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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