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.

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