminars, and the ones for parents were even worse.

Philomena’s dad, Uncle Lawrence, went once. He said they spent the entire time convincing people that black mages were hiding in their gardens and under the floorboards.

“Lucky for us,” Jeptha said, grinning, “I have the solution to all of our problems.” With a flourish, he pulled a bottle of scotch out of his satchel.

“I don’t think that’ll help anything.” said Philomena, frowning.

“I’ll go get the snifters.” Amalia said, with a conspiratorial grin. Philomena rolled her eyes.

They sat down with their plates of oatmeal with apple slices and cinnamon, and snifters of scotch. She sipped her scotch, the smoky liquid burning down her throat.

The flavor combination of the oatmeal and alcohol was pretty bad, but not nearly as bad as the sort of trash they drank as teenagers. Though usually Amalia would insist upon moderation. Today, she didn’t care.

“Today was my first day of class.” she said. “I didn’t go.”

“I think you’ll be excused.” Jeptha said, lounging back on the couch with Philomena. Amalia sat on the squishy chair.

“I wanted to go, but I couldn’t get out of bed.” It was as much of an admission as anything. She’d wanted to do something right, for a change. She’s been fucking up so much, lately. She wanted to be who she always said she was, a proper di Danti.

Philomena fiddled with her snifter. “I’m dropping out of law.”

“What?” said Jeptha. “But you love law.”

“I don’t know.” She was staring down at her plate. “I think I just need some time to figure out what I need.”

“If you feel it’s necessary, then take all the time you like.You can always work for your father if you need to.” Amalia said. Phil didn’t need a degree in law to do well in her father’s company, but then again, Phil had never shown much interest in working there.

“Become a watchguard.” Said Jeptha. Amalia kept the smile plastered on her face, while internally she counted her breaths, focusing on the squishy chair under her.

“I value my life, thanks.” Philomena’s voice was dry.

“Become a doctor, then.” said Amalia. “We can always use more of those.” And it wasn’t anything to do with watchguards.

“No thanks. I don’t want to deal with-.”

“Deal with what?”

“Blood and guts, obviously.”

Amalia continued with the breathing exercises, and then started eating her oatmeal. This way, she wouldn’t have to respond. She chewed the bitter apples, which had sugar sprinkled on top, producing an odd flavor that was a cross between sweet and sour.

“Amalia?”

“Yes?”

“I’m glad you’re okay.” Philomena said. Amalia flashed her another smile.

They ate mostly in silence, and stacked the dishes on the coffee table when they were done. There was no hurry.

“What were you planning on doing today?” Philomena asked.

Amalia swirled her scotch around the bottom of the snifter. It smelled like wood and smoke. “I was going to go to the library.”

“Your project?” asked Jeptha.

It was such a little thing, to tell them. It wasn’t like the journal or the reason why she’d run after Lothar. It was a perfectly reasonable inquiry, and she wanted to be more open with her friends, even if she couldn’t tell them what they wanted to hear.

“No. I’m researching universities.”

“You want to leave Port Drebon University?”

“No, no. I meant I’m looking into enrollment statistics.”

“Why?” Asked Jeptha, a touch of incredulity in his tone.

Amalia set down her snifter. The alcohol wasn’t helping, anyway. If anything, it was affecting her more than usual and making it worse.

“Well, actually, it’s a bit complicated. I was looking into the difference between the number of students who attended university in the past, and the number that attend now. And you’d expect there’d be more people attending now, just by virtue of the fact that the population is growing, but there were four hundred some people attending the College of Magics thirty years ago, and today there are less than a hundred. I’m trying to find out why.”

“What got you interested in that?” Said Philomena, voice quiet.

“It’s a long story.”

“I’m sorry Amalia, but that’s the most boring thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Who would think that’s interesting?” Jeptha said.

“I do. It’s a serious issue. If there are less people attending university, then there are less people qualified to do certain jobs. That’s a bad thing.”

“Sure, but if it was actually an issue, don’t you think someone would’ve noticed already?”

“I don’t know. It seems like it would be, but you can never tell. It might’ve slipped through the cracks.”

“Well, then tell your father about it. If it’s important, he’ll fix it.” said Jeptha. “It’s not your responsibility.”

He wasn’t talking about the research.

“I wouldn’t tell your father, if I were you.” Philomena’s face was pale, and she was wringing the neck of her snifter.

“I wasn’t really planning on telling him unless I found anything, partly because I’m curious and it’s a good distraction.” She studied Phil’s expression. “Why shouldn’t I tell my father?”

Philomena let out a little breath. “I’d just hate to burden him, that’s all. It’s probably going to be nothing, and you know how busy he is.”

“If it’s really that serious,” Jeptha drawled, “then she should tell him. I mean, none of us have the kind of resources to figure it out, and you’ll end up wasting a month of time when it’d take them minutes to check.”

Philomena’s lips thinned. “Some of us don’t mind research.”

“I wouldn’t have brought it up if I knew you two were going to fight over it.” She was being petulant, but so were they.

“It’s fine.” Phil said. “So how are you finding out information on this project?”

“I went to the university library. I’m headed to the Free Library today. They’ll have records from other colleges for comparison.”

“That’s good.” She paused. “Just don’t remove the books from the library.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, what if someone else needs them? And I know how you are about books. If someone else needs them for a class project, and you’re using them for something that might be nothing, then that wouldn’t really be fair.”

“Holy fuck. When did you start being nice?” Jeptha swore.

“I can’t be considerate?” She raised her eyebrows.

“I just- nevermind.”

“It’s kind of pointless, the books were under a layer of dust. I don’t think they’ve even been opened before.” Amalia said. “But if it makes you feel better about the whole thing, then fine.”

“I have a better idea.” said Jeptha. “We should head over to the pub on Grace street. We’ll drink and flirt with anyone our age, and after a few hours the last few days will be a distant blur.”

“Actually, I think I’ll head over to the library, now. You’re welcome to come with me.”

“Research has never been my strong point, but hey, whatever works.” He knocked back the rest of his scotch and stood up. Amalia winced. You really weren’t supposed to drink it like that.

They said their goodbyes, and Philomena stared at the door, looking regretful. “He was buzzed when he got here, you know.”

“I didn’t notice.”

“I think I should go with him, but I don’t want to leave you alone.”

“I’m going to the library. I won’t be alone in the house.”

Philomena tossed her a look. “Alright.” She got up and placed her glass down. It hadn’t been touched. Too bad, because it was good scotch.

“Amalia? Just do me a favor.”

“Sure.”

“Be careful.”

“Of course.” She wanted to say she always was, but that would be a lie. But seriously, it was just a concussion. She was feeling a lot better already.


The new bodyguard was waiting for her outside her townhouse. She turned to walk towards the public library, ignoring him.

He followed, practically on her tail. Her old guard, Oslin, used to follow from a few feet back, allowing her the illusion of privacy. This one made sure she couldn’t forget his presence, walking next to her, and attempting to prevent anyone from bumping into her.

It wasn’t like her amulet wouldn’t protect her. She’d grabbed charged crystals off the nightstand last night and plugged them into the amulet. If someone tried to shoot her or stab her, she’d be protected. If someone tried to compel her, the thin choker she always wore had a slim protection spell engraved in it that covered the back of her neck.

Of course, you couldn’t wear the choker when you were being interrogated, but it prevented you from being the victim of a compulsion by a black mage. For all practical purposes, she was safe. And the sort of things she wasn’t safe from, like bombs in buildings, weren’t the kind of things a guard could protect her from.

She wondered if there was a way of making her amulet stronger, so it could withstand those blasts. She made a note to pick up some amulets to experiment on before she returned home.

Her amulet had shorted out when she’d been thrown by the blast, it’s energy spent in one shot. When she faced those men, she’d been defenseless but for her own wits. And that hadn’t been enough.

She found her breath getting short again, the beginnings of her reaction to anything that reminded her of the parade. She suppressed frustration. She’d thought after that conversation with her friends that she was feeling better.

Thinking about it was only making it worse. She was better off focusing on her breathing, the light tunic under her overcoat, and the swish of her pants against her legs.

The library was only three blocks away, and it was only when the guard followed her into the section of the library with statistics that she realized they were going to have a problem.

“Wait in the lobby or outside.”

“M’lady, I’m charged with protecting you.”

“I have an amulet and I’m in a library. Your behavior makes us more conspicuous. You’re so obviously guarding me that it’s making me a target for any opportunist in sight. Stand back.”

“I’m not interested in what you’re researching, m’lady.”

“I know that. I’m just informing you that I need space. I’m setting the ground rules.”

“I’m not sure what you’re used to, m’lady, but I’m employed by your father. You don’t get to make the rules, your father does, and he said you’re not to leave my sight when you’re out of the house.”

Her lips thinned. She knew she was slightly buzzed from the alcohol. Really, drinking something that was 30% alcohol on an empty stomach was a poor idea, especially with a concussion. Her anger was disproportionate. She wanted to rip into this idiot. She wanted to make him feel- But that wasn’t going to make the situation better. It certainly wouldn’t bring her old guard back.

“How about this: you stand at the end of this row of stacks. I’ll be at the table over there.” She pointed towards a desk towards the back of the library, but within view of the stacks. “I’m going to be in between this row of books and that desk. If you notice anyone acting suspicious, let me know.”

“That’s acceptable.”

She nodded, and turned to the stacks of books. There were some records from different colleges, though several of the books didn’t go past 874. She compared the decrease in enrollment in Port Drebon University to the other universities, and found they were almost identical.

It wasn’t that people were leaving Port Drebon University. People stopped attending all the universities, and the drastic drops in enrollment in magics programs were the same across the board. It could be that new universities were opening up, so she went and looked it up.

She checked A Compendium of National Statistics, and looked for the number of colleges open in the nation in 871 versus 901. There were 122 universities in 871, and only 19 remained open to this day.

That sick feeling in her stomach returned full force.

Well, that didn’t have to mean anything. Admissions requirements may have gone up, or perhaps tuition went up. There were a number of explanations.

So she checked the tuition, and the admissions requirements.

It took a couple hours of limping back and forth between the stacks and cross referencing different texts, but it looked like the tuition wasn’t rising much faster than people’s salaries. In other words, people were being paid more than they were in 871, and the tuition hadn’t gone up drastically, and there was no difference between the tuition of a degree in magics versus a degree in, say, business. It didn’t explain the sharp drops in people studying magics.

She couldn’t find any information on admissions, but it occurred to her that Jeptha might’ve had a point. Someone had to have noticed that all those universities were shutting down. That would be front-page news on the newspapers, and most of the records on enrollment stopped at 874, which suggested those universities shut down in 874.

So she went to the front desk and asked for their collection of old newspapers. They directed her to the proper row, but it quickly became apparent that she wouldn’t be finding out anything from them.

There were no papers kept from before 877.

She asked the librarian if the papers prior to 877 were in the back, but the librarian, a young man with a scruffy beard, said that was all the newspapers they had. When she asked why they didn’t have any before 877, he shrugged and said he didn’t know. So she asked to speak with his boss, who appeared, if possible, less sympathetic than the scruffy librarian, and only said there were a number of items stolen from the library some ten years back, and that they didn’t have the funds to get them replaced.

She sighed, glancing through the headlines from 877. Maybe she’d get lucky, after all the second drop in enrollment happened during 877. There was a mention of the formation of the Moral Restoration Society, various calls to action against black mages and violence, large scale riots, a glowing commentary about an emigration act, and various emergency orders due to the escalating violence.

She kept skimming the articles, with a sort of morbid fascination. Sure, she’d heard all the stories, but she never realized it had been that bad back then. A few more headlines, and it hit her. An emigration act, not an immigration act.

She quickly flipped back, and read the article. Apparently, the Sutanni Empire had been encouraging people to come to their country with various packages that made it easier to gain citizenship and work, allowing people to get away from the violence that was encompassing Jaborre at that time.

The government didn’t want all the skilled workers to leave, so they made it more difficult to emigrate, significantly raising the cost of the paperwork. It also went into detail on how cowardly it was to leave one’s nation out of fear, and of the moral corruption in the Sutanni Empire.

She checked a few papers during the weeks after that announcement, and found an emergency order issued by the government, stopping all travel in and out of the country. After the first article on the emigration bill, a great number of people tried to leave before the law could go into effect.

Her hands were sweating. It didn’t explain why the enrollment rates were still so low today, nor did it explain why student mages were affected more than the general population of the college.  But it might help explain what happened back in 877. With more information, she could figure out which questions she should be asking in the first place.

Whatever it was, she wanted confirmation. So she headed over to the Compendium and checked population statistics. Another two hours and various calculations had Amalia staring at the her notes with a dry mouth and trembling hands.

There was something very, very wrong in Jaborre, and there was absolutely no way the government didn’t know about it.

The basic idea behind population growth was simple. You had a certain number of people born every year, and a certain number of people died. Generally, more people were born than died, and that meant a positive population growth. The birth rate hadn’t changed much between 871 to 880, and the death rate went up only slightly.

But the population growth was negative.

After 877, it picked up again and the population started growing, but before the government had enacted that emigration act, Jaborre had been practically hemorrhaging people.

She estimated that well over a million people left every year between 874 and 877, something like 1% of the population per year. Before 872, barely anyone was leaving. If anything, people were trying to immigrate to Jaborre.

The reason universities were shutting down and enrollment was dropping was because people were leaving the country in droves. And if the majority of those that were leaving were mages… well.

There weren’t over a million black mages in Jaborre. That would be ridiculous. It was possible that people were leaving because of the violence, but over a million people, every year, for three years?

She put the books away, back in their spots where she’d found them, and left the library pale and shaking. She’d overdone it with the working when she really should’ve been lying down. Her head was throbbing and she felt dizzy. Well, she also needed to eat, which was part of the problem.

If she assumed that something had scared away most of the mages… Walking back, she mulled over the problem. Doctors got a degree in magics, and there were few doctors these days. She was certain doctors had nothing to do with black magic. So did something happen to make people who studied magics want to leave?

She didn’t know. Surely, if there was some trouble with mages, she would know. Someone would have told her.

It didn’t make sense, and a part of her didn’t want to make sense of it, because she knew she wouldn’t like the answer, whatever it was.

Previous | Next

Scene 9: Impact

Previous | Next

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?”

“I- “

“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.

Previous | Next

Scene 8: Catalyst

Previous | Next

Present Day- 4th of Faquar, 901.

It was seven in the morning and Amalia was awake. Two people were out on the street having a shouting match and she could hear them from her room. She groaned and covered her head with a pillow. She just wanted to sleep a little longer, to put off the inevitable.

The pillow didn’t muffle sound well, and now that she was awake she could hear all the other noises of the morning. Birds chirped and there was an automobile on the street. She’d seen three of them just this week. They were becoming popular in the city, though not so much in the country.

The automobile driver started honking his horn. She groaned and rolled out of bed. No, she would not be falling asleep again this morning.

She went through her morning ablutions thinking about tomorrow. It was her first day at University. She would be attending two classes: one was an advanced mathematics course focused on the equations she would need to design larger, more complicated magical machines and the second class was Ethics. It was a required course for all students studying magics.

She’d also be working on her project, under the guidance of Professor Hall, who was also her mathematics professor. They would meet once a week to discuss her progress.

It wasn’t anything new. When Amalia had tutors, they would usually do something similar, especially as she got older. She would get interested in a topic and they’d direct her to a number of books on it, and suggest goals for her to accomplish. Later in the week they’d test to see if she understood it. She enjoyed that kind of self-study more than lectures, and didn’t need much guidance.

It wasn’t that Amalia thought she was particularly talented in engimancy, or anything else, for that matter. She remembered reading that advanced placement had more to do with the tutor being exceptionally good at their job than the student being particularly intelligent, so she harbored no illusions, there.

Coming up with a new project was always nerve wracking. It seemed like she only had a limited amount of good ideas and, eventually, she’d run out. This one felt more like an accident than anything. She was combining a few pieces from other magical machines to carry out a different function. The “new” machine might be able to detect magic use nearby. Theoretically.

But her fear of running out of ideas was completely irrelevant, because she wouldn’t have to worry about a new project for a long time. This one would keep her occupied for years to come.

She ate breakfast with a grin on her face. Not only was she going to Port Drebon University as a student tomorrow, but she didn’t have to worry about her stupid mistake with that journal any longer. Her mother was sending someone to pick it up tonight, and then she was officially done with it. All she had to worry about now was University.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. In the back of her mind, there was a small note of discord. Something wasn’t right.

It’d been bothering her ever since she met Grand Meister Marcellus.

See, when Amalia anticipated a huge change in her life, or faced a problem, the first thing she did was research it. She’d find out all the information she could, because uncertainty made her anxious. So when Amalia realized she’d gotten into Port Drebon University, she’d found out as much information as she could about the place.

In all honesty, her research had more to do with figuring out what classes would be like and what the teachers were like, than it had to do with the history. But she did remember reading about the College of Magics, and how they had an entire building devoted to it with classrooms and labs.

She remembered being confused, that feeling she got whenever something just didn’t fit, because she knew there weren’t many students studying magics. But she’d been too excited about going to university to investigate.

When she’d visited the college to meet the Grand Meister, she’d seen the building in passing. It was three stories tall and half a block long. But again, something had distracted her. She’d been focusing on the journal, but now her mind was emptied of distractions.

She didn’t remember the exact numbers, but there were less than a hundred students enrolled in the College of Magics. Amalia bit her lip. Maybe she was remembering wrong. She could always check; she might’ve kept the pamphlet.

She went up to her workshop and started looking through the books. It wasn’t on her shelves so it was probably packed away. Four minutes later she found it. The number of students enrolled in the College of Magics was fifty five.

Fifty five students in a three story building with at least sixty classrooms in it, if not more. She knew there were only three other students in her advanced mathematics class, though there were seven in her Ethics class.

It wasn’t entirely unexplainable. The buildings might be more intermixed than the school let on. Maybe the College of Magics shared space with the College of Business, or maybe they employed a number of researchers who used those rooms. There were a dozen reasonable explanations, but it still seemed forced, like trying to fit a square block in a round hole.

Each explanation might solve a portion of the problem, but not the whole thing. It didn’t satisfy her curiosity like a real answer did.

Unless the Grand Meister wasn’t just a senile old man. Maybe there were more mages before, maybe there were less students now because back then there were more black mages.

Ideas like that weren’t healthy to have, but Amalia knew how they festered. It wasn’t like she doubted that Marcellus was senile or anything, but it wasn’t good to even think about doubting something like that. People who believed those kinds of things were associated with black mages and dissenters, and the very thought of those sorts being right on any level made her feel ill. She figured that if she researched it, found out the number of students who attended the university before, she could put the matter to rest.

She expected to find that there were less people attending Port Drebon University in the past, and when she found that information, she could write off the Grand Meister as being a pitiable old man who was confused.

So 8AM found Amalia at the Port Drebon University Library.

She had another reason for being there, besides the extracurricular research. She’d received a letter from Professor Hall saying they should pick up copies of supplementary materials and have them ready for class. Either way, she’d be going to the library, so why not?

The librarian was helpful, and she checked outModern Practices in Engimacyand A Definitive Guide to Functional Whorls. While putting the books in her bag, she thought about what she was going to ask.

Just in case, she wasn’t going to simply ask the librarian about where to find statistics on how many people attended Port Drebon University before the Harkow Tragedy. She didn’t need her father coming to her townhouse again, asking her why she was researching suspicious subjects.

“I have one more question.” Amalia smiled. It was the same smile that her Aunt Basileia made her practice in the mirror, the sort of smile that puts people at ease.

“Yes, m’lady?” said the librarian. She was a middle aged woman with short brown hair and kind eyes.

“Do you know where I can find information on the dropout rate at Port Drebon University? Maybe for the last two years, just for comparison?” She affected a slightly nervous tone.

“I’m pretty sure we don’t keep records on that. Sorry, m’lady.”

“Then do you have records of enrollment and graduation?” Amalia asked. That was what she was actually looking for.

“We might.” The woman paused, looking contemplative. “If we have it, it will be in section 313.”

“Thank you.”

“If you’ll pardon me for saying, m’lady, I don’t think you need to worry about failing.”

Amalia grinned, “Thanks, but I think I’ll check anyway. It’s always better to know.”

It turns out Port Drebon University did have books containing records of enrollment and graduation, going back almost fifty years. The books hadn’t been touched since they were printed. They opened with the stiffness of new books and were covered in dust. She sat down at a desk in the corner of the library by the history section. It was all but abandoned.

She ignored graduation for the moment, just looking at enrollment. She took out a few pieces of paper, laying them in front of her. Amalia preferred graphs to tables, so she’d rewrite the data in the books as graphs on the paper.

She figured she’d start at 860 to 870, using that as a baseline to compare enrollment against the years 871 to 900. Grand Meister Marcellus talked about the Harkow Tragedy in 872 like it was the catalyst. Amalia knew the punishments for breaking the law became stricter after 872, but it wasn’t like black magic was legal before then.

But if she was going to descend into this madness, she’d better go all the way.

A half hour later, Amalia looked at the two graphs, face grim.

Today there were half as many people attending the University of Port Drebon as there were in 870, which was about 30 years ago.

But that wasn’t even the part that upset her, because there were a number of reasons attendance could drop, including other Universities being opened and drawing away students.

Her stomach dropped and her hands began to sweat. In 870, there were  467 students enrolled in the College of Magics. Today there were only 55.

She let out a slow breath, then looked up, glancing around to see if anyone was watching. No, no one was here. She bit her lip and started fiddling with the cap of her fountain pen.

Between 860 and 870, there was a gradual rise in enrollment. She had to consider that it was due to population growth, but she doubted the population grew that quickly. She made a note to check population growth and account for that. After 872, the number of students enrolled in Port Drebon University slowly dropped, until it evened out around 880. Since then enrollment has been slowly rising.

The College of Magics in Port Drebon University’s statistics read differently.They had the same gradual rise from 860 to 870, and remained high until about 874, when enrollment dropped dramatically. It wasn’t a gradual decline in enrollment, but a series of jagged drops. The worst drops in enrollment occurred in 874 and 877, which was years after the Harkow Tragedy.

She didn’t want to check enrollment for every College at the University, it would be too tedious. And besides, she had to be at the parade by eleven thirty. She still had about an hour, so there was still time to keep researching.

The total enrollment was telling, especially when she subtracted the data from the College of Magics from the total. The rest of the Colleges experienced a slow and gradual drop in enrollment. The College of Magics experienced a drastic drop over a short period of time.

They couldn’t all have been black mages. There weren’t that many people out there that wanted to destroy the world or kill everyone. It was perfectly possible that people wanted to distance themselves from magic, in general. After Harkow, people were not too keen on magic.

But then wouldn’t she see a drastic drop in 872 and 873? It didn’t fit the data.

She flipped through the book, but couldn’t find any information on people being kicked out for practicing black magic, nor the number of dropouts. They didn’t list the number of students in any major (like engimancy), so she couldn’t check if they taught black magic back then. What would it be listed under, anyway? Murder 101?

It wasn’t feasible. If only 55 out of 467 people, (and she knew that was using statistics all wrong,) decided to not practice black magic, that would mean 88% of the people studying at the College of Magics were being corrupted and turned into crazed monsters.

Fact of the matter was, they were not teaching black magic back then.

Why?

It wouldn’t be sustainable. If you had that many people graduating every year, in ten years you’d end up with over 4000 mass murderers. As far as she knew, there weren’t even 40 mass murderers in the last 40 years. Even if you account for all the ones that the watchguards would have caught, the numbers still didn’t add up. Not to mention, that wouldn’t explain the slow decrease in all the other Colleges at Port Drebon University.

So why was attendance at University, and specifically, the College of Magics, decreasing?

It was possible that people were going to other colleges, or perhaps getting apprenticeships instead. College was expensive, and apprenticeships were much less money, and usually guaranteed someone a job. She didn’t know how to find out if more people were taking apprenticeships, since there was no official registry. She supposed she could ask Jeptha and a few other friends if they knew, though anecdotes weren’t reliable.

It would be easy to find out if other universities were stealing Port Drebon University’s students. If they had their statistics here, then other universities would keep their statistics, too. There was only one other university in Port Drebon, and she could probably get into their library to check. If not, they kept public records in the Free Public Library, so she could go there and see if there were corresponding increases in students attending other universities.

In all honesty, if everyone was leaving PDU, she’d want to know the reason. If their education was substandard, she wasn’t going to stay here, even if this was where her mother and father both got their degrees.

She could also look up if a bunch of new universities opened. It was possible, considering how from 860 to 870, there was a gradual but steep rise in people enrolling. She could cross reference it against the sharp drops in enrollment at the College of Magics.

There was also the possibility that tuition costs rose drastically, and a lot of people couldn’t afford to attend. It didn’t explain why the College of Magics decrease dropped so drastically compared to overall enrollment (she didn’t think they’d make it more expensive just for mages), so it seemed improbable. Either way, it was easy to check.

It also could be changing admissions requirements. Maybe the university made their standards much stricter in the last thirty years. That could account for the sharp drops, and the gradual drop in total enrollment, especially considering that the College of Magics advertised itself as the elite and premier college of magics.

She checked the clock. There wasn’t enough time left to look over all this before the parade. If she was going to do this, she was going to do it right. She didn’t want to carry around the two books all day, so she had to stop by the townhouse and drop them off before walking to the parade and meeting Jeptha under the bright red awning on the corner of the Loop and East Drebon street.

Amalia decided that tomorrow, after class, she’d come back and continue her research. She needed to look at population growth to make sure she was accounting for it. If there were a lot more people living in Port Drebon in 870, that would explain some of it. Though in all honesty, people kept moving to cities, not away from them.

Still, she wanted to be exact, to get a real answer.

It would be easy to get information on most of it. Really, the only subjects that would be hard to find information on were apprenticeships and whether or not the admissions requirements had been changed. She guessed she could just ask a couple Professors, though for all she knew, that might be another suspicious question.

Alright, said her brain, you need to stop being so bitter about that.

But it was the truth. If she was going to research this, and it did turn out to be something fishy, then she’d need to cover her tracks and make sure no one knew.

That of course, made her wonder if she wanted to know. Was it worth it, having to hide something again? Would this be another secret she’d have to keep for the rest of her life, like the journal?

Besides, how important were college admissions? If there were 88% less people interested in magics, did that mean it was her responsibility to get involved?

And it wasn’t like she’d forgotten what happened the last time she got curious. She committed what amounted to a felony and had to go to her mother to bail her out.

Except, she might’ve learned the wrong lesson from that incident. Curiosity wasn’t the problem, breaking the law was. This time, she wasn’t breaking any laws. It wasn’t a crime to look into enrollment rates. She was pretty sure this had little to do with black mages, or anything criminal. So this was a perfectly legal and reasonable thing to research.

It wasn’t restricted knowledge, either. All the information was right here at the university library for anyone to read. Just because no one bothered to check into it before didn’t mean that it was forbidden.

And it was a big deal. There were a lot less people learning about magics. A degree in magics was necessary to become a diagnostician or a treatment specialist.

She shoved the problem to the back of her mind. It was getting late. She’d research it tomorrow.

Amalia got up and put the books back. She needed to leave now if she wanted to get to the parade on time. Jeptha would probably be a few minutes late, so she didn’t need to hurry, but she didn’t want to be late, either.


 

High above Port Drebon, a hawk did lazy loops around the plume of smoke rising from the Lowell building.

It was a sparrowhawk, a bird with long powerful talons and sharp eyesight. The woman controlling it soared through the shadow of the sun, watching Black Mage and boy from the sky.

Lothar limped and Harvey ran, tugging the older man’s arm. She had given the boy some tools, and she wasn’t about to miss how he used them. So far, everything was going according to plan. The explosion was well-executed, but she knew that it wouldn’t be long before something went wrong.

No plan survived contact with the enemy.

But that wasn’t the point of this whole venture. An explosion and escape attempt, even a failed one, would strike fear into the hearts of Port Drebon’s little sheep, a fear that would keep them up at night, trembling at the very thought of Black Magic.

Another shop door burst open, and a red haired girl and two watchguards stumbled out into the alley. Had the boy anticipated this? He didn’t seem like the sort that would, but perhaps the potential loss of his guardian made him more cautious, more prone to planning.

Well, maybe that was a bit too optimistic. When situations become more dangerous, when loved ones’ lives were at stake, people didn’t suddenly become more intelligent. Sometimes they even act more dull-witted than usual.

She swooped down low, settling on the roof of a nearby building, digging talons into the brick.

“STOP!” The red haired girl pointed at Lothar, who turned to look behind him, seeing the Watchguards. “HE’S HERE!” Her high pitched voice was shrill and grating. My, aren’t you a little drama queen?

Loud cracks rang through the air, and a red bloom spread on the man’s side.

Lothar crumpled to the ground, and Harvey screamed.

Oh well, it looked like Lothar wouldn’t be escaping. It was too bad; he almost looked useful, judging by his profile. He and Bennett ferreted people out of the country for years before getting caught. She wondered if any of his old contacts survived.

Well, she could always Compel Bennett Miller to tell her. Lothar’s death was no loss.

DAD! NO!”  The boy was inconsolable, screaming as though tears could make the bullet wound go away. It was almost painful to watch. She was just about to fly away and write the whole situation off as a failed experiment, when Bennett ran up to the boy from a side alley, grabbing him the waist and tugging him back, forcing him to run.

Put me down! DAD!”  The boy kept screaming and cursing and crying.

Oh, that was interesting. So old Bennett Miller did still involve himself in the action. Not quite how Harvey had described him, then. She followed their progress down the alley. They wouldn’t escape, not with the watchguards firing. They’d land a lucky shot.

“Stop shooting!” And what was this? A noble girl defending a drek? And she was a noble girl. The cut of her clothes and the fact that Watchguards were following her gave credence to that. This was unexpected. Nobles did not typically put themselves in danger.

They hired people to do their dirty work while they attended the theater and drank fine wines. Well, not all nobles did that. There were some exceptions, but they only served to prove the rule.

The red haired girl turned out to be Amalia di Danti, Judge Titus’ daughter. Oh, this was fascinating. How did the daughter of Titus end up defending black mages? She was tall, a bit pudgy around the middle, with a round face and watery blue eyes. She wasn’t particularly unattractive, but lacked any of the features that would have made her beautiful.

There was a confrontation, and the girl repeated her name over and over, as though somehow it would act as a shield to protect her. The watchguards were no doubt suspicious because, well, why would she lead them to Lothar?

She had no responsibility to them. She wasn’t in the guard so she had no obligation to-… The woman internally frowned (the sparrow was incapable of frowning.) She was coming at this the wrong way.

What sort of ploy would require one to chase down a Black Mage, and insist he be kept alive? Perhaps the di Danti heir wanted him to bleed out slowly. Dying that way, with a wound to the stomach, was torture. She might have some kind of vendetta against Lothar. She tried thinking back to the papers. Were there any di Danti factories or property damage that was attributed to Lothar? She wasn’t sure. She supposed the girl could be trying to act like a hero, but a hero would have ordered the watchguards to kill Lothar right away.

The sparrow could hear speech, but its ears couldn’t always translate it into something she could understand. It was a disadvantage, because the young di Danti was talking and the hawk was only understanding every few words. But whatever was said resulted in guns being pointed at Amalia. The girl moaned and whimpered in terror, but she did not move from her place between the watchguards’ guns and Lothar.

The woman in hawk’s guise was almost impressed. Amalia was brave. Not the kind of brave most people think of, but the sort where someone was terrified and did what they had to do, anyway.

Well, no. She was ignoring another possibility altogether. It was entirely possible that someone was blackmailing the girl to- well, no. Nevermind. No one knew of this distraction, and she knew her two lieutenants were trustworthy. She Compelled them herself.

The girl was about to die. It was too bad. She would have liked to speak with her. She was quite the mystery.

Judge di Danti, after all, was a prime target. How would he like it if his daughter were his executioner? A small smile curled her lips. She rearranged her wings. This form was rather uncomfortable. She glanced to her left. Two watchguards patrolling the tops of the buildings had taken notice of her. Good. Dying in this form would only jolt her back to her own body, and overriding the hawk’s instincts and committing suicide was always a bother.

“And give .. to .. your wicked…?” The watchguard sneered. “I think not.”

“I ..ear!” Said the red headed girl, voice trembling with terror. “I’m begging you plea–”

A gunshot rang out across the alley. Ah. Here comes the cavalry. No dismal fate for the young Amalia, today.  It was time to leave, to start the real operation, though this almost-escape was a lovely distraction.

The sparrowhawk took to the sky, soaring past the watchguards. One of them let out a shout and they aimed their revolvers at the bird. Two shots from his revolver and she was back in Old City, in her body.


 

She opened her eyes. The second story of the warehouse was old and looked abandoned, which was the whole point. It wouldn’t do to attract the attention of the authorities. She stretched, working out the kinks in her spine. Rituals like that really took it out of a person. Of course, if you only used it sparingly, or better yet, Compelled people and ordered them to do it, the effects were minimized. As it stood, she didn’t have any sensation in her right hand. It would likely go away in a few hours. If not, well, ritual magic has its costs. She of all people knew that.

But to soar through the skies as a hawk, swooping and gliding high above the world? That was worth the numbness. She pulled on her robe, using her left hand. Her right one wasn’t cooperating, and while she could move it, she couldn’t feel what she was doing. It was startling, realizing how much people rely on texture to tell the difference between fabrics. Her boots were similarly difficult to put on, but she dealt with it, using her teeth to help her tie the laces.

Five minutes later she was standing on the first floor. Twelve men and women stood before her, all Compelled with the order to obey her commands. She smiled.

It’s showtime.

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Scene 7: Fracture

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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.

“Papers, ma’am?”

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?”

“Yes?”

“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.”

“Excellent.”

“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.

She knocked.

“Enter.”

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.

“Which mistake?”

“I visited father the other day. Did he tell you?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Yes.”

“I take it the interest was because of this book?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Yes.”

“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.

“I understand.”

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.

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Scene 6: Wringer

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3rd of Faquar, The Fall quarter of year 901

She had to face the facts. It was a terrible plan. That was the exact reason no one had tried it before: it couldn’t work. It occurred to Amalia yesterday, as she walked inside her townhouse, through the Back Magic-detecting Aegis, that of course there would be some way to detect someone under the effects of the Compulsion spell.

There was absolutely no way the government would be that stupid. If Black Mages could just Compel secretaries in Council Hall whenever they wanted, they wouldn’t bother to steal semi-valuable journals from the government. Instead, they’d just assassinate all the important officials.

All they would have to do is Compel someone who works for the government to enter the building and shoot whomever they wanted dead. That was two points of failure. Not only would no self-respecting black mage ever content themselves with stealing a simple journal, but the building had ways of detecting if someone inside was under a Compulsion.

Mass mayhem and havoc were the trademarks of Black Mages.

In other words, her plan wouldn’t work. Amalia couldn’t make it look like Henrik was Compelled to steal the journal and give it to a Black Mage.

She winced. It hurt coming to this conclusion. She hadn’t wanted to analyze it harshly, because she really really wanted it to work. She liked her plan.

Except, all the wanting in the world wouldn’t make something true. Reality wouldn’t bend to her desires, even if she wished really hard.

Someone would conclude that it was a set up. It would take a competent investigator two minutes to deduce that it was a ploy designed to deflect attention from the real thief, and then they’d quickly discover that she was the one behind it. Not only that, but she would be in more trouble for planting fake evidence.

This put her back at square one. How could she make sure she was never questioned, and that no one ever found out she stole it? She bit her lip; a nervous habit. She really needed to stop doing that.

She was sitting in her workroom on the second floor of the townhouse, staring out the window. It was early morning and the park was quiet, trees rustled by a light breeze. She hadn’t slept well last night, her mind preoccupied. A capped fountain pen sat atop a pad of paper. She absentmindedly slid the pen back and forth, thinking.

What would happen if she just slipped the journal under the door to her father’s office? In Amalia’s mind, it would be an implicit apology.

Except, no one else would see it that way. She couldn’t merely think from her own point of view. The investigators saw this as an attack, not the mistake of a curious, impulsive eighteen-year-old. They would see it as a taunt, as though to say ‘I have everything I wanted. You can have it back. It’s worthless to me, now.’

They would only redouble their efforts to catch the thief. Not only that, but it wasn’t her father who was investigating the missing journal, it was Internal Affairs. They would have no pity on her, once they realized that she was the only one who could have taken it.

Well, she could always just slip it in Henrik’s folder with the timesheets, or mix it in with some other books in the office. It would be seen as some sort of clerical error. People did that sort of thing all the time.

Except that was relying heavily on luck. Henrik’s office was likely already searched. In order to dump the book into a different office, she would need to deviate from the route to her father’s.

It was against protocol to go anywhere in the building you didn’t have permission to be, and watchmirrors monitored every major hallway. They wouldn’t buy it if she said she got lost. No one bought that excuse anymore. It was the oldest trick in the book.

Then they would notice the oddity of Amalia being in an area she shouldn’t be and the journal showing up that day. Then they’d note that she was also there the day the journal went missing.

She couldn’t take a detour to drop the book onto some poor intern’s desk.

She couldn’t forget that the government was smart. They wouldn’t ignore that many coincidences.

Amalia felt the first tendrils of despair. She was tired of generating solutions only for the other parts of her brain to shoot them down moments later. She wanted to fix this, to make it like it never happened. But there was no magic that would allow her to travel back in time. She couldn’t undo it. She had to give them a suspect.

Amalia took in a deep breath. Now wasn’t the time to give up. There were other options, she just wasn’t allowing herself to think of them. She told herself to ignore her scruples for a few moments and just come up with solutions.

She frowned. Well, there was a way– two ways, in fact. The first would be to bribe or blackmail a worker in the building to leave the country. It would have to be a worker who hadn’t been questioned yet, and the investigators couldn’t have gotten to everyone in three days. The second option would be to kill a worker. In both scenarios, the criminal would be out of reach, but obviously guilty. Why else would someone flee? There would be no need to keep interrogating people who were in the building that day.

The second option would be more secure, because there was no chance of internal affairs discovering the worker was not really the criminal. The first way had more risks. Not only could the worker be caught leaving the country, but they might not keep their mouths shut and tell someone they were being bribed or blackmailed. Then she’d have to silence more people.

Amalia let out a deep breath. The first option was too risky and the second she’d never do.

She relaxed for a moment, rewarding herself for generating options. Her Aunt Basileia used to tell her that when plotting, even the useless ideas were worthwhile, because it encouraged you to come up with more ideas in the first place.

Some people tore themselves down every time they came up with a bad idea. Doing that never had the desired effect. Instead of learning to come up with good ideas, you just learn to stop generating ideas altogether.

So Amalia relaxed, and didn’t punish herself for thinking of murdering someone, because there was a huge difference between what you thought and what you did.

And when she put it that way, wondering whether Black Magic was evil or not didn’t seem so bad. Except, she thought as reality came crashing down, she had stolen a journal out of her father’s office and now Internal Affairs was investigating it.

This wasn’t some stupid, elementary mistake. This was a major problem, even if she felt safe in her workroom, watching dawn rise over the park. It was easier to sit still than it was to act. Any day now, watchguards would come to her door asking to speak with her. They’d take her into an interrogation chamber and compel her. Then she would be fined, after her mother negotiated with Internal Affairs. That in itself wouldn’t be bad, except that you need a license to practice Engimancy.

Amalia got her license at sixteen, when she was learning under a tutor. They didn’t award those licenses to just anyone. You had to prove you were responsible and trustworthy. People who steal books on Black Magic are not considered trustworthy. They’d be obligated to revoke her license, because if they didn’t, someone could sue them if she suddenly went evil and started killing people or something.

Take away Engimancy and you take away the part of her that can get lost in equations for hours. Realistically, she could apply those skills elsewhere, but this was what she loved to do, what she was good at. She was planning on making the world a better place through the use of Engimancy, and while she could probably do that through finance, she would never be allowed to practice magic again.

Something withered in her at the thought.

She shut her eyes against the dawn, pressing the palms of her hands into her stinging eyes. It wasn’t fair that she had to make these kinds of decisions. She let out a shuddery breath, swallowing her grief. Crying and panicking weren’t helping her. She needed a solution.

Here was another problem: let’s say she did come up with a plan that worked. There was always a chance that, for example, the worker she bribed would come back ten years from now and threaten to expose her secret if she didn’t follow their demands. Then she’d be at the whims of some random worker, or whomever they told. Not to mention, blackmailing someone to cover a crime was a more serious offense than simply stealing the book.

Would she confess then? The crime would be more serious and she’d be in a worse position. Well, not really. She might have more power by then. She might have some way of sorting out blackmailers. Surely, her mother dealt with her fair share.

But those were all maybes. She didn’t have anything concrete.

There was one option. It was one she had been ignoring the entire time, her last resort. There was one person who would know how to handle this situation, one person who would be able to set it all to rights.

Amalia grimaced, ignoring the ugly, sour feeling in her stomach. She was going to have to tell her mother.

Marion di Danti was Head of House di Danti, and Amalia’s mother. She was the fifteenth Head of House, inheriting the title and its responsibilities from Amalia’s grandfather. The di Danti’s could trace their heritage back to before the signing of the Covenant of Jaborre, which was the act that formed the country. Before that, there were just a bunch of city states ruled over by a Lord or Lady.

Amalia would be the next Head of House, being Marion’s heir. And Marion expected only the best from her heir. In a word, Marion was ruthless. She didn’t suffer fools or impulsive young engimancers who get curious about black magic. She could just imagine her mother’s face as she told her what she’d done.

The very thought made her die a little inside.

It was stupid and selfish, but she wanted a chance to fix this herself, to allow them to still believe her to be the daughter they’re so proud of. But this was too big a mistake. She’d already spent two days trying to think of a solution. At this point, she was only hesitating because she didn’t like the only viable solution.

Her Aunt Basileia taught her, when she was only nine years old, to know when to surrender. Aunt Basileia said that she learnt this lesson at great personal cost, but wouldn’t tell Amalia what she’d lost. Amalia, forever curious, did not accept that for an answer. When Amalia asked her mother, she told her that Aunt Basileia’s daughter had died as a result of her refusing to admit defeat. Amalia never forgot that lesson.

She was going to have to surrender, but that didn’t necessarily mean permanent defeat. Her mother wouldn’t disinherit her or do anything drastic. Her mother would pay off the necessary people or call in a favor. The journal would be discretely returned, and everything would be put back to rights.

This would cost House di Danti something, and Marion would expect Amalia to make it up to her.

Amalia flicked the pen off of the pad of paper. This was not what she wanted, but it was the best case scenario. There was no point in sitting around thinking about it any longer. She should get up and tell the watchguard outside the door to call a coach so she could visit her mother. Today. Because procrastinating on this was not an option. But she didn’t want to get up to do it. It would be taking the first step towards her mother’s disappointment, the first step towards failure.

The doorbell rang.

Amalia started, turning in her seat. She wasn’t expecting any guests.

The doorbell rang, again.

It could be the watchguards, she thought, as she walked down the stairs and to the front door. They may have already figured it out. But no, they’d have to get written permission from the Head of House before they could interrogate a member of a Noble House. It just wasn’t done. But of course, her mother didn’t know she was complicit, and wouldn’t know to stall the investigators.

Amalia opened the door.

“Amalia,” said her father. “we need to have a talk.”

With those ominous words, he walked past her into the living room of her townhouse. She was frozen by the door. He knew. He knew and he was furious. A lead weight descended on her shoulders. She had a plan, dammit!

Her brain started trying to come up with excuses to mitigate the damage. She could just tell him she didn’t know what it was- no. Compulsions would verify that she knew it was a book of black magic. She felt sick. This wasn’t supposed to happen. She was supposed to have gone to her mother. Dammit, why did she procrastinate so long in making this decision? On some level she must’ve known from the very beginning that this was the best option.

“Sit down,” he said. Amalia went over to the chair and sat. It was a squishy high-backed chair upholstered with small flowers. She suppressed the instinct to fidget. She wasn’t saying a word until she knew what he knew.

Her father’s hands were steepled. He met her eyes and said in a dark tone, “I would like to know why my daughter is requesting information on Compulsion magics.”

She blinked. Oh. Well, that wasn’t bad. She tried not to let her relief show.

“Because I thought I could further aid the Bureau of Magics with that knowledge.” Best to be vague until she knew what was going on.

“Amalia-” her father broke off, rubbing his eyes, “you do realize how suspicious this looks, don’t you?”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s restricted magics,” he said, as though that explained everything.

“Yes, and I got a waiver.”

“It is restricted for a reason, Amalia!”

“Then why did Grand Meister Marcellus grant me a waiver?” She was trying her best to not shout. She wasn’t doing anything wrong. Researching Compulsions wasn’t illegal so long as you got a waiver.

Her father stared at her, mouth slightly open in shock.

“You spoke to the Grand Meister of your University about this?” he asked, voice hoarse with horror.

“Yes. He was the one who granted me the waiver.” It was occurring to Amalia that something was very wrong.

Her father stayed silent for a few moments.

“Explain what happened,” he said.

“I turned in my papers, he welcomed me to the college, and asked me if there were any other projects I was interested in. I mentioned a few ideas.” She shrugged. “One of those was figure out a way to make compulsions more effective.”

“And what did he say?”

“That I was ambitious, and that he’d get me a waiver.” She left out the parts about the black magic. She suspected her dad would be required to report Grand Meister Marcellus, and being old and senile didn’t make him a bad person, it just made him gullible.

He rubbed his face, letting out a gust of air through his hands. “The waiver was denied.”

“Why?”

“Because Compulsions are restricted magics.”

“That’s not a real answer. I don’t get it. How could it hurt anything for me to learn about it?”

“Many reasons, but I cannot tell you why.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I cannot and will not tell you,” he said. “Compulsion magics are not for your ears.”

She swallowed. “Did I do something wrong? Is this- am I not good enough to know?”

“It’s not for anyone’s ears, not just your own.”

“Can you at least tell me if it’s because I’d find them immoral, or because knowing puts me in danger?”

“I’ve sworn oaths, Amalia. I cannot even give you a hint.”

Amalia pressed her lips together. If it was such a big secret, then she could see how knowing would put her in danger, but Marcellus didn’t think it was risky. Then again, Marcellus was going senile.

“Fine. I understand.”

“Will you promise to stop looking into restricted magics?”

“Yes, I promise.” She didn’t hesitate for even a second, even though it was a lie. She’d find some other way to learn about compulsions. Surely, information would be somewhere.

Compulsions themselves couldn’t be anything twisted or dark, because otherwise the government wouldn’t use them. They’d be classified as black magic and banned. Unless, said a small part of her brain, they were so useful that they just used them anyway. It was disturbing, what that implied.

“Good. I can’t tell you how much better I feel knowing that.” He stood up, patting her on the shoulder. “Are you settling in?”

“Yes, it’s quite nice here. I can see the sun rise over the park from my workroom.”

“Alright. Well, I better go to work.”

They said their goodbyes and he left.

She sat on the chair for a moment after he left, staring at the floor by the chair he vacated. There was an ornamental throw rug on the floor. She hadn’t picked it out. It was probably taken from one of the guest rooms at the manor, or maybe mother had it taken out of storage. It was thick, the sort that your feet sink into when you take a step.

She blinked. She’d analyze this mess later. First, she needed to take care of the real problem.

It was time to visit her mother.

 

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Scene 5: Splinter

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2nd of Faquar, the Fall Quarter of year 901

One dim crystal lit the shabby room in a flickering yellow light. Shelves lined the walls, filled with boxes of dried foods and bottles of liquor. A table with two chairs, one of which was occupied, was underneath the light. This was the backroom of The Red Roost, a pub in Old City. Currently, it was housing a young teenager and an old balding man. The young man in question burst into the room, slamming the newspaper down onto the table with a slap.

“They’re gonna kill Dad.” Harvey said to the balding man sitting at the rickety table. The man said nothing, nursing his beer.

“Did you hear me? I said they’re gonna kill him!”

“I heard you. Now, stop hollerin’ about it.” Bennett said.

Harvey sat down, staring at Bennett intensely. He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “So, how are we gonna get him out?”

Bennett looked up from his beer.

“We’re doing what?” He said sharply.

“Saving him.” Said Harvey, with one of his most determined looks. Lothar was like a father to him, like family. He would never let the man die. Not ever.

“Are you out of your mind?” Hissed Bennett. “They’re gonna kill him and there’s nothing you or anyone can do about it, so shut up and let me mourn in peace.”

“But he’s not dead yet, and he doesn’t have to die if you’d just—”

“Just what? Just what am I supposed to do?” Said the old man with a fierce glare.

“I don’t know, fight! You always came up with the plans. Just think of one and save him.” He gripped the table with whitened knuckles. He didn’t get it. How could Bennett treat this like it was nothing. Bennett and Lothar were friends for years before Harvey met him.

“Kid, you need to get this through your head. You can’t win. They’ve got Watchguards all over the city. And even if you did manage to get Lothar out of prison- which you won’t- how are you getting away? There are Watchmirrors on every corner. They’d be able to see you wherever you go. They’d find you and they’d kill you both. There is nothing you can do.”

“But I have to try. I have to do something.”

“No, you don’t. You need to listen to me. If you go out there, you’ll die. You won’t save Lothar, you won’t accomplish anything. You’ll just die. Now, I’ve watched too many fools die to allow you to do the same. So we’re going to stay here and keep our heads down. We’ll figure out a way to get out of the city tomorrow, head up to Harkow or Panhurst, get out of the country.”

Harvey stood up, knocking the chair back with a bang. “You useless old coward.” He hissed, and walked out of the backroom of The Red Roost, slamming the door behind him. Fine. If Bennett wouldn’t help him, he’d find someone who would.

He stormed down the hallway and made a sharp turn to the right, up two flights of stairs, and burst out onto the roof. He wanted fresh air, but he couldn’t walk on the streets. The watchguards probably had a sketch of his face, and would be spying on Old City through the Watchmirrors. He couldn’t rescue his dad from inside a jail cell.

Lothar wasn’t his real dad. His parents died when he was a kid and Lothar took him in. He didn’t have to, but he did it anyway. Harvey loved his real parents, but he loved Lothar, too.

The last light of dusk was fading, blurring the harsh cracks in the bricks of the adjacent buildings, and Old City looked almost warm, with little flickering lights from every window tricking the mind into believing this city was well.

The cobblestone roads of Old City were narrow and winding, the buildings all shoved together, dilapidated and worn. It was in this city he’d grown, suffering under the yoke of the Noble Houses. There were maybe 167 Noble Houses in the country of Jaborre, and all of them were filthy rich. They owned the factories, the paper, and even the government.

Harvey wasn’t a real Black Mage. He’d learned some things from Lothar, but nothing powerful. He knew he couldn’t do it on his own. And Harvey couldn’t just ask their friends. They were being watched, and he doubted they’d know how, either. He’d need real mages, real practitioners of the arts, people who knew how the watchguards worked, people who could do more than him.

Harvey thought. Lothar used to have a contact in the Free Mage Armament. Bennett didn’t like dealing with them, said they were too violent. But power was what they needed right now. They needed power and information to get Lothar out of jail. Harvey allowed himself to imagine an army come to save Lothar, charging at the fat lazy nobles. He laughed bitterly.

There was a way to contact them, Harvey knew. Lothar and Bennett had talked about it while they thought he was sleeping. Something about folded papers in an envelope, extra drop locations that Lothar hadn’t seen and so couldn’t give away when under Compulsion. Problem was, any papers or envelopes would be back at the apartment or maybe even confiscated by the watchguards.

And he’d have to cross half of Old City to get there, unseen.

It wasn’t impossible. People regularly defaced and broke the watchmirrors in Old City, so there was typically a clear path to anywhere you wanted to go. It just took time. The real problem was getting into the apartment. Bennett hid the envelope, no doubt. But Harvey knew Bennett, and could guess where he’d hide it.

He slipped back inside, drawing a cloak over his shoulders, hood up. Bennett was in the back room, drinking himself into a stupor. He didn’t notice when Harvey left.

The streets were crowded. Harvey kept his hands in his pockets to ward off thieves. Those were the things you learned growing up in Old City. You learned to avoid the old warehouses by the docks, because everyone knew that’s where the gangsters and organized crime lords were, and they’d shoot you as soon as look at you. If you stepped off the side roads, you’d find hookers and opium dealers, and probably a few more gangsters, too.

He knew that little chalk arrow graffiti scrawled onto the sides of buildings meant that the watchmirror was broken on this road, so it was safe. That the pipes on the side of those apartment buildings he was walking past were exposed because the tenant had futzed with the pipes. Most people couldn’t afford the water bill, so neighbors just pitched in and made sure one apartment always had water, and then they’d go fill up jugs from that house.

Some didn’t have the money to do that.

Bennett’s apartment was eerily empty. Watchmirrors were working at the front entrance and the fire escape leading to Bennett’s apartment, so he went two doors down and used theirs, balancing precariously two floors up, jumping to his next door neighbor’s apartment, and then towards Bennett’s.

He figured it wouldn’t be enough to evade the watchguards. They probably had some way of figuring out if someone entered, so he quickly opened the window, snuck in, and looked around the dark room. It was home. It was where he’d grown up after his parents died. His dad died when he was six in a factory accident. His mother only lasted for two more years, dying from tuberculosis. Bennett and Lothar were family, next-door neighbors who took him in when his mother died, and became like parents.

Harvey went to the grouting running along the back wall, and loosened it. The letter was right where he thought it would be. Harvey then left the apartment for the last time.

He was halfway down the street when he heard the shouts of watchguards.

He ran for his life, down side alleys faster than he’d ever run before. He ducked under produce carts, around people’s little stands in front of their homes, and into alleys. It took him only six minutes to lose them, but it felt like the longest six minutes of his life.

He opened the letter in the dim light outside someone’s apartment. There was an address, with the instructions to drop the request in a small bucket resting on that house’s windowsill. There were also instructions to only use this method of contacting them if someone was in dire need of help. Harvey thought Lothar’s situation qualified.

He made his way to the street, knocking on doors as he went until someone opened up and lent him a pen. He wrote on the back of the paper.

Dear Free Mage Armament; I need help. My family is in danger. We want weapons and power to defend ourselves. -HK

He folded the paper and dropped it in the bin, then walked back to The Red Roost.


 

Harvey was blindfolded, hands bound. Two men on either side held him down in the chair. There were footsteps on the wooden floor, the thud of heavy boots.

“This is the boy?” Spoke a female voice. There was the click of a door shutting behind her, and the sound of her boots. She was walking around him and the guards in a slow circle.

“This is him, ma’am. Found him down by the wharf, like he said he’d be.” The gruff voice to his left replied.

Harvey had found a note the next morning tucked under the backdoor of the Red Roost, addressed to HK. It told him to meet them at the wharf, but when he got there, two men came up behind him and shoved a bag over his head. He was dumped in a wagon and dragged somewhere. He was scared.

She came to a halt in front of him. “Well, why do you seek us out?”

“I need your help. The Council has my friend, Lothar. He was arrested and they’re going to kill him. I know you guys do stuff like this, so please, help me get him free.” His fists clenched in their bonds. They had to help him. The woman walked to the left and her steps were getting slightly fainter, like she was walking away from him.

There was silence, then the click of a drawer opening and a shuffling sound, like someone was rustling up papers, and the scrape of a chair. He realized he must be sitting in front of a desk, and the woman was sitting behind it.

“Lothar Czako, the man who is to be publicly executed in two days?” Her voice was soft, almost velvety, with sharp undertones.

“Yes.” He gulped. The two men on either side of him were still pressing down on his shoulders, and it hurt. Harvey was starting to wonder if this was a good idea. This was nothing like the stories he’d grown up hearing about the Free Mage Armament.

The woman hummed in response, flipping through what Harvey assumed was the newspaper. “Why was he arrested?” He wasn’t sure answering that was a good idea. The papers made Lothar look like a monster, exaggerating, twisting, and outright lying about the crimes he committed. If the woman wanted an ally out of Lothar, she might prefer the fiction to the reality. But the Free Mage Armament were the good guys, they wouldn’t want a crazy murderer on the loose. She might side with the Council and say he should be killed if he said that the papers were accurate. If he told the truth, then he did not run the risk of alienating her by mentions of gratuitous violence and bloodshed, but did run the risk that she would think Lothar wasn’t worth saving.

“Um. I don’t-” He took a deep breath. “I won’t put anyone else in danger. For all I know, one of you could be a kojite. He’s a good person, and he doesn’t deserve to die. Please, you got to help him.” It was a good feint, maybe even believable. The Kojites were a branch of the Council, and hired people to infiltrate The Free Mage Armament and other Anti-government organizations. They were saboteurs, and Harvey knew he was at a risk. There was no guarantee he had contacted the real Free Mage Armament. They still weren’t sure how Lothar had been caught.

“So there are others working for Lothar Czako.” Harvey opened his mouth to argue then shut it. Bennett didn’t work for them, but Harvey didn’t want to bring Bennett into this at all. He was a spineless old coward, but he was also like family. If Harvey was wrong, if these people weren’t the real Free Mage Armament, he didn’t want to put Bennett in any danger.

One of the guards, the one of the left who spoke before, let go of him and walked to what Harvey assumed was the left side of the room. There was the sound of another drawer opening, and more papers being shuffled. The room wasn’t that big, then. Only about five steps to the left, and assuming the desk was in the middle of the room, five steps to the right.

“I apologise for this.” Said the woman. “It is a necessary precaution.” There was the sound of a scraping chair, and the thumps of the woman’s boots. He heard her take something from the man’s hand.

“Hold him down.” The man pressed his hand against the back of Harvey’s head, forcing him to lean forwards. His chin was pressed to his chest painfully. Harvey started to panic.

“What are you doi-” Cool paper was pressed to the back of his neck, and he heard –

Harvey gasped, blinking his eyes rapidly. His muscles felt stiff, like he’d been sitting there for hours, when he’d only been here for minutes, and nobody was holding his shoulders down. Where did the two men go? And there had been paper being pressed to the back of his neck. What happened? That was just a second ago and now –

“I think,” said the woman, “we can come to an accord, Harvey Kane.” She wasn’t behind him anymore. It sounded like she was sitting back at her desk in front of him. When did she move? He hadn’t heard – What had he heard? Right before, when the man held his head down, he’d heard… what? He couldn’t remember.

“I never said my name.”

“Yes, like I said, necessary precaution.” She was rustling with more papers. He wiggled his shoulders, hands still bound. He didn’t hear the two men. Where had they gone? Something had happened, something to do with the paper she pressed to his neck. She used magic on him, Black Magic. It could have been a ritual. He shuddered, the fine hairs on his arms raising. It could be anything, from a spell to force him to tell the truth, to one that slowly killed him should he not comply to her demands.

“What did you do to me?”

“A Compulsion. We made you tell the truth for an hour. Side effects include memory loss of said hour.” And Harvey became incredibly afraid. Because that was what the Kojites did. They made you tell the truth, and then they’d find your family and your friends and they’d make them tell the truth, unwittingly betray everyone they loved. Then they would arrest all of them and execute them. They figured it was safer if the family members of the deceased weren’t alive to get angry and swear revenge.

“Don’t worry. I didn’t make you murder anyone or anything else so distasteful, and neither you nor Bennett are in any danger from us.”

“What are you going to do?” His voice trembled. She knew about Bennett. She probably knew everything about him. Every secret, every fear. She knew about every person he loved. And she probably mentioned Bennett’s name just so he’d know that she held all the cards.

“Help you, of course. We only had to make sure you were trustworthy. That drop had been compromised. We worried you were a Kojite spy.”

He sagged in relief. “You’ll help me save Lothar?”

“Yes. We’ll provide you with everything you need. I require only one thing from you in return.”

“What do you want?”

She chuckled, a soft little laugh. “What do I want? I want the Council out of Port Drebon, out of Jaborre. I want to see them humiliated and burning. I want revenge for everything they’ve done and more. And I won’t stop there. I’ll kill every one of their children, their husbands and wives, their parents, if they have any. I won’t stop until every Noble is dead.”

He trembled in his seat. He’d been looking for heroes and instead he’d found someone dangerous, really dangerous. How foolish was he to still believe in heroes.

“A-and what does that have to do with me?” To his embarrassment, his voice cracked.

“Well, contingent upon you surviving your little rescue attempt, you’ll become one of us.” Harvey didn’t know what to say. He grew up idolizing the Free Mage Armament for fighting back against the Noble Houses and their tyranny, but he was no Black Mage. He knew a bit from following Lothar, but it was just hat tricks, nothing impressive, nothing the Free Mage Armament could use.

“But I don’t -” He started to say, but was cut off.

“Think of it this way, if you escape, you’ll need people on your side. You won’t be able to go to your friends. They’re letting you hide in the backroom of their pub now, but only because you’re an orphaned kid and an old man. They know the Kojites are not devoting time or energy to finding you and Bennett because you’re nobodies. But if you save Lothar, you’ll either die or you’ll be on the run. You’ll be infamous. We can protect you and offer you support, as long as you do occasional jobs for us.” Her voice was steady, calming. Harvey couldn’t help but wonder if it was somehow a trap. It sounded like too good a deal. No one was that altruistic. And it dawned on him just then, with her blunt words, that he had no home to go back to, ever.

“If you know everything, then you know what Lothar, Bennett and I did. We ferried people out of the country, refugees. Our contacts- some of them- might have escaped. We could get out of the country that way.” His voice shook, but he had to say it. He had to be sure it wasn’t a trick.

“They might still be alive, but would you risk your life on it?” She asked.

“What kind of help will you give us?” He had to know. He couldn’t make a decision without that information.

“You must understand, I cannot give you any of my people. What I can provide you with is weapons and information.”

“You want me to charge in there with a pistol?” Did she think he was suicidal?

“No, of course not.” She sighed, almost condescendingly. “I meant that I can give you explosives. You plant them somewhere and release Lothar in the confusion.”

“What’s the information?”

“The exact location of the Watchmirrors along the alleys, which ones are working and which aren’t. Where the Watchguards will be, what kind of security will be set up around the prisoner’s carriage, and more.” This was good. It might be everything he needed. But, he didn’t know. It was feeling real now, like it was something he could actually do, and not just something he wanted to do. And with that came the realization that this was really really dangerous, and that he could actually be dead in a day.

“And the weapons?”

“We’ll review the maps, but right now I am assuming we’ll use an explosive as a diversion. You can use the chaos to move Lothar out of the prisoner’s carriage and into the alleyways. We’ve managed to damage Watchmirrors across the city, creating cracks in their surveillance. Run down the right alleys, and no one will ever see you.”

“Why are you telling me this?” If he got captured, they’d use a Compulsion on him and the Watchguards would know all about the Free Mage Armament’s plans.

“They already know. Breaking them in such a fashion is rather hard to hide.” She said dryly. “Now, will you accept my offer?”

“Can I think about it?” He asked, almost hoping she wouldn’t. If he rejected her offer, then Lothar was as good as dead. But he didn’t know if he could risk Bennett’s or his lives doing this.

“I’ll give you fifteen minutes.” She said, and the chair scraped back. He heard footsteps, and the door opening and shutting. He knew he might not actually be alone. Just because he hadn’t heard the two men didn’t mean they weren’t in the room, standing perfectly still.

Harvey didn’t want to die. He wasn’t stupid. He knew the outcome of jumping in to save Lothar wasn’t good, even with the help of the Free Mage Armament. He wanted so much more from life. He wanted to help people, really help people. But Lothar was like his dad. He took in Harvey when Harvey’s parents died. Lothar didn’t even flinch at the cost of caring for a child. He just did it, because it was the right thing to do. That was just the kind of person Lothar was. He helped people. He helped them cross the border from Jaborre to Sutanni, acting as a middleman between different parties of people who wanted to help mages get out of Jaborre.

Harvey couldn’t let those bastards parade Lothar around the city, call him a monster and kill him. He could not sit still at home knowing his protector, mentor, father was being murdered. It wasn’t something a good person would stand, or even could stand.

He realized, then, that he’d already made his decision.


 

When he returned to the Red Roost, Bennett was waiting for him.

“Where have you been?”

“Out.”

“Don’t do anything stupid.”

“I’m not.” Harvey started making his way to the beds, when Bennett slapped a letter into his chest.

“What is it?” Harvey asked, fearing that it was something from the Free Mage Armament, that somehow, Bennett knew.

“That is a client. There’s a girl wanting to get out of the country. She, and all the people after her, are the reasons why we can’t rescue Lothar. We’re needed here. If we die, then no one may pick up our work. All those people trying to get out of the country will have nowhere to go. They’ll die.”

Harvey suddenly felt guilty. He was inadvertently killing those people. He knew he probably wouldn’t get out alive.

“What is it? What did you do?” Bennett asked, frowning.

“Nothing.” Harvey turned around and went to bed.

 

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Scene 4.5: Lines and Letters

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Amalia's townhouse

Nottingate House was built with state-of-the art Aegis protection by Nerney’s Nexus Security Systems. The blue blocks on the blueprints indicate our high-quality, state of the art Aegis (not shown are the panels beneath the floor and inside the ceiling.) Our Aegis is capable of detecting anyone entering or leaving the house under the influence of Black Magic and block projectiles.

When the alarm is triggered, a report goes to the Port Drebon Watchguard Department, ensuring your safety. Our Aegis Protection System is powered by several grand crystals and secondary crystal backup system, just in case, because we care about your safety.

Buy Nerney’s Nexus Security System today, and we will install it for FREE!(1)

1. Terms and conditions may apply. Please contact your local representative for further information.


 

12 Sumquar, 11.901

Dear Judge di Danti,

Thank you for your interest in Nerney’s Nexus Security Systems. We typically do not give out the technological specifications of our products, but for you we can make an exception. We trust you will keep this information strictly confidential, for the safety of our customers.

The core of our Aegis is standard. There is a primary and secondary crystal port, with the secondary serving as a back-up power station if the primary crystals are being replaced or are overloaded. Typically the secondary crystals are only activated when someone takes out the primary crystals to recharge them. It switches on automatically if the power drains too low or if the Aegis switches off. A charge lasts for a maximum of 20 hours. Naturally, you can extend that to 40 hours if you allow the system to switch to secondary crystal power. However, that is not recommended.

If the house is under attack, the running time for the primary system is variable, dependent on how long the system has already been running, which makes the secondary crystals invaluable, especially if the burglars have estimated the time when you are about to replace the primary crystals.

If the secondary crystals are always fully charged, then you do not need to worry about someone exploiting the limited running time remaining on a low-charge crystal. Fully charged, the system can withstand 6 hours under attack. With the secondary crystals, you have a full 12 hours. Of course, you would not expect to need that, since the system alerts the Port Drebon Watchguard Department the moment it is triggered.

The system has 3 independent grids. The Detection Grid can detect projectiles fired at the house. Once it detects a projectile, it sends out an alert to the Port Drebon Watchguard Department informing them of the break-in, as well as automatically triggering the other two grids. The Port Drebon Watchguard Department generally takes about 10 minutes to arrive on scene.

The Detection Grid, once tripped, switches the Barrier Grid from passive to active mode. When the Barrier Grid is on passive mode, it prevents anyone from entering the building through the windows or doors unless they are recognized by the system. This system is generally left off unless someone is sleeping or has left their house.

In your case, Judge di Danti, we would suggest leaving it on permanently, if it is not too bold to say. Once the Detection Grid has triggered the Barrier Grid into active mode, it will block any projectiles fired at the house. Gunfire, grenades, and the like will have no impact on the house or its inhabitants. Please note that the Barrier active mode lasts 6 hours before it switches to secondary crystals, but this is only an estimate. Depending on the force behind the projectile, the running time could be significantly less.

The Barrier Grid has one more mode above active mode, called full alert. It is activated if the Detection Grid detects fire or explosives. This mode can be maintained for 1 hour, but please not that a couple concentrated blasts can overpower the system. This system is not meant to protect against powerful explosives. At most, we can assume that the system would be able to handle one large blast at full charge. There are several instances which can trigger full alert beyond an explosive force aimed at the house.

The third grid is the Black Arts Detection Grid. As I am sure you are aware, we cannot print -anywhere- how this grid works. If you need more information, please come to our office with the proper paperwork. The system detects if someone is under the influence of Black Magic or is using Black Magic. If they get within range of the system (a yard around the house) the system will trigger full alert. This will also send an alarm to the Port Drebon Watchguard Department.

If someone tries tampering with any of the Grids, the alarm will go off and send an alert to the Port Drebon Watchguard Department.

Please contact us if you require more information.

Thank you for your patronage,

Rachel Nerney

Co-owner of NNSS


 

92 Sumquar, 11.901

To: Frank Bishop,

This is a formal request for security detail on Miss Amalia di Danti, of House di Danti. She is at 311 Cercis Street on the 2nd Loop, Port Drebon. Watchmirrors around her premises are to be monitored. I am requesting 24/7 detail.

Regards,

Judge Titus di Danti

Bureau of Security


 

1 Faquar, 11.901

Dear Judge di Danti,

We will begin immediately, sir. Forgive me for asking, sir, but do you also want updates on her whereabouts?

Sincerely,

Frank Bishop


 

1 Faquar, 11.901

To: Frank Bishop,

The purpose of this assignment is to protect my daughter from harm, not accuse her of any crime. I am to be alerted if there are troublesome characters outside her townhouse, or if  someone sends threatening mail. As for her whereabouts, I am only to be alerted if she enters Old City or past the 3rd Loop of the East Quads. She has a full-time bodyguard for all other needs.

-Judge Titus di Danti


 

2 Faquar, 11.901

Dear Titus,

I received an intriguing request from our friend at the College, Wiktor Marcellus. With such an  odd request, I feel impelled to ask your guidance. It appears that your daughter has requested a waiver to view restricted material on Compulsion rituals. Obviously, I rejected the waiver. Information on restricted magics is restricted for a reason, as I hope you have taught her.

Unfortunately, such an odd request makes one uncomfortable, and puts me in a position where I feel I must choose between doing you, my friend, the favor of keeping this information private, or obeying my conscience and informing Chief Investigator Boswell. Naturally, if I were to tell the Chief Investigator, I could not guarantee the information remains private. Of course, Boswell’s background makes him likely to find Amalia’s behavior suspicious. You as well as anyone knows how detrimental this could be to your daughter’s career. Someone at her age being interested in restricted magics?

A person like that would have no place in the Department of Magics unless we could be assured that the di Danti family remains true to the ancient covenants and our laws. The members of the Council and the greater public are concerned with your stance on the I-A7 Tax Reforms. This new finding only casts further doubts. I know I personally would feel more comfortable with this situation if you changed your mind.

Regards,

Judge Orwyn Pennington, Bureau of Magics

2 Faquar, 11.901


 

To: Orwyn

On the contrary, my daughter’s request is only evidence of her ignorance of restricted magics. I am certain she was not even aware that Compulsion rituals are restricted magics. We have largely shielded her from the darkness in this world, so she would not realize her purely academic interests could be viewed with suspicion.

While I agree that rumors can be damaging, they will not amount to anything beyond unsubstantiated gossip. Without fire to feed the flames, nothing will come of it. No reputable newspaper would publish such a thing, and the office workers would forget about it in a week after some new scandal has come to light. Even if you managed to convince Boswell to question my daughter, it would only reflect poorly on the Council. Questioning the children of Nobles under Compulsion is not something to be done lightly. If you feel so morally impelled, then by all means start a formal inquisition. When it fails and Amalia is found innocent, it will be on your head.

My stance on the I-A7 Tax Reforms remains the same. It is in the best interests of the nation to maintain the current system. The loud but small minority that disagree are only fear mongers who enjoy stirring dissent. Your reputation would suffer fewer ills if you cut ties with them.

Regards,

Judge Titus di Danti, Bureau of Security

 

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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.

 

Previous | Next

Scene 3: Examination

Previous | Next

2nd of Faquar

The front page of The People’s Press was overtaken by a picture of Lothar Czako, the now-infamous Black Mage and separatist. Amalia skimmed the article while she ate her toast. There was going to be a parade. Apparently, the higher ups thought a great big celebration would make everyone feel safe again. So Lothar’s execution was now a day of celebration. Amalia grimaced. It seemed distasteful.

No doubt her father agreed with her sentiment. What were they going to do? Cart him around on the prisoner’s carriage? This was one of those times Amalia found herself completely baffled. By giving people like Lothar attention in the papers, they only encouraged more people to follow in his stead. People who were already disturbed- like Black Mages- would compete to get that front page. They wanted to create suffering so that they would be remembered, even in infamy.

Amalia sighed. It was pointless getting worked up about it. She could do nothing to change the media’s policies, at least not yet. When she graduated from University and joined the Department of Magic, then she would be able to affect change.

Of course, if she were arrested for possessing a banned book, she wouldn’t get to do anything.

It was that thought that kept her up all night, digging through her boxes until she found the journal. It had been stuffed under some other books in the third box.

The townhouse was still a mess. Between the stress of finding Lothar’s journal and trying to figure out whether or not the watchguards would come knocking, she got little sleep.

Amalia was used to an organized space, it was how she grew up. The boxes, clothes, and books scattered across the townhouse made her itch to put all of it in its proper place. She’d been looking forward to organizing everything, but she had to prioritize. She spent the night fretting over the journal and her father’s words while scowling at the messy floor.

The situation was making her anxious. She’d never been in any real danger before. She didn’t know what to do. Instinctively, she wanted to run to her father and confess. She wanted to tell her friends and beg them to help her think. She wanted to tell her mother. Well, maybe not.

Early morning found Amalia in the kitchen, unpacking the box containing her cooking utensils. She made herself breakfast and put a pot of tea on to boil. When the newspaper smacked her door, courtesy of an overeager paperboy, she jumped and almost spilling tea all over herself.

Amalia rubbed her eyes. It wasn’t just the fact that she might get caught, it was that she decided to steal the journal in the first place. It was incredibly stupid to want to know more about Black Magic.

Her father likened a Black Mage to someone having a loaded gun on them at all times and no impulse control. Learning about Black Magic unhinged people because the magic itself was inherently harmful. It was because of that inherent harmfulness that no one knew what black magic was really like. Well, not that people didn’t come up with theories.

Most people said it involved the sacrifice of human lives. Others said that the magic was like a miasma, the corruption spread from the black mage to anyone that black mage associated with, making them go mad, as well.

That’s why they were executed when they were caught; there was no reforming them. It made her wonder if something was wrong with her. Some people said that only those who were already demented could be interest in Black Magic. But she always thought of herself as an upstanding person.

She thought that if someone tried to tempt her, she’d report them to the watchguards. She thought that if she ever found a book of Black Magic, she’d be only disgusted by it, not curious.

Of course, that didn’t mean much. Everyone thought they were good people. Thinking you’re a good person doesn’t necessarily make you one.

She tried to think back to that moment, to remember what she had been thinking.

She stole it because she was curious. She had known there might never be another chance to learn about it. Could it be that simple? There was a way to find out.

Amalia shut her eyes.

She imagined a world where anyone could find out how Black Magic worked, just like you could go to the library and look up information on plants or geography. She imagined herself in that world, in her father’s office. She saw the black journal. Did she want it? Not at all. It was disgusting. Besides, it wasn’t like it was knowledge she would use.

Amalia frowned, contemplative. Well, that answered some of it. Part of it was how available the information was: the more accessible it was, the less interest she had in it, kind of like how she never bothered to look up information on geography or plants. If someone banned information on geography, Amalia would probably be curious about geography. But somehow that explanation felt incomplete.

She imagined another world, where the information on Black Magic was in every library, but would vanish after today. It didn’t matter how it would vanish. Maybe the watchguards were going to burn every single book. She saw the journal in front of her. Did she want it? Yes.

Amalia opened her eyes, blinking. That explained a lot. It was the thought that she might never have the opportunity to find out, that the information would be lost forever, that drove her to act stupidly. Running with the geography analogy, she guessed that if she found out today that all geography books were going to be burned the next day, she would rush out to buy one.

She bit her lip, tapping her fingers nervously against the tabletop. Well, from now on whenever she is in a situation where information is scarce, she would remember this instance. She would also try to remember that feeling- that cross between hunger and need. Next time she felt like that she would take a step back and analyze the situation. Low availability and scarcity of information interfered with her usually-good judgement.

The worst part was that she was still curious, even knowing why it had fascinated her. Understanding the source of her curiosity didn’t make the idea of reading it any less tempting than before. The book was tucked behind the bookshelf, wedged between the wall and the wood. Her eyes felt like they were magnetized to that part of the room. But it was already bad enough that she took the book in the first place. If she did get arrested, when they used the truth Compulsion on her, they would have to take it into account that she did not read the book. She still had no knowledge of Black Magic.

But then again, they’d also know that she hadn’t read it precisely for that reason. If she were an interrogator, that would be one of the questions she would ask. She didn’t know if they would find her just as contemptible as a result.

This train of thought was unproductive. She should be trying to figure out how to avoid getting caught, not assuming that she would. Getting caught was the worst case scenario.

Amalia cleared the dishes and went to wash them.

She didn’t exactly know what to do. She couldn’t make everyone  forget she went to her father’s office that day. Moreover, she had no idea how many people entered and left the office. It was too complicated a plan, even if she could figure out a way to do it.

There were also the watchmirrors to consider. They were on every street corner and she knew from her father that there were watchmirrors inside the building, even though that was technically a secret, though not a well-kept one. Pretty much everyone knew they were inside the halls, though Amalia wasn’t exactly sure where.

She had never paid attention to them before. They were there to keep her safe. Now they were the enemy. She had to figure out which ones she’d been seen on, and if they saw the journal on those watchmirrors.

The watchmirror’s could be made to display false images, but since she couldn’t make her father or Henrik forget, there was no point in attempting to alter the records. But they don’t need the watchmirror records to figure out it was her. They just needed to call in everyone else who had access to the journal and Compel them. Once the investigators knew that all of them were innocent, then the obvious suspect would be Amalia. If she were even suspected, she would be in a lot of trouble.

She had to forget about changing watchmirror records. It was ineffective. Not to mention, she’d have to break into the records building, which was very illegal. Amalia suspected the building would be well guarded, anyway. Otherwise, Black Mages would rarely be caught. They’d just wipe watchmirror records, and everyone knew that watchmirrors were how the watchguards caught Black Mages. She had to solve this through something subtle. There can’t be a suspect to question.

She couldn’t frame anyone, either. Well, she could, but she wouldn’t. Sentencing another to be imprisoned or fined in her place was unconscionable.

And she could forget turning herself in. That wasn’t even an option. Every single one of her plans would be destroyed if she did that. Amalia doubted she would be put in prison, but she did suspect that she would never be able to get a position in the Department of Magics. Worse, it would blacken the family name. People won’t want to do business with her mother, and her father would be dishonored. All she ever wanted in life was to make her family proud.

A part of her wanted to throw in the towel. There was no solution. She should just tell her parents… but if she told her father he’d be honor-bound to report her. If he didn’t, then he couldn’t ever testify under Compulsion again, and as a result would never be considered a trustworthy Judge. Besides, maybe the internal investigation had nothing to do with the journal. Then she’d just be incriminating herself for nothing. In other words, that option wasn’t viable either.

They didn’t need to see the journal in her townhouse to know she took it, so it would be pointless to destroy it. Not to mention, burning it would be another strike against her, as it would be destroying evidence. Again, thinking about getting caught was useless. Her life would be over if she were caught.

The problem here was that she had so little information. She didn’t know exactly when they figured out the journal was missing, nor how many hands it passed through before reaching her’s. Invariably, every watchguard who touched it would be cleared, and then they’d come to her. Even if she had an idea of how many watchguards, that would give her a timeline to work within.

Investigators probably already checked to see if the book was lost in transit. They also probably checked the watchmirror feeds. That would be the first thing she’d do if she were in their position.

Well, the only thing to do with a question was to answer it. In this case, that meant finding out more information on the internal investigation and finding someone willing to bend the rules for her.

She frowned. It would have to be someone at the office… Henrik, her father’s nervous secretary. Funnily enough, the best option came to mind first. Usually she spent a few minutes just thinking before running and taking an action. She supposed that sometimes her instincts were clever enough to trust.

In this case, Henrik was perfect. He was a known gossip. Her father complained about it to her mother once, saying that he didn’t know how to keep a secret, and was thinking of having him transferred. Of course, if he told her any information and the watchguards found out, he would be transferred, but her conscience barely twinged. He was going to be transferred already, so what was the harm?

Amalia left so she’d arrive at Council Hall about a half hour before lunch. Her father liked taking early lunches, but he didn’t know she knew that. It was the sort of thing her father mentioned carelessly at dinner, and wouldn’t remember saying it. She hoped.

She was going there claiming to bring her father lunch. She didn’t want to actually run into her father. She wanted to catch Henrik and subtly question him. Amalia brainstormed questions and her approach while she made her father’s lunch. Nothing fancy, just some berries and almonds crushed into a paste over bread. She wrapped it in paper.

Amalia grabbed the keys, her father’s lunch, and the stack of Compulsion screening papers she had to turn into the university, and went out the door.

Oh, shit. Compulsion screening papers.

Amalia walked quickly towards Council Hall, all the while cursing herself mentally. She just hadn’t thought of it. That was her whole problem in life: impulsive decisions.

Before she joined University, she had to submit to loyalty screenings. It was one of the requirements for admission. An interrogator used a Compulsion spell, which forced you to tell the truth. They wanted to keep the Black Mages and other dangerous individuals out of the institution.

The process was fairly straightforward. She went to an office off of West Drebon Street, right on the Loop. She sat in a waiting room for a few minutes before being directed to a drab room guarded by two watchguards. Inside the room was the official inquisitor, who asked a series of questions from a script that was approved by her Head of House. There was also a witness, who made sure the inquisitor followed the script, and two watchmirrors which were recording.

Of course, the watchmirrors couldn’t pick up sound, so they recorded their  faces.  An official lip reader could then use the watchmirror records as evidence in a trial. Amalia was asked a series of generic questions (“Have you ever committed a crime?” “Are you affiliated with any Black Mages?”) and told to answer honestly. Then the inquisitor asked Amalia to close her eyes. Something touched the back of her neck and suddenly it was an hour later.

No one retained the memories of being Compelled.

For now, she was fine; she’d already been tested. Problem was, when she got her diploma, she’d have to get screened again.

She was screwed.

Amalia swallowed down the anxiety and told herself to focus on the current problem. Once she cleared that hurdle, she could focus on finding a way out of the Compulsion screening. Worst case scenario would be dropping out of University and helping her mother with her business. It would ruin some of her plans, but it was better than being charged with a crime.


 

When Amalia got to her father’s office, she breathed out a sigh of relief. She was right. Henrik was at the office and her father wasn’t. The secretary’s desk was right outside her father’s office.

“I’ll just leave this here for him, is that alright?” She asked.

“Oh, fine, fine. Don’t worry about it, m’lady.” Said Henrik.

“I just- I thought it might help. I mean, he’s been stressed lately.” Amalia bit her lip. She hoped she looked concerned.

“Yes, well, with all that’s been going on, that’s no surprise.”

“An internal investigation? My father told me about it. It sounds dreadful.” Lies, blatant lies.

“Ah, yes, well, I can hardly believe it myself, m’lady. Evidence was stolen right out of his office! Can you imagine?”

Amalia looked around Henrik’s desk appraisingly, “I always thought this place was safe. Don’t you have watchmirrors in here?”

He laughed. “Only in the main hallways, m’lady.”

“They should install them in here, too.”

Henrik gave her a smile that looked more like a grimace. “Of course, m’lady.” He then shuffled some papers around on his desk. Amalia suspected Henrik didn’t like the watchmirrors. For once, she could sympathize.

“I don’t mean that they should be watching you, of course. I just meant that there should be more security in general.”

He checked his watch, frowning. “Look, I have to go and grab lunch. I usually go down to the Gray Gremlin on Grace street, and someone will take my usual table if I wait too long. I’m sorry to cut you short, m’lady.” Amalia suspected he wasn’t that sorry.

“It’s fine. I’m sorry I kept you.”

“Do you want to wait for your father here, m’lady?”

“I don’t know.” Amalia trailed off. “I’ll wait a couple minutes and see if he shows up. I have someplace to be as well.”

“Alright. Have a good day, m’lady!”

Amalia smiled and waved back.

Once he turned the corner she began looking around Henrik’s office. No watchmirrors. So that meant Henrik wasn’t lying.

So the evidence had been catalogued before entering her father’s office. It was kind of obvious in retrospect. Who would place dangerous artifacts in her father’s office without inspecting them? No one. Her father would never allow such negligence.

Henrik’s desk was useless. He was orderly to the point of neuroticism. There was his timesheet half filled out, lying on his desk. There was another folder out on the desk, containing the week’s timesheets. She wanted to roll her eyes at the waste of time, but she did remember her father mentioning they were important for some reason.

What she didn’t get was how they knew it’d gone missing from her father’s office. Was it possible her father did allow a watchmirror in his office?

But then, why hadn’t the investigators pulled her in for questioning yet? Would her father delay them, hoping she would come clean to him? Amalia chewed her lip. It wasn’t worth the risk to confess. She knew that.

There was nothing more to find here, so she headed back.

As Amalia walked towards the University, she continued thinking. There was a way to solve this problem. There was always a way to solve the problem, she just needed to think.

But first, she had to get through a meeting with the Grand Meister.

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