Scene 18: Strike

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“Yes, you did. I’m–”

There was a brush against the back of her neck, almost like the chain to a necklace loosening and the feeling of paper being pressed

“–partial” Amalia’s voice trailed off. Partial to tea. She blinked. Her muscles were tensed, tensed as though she’d been running across the family manor and her heart was pounding in her chest. A second ago it hadn’t been.

Sweat was drenched through the back of her shirt.

Something was wrong.

She reached up impulsively, feeling the comforting metal of the choker– the one that prevented her from being compelled. It was there. And she cursed herself a second later because Irene could’ve replaced it in the time she’d been compelled. It’s presence meant nothing.

“Irene.”

“Yes?” Said Irene from behind her.

She’d impulsively stupidly grabbed her choker before thinking, and if Irene had seen her do it, then Irene would suspect that Amalia suspected that Irene had compelled her. It wasn’t a hundred percent certain that she’d been compelled, and Amalia didn’t want to make anything more obvious by looking down at her watch, but Amalia was sure she’d felt something on the back of her neck for a split second, and then the next she was panting like she’d run a marathon.

It didn’t feel like there was a gap in her memory, but then it never did.

“I’m partial to tea.”

If Irene wanted her dead, she would’ve done it while Amalia was compelled and helpless. She knew that, but her body didn’t relax until she heard Irene’s footsteps leave the room.

Amalia slumped back into her chair.

It was stupid, coming here today. Amalia knew that, but she’d been curious. She was curious about Irene, curious about what she wanted. And-

What sort of person prattled on in a library what someone else is reading and upon learning that Amalia was interested in doing things not quite by the books, invites her to call her? Further, what was the likelihood that someone who knew how to get past compulsions would just happen to be in the library at the same time as someone who was likely on a list of people being investigated for a serious crime of stealing a book on black magic?

It seemed like the most likely explanation. Irene was some sort of agent of the government, and now she had all the information she needed to lock Amalia away and shame her family.

The footsteps returned, and Irene placed the tea on the coffee table, pouring Amalia and herself a cup.

“Thank you. I was wondering, have you spoken to your superiors yet?”

“Excuse me?”

“The Kojites, or perhaps the Department of Internal Affairs. Have you spoken to them yet?” Her heart was pounding in her chest, hands sweaty as she cupped them around the fine china teacup. They were cold and clammy against the heat of the tea.

Irene’s lips quirked. “You think I’m an agent?”

“It’s rather improbable that we’d meet. So improbable, in fact, that I’d wager you were looking for me.”

“And you assume Kojites? What sort of trouble have you been getting yourself into?”

“I suspect you know already.”

“Ah. Well, it seems I made my second blunder of the day.”

“My family has money, as I’m sure you’re aware. If you haven’t spoken to your superiors–”

“I’m going to stop you right there before you humiliate yourself further, Miss. ‘I won’t be like my mother.’ I’m not an agent of the Kojites, nor am I working for the Department of Defense or Magics or any other department.”

Amalia’s face burned. “Why did you compel me?”

“I was just about to get to that. And you’re right. I did follow you. I saw you during the shootout with Lothar. I was curious as to your motives and assumed it was a plot by the di Danti’s. I then contrived a way to meet with you to see what it was. Are you alarmed yet?”

“Concerned. And did you discover what you wanted to know?”

“You’re ignorant. Remarkably so. I suspect that’s on purpose, one of Marion’s smarter strategies.”

“You’re really ingratiating yourself to me at the moment.”

Irene replied with a thin lipped smile, “as are you.”

“So what are you, then? Why the interest in my family?”

“Everyone’s interested in your family. But I suppose since I know all about your little jaunt into theft and illegal engineering, I do owe you some dirt on myself. Consider this an equivalent exchange, something to hold over my head should you feel threatened by my knowing. I’m a journalist, and not the sort that writes for the government. No, before you ask, I don’t write pro-black mage propaganda. We cover pieces on social inequality and the sort of concerns that you have on education. I needed to compel you to make sure you weren’t going to betray me or my secrets.”

“I see. So I passed the test?” She was lying. Journalists didn’t get paid that much. After Jeptha’s little lecture on her ignorance with regards to anything monetary, she’d looked it up.

“For now.”

“And just out of curiosity, which paper do you write for?”

“The Free Voice.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

Irene’s eyebrows rose. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I think I’d know if I heard of it or not.”

“The editor’s your uncle? Lawrence Pelorian?”

What. “I did not know that.”

“He, the man with the boy in the alleyway, and that man’s brother ran The Free Voice and Gaeldor’s Circle for years. They published The Free Voice together before they split up.”

Which might be true. Aunt Basileia said that father had the journal because of something to do with one of their family members, and Amalia had thought he meant Phil’s mother. Except she’d really been talking about her father. Did Phil know? It seemed likely that she knew something. She freaked a little every time Amalia mentioned her research.

“They don’t tell you, I suspect, because they want to protect you.” said Irene.

“I’m sorry, Irene, but I can’t- this is just-” Everyone was lying. Phil had been lying to her, and her Uncle who always played at not caring and being laid back was secretly some sort of dissident who was double crossing her father and mother, who were keeping tabs on him and he was somehow evading them. Or maybe they knew and her parents were about to take down her best friend’s father.

She got up, put the tea down, and started for the door. She’d had it. Philomena was going to talk to her and they were going to sort this thing out because she wasn’t watching her family fall apart in front of her eyes without doing something to stop it.

“We want you in the game.”

Amalia stopped.

“What for?”

“Because you’re not your mother.”

“That’s fantastic. I’ll bet you know every button to push now, everything you need to say to make me want to stay.”

“Maybe. Or maybe I’m telling the truth. Maybe I need someone with the power of a di Danti that isn’t as short sighted as your mother. Now, I could use your father, but I doubt he’d work with me even if he could. He’s sworn oaths and he lives by them. From the stories I’ve heard, back when he didn’t take them so seriously he was a force to be reckoned with. I’m gambling that you’ll have some of those traits, that you’ll make a solid ally.”

“To do what?”

“Did you hear about the factory strike?”

“They shut down New Recham Bridge for an hour two days ago. Is that it?”

“Yes. Do you remember the article?”

“Something about black mages threatening to destroy factories. I skimmed it.”

“They executed nine of the protesters this morning. Among them were no black mages of any kind. Do you want to know why they were executed?”

“I’m listening.”

“The strike was over wages and long working hours. The factory owners, naturally, didn’t want to pay their people more, and they especially didn’t want the bad press. So they accused the organizers of the strike of being black mages. They then told the government that they suspected these so-called black mages had been evading compulsion screenings for some time, so as to prevent the protesters from being revealed as innocents. From what I understand, the investigators’ bosses were bribed.”

“Innocent people were executed.”

“Yes. And as you can imagine, the papers wouldn’t publish that, as they are owned by the government, which has strong ties to the factory owners.”

“So you want me to spy on my mother’s company.”

“I wouldn’t ask that of you because I know what your answer would be. You’re loyal to your family and that’s a good thing. But if you were given the opportunity to benefit your family and benefit the people of Jaborre at the same time, would you?”

“You want me to spy on other companies.”

“In a limited capacity. You get invited to parties I don’t. You’re also well-known to be incredibly single-minded about your machines. When your mother takes you to these events, you spend them staring off into space or doodling equations on napkins. At this point, no one pays you any mind. But I think you don’t pay attention to their conversations because the content never held any value to you before.”

“I see. And what would you be doing with this information?”

“Passing it along to people who may be able to right their wrongs.”

“By murdering them.”

“By applying pressure to them. We find the fulcrum and apply just enough pressure to tip the balance in our favor, the favor of the people. The companies aren’t harmed beyond some dips in income, and the people benefit.”

“Won’t that just… I mean, the people in charge of the company will just end up raising their prices or slashing the wages of their workers.”

“We apply leverage. We tell them they can’t.”

“I see.”

“Will you help?”

“Can I think on it?”

“You may. Though I’ll warn you not to discuss this with anyone.”

“I won’t.”

“I know.” Irene smiled.

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Scene 17: Surge

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A note with Irene’s address arrived in the morning mail.

Amalia was hesitant about it. She hadn’t meant to disclose so much to Irene, and now she felt uncomfortable with the idea of spending more time with the woman. At first she was excited to have someone to talk about her research to, someone who was interested and didn’t tell her to mind her own business or that her research was a waste of time.

It was pretty fucking stupid that all someone had to do was pay a little attention to her to get her to spill her guts. And what did she know about Irene, really?

Well, she knew Irene worked for a former Prime Minister, and the librarian seemed to like her. Not only that, but Irene owned a Handmirror. Those were hard to get ahold of– Amalia knew she only had her’s because her father pulled strings.

The only people with permission to own them were members of noble families and the watchguards. Which was why Amalia was even considering visiting Irene’s house, given that she had never heard of the woman before.

But someone who was trusted by the government with a handmirror probably wouldn’t be talking about black magic that way. Which meant that Irene was either working for the government to entrap dissidents, or that could evade compulsion magics.

If it were the former, well, then Amalia had to convince Irene that she wasn’t interested in black magic, and then she’d have to tell her mother, because if they were sending agents to speak with Amalia, then her mother’s plan had somehow failed and they were in trouble.

If it was the latter, then Amalia wanted to convince Irene to teach her the secret to avoiding compulsions. Because if Amalia could keep knowledge secret from the watchguards, then she could learn whatever she wanted. She would never have to be afraid of learning the wrong thing or thinking the wrong thoughts again.

It was especially salient these days because of her research into emigration and enrollment.

In the end, Amalia hadn’t bothered to look into whether or not nobles had died in the Harkow Tragedy. Not just because the majority of people had left college two years after the Tragedy, but because it was finally occurring to her that she’d stumbled upon something really really dangerous.

If Irene was right, if the mechanism by which watchmirrors and handmirrors worked was black magic, then Amalia was on the cusp of something that people were not meant to know.

Watchmirrors, compulsion magics, the lack of and vilification of doctors, along with the impossible ability of most black mages to do magic that would take factories of crystals to power were all subjects her father said she must not research or know.

What was the likelihood that they were all black magic, and that black magic was somehow related to the ability to do magic without a crystal?

She was willing to bet her soldering iron that black magic was their power source.

Moreover, if the power source itself was dangerous, they wouldn’t be giving handmirrors out to nobles or putting up watchmirrors on every corner of the city, nor would they use compulsions on every citizen once every year.

Which suggested that the reason black magic was banned was not because it made people go insane or because there was a high likelihood of something horrible happening if they were misused, but because they represented a tactical advantage that the Department of Magics wanted to maintain.

Amalia knew it would be nearly impossible to properly keep a conspiracy secret, because information eventually always leaked out. And black magic bans had been enforced for at least (according to Grand Meister Marcellus) thirty years or so.

Speaking of him, both Grand Meister Marcellus and her father said the same thing when she asked why black magic was banned and why she couldn’t learn compulsions.

They said that she couldn’t know, and that they couldn’t tell her.

If black magic really made people go insane, then why wouldn’t the Grand Meister just say so? All the common folk, her included, always believed that black magic was a great evil, and the newspapers never did a thing to disabuse them of that notion.

It was extremely unlikely that a conspiracy existed, because there would always be someone willing to leak information to the public, but if Compulsions were used frequently enough, then it might be possible.

Except, if everyone over thirty years old knew about black magic not being evil, and knew how black magic worked, what was to stop them from accidentally mentioning it to a family member or a child? Surely, someone would’ve heard something by now.

Amalia realized she was being stupid again.

Ask Jeptha how crystal magic worked, and he’d scratch his head and shrug. Philomena was the same. And both of them had a proper education. Most people were the same way. They knew the lights turned on when you flicked the switch, but they didn’t know why it worked beyond “the crystals power it.”

And Amalia also knew that it was around 874 that Watchmirrors started being made, because some of her mother’s factories produced them.

A lack of personal handmirrors for citizens was one thing, but a lack of doctors…

Amalia shuddered. She’d briefly considered being a doctor before she realized that meant dealing with blood and guts, and she didn’t have the stomach for it. But she did remember that people waited months for appointments with a doctor, and that oftentimes people died waiting for an appointment.

It was certainly not the intention of this policy to prevent people from studying to be doctors, but that was the result. And she wasn’t sure how important maintaining the secret of watchmirrors was, but was it worth that many lives?

Which was exactly when Amalia shut down that line of thought because there was a very good chance that all of this was connected. And if it was, then this secret was exactly the sort of thing that people were probably jailed for knowing.

She really, really wanted to make herself immune from compulsions.


Irene’s place was a small townhouse near the train station.

“I’m glad you took me up on my invitation.” said Irene at the door.

“I’m glad you invited me.”

Her living room was sparsely decorated but for a couple couches and a coffee table. It was nice, she supposed, if one liked clean lines and open spaces.

“Would you like something to drink? I have tea.”

“I’m fine.”

They sat.

And that was around when it occurred to Amalia that she had no idea what to say to this woman. Well, she knew what she wanted to ask. She wanted to ask whether or not the woman was a spy, and if she knew anything about how to evade compulsion magics, but she could hardly say any of that aloud.

“I hear that you’re studying engimancy at Port Drebon University. Are you enjoying it so far?”

“I haven’t been able to attend as many classes as I like, but from what I’ve seen it’s pretty interesting.”

“You haven’t been attending classes?”

“No, I hit my head pretty hard a few days ago, and I needed to rest.” She kept her hands still on her lap and focused on breathing.

“You were at the parade?”

Focus on breathing. The feel of the air being sucked in, expanding her lungs. Blood and bits of skull; a gun aimed at her head.

“Amalia.”

“Sorry?”

“It’ll get better.”

“Oh, I’m fine. I just got lost in thought for a moment.”

“I’m sure that’s true, but I’m telling you that it’ll get better.”

“I know.”

“Good. Anyway, I was wondering what sparked your interest in engimancy.”

“I originally intended to be a doctor, but I was advised against it. Illness isn’t something we di Danti’s want to bring into our home.”

“I’m sure. So engimancy was a second choice?”

“Not really. I love it. And it hasn’t escaped my attention that we’ve only talked about me this entire time. So tell me, how did you come to work for the former Prime Minister?”

“I knew the right people and got lucky. Nothing you couldn’t do if you wanted to. In fact, I think your father knew one of the former Prime Ministers.”

Amalia’s lips quirked. “You’re very good. Who tutored you?”

“Not good enough, it seems.”

“It still works to some degree, even if I know what’s going on.” Every noble had the same training, but that didn’t make them immune to each others’ skills. Keeping the conversation focused on the other person, using the word ‘you’ a lot and subtle flattery were all strategies nobles learned from an early age. Aunt Basileia was particularly bald about it. ‘You’re here to learn how to trick people into liking you and doing what you want them to do.’

“Amalia, I don’t want you to feel like I’m manipulating you.”

“And that isn’t what I thought.”

“Good. But you have to understand where I’d be concerned.” Irene leaned back in her chair. “I needed to get a better feel for the kind of person you are.”

“You mean, because I’m a di Danti.”

“No, well, partly. You told me, the other night, what amounts to a state secret. That gives you some degree of power over me. You could, for example, instruct me to do something, and if I didn’t obey you, you could threaten to tell the government that I know. Not only that, but now I’m dependent upon you to tell the Head of your family to get me an exception from certain questions, because otherwise I could get in quite a bit of trouble.”

“That wasn’t my intention at all.”

“I assumed so, but I wanted you to understand the sort of position you’re putting me in, now.”

“But you did the same thing back at me, even. With the mention that watchmirrors are black magic.”

“Yes. A form of insurance.”

“Funny.” Amalia rubbed her eyes. “but if you knew that about watchmirrors, you already were in trouble with the watchguards.”

“Not quite. I may have permission to know certain things, as I work for the Prime Minister.”

“I don’t think you do.”

Irene’s shoulders stiffened. “Pardon?”

“I mean, I don’t think you have permission. If you did, you wouldn’t be the sort of person to invite me over to talk about first edition books and black magic in the first place.”

“So, then what do you think I’m doing?”

“I don’t even know. I’m not interested in hurting people. I never have been. I don’t want to- to make people grow extra arms or summon monsters or any of that. I’ve no interest, and if you want to talk about that I’ll have to report you to my father.”

“I see.”

“No, I don’t think so. Let me be completely clear. I want to help people and bring honor to my family, and I won’t do anything that could–”

Irene was laughing. At her. She was doubled over in her seat actually laughing.

“Are you serious right now?”

“You think I’m some sort of– what, an agent of the Kojites?”

“I was beginning to wonder.”

“Were you afraid I’d report you?”

“I’m still wondering. And you might not have a choice.”

Irene’s lips twitched, like she was going to start laughing again. “I can keep secrets, even from the Kojites. Working for the former Prime Minister gives me certain privileges that ordinary citizens don’t have access to.”

“And how does that work? Aren’t you concerned about telling me things?”

“You know, you’re pretty good too. You keep steering the conversation towards compulsions. Your parents did a good job teaching you.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, I can evade compulsions. Would you like to know how?”

Amalia didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

“Well, good, then we have a reason to see each other again.”

She blinked. Right. For a moment she thought she’d actually learn something, that she’d stop being held in suspense.

“Is it urgent that you learn compulsions?”

“Not necessarily. Wait- can you tell me whether or not anyone can tell what I was reading at the library?”

“Everything at the library has been checked over. I sincerely doubt you came across anything banned there.”

“Except, I think I did.”

“Really? What did you find?”

“It’s complicated. I tried explaining the preliminary research to one of my friends, before I realized what I was even looking at– don’t worry, they just think I read boring books– and I don’t know if what I’m seeing is even what–”

“Just talk. I’m more than capable of figuring it out.”

“Over three million people left Jaborre between 874 and 877, and it only stopped because the government made it extremely difficult for people to leave. My family says that it’s because people were mislead by cult leaders, but it’s more than that. Scholarships to the colleges dropped off, and some colleges even started closing. But magic was affected worst of all, and one of my professors mentioned that black magic used to be taught at Port Drebon University. And now we have too few doctors and not enough engimancers to go around. People are actually dying because of this, and I don’t know if it’s some kind of grand conspiracy or just plain incompetence.”

“I see. Well, you’re right in guessing that some people would be unhappy that you knew about this, but it’s nothing you have to fear being jailed over. If, however, you were engaging in other illegal activities and also held these beliefs, I’d harbor some concerns.”

Other illegal activities, like stealing journals of black mages and building amulets without a license?

“I feel betrayed.”

“Why?”

“Did you know that when I was younger, I thought’d be hard to make a meaningful difference in the world? I thought all the hard work had already been completed.”

Irene snorted. “Did you believe people weren’t dying of illnesses as well?”

“No, I grew up thinking that the world was a kind place, and that it was only getting kinder as the years passed.” Amalia fiddled with the edge of her robe. “but I’ve already seen more injustices this week than I have before in my entire life.”

“And?”

“I’m trying to figure out what to do about it.”

“Who says you have to do anything?”

“Of course I do. I’m a di Danti.” There was even a grimoire in the family manor containing a list of every ancestor and their accomplishments. One day her children’s children would read that book, and all they’d ever know of Amalia di Danti was what was written there. That wasn’t the only reason, but it factored into her decisions, all the same.

“Of course.” Irene’s lips quirked up. “Then what do you intend to do?”

“I don’t know. The obvious problem is the lack of students learning magics in university. Before, I thought the best thing I could do with my life was to invent new technologies, and hope some of them work out to better the world. But that’s just– well, it’s fun for me. Inventing is fun, and I know I’ll eventually have to take my mother’s seat in the Court of Nobles. And it’s there that I’ll be able to actually make a difference in policy changes. I didn’t think there was anything I could do now.”

“And now?”

“Well, if the problem is just money, I can fix that quite easily.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, what do you plan on changing in the courts?”

“I don’t know. I just thought I’d–” be unlike her mother, and vote according to what she thought was right. Her mother, she knew, accepted bribes. But she couldn’t say that. No matter that everyone knew the Heads of Noble Houses took bribes and coerced each other into voting a specific way, it was never spoken of aloud.

“Be the knight riding in on a white horse, doing what’s ethical at a great personal expense?”

“There may not necessarily be an expense, but yes.”

“Of course there will be. If someone does you a favor, the expect a favor in return. That’s just a fact about human brains, not something you can change. Surely, you as a young noble were taught this.”

“I was.”

“And what, you think you’re smarter than all of the researchers who’ve studied how people think?”

“No, I don’t mean it that way. I’ll likely have to help other people to get my way. But I intend to, instead of aiding solely my family’s interests, to serve the interests of the people. Not that other houses serve only their inte–”

“I suddenly understand why you’re studying engimancy and not law.”

“Funny.”

“No, I really do wonder. Typically the heirs of noble families study law. You break the pattern.”

“Because I’m particularly skilled at engimancy.”

“I didn’t mean to offend. In any case, I apologize.”

“It’s fine. And I’m not particularly well spoken. I’ve had a habit of putting my foot in my mouth and everyone in my family knows it.” But it wasn’t like they could just give the seat to cousin Francis and her mother couldn’t have another child, so they had to deal with her.

“You do perfectly fine. It’s my own fault. For a moment I forgot that you were only eighteen. I was treating you like I’d treat your mother.”

Amalia grinned. “That’s going a bit too far.”

“Is it? Well, then I’ll have to remember it for next time.”

“That reminds me. You mentioned a book that you wanted me to read. What was it again?”

“Oh. Right. Actually, I think a lot of the questions you’ve been asking might be answered by this. It’s a bit biased, and you ought to read books written by the opposing side to get a better picture of the whole story. Or even, I could just talk to you about it if you trust me enough.”

“That’d be fine, but I do like to have outside sources verify things.”

“The hallmark of a good researcher.”

“Exactly.”

“Wait right here.” And with that, Irene got up and walked past where Amalia was seated.

“Oh, I forgot. Did I ask you if you wanted anything to drink?”

“Yes, you did. I’m–”

There was a brush against the back of her neck, almost like the chain to a necklace loosening and the feeling of paper being pressed–


 

“I’m not a black mage.”

A young lady was cuffed to a chair in an interrogation room.

The room looked exactly as you expected it to look. There were two metal chairs, purposefully made so that the people sitting on them couldn’t relax. The walls were painting a violent shade of olive green, and the lights lining the walls were bright enough to force her to squint.

The room in question was in a nondescript building underneath the Bakkeli Opera House. Everyone knew such rooms existed, and that they existed underneath the Bakkeli Opera House.

This particular interrogation room had two occupants, facing eachother across a stark metal table.

The interrogator shuffled his papers and sighed. “Can you name the members of the organization known as the Free Mage Armament?”

“I said I’m not a black mage. I wouldn’t know.”

“Have you ever met a member of the Free Mage Armament?”

“Well, gee, I don’t know, it’s not like people come right up to me and announce they’re members of a–”

“So you’re saying that you might’ve had contact with the Free Mage Armament?”

“Shit, no. I said I don’t know them. I’m not a black mage. Put me under compulsion, I’ll tell you the same thing.”

“Have you ever received correspondence from someone who identified as a member of the Free Mage Armament?”

“Have you been listening to a word I’ve said?”

“Please don’t answer questions with questions. I’ll repeat–”

“No. I haven’t.”

There was a pause.

“Do you suspect anyone you know of being in the Free Mage Armament?”

“No.”

“Do you regularly contact people involved in dissident behavior, specifically people known to be involved with the Free Mage Armament?”

“No. I don’t know anyone in the Free Mage Armament. You keep asking me the same questions over and over again, using different words. And we’ve been here–- there’s no clock, and don’t tell me that’s not on purpose–- we’ve been here for hours, at least. I’m not a member of the Free Mage Armament. I’m not a black mage. I don’t know anyone who is. Please, just let me go home.”

The interrogator laid the papers out on the table. He let out a sigh and laced his fingers together. The nail on his right pinkie finger was dirty, she wanted to tell him to clean it. “I understand you’re a very brave woman, Miss. Whatever the papers may say, I’ve never seen a black mage who wasn’t extremely courageous. It takes strength of character to fight and die for what you believe in.”

“I’m not a black mage.”

“Most people, though, they have a limit to what they’re willing to sacrifice.” He continued on as if she hadn’t spoken. “And usually that limit is family. Whatever your beliefs, you’ll act to keep your family safe.”

“Are you threatening my brother?”

“No, of course not. It’s just that these cases, they can become very public. A young woman such as yourself found guilty of consorting with the Free Mage Armament gets media attention. And you know how people are, how people think of the families of black mages.”

“But I’m not a black mage. I didn’t do anything. Seriously, put me under compulsion.”

“You might be found innocent. The judges might disagree with me, but by then your case would’ve gone public.”

“Then put me under compulsion.”

“Ms Karlsen, Liza, I would love to, if I knew it’d work. Problem is, a number of black mages have found ways around them. If we could’ve just compelled you to tell us, this would’ve been over hours ago.”

“Search my house, then. Search my papers and my books. I’ve done nothing wrong.”

There was another pause.

“There are patterns in my work. Did you know that?”

She didn’t answer.

“Well, there are. Generally, the reason people can’t stand the families of black mages is because their families hold similar ideologies to that of black mages. They had to get it from somewhere, after all.”

“I’m not a black mage. My brother’s not a black mage. None of us are black mages.”

“Maybe that’s the case. I’m just telling you the patterns we’ve seen, what people will believe. And I want you to know that your black mage friends? They’ve made us desperate. We’re desperate enough to cut a deal with you.”

“I’m telling you I’m not a black mage. How many times do I need to repeat myself?”

“For every name you give us, we’ll protect someone. Give us one name, and we won’t arrest your brother. Two names and we’ll keep your entire case remains anonymous.”

“You’re arresting my brother? For what?” Her voice rose on the last word, tinged with hysteria.

“He’s a black mage, engaging in dissident behavior, consorting with known criminals-”

“You’re doing this because we’re at the protest.” Her hands were trembling slightly with the aborted desire to do something, to strangle the interrogator sitting across from her–

“In part, but that’s only a small fraction of the evidence we have against you and your brother.”

“The protest was about factory worker rights. That has nothing to do with black magic.”

“Yet there were many black mages in the crowd, passing out pamphlets of forbidden knowledge, and the protestors did nothing to stop them.”

“I didn’t see anything like that. It was factory workers and their families, that’s it.”

“Then explain this.” And with that a pamphlet was slapped down on the metal table. Liza wrenched her eyes away before she could see anything. She knew what they’d do to her if she looked. If she read what was in there they’d–

Why would they try to show her it if they weren’t going to kill her anyway?

“Please put it away. I don’t want to know.”

“If you’d just tell us about the black mages, we’d help you. We want to help you here, Liza.”

“Don’t you think that if I knew anything I’d tell you? I’d do anything for my brother, anything, but I don’t know any black mages. I don’t know anything.”

The interrogator shook his head, collected his folder, and stood.

“I hope you understand what you’re doing, here, the chance you’re letting pass you by.”

“Please, I don’t know anything!”

“I’m sure you don’t. Good day, Ms Karlsen.”

And with that, the interrogator walked out of the room, shutting the door behind him with a click.

Leaving her alone.

To wait.

Previous | Next

Scene 16: Liaison

Previous | Next

Faquar 8

Uncle Lawrence’s house was an old brick townhouse, a bit like her own, only more weather worn. Amalia knocked on the front door and waited. She’d sent them a note this morning so they were expecting her. She’d decided to visit partly because she wanted to see if Uncle Lawrence would allow her to read the old newspapers, but also to get away from Aunt Basiliea. The old woman had something to say about everything Amalia did.

A di Danti doesn’t show weakness. She didn’t need to be reminded, thank you.

She hadn’t even stopped back at her Aunt’s house for lunch after classes. She’d gone straight to Uncle Lawrence’s house. She would have to go back tonight to pick up her things, but that was it. Her father had stopped by early this morning to tell her he was having a construction team fix the front door that very afternoon, and that her house should be habitable by nightfall.

He’d also given her a handmirror.

The small compact communications device now lay in her pocket, next to her offensive amulet. She wore her unmodified defensive amulet, and consoled herself with the knowledge that she’d finish her modified defensive amulet tonight when she was back at home.

The door opened.

“Amalia!” Philomena was at the door, smiling.

“Sorry to just invite myself over. But-”

“Aunt Basiliea’s an utter hag?” Philomena crooked a grin, and Amalia let out a little sound of frustration.

“You have no idea. My house- I’d been in my bathrobe. I didn’t exactly have time to dress like a proper noble.”

“I can just imagine her face.” They walked in and Phil shut the door behind her. They dropped onto the squishy chairs in the parlor.

“It was a picture.”

“What’s happening with the house, by the way? I mean, you’re okay, and everyone said everything’s fine. I mean, you are okay, right?”

“I’m fine. The house is fine. I’ll be back in it by tonight.”

“Were you scared? That’s a stupid question, of course you were scared.”

“I locked myself in my workshop. Nothing happened, and the watchguards took care of the rest.” Amalia lied. Because that was what she told the watchguards, her father, and everyone. If she did get caught with the modified amulets, she didn’t want Phil to get in trouble for not ratting her out to the authorities. It was for the same reason that she didn’t tell Phil about the journal.

“So was it really black mages?”

“I don’t know.” she sighed. “The one was, because she blew through the aegis like it was paper.”

“Wow.” Phil frowned. “So you’re totally okay? Like, you’re feeling alright?”

“I’m fine. I just didn’t really sleep much. Too wired up after all the-” she made a vague hand gesture.

“But other than that, you’ve been okay?”

Amalia frowned. “Yes? Why the concern?”

“It’s just, you know Lucilia Sinclair?” Yes. Amalia did. She was in ethics class with her.

“Sure.”

“Well, she said she saw you having an… episode. In class. And I mean, no one really listens to her because she gossips, we all know she dramatizes, but if you’re-”

“You’re listening to Lucilia Sinclair.” Amalia stared at Philomena.

“So you’re really fine?”

“Yes.”

Phil settled into the chair, relaxing. “Good. So why did you want to see my dad, anyway?”

“Oh. I have a project and I need to get some information- I checked the library but they lost the only copy and I think your dad might have one, so I figured I’d ask.”

“A project? What do you need?”

“Newspapers between 874 and 877.”

There was silence.

“This is about that enrollment thing still, isn’t it?”

“I-” Amalia took one look at Phil’s face and thought better of lying. “Yes. But this is important.”

“Oh, I’m not getting involved. You’re on your own.”

“Why don’t you like me researching this?” She’d been adamant before at the house, that Amalia be careful who she told about her project. Don’t take out books! Don’t tell your father! Why? Did Phil know something about it?

“It’s just a weird topic. And you have a lot to do right now- your pulse device project, for example. And you want to get in the Department of Magics, and your mother’s teaching you to be Head of House. And I know how you get.”

“How I get?” Amalia couldn’t quite keep anger out of her voice.

“You start one thing and you get entirely wrapped up in it. You forget everyone else exists. And I’ll bet that’s all you’ve been doing for the last two days.”

“Actually, I’ve been working on some engimancy projects, among other things.”

There was some silence, and Amalia staring at Philomena, lips tightly pursed. Philomena broke the silence first.

“Okay. Sorry.” Phil sighed. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s oka-”

“Kiddoes! Hey Amalia, good to see you.” Uncle Lawrence popped into the room, grinning. He was tall, with short hair that was greying at the temples.

Amalia twisted in her seat to see him. “Hi Uncle Lawrence.”

“Heard your house went boom. Everything good?”

“All in one piece.” Amalia’s lips quirked up. “Well, all except the front door.”

Philomena probably didn’t know anything. It was a stupid question. She and Jeptha were like that. They didn’t keep up with the news, didn’t care about what was going on in the world. Phil wouldn’t bother to read the newspapers, no less be able to realize what it meant because she didn’t understand the context around it. And maybe that was uncharitable, but Amalia didn’t feel very much like being charitable towards her at the moment.

“Good. Glad to hear it. Try and remember to charge your crystals, alright?”

“Well, I’m not going to forget now.

“I’ll bet.” He sat down on the empty chair. “So what did you need?”

“It’s for a research project.” she dared Philomena to say something. “I need some information, but the library lost their copy of the newspapers, so I was wondering if you have a copy.”

“What sort of information?”

“Newspaper articles on emigration in 874 to 877.”

Uncle Lawrence’s eyebrows rose. “What kind of project are we talking about here?”

“It’s a statistics project. Math.”

“Right. Well, that’s probably the worst excuse I’ve ever heard.” Uncle Lawrence crossed his arms over his chest.

“May I ask why this is such a secret?”

“Why what’s a secret?”

“There are no books published before 877 in the library, and all the newspapers before 877 were ‘stolen’ in thefts.” She made air-quotes around the word stolen.

“They were. In 884. It was big in the news.”

“And the books?”

Philomena got up and slipped away. Amalia spared her a glance. She was pale and looked uncomfortable. Amalia frowned.

“They were- it’s complicated.”

“But you know what happened? And why the population dropped so suddenly in those years?”

“Yes, but-”

“And why the universities all started to close and why there are only 50 students studying magics when there used to be hundreds?”

“Yes, now stop.” He rubbed his temples. “It’s complicated.”

“That’s what I keep hearing.”

“It’s not-” he let out another sigh. “It’s taboo. No one talks about it.”

Amalia’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“Because- you know how our government works, right? The Court of Nobles divides themselves into political parties.”

“Yes.”

“Back then there were just two. And it was really polarized, because there was a lot of stuff going on.”

“Harkow?”

“Yeah, and see, that’s why no one talks about it. Everyone lost someone in the explosion, and everyone feels really strongly about what happened. And after- after that, a lot more people died, because no one could agree on what to do about it. So we don’t talk about it, my generation.”

“That doesn’t explain the books.”

“This is part of it. So the one party, they were called the Progressive Nationalists, they all had varying positions about a number of things, but they decided to work together to oust the other party, to get them banned. But once they’d accomplished that, well, they never worked out amongst themselves what to do after they won. So we ended up with a whole bunch of people all disagreeing on what happened those years and why- and for a whole number of reasons.”

Amalia frowned. “That still doesn’t…”

“So imagine you’re an author. You have this one interpretation of the events. But you know if you publish you’ll get sued by one group and it’ll start more arguments. And at that point there’d been so much violence and bloodshed that everyone just wanted to forget and move on, so they skirt over it in the history books. So they never explain why they got rid of all the old books, because to do that they’d have to explain a whole lot of other things.”

“So why did they get rid of all the books?”

“Back in 877 there was a new law, called the Subversive Propaganda Act, and it can be interpreted pretty broadly. It was meant to deal with the propaganda that black mages were spreading at the time, but some companies exploited it to sue their rivals, and that caught on and became a trend.”

“How-”

“It was really badly written, and if someone said they wanted to go and edit the law, they’d look like they supported the black mages, you see? But the law was badly written, so a lot of people were sued for ‘supporting black mages.’ The companies and the rival authors just wanted to make money, the books weren’t actually supporting murderers. So a whole bunch of authors had new editions of their books published, because that was less costly than the penalty.”

“But what does this have to do with people leaving the country?”

“That was me explaining why you won’t read about people leaving the country in your history books. And people left because of the violence. In 874 and 877 it was really bad. Lots of people died.”

“But the populations at the universities never went back up.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I wasn’t involved in politics, too busy drinking and partying, you know? I certainly wasn’t paying attention to university statistics at your age.”

“I know it’s strange, but over a million people left. And the universities never recovered. A bunch even closed. And the magics departments, especially.”

He frowned, staring at his lap. “I don’t know. But I wouldn’t keep looking into it.”

“That’s what I keep hearing.”

“It’s taboo. We don’t talk about it. And people are touchy- start mentioning this to the wrong people and someone will twist it to mean you support murdering people with black magic or some shit.”

“But I don’t, and that’s why we have compulsion screenings.”

“They can’t be used as definitive evidence in the court of law. So, you could still get in a lot of trouble. And with the way politics is, I’d avoid giving anyone any ammunition to use against you.”

“But, okay, you agree that having fewer doctors and engimancers is a bad thing, right?”

“Yes, it’s definitely a bad thing. But there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”

“Is the Court of Nobles aware of the problem?”

“Yep, kind of hard to miss it.”

“But they’re not doing anything.”

“They’re not. Because it means talking about encouraging people to do magics, and no one wants to talk about that anymore.”

“But there have to be people who think this is a problem.”

“Of course, but it’s an unpopular opinion at the moment. And it’s very easy to be misinterpreted.”

“So, will you show me the newspapers?”

He sighed, and stood up. “No, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“But if it’s really like you say, and you know I won’t misinterpret-”

“I know. But your parents don’t want you to know. Specifically, I’m sure your mother would have told you about it herself if she wanted you to know. Now, I told you what I did so you know why you should stop looking. People will misinterpret it, and there’s nothing you can do without getting yourself into serious trouble, the sort of trouble that will ruin the rest of your life.”

“So you’re saying I should just forget about it?”

“Yes.”

“I see.” Fat chance of that happening, now that she had some information to go on.

On the way out she swiped a small piece of paper and an envelope, scribbling down her handmirror’s information and checked her notes for Irene Morgan’s address. Fine. If Uncle Lawrence wasn’t able to get the data she needed, she’d get it from someone else.

Philomena stopped her at the door. “We’re okay?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.”

And they were. Phil was trying to look out for her, and Amalia didn’t really feel like sparing the energy to be angry with her.

She dropped the note in the mailbox and left.

And it was fine, because Uncle Lawrence had given her three leads. The first being the Subversive Propaganda Act of 877, and she hadn’t even thought to consider the laws passed at that time as relevant, but now she was going to look into it. And the second was the thefts in 884. It seemed suspicious that there were no papers before the date that the Subversive Propaganda Act was passed. Who stole them and why? Then there was the Progressive Nationalist Party, itself. She’d seen it mentioned a number of times in history books, but it never struck her as something important.

And how could someone mistake regular magics for black magic?

Why were there magic whorls tattooed on that dead mage’s arms?

And you know what? The only thing keeping her from finding out was fear. She was afraid of the watchguards, afraid of a gun pointed at her head, calling her a black mage because she balked at the idea of killing a father in front of his son. She was afraid of the compulsions, of someone pulling all her secrets out of her unwilling mouth. Of people judging her and finding her lacking, or misunderstanding her motives.

So she was going to research compulsion magics, one way or another. If the authorities didn’t want her to know about compulsions, that was because learning how they work must reveal a way of getting around them.

As she walked down Grace street towards the library, she wondered whether her mother had handled the journal yet. Probably yes, considering no watchguards were at her door. It still rankled her, because it was a puzzle she had tried to solve. Oh well, it wasn’t like she could just ask her mother who she bribed. She didn’t want to remind her of her failures.

But more importantly, this was a real mystery. A fizzle of excitement stirred in her gut. She’d always wanted one. She’d made it her life’s mission to improve the world through engimancy, but under that was the idea that she’d be changing the world for the better. And this was a problem that she might be able to fix. Because no one was looking into it or even paying it any mind.

Right now, she was just one di Danti in a line of hundreds. She’d be a footnote in the family grimoire, nothing special or important. Marion’s daughter. And if anything, the last week had brought that into sharp relief. That was what she fled to when she was afraid or wanted to throw weight around, her family name.

She wanted people to recognize her as Amalia di Danti, not just another di Danti, or another spoiled noble’s child. And solving a mystery at age eighteen?

She’d get the recognition she deserved, and help people at the same time. It a was win-win situation.


Jeptha arrived at Amalia’s door at 10PM that night. Phil was worried, and apparently that meant he got to play the messenger. He nodded at Andy, the new guard, and let himself in.

He glanced around. Most of the lights were off except for the ones leading upstairs. Was she asleep?

Maybe. Either way, no one was downstairs. And the construction crew did a good job, because he couldn’t even tell the place had been blown apart the day before.

He crept up the stairs, because if she was asleep he didn’t want to wake her up. At the top, he glanced around. The workshop door was closed and light was seeping out beneath it. And wasn’t that typical?

“Amalia?”

There was a clatter from right behind the workshop door, and a muffled curse. The door opened, too quickly for her to have been sitting behind the table.

“Hey Jeptha. I didn’t know you were stopping by.” Her face was pale and haggard, with dark bags under her eyes. She looked like she hadn’t slept in a week.

“I wanted to see if you were doing okay.” At those words, her expression closed off. Right. She was taking carefully measured breaths, like she had been running down the street and was was trying not to hyperventilate.

“Yeah, I’m great.”

She was standing in the door, and it was just weird enough to make him pay attention. Because she wasn’t inviting him in. They were just standing in the hallway.

“Good, because we were pretty worried when we heard, especially because of what happened at the parade.”

She shook her head. “It wasn’t like that. I was in my workshop and I locked the door.”

Right. Because that made it less traumatizing, somehow. And Phil was more concerned about Amalia’s weird obsession with statistics than her two recent close-encounters with death. Because if anything was causing the “weird” behavior, almost dying twice was it, right there.

And he knew why Phil would think that, because the girl shoves every thing she doesn’t want to think about in a box and forgets about it. But Amalia wasn’t like that. And no one exactly explained what happened to Amalia at the parade. She sure wasn’t talking about it. And the old Judge man wasn’t interested in speaking to anyone about it, either. So that left him making guesses.

What he did know was that there was a good guy and a drek dead by the end of it, and Amalia was in the middle of it. And then Amalia’s little society friends were saying she was having panic attacks in the middle of class.

“Can I come in?” He asked, because it was awkward just standing in the hallway. And because she was definitely hiding something in her workshop.

“Sure.” Or maybe not? He followed her in.

“I don’t exactly keep extra chairs in here…” she trailed off, shrugging.

The room was a mess. Machine parts discarded all over the floor and her desk. There were a bunch of small discs on her desk and some kind of round piece opened up- yeah, he had no idea. Magics were Amalia’s domain.

“It’s fine.” He leaned against the bookshelf and she sank down into her desk chair.

“Phil sent you.” It was a statement, not even a question. Well, no one ever accused her of being stupid.

“She told me something was up with you. I’m not taking her word for it, though.” Because that’s what she needed to hear. And he didn’t even have to- she looked like shit. The stench of stale sweat and puke on the second floor was noticeable. That coupled with the pale skin, red eyes, and dark bags under her eyes had him concerned.

“And the verdict?”

“You need to sleep, shower, and eat. Not necessarily in that order.” And now she was forcing him to be the responsible one.

“I’ll-” she brushed her hand through her hair, a nervous tick. “I need to get this done. After that, sure, I’ll sleep.”

“How long’s it going to take?”

“I… not sure? Couple hours.”

“Do you have to be up early tomorrow?”

She sighed. “Yes. Jeptha, I’m not a child. I’m aware.”

“So shut off the light and let’s go.”

She scowled at him, but got up and shut the light off. And that was when Jeptha got actually concerned. Because the Amalia he knew? She’d tell him to fuck off.

As she passed him, he drew her into a one-armed hug. “It’ll get better, Ams.”

She just let out a sigh, leaning on him for a moment. “I know. So don’t stress.” She walked off towards her room.

“Are you still doing the statistics thing?”

“She mentioned that too, I take it?”

He frowned. The issue with Amalia was that when she got a question in mind, she didn’t let go until she got it answered. And she was looking at, what, dusty old tomes written by people like her. People who thought in abstracts and symbols. And when you think that way, you don’t get it.

“Ams, how much does university cost?”

“I did that already. The tuition hasn’t increased drastically in comparison to inflation.”

“No, I mean, the actual amount.”

“600 danus? Not sure the exact amount.”

“Right. So, 256 rhasi equal one danus. So that’s like, a 150,000 rhasi?”

Amalia bit her lip. “153,600 to be precise.”

“Right. So, how much money does the average person make a year?”

“I don’t know.”

“30,000 rhasi, more or less.”

“Okay.” Amalia stared at him, expression blank. Yeah, she wasn’t getting it.

“They don’t have the money.”

“They can save money. And besides, people afforded it in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.”

“An apartment in Port Drebon costs 38,000 rhasi a year. That’s half of a couple’s money right there. Add on the cost of food and other expenses and you’re not saving much.”

“Then how did they afford it before?”

“Scholarships? Not sure. But that’s why people aren’t going to colleges or getting apprenticeships. They’re expensive.”

“But even if they are struggling, you can always set aside some money. You could just not have dessert or not buy a new outer robe that month. And if you keep cutting back-”

“No. That’s not how it works. Trust me, I know people. They try to save money. But do you  know how hard it is for you to stop yourself from eating strawberry cake after a hard day?”

“Pretty hard, but if it was between that and-”

“Can you please stop treating yourself like an exception to all the rules? When you have a tough day, you curl up on your couch with a piece of cake and a glass of whiskey. Now imagine every day is a really hard day, and you have no guarantee the future will get any better. Do you honestly think you’d have the energy to say ‘no’ to yourself when everyday is painful and you just want a little relief- a little pleasure?”

She went pale, and shook her head. And of course Amalia’d have a hard time imagining poverty. Because she’d never- it was her first week in the city.

“So, that’s…” her voice trailed off.

“I’m not talking about me.” He didn’t want her to think he had it bad, because he didn’t. His mom paid his rent, and he had a job. He wasn’t struggling, not even a little. He chose not to go to college, because sitting reading books seemed like a pain in the ass and he’d hated his tutors when he was a kid. But he knew people who were struggling, and some of them were good people.

“But, it still doesn’t make sense.”

“Okay. How many people do you know in your classes who are on scholarship?”

She stared off, counting. “Not Lucilia. Her parents are nobles. Actually, they’re all nobles except the one kid, I don’t know his name. He might be on scholarship.”

“Right. So you’ve known all these people since childhood? All nobles? All rich?”

“Yes, but it’s not like I can just go up to them and ask.”

“No, but there’s your answer.”

“Why do you think the scholarships ran out?”

“I don’t know. They got bored?” He shrugged. Politics weren’t his thing.

Amalia gave him her disapproving face. “Or maybe they decided to donate to hospitals instead. Or maybe there was a foundation put into place years ago and that was when the money ran dry. Or maybe the people behind it died with no heirs and their money went to the government-”

“Amalia.”

“…-or maybe they all died in the Harkow tragedy!” And at that her eyes widened, mouth open in a shocked o.

“I get it, Amalia. It’s just, you make everything black and white. Like, there’s bad people who get together and plot to steal away everyone’s education, but sometimes things just happen because they happen.”

“No, you’re not- I think I just got an idea.” She started turning around, like she was going back to her workshop, lost in her own thoughts.

“No, you need to listen to me for once. You’re trying to- to fix this, and chances are it’s way bigger than you and really complicated. You can’t be the hero here.”

She looked at him sharply. “I’m no so conceited. I’m not in this for me. I want to figure this out, because the way this situation is? It’s hurting people.”

Jeptha groaned out loud. “Worry about yourself for once. In the end, you’re the only one looking out for your interests.”

“That isn’t how it should be.”

“But this is how it is. And going around speaking this shit just gives people unrealistic expectations. Sure, you have some power, but there are 166 other Noble Houses and assorted rich commoners who are happy with the system. And guess what? It works. It’s not the best, but it works. Having a hundred more people learn about magics won’t change anything.”

“I’ll convince them. I’ll change their minds.”

“You know that sounds crazy, right? And even if it does work, when it crashes and everyone you’ve lead on is disillusioned, they’ll be worse off than they were before.”

“‘ll try something else, then.”

“Great. And what about you? What about your happiness?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Like how you’re fine, now? And then what about me, what about Phil? We have to watch you-”

“…-I’d think you’d be supportive of whatever I do just like how I’m supportive of you.”

“Oh, you know what? Fuck you. Don’t try that shit on me.”

“I’m not trying-”

“You lent Phil and I your notes from Aunt B’s class years ago. That’s classic Aunt B-grade manipulation. That shit doesn’t work on me.”

“But it’s a valid point.”

He let out an expansive breath, shoving his hands in his pockets and staring at the ceiling. He needed a moment. It was too much.

“Let’s just drop it, alright?”

“Fine.”  She frowned again, biting her lip like she always did when she was thinking about something.

Her face slowly relaxed “And I forgive you, but only because you gave me an excellent lead.”

Great.

“Okay, well, leads tomorrow. Sleep now.”

“Alright. I’m gonna go.”

“Thanks for coming by.”

Back outside and in the cold, Jeptha frowned. Phil said Amalia was convinced there was some kind of conspiracy going on. He’d hoped an answer would get her to drop it, but instead… he knew that face. That was her “I’ve got a brilliant idea” face. That was the face she got before she caused a small explosion at the manor because she wanted to test whether or not some magic thing worked. Combine the dual threats of magic and mystery, and she was a goner. And really, it shouldn’t be surprising.

Back when they were kids, Amalia was always chasing a new mystery. Heck, that was how they met. Their parents were working together on something when they were little kids, about seven years ago. Amalia had been convinced the adults were up to something secret, and wheedled Jeptha into spying on them from the top of the stairs.

They’d ended up crouched there for an hour with cramped legs, straining to hear a conversation they couldn’t even understand. And back then he’d been all for it, but then again he was eleven years old. The difference was, he grew up. She was still imagining dragons and grand conspiracies hidden in plain sight, chasing the next big high. Life was a story, and she was determined to be the protagonist.

And that didn’t make her a bad person. She cared a lot, stuck her neck out to help people. And he admired that, while at the same time shied away. Because why poke the bear with a stick? It was stupid.

Phil got that.

But then, Phil was a pessimist who thought the world was out to get her. She was terrified of Amalia’s dad, terrified of watchguards, terrified of black magic, of everything. But she was savvy and would defend either of them in a heart beat. So would Amalia.

Which was why he showed up at Amalia’s door at 10PM at night. Because they were a little fucked up, but they were his people, and they’d do the same for him any day.


Irene Morgan sat at her desk, one hand loosely curled around a steaming mug of coffee while she read the incoming reports from her Commanders. There were currently six commanders, each of which was in charge of five lieutenants who were commanded of a number of small cells. There were paper-reports on finances, the successes or failures of various missions, weaponry, and the losses in life this week.

A total of ten members had died. It was anomalous. She marked it as something to look into, before turning to her scheduled call on one of her handmirrors.

The hands on the other line gestured hello, and proceeded to describe the release of Chief Investigator Boswell back into the city. It was one of her more clever ploys.

Boswell was a known quantity. They’d kidnapped him because he had information they needed, using the parade bombings as a flashy distraction. But there was little to do to him after they’d used truth compulsions on him. Torture was pointless. Holding him for ransom would be met with stony silence- the Council did not negotiate with black mages- and killing him just meant he’d be replaced with an unknown. And then they’d have to change their predictive models on the motions of watchguards throughout the city.

But giving him back, unharmed but for the lack of a memory of the last four days? That would be gold. Because, how could his guards trust him if the black mages just let him go? They’d start doubting his motives. It was an obvious ploy, but it was better to be underestimated. Anyone clever would realize it was a petty trick, and those too stupid to realize what was going on weren’t relevant anyway.

And if he ever became a problem? Well, there was a nice little spell stored in the bottom of his foot that would kill him if she uttered the command. Win-win, all around.

“…Boswell’s looking into a number of cases at the moment. I’ll send over all the paperwork in the morning. Though, there are a few standout cases.”

“Name them.” she signed back. Handmirrors didn’t get sound, so hand signals were used in place of spoken words.

“Boswell’s coordinating with Internal Affairs. There was a theft from di Danti’s office. It was the Czako case- the guy at the parade- and apparently di Danti nicked the evidence box. It would’ve been fine, but someone went and stole a book out of the box. I heard from another informant that the case was closed the other day. The janitor did it- and here’s where it gets interesting- on our orders.”

“And, I presume, the janitor is dead?” She signed.

“Body found floating in the Cyremont river.”

She didn’t give that order. And she was the Free Mage Armament. So someone was covering up a crime. More specifically, a di Danti was covering up a crime, and using her organization to do it.

“They are putting up a vote of no confidence. Judge Pike’s pushing it. She’s still trying to prove he killed the former Prime Minister, and is using this as an excuse to get him out. And with him gone, the balance in the-”

She waved him off. Marion would quell that before it gained enough traction to actually succeed. She was clever that way.  “What else?”

There was nothing more from him, nothing she found interesting, at any rate. She took in air, held it, and slowly let go. It had been a long day, and she was just getting started.

She flipped open her notebook, scribbling down notes and integrating new tasks into her schedule- she wrote it all down right after these conferences so she wouldn’t forget. She was curious what the di Danti’s wanted with one of Lothar’s books. It was peculiar. She knew it was none of her soldiers. Any of them that did things while not under her orders could not do it in the name of the Free Mage Armament, and for a reason.

She penned in to figure out what was going on with that next to a note to check into the anomalous deaths- well more than typical for a week- and shut her book.

There were other tasks to be completed, so she shifted gears. It was recruitment time. She’d given them four days to mourn. That was enough. Now, they’d serve her. She glanced over her notes on Bennett Miller and Harvey Kane- after she’d been contacted by Kane she’d researched both of them thoroughly. Harvey’s answers under compulsion only filled in the rest of the blanks.

It wouldn’t do to botch this recruitment because she didn’t do her homework.

She arrived before Bennett and Harvey got back from a shopping excursion, so she made herself comfortable on the chair in their tiny room at the motel, leaning back against the wood, the very picture of satisfaction. Two minutes later there was fumbling outside and the click of the key entering the lock. Bennett and Harvey entered, hoods casting their faces in shadow.

Irene smiled. She knew how she looked, leaning back into the chair. Her features would be unremarkable, but for her bright blue eyes, cooly observing them.

Bennett halted at the sight of her. “Who are you?”

“My name is Irene Morgan.” Harvey started in recognition at the sound of her voice.

“She’s the lady from the FMA.” He whispered to Bennett, loud enough for her to hear, though she doubted that was intentional.

She uncrossed her legs and stood, posture relaxed. “I take it you’re Bennett Miller.” She nodded her head towards Harvey, “and of course, the brave Harvey Kane.” She paused for a second, to let the right amount of regret color her tone, “I am sorry for your loss.”

“Why are you here?” Said Bennett, giving her a dark look.

“You lost someone dear to you. Another casualty in the war of subjugation against the practitioners of the black arts. I am here to win us this war, a war for freedom after thirty years of subjugation.”

Bennett walked over to the door, opening it. “Leave.”

“I thought you of all people, Bennett Miller, would be interested in what I have to say.”

“I want you to leave.” He said, the lines of his face hard.

“Do you not want to avenge your brother?” She murmured, “Or perhaps, revenge for the death of Lothar?”

“The rebellion is dead. It’s been dead for almost twenty years.” He hissed. “You won’t revive it. You can’t win.”

She took a moment to re-center herself, letting the agitation bleed away, and adjusting her seat. She wouldn’t let her discomfort show through unintentionally. They might think she was upset with them, and that wouldn’t help negotiations along.

“But I can. They weren’t organized before because they all felt alone. People need someone to follow, someone to give them hope, a light in the darkness.”

“And you think you can be that light?”

“I’m only the liaison. I pass along messages between interested parties. And those parties are interested in recruiting you.”

“Who?”

“General Vincent Walker, leader of the Free Mage Armament.” Blatant lies. “They’re hundreds strong, and need the help of people like you.” She made eye contact with both of them. Harvey was frowning, trying to wrestle with his anger towards her- angry because his adopted father died- and his interest in joining the Free Mage Armament. Bennett just looked wary.

Harvey spoke up. “He has hundreds of people working for him?”

She smiled. “Yes, almost three hundred now, in various positions inside the the government and spread out across the country. A surprising number of Lords and Ladies are sympathetic to our cause. Then of course, we have allies in the Sutanni Empire and the Republic of Luwana.”

“And we’re just supposed to take your word for it?”

“Yes.”

Bennett snorted. “Fat chance. Now leave.”

Irene made no move to get up.

“And where will you go, once you run out of money?” The question hung in the air. “You have no friends to rely on in this city, and the contacts you relied on to ferret people out of the country are dead. I’m giving you the opportunity to continue what you wanted to do in the first place, fight your oppressors.”

“That’s why I’m saying no. You put us in this situation.”

“I gave you all the tools you needed, but there were always unknown variables. I told you the risks.” She addressed Harvey.

“Doesn’t make him less dead.” He spat.

“You did everything you could. At the very least, you have no regrets. He knew in the end that you cared enough to come for him. He didn’t die like an animal on parade, he died fighting. I didn’t know him, so I shouldn’t presume to guess at his ideals, but am I right in guessing that meant something to him?”

Harvey’s chin wobbled, glaring at her with suspiciously wet eyes. Bennett gave her a mutinous glare. Furious, really.

“He never fought a day in his life. Wouldn’t touch a gun.”

“There’s more than one kind of fighting. He and you led people to safety.”

“Cut the rhetoric. Why do you want me?”

“You once lead Gaeldor’s Circle, one of the most influential pro-Liberation movement organizations. We want your contacts, any still living. We want your weight behind our words. Many people still respect you. You were a leader in the movement, and your loss crippled the remaining groups.”

“And once you have these names and my words, what then?”

“We set you up with new contacts so you can continue with your mission. Or, alternatively, we can set up passage out of the country like you were planning.”

“See, the thing about deals like this is that there’s always a hidden cost.”

“We’re well funded. You’re not putting us out.”

“I’ll need time.”

“That’s acceptable. But if I may, there’s a meeting tonight at midnight. You don’t have to say anything or even make your presence known. But it would be appreciated if you were there. A number of factory workers are planning a strike tomorrow, protesting the tax reform that passed today. We’re coordinating with them to provide back up in case the watchguards respond with violence.”

“I’ll see.”

She nodded. “Thank you.”

“One question. You’re a liaison. So you know a lot of what’s going on?”

“Some. There are safety protocols in place. Why?”

“Is Lawrence Pelorian active?”

Lawrence Pelorian? As far as she knew, Bennett hadn’t been in contact with Lawrence in years, not after what happened to Bennett’s brother. Gaeldor’s Circle had broken and that was the end of it.

“Why do you want to know?”

“None of your business.”

This man was going to be a main in her ass, wasn’t he? Again, she took a breath and loosened her tensed muscles.

“I’d like to help you, but you’re not giving me any information to go on.”

“It’s private.”

“The people I work for, we compartmentalize information. If no one knows, then no one can give away that information if they’re compromised. So even if I did know, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. And I can only request that information if it’s vital for the continuation of the Free Mage Armament.”

Bennett scowled. “It’s for a client.”

Irene raised her brows. “Even more unknown variables? No.”

“Someone thinks he’s in danger. If he’s really back, then he needs to know.”

Huh. So Bennett still cared about his old partner in crime? How sentimental. She leaned back, rolling her shoulders subtly to release tension. Frowning because her leg was cramping could easily be misconstrued as frowning at Bennett because of something he’d done.

“Did your client explain why they think he’s in danger?”

“No, but they’re afraid and they believe the threat is real and imminent.”

“That’s good to know.”

“Are you gonna tell him?”

If he’s active, then he’ll be warned. And I could pass along who sent the warning.”

“That’s…” Then Bennett’s eyes widened. “Shit.”

Harvey turned to him. “What?”

“He prints The Free Voice, doesn’t he?”

Irene repressed the laugh. It was startling how one could forget that Bennett was very clever, under the alcoholism and general surliness.

“I’m unable to tell you.”

“Tell him- fuck, that bastard- tell him to get in contact.”

She smiled. “I’ll leave you to your revelations.”

Harvey started firing questions at Bennett, whose face was quickly going from shock and -dare she say it- hope, to irritation and fatigue.

At the door, she stopped half turning and addressing Bennett. “I am sorry.”

He nodded, face tight.

She left.

Vincent, of course, would be standing in for her. Only her Commanders knew she was in charge. To everyone else she was only a liaison and an advisor.

Back in her room, she fiddled with her spare handmirror, the one she’d given Amalia the information for. She’d sent a note over that afternoon, saying she’d call. In all honesty, she hadn’t really expected Amalia to call her.

But then again, the little noble had already surprised her twice, the first time when she’d seen her in the alleyway and the second when she met her in the library. So when she’d gotten the note this afternoon she had someone compile all the records they could find on one Amalia di Danti.

She’d treat this like she did any other recruitment or interview. Which meant looking into the person beforehand so she didn’t accidentally say the wrong thing, and so she could steer the conversation where she wanted it to go.

And Amalia was a dull read. She associated with the noble crowd around her age, notably close to Pelorian’s daughter and General Harland’s son. The son wasn’t a noble, but the General was one of Titus di Danti’s devout followers, so that gave them status. The close proximity to Lawrence Pelorian’s daughter might explain a lot. If Amalia was sympathetic to the cause, it would likely be because of the girl.

The only things that stood out were Amalia’s grades and her research proposal. They were above the average, though not spectacular. And they couldn’t get ahold of the copy of Amalia’s blueprints, so there was no real way for Irene to asses them, but the description was intriguing.

But it wasn’t like Irene was flying in blind. She knew plenty about Marion and Titus, and could make a fair guess on how they’d raise a child.

The screen of the handmirror glowed, and Irene tapped it to start the call.

“Amalia. It’s nice to speak with you again.” she signed.

“Same. How are you?”

“I’m well.”

“Have your classes been keeping you busy?”

“A bit. I have a number of side projects, so I’m content.”

“On top of your research proposal?”

“Yes, but the blueprints for that are done. It just needs to be physically made and tested.”

“Only just?” Irene grinned. The handmirrors were far back enough they they could both see each other’s expressions, not just their hands. “and what is this infamous project?”

“It’s a pulse device. It sends a signal out and that signal is reflected back to the device. Theoretically, you could use it to detect magic being used in an area.”

Irene’s eyebrows rose. She could, roughly, sketch in her mind the whorls needed to do such a thing.

“Where did you get that idea?”

“It’s all existing technology. I just reverse-engineered it.”

“You say that like it’s a trivial task.”

“It is. I mean, it’s time consuming, but all I have to do is find the whorls I’m unfamiliar with and remove them from the scheme. Then I check to see what happens when it’s gone. You have to just keep experimenting. You might not get what you want, but you’ll always learn something new.”

Right. Well, her estimation of Amalia’s abilities and usefulness just took a nosedive.

“That is grossly irresponsible and likely to get you injured.”

“Well, it worked. With both the pulse device and watchmirrors.”

“What?” She couldn’t help herself. This- that was just a rumor. Some idiot babbling, spreading nonsense about how the di Danti’s were magic themselves because their eleven year old daughter managed to…

“Oh, just forget I said anything. I thought you already knew. Honestly, it’s the worst kept secret in Jaborre.”

“I already knew. I just thought it was an exaggeration.” She paused, staring at the figure in the mirror. “What did you do?”

“Not very much.” Amalia’s lips quirked up. “and even if I did, I’m not supposed to talk about it.”

“State secrets?” signed Irene, grinning.

“People aren’t supposed to know how they work.”

“You know how they work?”

Amalia raised her hands to make a sign, and then dropped them, frowning. “Well, not really.”

There was another pause, before Amalia raised her hands again. “When I was eleven, I’d been obsessed with crystals. I’d go around the whole house to try and figure out how all the magic was powered, and then play with the different sized crystals. It was a game. I was with my friend- like a treasure hunt.

That day I’d grabbed a bunch and decided to raid one of the guest rooms. And it ended up being such a mess, because all the uncharged crystals got mixed with the charged ones, but anyway, my father used that room for storage sometimes. And there was a box full of watchmirrors. I was old enough to know they were magic, so I decided to take the crystals out of those, too.

I tried taking them apart to get to the crystals…” her hands halted, eyes becoming unfocused. “…it was a glitch. I found a glitch….” Her brow furrowed, and Amalia said something out loud, if Irene had to guess, it was a curse.

Amalia ran a shaky hand through her hair, still talking, presumably, to herself.

“Amalia?”

Her eyes settled back on the screen.

“Sorry.”

“You went pale. What is it?”

“I’m an idiot. I just realized something.”

“Did you see something in those watchmirrors?”

“No.” Amalia signed, a thoughtless gesture. “It’s- no wonder they don’t sell these to the general public.” And with that, Irene felt a fizzle of excitement. In spite of her obvious idiocy and naivety, it had been a long time since she’d seen the wonder of discovery on someone’s face, the thrill of understanding something for the first time.

“Ah. That.” Irene leaned back in her chair. “Honestly, I thought you knew. It’s the worst kept secret in Jaborre.” Amalia grinned at the repeat of the phrase.

“I’m stupid.” understatement. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it- I mean, there’s only so many times someone can tell you something’s impossible before realizing that’s blatantly false, especially when the evidence is staring you in the face. Watchmirrors don’t use crystals. There’s magic that can be done without crystals.”

“And?”

“There’s more?” They both laughed.

Amalia sat back. “Now I want to take apart my handmirror to see how it works. I wonder if I could-”

“I strongly advise against doing that.”

“Why? You said it’s a poorly kept secret.”

“The fact that it exists is poorly kept, but the mechanisms are a well-kept one, one you might know as black magic.” The look on the girl’s face was priceless. A mixture of shock, horror, and raw curiosity.

“But my father gave me this. It can’t-”

“No. If you learn and master its secrets, comprehend how it works, you will be considered a black mage. The object itself is mostly harmless.”

“But my mother… we make these in factories all across the city.”

“Done in assembly lines. Each person only sees a small part of the whole.”

“Oh.” Amalia bit her lip. “And the people who designed the handmirrors?”

“Dead.”

“Because they knew the secret?”

“Because they were competent enough to make a watchmirror in the first place.”

“Because… they were going insane from practicing the magic, right? They were becoming dangers to society, losing themselves.” And the way she signed it, it was like she desperately wanted that to be true.

“Of course- their knowledge could be exploited- they might be abducted, or bribed into making weapons. After all, that’s what happens when you give the common people power: they misuse it. People are shortsighted and think only for themselves. They’ll sell devices that can cause deadly explosions to save their families, and that’s not even counting all the incidents from stupid mistakes.”

“But that’s insane. They can’t just kill people for being curious, condemning them for knowing. I wouldn’t- I’d never-” her gestures became more expansive and fragmented, as she watched her entire worldview crumble. It was fascinating in a way, seeing this.

“To be entirely fair, you were just advocating the ‘let’s just break it in different ways until something happens’ method of reverse engineering.”

“I took precautions. And if I were trying with a handmirror, if I knew something bad could happen, I’d be careful.”

“So says every person who thinks themselves to be good. But you’d work with these spells for thirty years and then you’d be comfortable and overconfident, so you’d relax. Or maybe one night you pull an overnighter and your hand slips.” And her words had an effect. Because Amalia paled further.

“Anyone sensible wouldn’t, not if the risks-”

“You’d be surprised how many people are that foolish.”

“And- and where’s your evidence? I mean, don’t you think we’d hear about people blowing themselves up more often if it were true?”

“Amalia, I’m not saying I share those beliefs, only that this is what the people in power believe.”

“So they just lie to everyone and tell them they’ll go insane. Convince everyone that they’re sociopaths and- no, that’s an impossibly big conspiracy. It’d fall apart under it’s own weight. Eventually the secret would get out.”

“It’s really far more complicated than that. There’s no denying that some black magic causes harm, but some people think that hugely harmful events can’t be caused on accident. They think it’s done on purpose. And there were-” Irene trailed off. There really was no easy way of explaining what happened.

“What?”

“You know what? I have this book and I think it will help. It’s a collection of accounts from the year 875, the year of the Old City Bridge Bombing and the subsequent riots. It was never published in Jaborre, but it’s very good at capturing the tone of that time. I don’t know how accurate all the stories are- it very obviously caters to separatist propaganda, but it does have reprints of letters sent back and forth between various people, which gives a lot of insight into what people thought at the time.”

“You want to meet up in person?”

“It would be more convenient.”

“Alright.”

And she wasn’t sure what to think. Clever, but incautious. That made her dangerous. But at the same time, she caught on quickly. A potential asset, but more likely to be bait for Titus.

She’d wait and see.

Either way, Irene won.

Previous | Next

Scene 15: Deviation

Previous | Next

She slowly pulled herself up off the floor of her workshop. She just needed a moment. Or three. She took a deep breath, but it wasn’t helping. She wanted to go downstairs, but didn’t trust herself to remain in control. There was something wrong with the black mage- he’d been seizing. Did she do that? She really really needed to look up information on the human body. And if it was her fault, did that make her a murderer?

Probably not, said a small part of herself. At the very least, she didn’t shove him with the intention of murdering him. And no court in the land would charge her with a crime for doing it. Sure, her method- the modified amulet- was illegal, but it was done in the name of protecting people and defending herself against black mages.

Granted, this was the same bunch that thought it was fine to murder people in alleyways. Though she wasn’t being fair, here. Incompetence was far more common a cause for injustice than malice. The people in charge might not realize that the laws they put into place with good intentions were being used to excuse needless murder.  And her own father had murdered someone in an alley. How did she keep forgetting that? But Amalia’s mind shied away from thinking about it. Besides, that was hardly relevant right now.

And no- the watchguard had said it was the second time this week that someone had been found seizing. So it was unlikely that the black mage’s seizures had anything to do with her. She took a couple more deep breaths, and did a quick once-over of her workshop. There was nothing incriminating out, and all the parts of the amulets were safely stored away in the box. The authorities had no reason to search her things, and would need permission from her mother to search the house, so that was one less problem she had to deal with.

So all she needed was a cover story. How did she explain Mr. Black mage’s aerial dive down the steps?

“M’lady?” Great. They were outside her door again.

“Yes?”

“We need to take your statement.”

She looked up at the ceiling, letting out a breath. This was exactly what she didn’t want. It wasn’t like she could stall them. She’d tried that before with a different set of watchguards and she wasn’t keen on- “Don’t listen to her anymore. I’ll bet you ten to one she set the explosion.”– repeating that experience. Fuck. Fuck, not again. She sucked a breath of air and choked on her own spit.

“M’lady? M’lady, are you alright?”

She wiped her mouth, and stood up straight, leaning experimentally on her ankle. No, she wasn’t stalling. She wrapped her robe tightly around herself, and really this was entirely improper. People weren’t supposed to see each other in their nightclothes, of all things. Irrelevant. She needed to keep control over the situation, while making the watchguards feel like they were in control. Play the part of the haughty noble who’d suffered through a break-in. A totally innocent civilian who trusted the watchguards.

She squared her shoulders and opened the door, brushing past the watchguard. Well, as much as one could brush past someone while limping.

“I’m quite well, thank you.” She walked down the hall and almost stumbled into the other watchguard- the woman who’d said Amalia had shellshock- who was coming out of the storage room.

Oh shit. She still had the boxes set up from her experiment in there, and there was that nasty scorch mark on the floor and the rhasi coin-shaped holes in the wall.

“James, you’ve gotta see this.” the watchguard said. Amalia stood there frozen in the hallway. The watchguards weren’t masters of engimancy, but they had to know some basic magical knowledge to be able to do their jobs.

Amalia leaned on the doorframe of the storage room, watching the two watchguards crowd around the scorch mark.

“M’lady, did you see or hear anything from you room?” asked James the watchguard.

“I- no. I was-” she cleared her throat. “I locked myself in. Tried putting the bookshelf in front of the door, but it was too heavy.” Lies mixed with the truth always seemed more realistic, more believable.

“No noise? Flashes of light under the door?”

“There was a bang.” Well, there was. When the black mage cracked his head on her ceiling. “And the mad woman was shouting and laughing. But neither of them ever reached my room.”

“I see.” The watchguard returned to the scorch mark. “I think black magic was done here, though I’m not sure what the effect was supposed to be.”

What.

“Black magic?” Amalia asked. Her amulet was certainly not black magic. It was engimancy, pure clean and simple.

“Scorch marks like these are fairly common when dealing with black magic, though they’re usually much larger.”

“Huh.” Amalia moved closer, eyeing the scorch mark with renewed interest. Well, that was one piece of information she was filing away for further inspection later on after this was all over. She knew for a fact that her invention was not black magic, but this suggested-

“How much larger, if you don’t mind me asking?” Amalia said.

The watchguard gave her a funny look, and Amalia realized her error. She was displaying too much interest, and they’d start to think-“You’re just some drek trying to trick us! What’s your real name?”

“I meant, because the room might be contaminated.” She choked out, clutching the amulet around her neck. Even if they took out their guns and fired, she was safe. For a few shots, at any rate. And her offensive amulet was in her pocket. It wouldn’t do much, but it’d be enough to create a quick distraction. She was safe.

“I assure you m’lady, the room isn’t contaminated. The power of the spell, whatever it was, is small and the energy was spent.” But the watchguard was still looking at her speculatively. And Lothar was lying limp, skull shattered from the shot at point-blank range. Then the watchguard turned to her, revolver aimed at her, point blank- No. No, come on. You know what’s real and what isn’t. Her knuckles were white around the amulet.

She shut her eyes, breathing out through her nostrils sharply. “Could the power have gone downwards instead of outwards? If a support beam is charred like that, the structural integrity of the building could be compromised.” Internally, she rewarded herself for coming up with that so quickly. It was the sort of question someone would ask, if they thought someone had done black magic in their home.

The watchguard visibly relaxed. “No, that’s not the nature of spells like these. Your house is safe.”

Amalia loosened her grip on the amulet. See? All good.

“You got here very quickly.” she said, changing the subject. “I’m very impressed, especially considering that the security system said you’re five to seven minutes out.”

James and the other watchguard looked at one another, frowning. Amalia paused. That was not the reaction she was expecting.

“It took five minutes?” But that wasn’t possible. Unless- well, the brain did all sorts of things when stressed. For all she knew, it could’ve been five minutes, or even seven. But then, it felt like only seconds. The whole thing took maybe two minutes at most. Or at least, that’s what it felt like to her. The reality of the matter could be a whole other story.

“We were nearby already.”

“Oh.” right. Then she wasn’t going insane. That was always good news. “And my guard? He was on duty monitoring the perimeter.”

James the watchguard stood up, brushing off the knees of his uniform. “A little banged up, but he’ll be alright.”

“Excellent.” she didn’t want to replace her guard, again. It was bad enough the first time. The other watchguard stood and followed James the watchguard out the room.

Neither watchguard even looked at the holes in the wall. Amalia internally sighed in relief. Unobservant. That was good. Well, not for the innocents who needed these watchguards to solve crimes for them, but it was certainly working out in her favor.

She followed them down the steps. At the bottom the third watchguard, a large man, was holding a small handmirror, no doubt recording the layout.

“Check upstairs. There’s a scorch mark- think one of them was tryin to do some damage, didn’t work, whatever it was.” said the female watchguard. The large watchguard nodded, and started up the steps. Amalia pressed herself to the bannister so he could pass. The stairs really weren’t meant for two people to use at the same time. She stepped down, avoiding the body at the bottom of the steps, and crossed her living room, surveying the damage.

The front door was in splinters, debris spread across the living room. The windows facing the street were shattered inwards, glass covering the floor. No bare feet downstairs, then. She grimaced, limping back towards the kitchen to get a vantage point that was less likely to result in bloody feet.

Her favorite squishy chair was overturned, and featuring bulletholes. The coffee table was singed, and there were bulletholes in the wall. Not to mention the two corpses, the female black mage lying in front of the front door and the male black mage lying at the bottom of the stairs. She could see the woman’s tattoos from here.

Amalia pursed her lips. She could sneak upstairs and get a pad of paper, draw them out while the watchguards were- no. No, that was stupid, even for her. And it wasn’t like she could ask the watchguards if they were really some kind of spell. At this distance, it was difficult to make out the individual whorls.

But she’d never heard of anyone painting whorls on themselves. To what purpose? Magic travelled through metal and crystal most easily and ink, blood, and flesh were poor substitutes. Only maybe the weakest of weak spells could be carried through ink without the paper combusting. And that mad woman didn’t seem like someone who did anything subtle.

It might just be decorative. But Amalia was starting to wonder. Black mages did a great number of things that the average person thought was impossible. They turned themselves into animals and did things that required immense amounts of energy. Black magic then, either broke the laws of magic or… maybe the laws only described a small portion of what magic was capable of, because after you keep seeing the so-called laws violated in front of your face so many times, you can’t call them laws anymore.

Amalia bit her lip, feeling increasingly nervous as she stood in her kitchen, watching the two watchguards bent over the body of the male black mage. Evidence suggested that the laws were not actually laws, but theories that only described some of the big picture. Of course, she had no idea what the rest of that big picture looked like, and probably never would. At least, not until she was Head of House di Danti, and was exempt from being compelled.

Fine. It was pointless to think about it now, anyway. She needed a few hours to herself and the library to even start entertaining that line of thought. Besides, there was the answer to another one of her questions right in front of her.

“You mentioned something about the seizures happening before.” Amalia said to the watchguards examining the male black mage’s body. “Did other black mages suffer from his condition?”

“Yes, acute acidosis.” said the female watchguard. “We don’t know what’s causing it.”

“Well,” said James the watchguard, “we do know it’s black magic.”

Acute acidosis? Never heard of that before.

“But this has happened before?”

“Yes. Whenever they’re about to be caught they’ll-” she cut herself off. “We don’t know how they’re doing it.”

“So you’re saying he committed suicide? How do they trigger it?”

“I apologize, but it’s an ongoing investigation.”

“That’s fine. I understand.” Amalia frowned. “Is the suicide part meant to be kept quiet as well?”

“It’s been a tactic used by black mages on and off since the 870’s.” said James the watchguard, dryly. “Bit difficult to keep it a secret.”

The female watchguard scowled at him.

“What?” he said, “she’s a noble.”

“Rules are rules, James.”

James rolled his eyes and turned to Amalia. “Yeah, don’t mention it, will you?”

“I’m hardly going to have my rescuers punished for answering my questions.” Amalia said, lips quirked.

The female watchguard looked between them, sighed, and went back to scribbling in her notebook. “And besides, James, you’re wrong about the dates. It hasn’t been on and off. It’s only very recently that the acidosis spell has been used by black mages on black mages. Before it was just their victims.”

Amalia raised her eyebrows. Now that was interesting. “What sparked the change?”

“We don’t know.” the woman shrugged. And now James was looking uncomfortable. She turned and raised a brow at him.

Amalia was beginning to feel slightly annoyed. The little silent argument, and using her to prove some kind of point was immature. Oh well, their immaturity was working out in her favor.

“But this only changed recently?” Amalia asked. This would be the last question, because otherwise she was pushing it.

“Within the last year.” The female watchguard frowned at her.

“I won’t tell my father I heard it from you, but if I can, I’ll see if I can have him allocate some resources to solving this mystery.”

James smiled. “Thanks. We appreciate it, but really there’s no need.”

“Consider it repayment for saving my life.”

The two watchguards looked at one another again. And Amalia got it. They were together. She hid her smile. That was definitely against regulations. Oh well. That was not nearly as bad as threatening to shoot unarmed civilians, so she supposed she could forgive them.

Amalia limped back towards the kitchen, lowering herself onto one of the chairs by the table. No point in aggravating her ankle more. Her father would be arriving soon and she dreaded that conversation. In spite of the reassurances of the watchguards, there was a chance of structural damage. Twice the house shook from the force of the black mage’s spells. She doubted she would be living here much longer, at least, not until the house was fixed.

Which meant that her father would be insisting she move back to the manor. And Amalia wouldn’t mind it at all if she could move back for a week. She missed her home a lot. But this was supposed to be a step towards independence.

If she went home this soon after she moved out, they’d get into a routine. Her father would deal with driving her to school from the manor every morning, and then it would simply be easier to continue on as they were doing than move everything back to Nottingate House.

If she went home, she wouldn’t go back to living at her townhouse. Which would mean no more library trips and no more unauthorized experiments in her workshop.

And that was unacceptable.

Of course, she could insist that the drive would be too taxing, and ask to stay at Aunt Basileia’s townhouse. Her aunt lived in the city, and while the old bat was always a major pain to live with, she would understand Amalia’s plight and help her.

There was some kind of commotion going on outside. Amalia heard raised voices and shouting. And among the voices, Amalia heard her father’s.

Great. Judge jury and executioner, come to take her home.

He stormed in through the remains of the broken door, sidestepping the dead woman neatly. His face was thunderous with barely held back rage.

“Who did this and why?” His question wasn’t aimed at Amalia, but at the two watchguards.

“We don’t know yet.”

“What do you mean you don’t know yet? Dispatch said you had the bastard and were taking him in for questioning.”

“Acidosis, m’lord.”

He scowled. “Again? And you couldn’t stop him?”

“There was a lot going on.”

“I will be informing your superiors.”

“Father.” Amalia said from her perch in the kitchen. “I was there when it happened. There was little they could’ve done.”

He turned to her, face twisting in a number of emotions. Amalia identified fear and relief being the primary ones.

“I thought I told you to keep the aegis charged.”

“Typically, I do.” She said. It was a feeble defense. This was one of those arguments she knew she was going to lose no matter what she said. She couldn’t explain her real reasons for not charging the aegis. Telling him that she hadn’t charged it because she’d been unable to sleep and therefore less on top of things than usual, and because she needed the storage room to run illegal experiments, was not in the cards.

“Typically? You’ve only been here a week!” Right. So what was the best outcome from this conversation? To get him to stop yelling quickly, because it was frustrating and annoying. And get him to allow her to stay at Aunt Basileia’s.

“It was a busy week.” She said, keeping her tone even.

“Busy we-…” he huffed, “that’s what this is? Almost dying twice is just a busy week?”

“Alright. Maybe I used the wrong word there. Point is, I’m fine. I’m in one piece. The black mages never even reached me.”

“They should’ve never gotten in the house to begin with!”

“Of course not, but the end result is that I’m fine, and the failsafes in the system worked as they should. I’m not exactly sure how the black mages knew the power was low.”

“That isn’t the point. This is your life, Amalia. You keep involving yourself in these situations and putting yourself in danger. You have no responsibility.”

“I- “ I’ve been dealing with a lot. Well, she couldn’t say that. “This is a big change. I needed some time to adjust. I can assure you that I won’t be going to citywide events any longer. And I won’t make these mistakes anymore.”

“No, you won’t be.” Seriously? Damnit. She really shouldn’t have lead with that. Because she knew exactly what was coming out of his mouth next.

“You’re coming home and staying there.”

“No.”

“I am your father. If I say you’re going home, you’re going home!”

“I am also an adult in college. I’m staying at Aunt Basileia’s while the damage to Nottingate House is repaired.”

“An adult? Is this the behavior of an adult? Just because you like playing house on your own doesn’t mean you’re ready-”

“Mother will agree with me.”

There was silence for a moment. Amalia continued. “She wants me to gain maturity. You can’t expect me to make all the right choices straight away. I’m going to make mistakes. But I’ll learn from them. That’s the whole point of this, to allow me to gain some perspective and responsibility. I won’t forget the charging crystals again. And I’ve never ditched my guard or done anything like that, and I always wear my amulet when outside the house. And even you know that the events of the parade, the bombing, had nothing to do with me. Next time something like that happens, I’ll walk away.”

It was, in part, the truth. It was why she took so long to go to mother for help with the journal. She wanted to fix her own mistakes.

Father was looking at her. His jaw was clenched and his lips were pressed together, as if he were holding himself back from making some kind of comment.

“I will be speaking to your mother about this.”

She nodded, and then picked her way around the glass and went towards the staircase. She needed to gather her books for class tomorrow and pack an overnight bag.

“How long do you think it will take to finish repairs?”

Her father frowned, looking around. “A week or so, maybe more.”

Risking another argument, Amalia asked, “how long until I can live here again?”

“Depends on how the conversation with your mother goes.”

Amalia gave him a dirty look. He relented. “Most of the damage looks superficial. A day or two.”

“Good.”

“Does Basileia know you’re staying at her house yet?”

“She’s been calling on me. I doubt she’ll mind the company.”

“It’s highly improper. Your mother will not be pleased.” Meaning that she was going to lose points with her mother, which meant mother would be less likely to side with her in the coming argument. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Knowing mother, she’d just have the new guard check the crystals every night. Amalia couldn’t suggest that herself, because then she’d be accused of being irresponsible. But that was what was going to happen. Father would be appeased because he’d be assured of her safety. And mother would be pleased because she’d avoid dealing with Amalia and Father arguing for the next three weeks.

“Aunt will understand the circumstances were unfortunate.”

He frowned again, and then turned to find the watchguards, who’d disappeared the moment father and daughter started arguing.

Amalia leaned on the bannister, taking the steps slowly. She had an overnight bag under her bed, and she’d have to get dressed in proper robes instead of her nightshirt and bathrobe.

And if she was going to have strangers in her home fixing things, that meant she’d better move the box containing her illegal endeavors somewhere workers wouldn’t look. She wouldn’t be there to oversee them fixing things, so she wouldn’t know if they were in her room or not. Not that they’d know she wasn’t allowed to take apart the amulets, but it was always better to be safe.

Her Aunt’s house was similar to her’s. It was a tall brick house in the northwest quadrant of Port Drebon. It was too far to walk to school, so Amalia would be renting a coach in the morning. It wasn’t that much of a bother, but she would have to wake up earlier.

Aunt Basileia did not greet her at the door, her butler did. The man looked at her with undisguised disdain.

“Good Evening, m’lady. The lady of the house is currently indisposed. I suggest you come back tomorrow, during the day.”

For goodness’ sake. It was only 9PM. “I’m her niece, Amalia. You met me once before, when I was younger. I wouldn’t impose on you so late at night, but there was an incident at my house. May I speak with her?”

The butler frowned. “I will ask. Wait here.”

Three minutes later, Aunt Basileia appeared at the door, frowning. She had her white hair pulled back in an elaborate bun, and was wearing robes she wouldn’t even consider wearing outside of an incredibly formal occasion.

Such was life with Aunt Basileia.

Most outer robes only went down to the thighs, and lately it was becoming common to wear a thin belt at the waist instead of the the thick wrap that older people wore at the waist, over the outer robes. Aunt Basileia’s robes touched the ground, completely covering her pants. And her cloth wrap covered everything from her ribs down to her hips.

Amalia could only imagine what Aunt Basileia was thinking. Amalia’s trousers were almost completely uncovered, and her whole outfit was less formal than what her Aunt considered acceptable. Honestly, she hadn’t thought to bring any of her formal clothes with her. She figured if she needed them, she could pick them up from the manor.

“Good evening, Amalia. What is this incident that brings you here so late?”

“Black mages attacked my house.”

Aunt Basileia’s eyebrows rose a fraction of an inch. “And this resulted in a desperate need to see your living relations?”

“Going to the manor for the night would be inconvenient, and you did say you wanted me to visit.” Amalia grinned.

“So you plan on imposing on me overnight?”

“With your permission.”

“Well you’re hardly giving me a choice, showing up with your luggage.”

Amalia just smiled.

“Come in then. I’ve been meaning to have a chat with you.”

In this case, a chat meant sitting in Aunt Basileia’s stuffy parlor. She remembered all the rules. She didn’t it until Aunt Basileia sat down, and waited to be served her drinks. Then she made sure to wait until Aunt had taken her first sip before taking her’s. Then there was the obligatory compliments on the decor (it was old and dreadful) and the drinks (too bitter for her taste.) Of course, Aunt Basileia wouldn’t want to hear Amalia’s real opinions, and it’d be rude to voice them, besides.

It was an elaborate dance, and Amalia had mastered it by the time she was a teenager. Once the niceties were finished, they got to the real conversation.

“You almost died.”

“Side effect of being attacked- “

“Twice in the last week, no less.”

Amalia sipped her bitter drink. “I’m aware.”

“Well, at least there’s that. Now explain.”

“Which instance?”

“My niece is not this stupid. She does not pick up books of black magic and take them home with her.”

“Ah.” Amalia played with the rim of her cup. “That.”

“Yes, that.” Aunt Basileia echoed.

“It was one of the few instances where I was offered information on something I’m slightly curious about. The information is scarce, and I had very little time to come to a decision. Were either of those variables altered, I likely wouldn’t have taken the journal.”

Aunt Basileia wasn’t the sort of person to have moral quibbles over whether or not Amalia should be curious about black magic. It was a bit of a relief, actually.

“And in those few minutes you didn’t stop to think of the consequences?”

“I thought the evidence hadn’t been catalogued yet.”

“And you didn’t wonder why the box was in your father’s office to begin with?”

“Not until after. Then I realized the danger I was in.”

“Danger?” Aunt Basileia let out a little laugh. “You are a di Danti. Short of finding you actively practicing black magic over the body of dead child, you are safe. Watchguards can be bought off and documents can be buried.”

“Then why are we having this chat?”

“Your father was not meant to have those documents on his desk.”

Amalia froze, cup halfway to her lips. “Then…”

“Your parents, or more specifically, your mother, has been having your father pull documents from the archives. It’d be no matter, they’d be put back and no one would be any wiser, except the evidence in a high-profile case was found missing and a few days later your father shot and killed a watchguard.”

Amalia set down the cup. “What’s going to happen?”

“Your mother still maintains a fair amount of pull, but the di Danti name has been involved in quite a bit of scandal. Or should I say, your father has been involved in quite a deal of scandal. It’s a miracle we’ve managed to maintain this level of power for this long.”

“Scandal? My father?”

“It’s no matter. Your mother will sort this out. She’s quite good at that. But I’d avoid causing trouble between now and then, otherwise his opposition might gain enough sway to pass the vote of no confidence.”

Amalia paled. They were doing what?

“Why did my father need the journal?”

“Politics. She does someone a favor, and they do her favors in return.”

“So someone needed what’s in that journal? But it’s black magic.”

“I fear for the future of our house, if that’s what you think of first.” Aunt Basileia shook her head, her upper lip curled. “But I highly doubt your mother would do something as risky as giving away information on black magic. She’s not stupid. You won’t be questioned on this, and I don’t see why your mother insists on keeping you ignorant of the world.”

“So you’re going to tell me what’s going on?”

“I won’t say who, only that someone in the family was involved with some disreputable sorts at one point in their life, and your mother kept them out of trouble, on the stipulation that the person keep away from those disreputable sort of people. Otherwise associating with them would be detrimental to her own image, you see.”

“So she suppressed information on their indiscretions, and is using father to keep suppressing the information.”

“Yes. And is making sure that they are keeping up their end of the bargain.”

Amalia sipped her drink, thinking. So someone in the family had been involved in what? Drugs? Adultery? Well, it wasn’t Cousin Francis. He was too much a prig to ever get involved with something as lowbrow as drug addiction, and wasn’t married. Same went for Philomena. Was it someone older? Uncle Lawrence always seemed on top of things, so it probably wasn’t him. Uncle Charles was much too quiet. And…honestly, it was hard to imagine any of them doing anything so…

Oh. Philomena’s mother. She’d left years ago and never returned.

“Wait. Why would information- was Lothar Czako involved in drugs?”

It wasn’t hard imagining Philomena’s mother having an affair, but she couldn’t imagine the woman doing it with someone from Old City. She was much too fancy for that. And a drug addiction? Well, probably not. She always had been a little high strung…

“No, not to my knowledge. And again, I fear for the future of our house. You lack most of the information to solve this little puzzle, and you’ll only come to the wrong conclusions.”

“So you won’t tell me any more?”

“No, to do so would be to defy the Head of House di Danti.”

“And my father… the no confidence ruling. How likely is that?”

“Pike and Pennington and their ilk have been trying to pass that for the last seven years. The Nobles and Judges are split down the middle on the issue, but more of them owe your mother or are too reliant on your mother’s contributions to their businesses to do little more than complain into their tea. As it stands, I doubt anything will come of it.”

Amalia frowned. “Then why tell me at all?”

“Because you need to be aware that your actions have unintended consequences.”

“I see. Aunt, may I ask you a question?”

“If you must.”

“I’ve been doing some research lately, and noticed that the population declined greatly between 874 and 877. Also, there has been a steady decrease in students attending University since 874. Do you know why?”

Aunt Basileia placed her tea on the coffee table, and folded her hands in her lap, staring at Amalia intently.

“How did you learn of this?”

“It’s public record.”

“Well, that’s because it’s no great mystery. There was a great amount of political upheaval at the time. People were in hysterics because of the Harkow Tragedy, of course. And then there were these alarmists spreading all sorts of nonsense. They’d tell everyone that the government was seizing power, and that the old ways were disappearing, all sorts of nonsense. Some of them gained followers, and they had a great number of the lower classes fooled- you know how they can be- so they convinced those people to leave for other countries.”

“And the Universities?”

“A lot of the money allocated to education was moved towards defense.”

“It’s that simple?”

“Yes. Are you disappointed? Did you imagine some great conspiracy?”

“Not-”

“You did. And that is because you are still young and just clever enough to trick yourself into thinking you know better. Most of the time the answer is something mundane and simple, but the grand conspiracy makes for a better story.”

“I hardly would mistake life for a story-”

“It is a failing most people share. We want the things surrounding us to fit in a narrative, and we create patterns where there are none.”

“I know that.”

“Then accept the answer and move on.”

Amalia nodded, and they concluded their chat.

But Amalia wasn’t accepting that answer. Because the books wouldn’t be missing from the libraries, and Aunt Basileia wouldn’t have put down her cup if she didn’t need all her focus to spin it in such a way that Amalia would believe that it was something simple and mundane.

But thinking of it now, asking people who’d lived through the events wasn’t a terrible idea. After class tomorrow, she could ask Uncle Lawrence. After all, he owned the press. He probably had copies of old newspapers. They were required to report the truth in newspapers, so Amalia could probably find out exactly what was going on through him.

Previous | Next

Scene 14: Panic

Previous | Next

The windows weren’t an option. They had bars over them- meant to keep people from getting in- but they also prevented her from getting out. There was no back door.

Fuck. Where was her guard when she needed him? For that matter, where was her guard, period?

A muffled boom outside the house rattled the boxes in the storage room. Right. So she had to, what, hide? That wouldn’t work, would it? She was having a hard time thinking as her breaths came in quicker. Shit. She couldn’t deal with this right now. It was too much, too soon. And this would be just like last time. Trapped. Because she had no where to go.

She was back in the alleyway and the watchguard was glaring at her with dark eyes, gun pointed in her face, shouting- Lothar’s body was on the ground. There were bits of blood- bits of his skull on her face.

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP

Shit. Shit shit shit!

The power’s out and time’s up. They were getting in, now.

Right. The alarm company. They’d be sending a signal to the watchguards. They’d get here in five to seven minutes. And another jolt of panic went through her at the thought of watchguards.

Not this time though, right? She was in her own house. Okay, it’s barely been her house for a week. But still, it was her house. She heard shouts downstairs. Shit she had to move. Now.

Where?

The workshop. She scrambled towards the door of the workshop and shut it behind her, quietly. No need to alert the bastards that she was upstairs. They- she heard two distinct voices, one male and one female- were downstairs, shouting for her to come out. Amalia stepped away from the closed door. It stood to reason that if they could blow up the front door, they could blow up the flimsy interior door as well, and she didn’t want to be standing right infront of it when that happened.

And then what? She’d be trapped like a rat. She was in a room with one exit and that would be the one the burglars (kidnappers?) would be coming through.

Stop it. She had soldering tools, sharp tools and heavy equipment in here. Not to mention her new amulet, still clenched in her fist. This wasn’t like last time. This was her workshop, her turf, not some back alley in the middle of a foreign city. She wasn’t half deaf and concussed this time.

She grabbed her original defensive amulet- and fumbled because her hands were shaking so hard- and put it around her neck. Moderate protection. She at least knew its limits, and she hadn’t let it leave her side or go uncharged since the parade.

So she had to hold back two, at the very least, bad-tempered black mages who were attempting to either burglarize her house, kidnap her, or murder her. And she had to keep them held off for the seven minutes it’d take for the watchguards to get here. Another jolt of panic- fine. Forget the watchguards. Help was arriving in seven minutes.

Now how was she going to do it?

Her soldering iron was sitting on her desk, next to some scrap metal, heavy leather gloves, blueprints, and her magnifying glass. Useless, unless she wanted some expensive blunt instruments. She could start up the soldering iron. It’d leave some nasty burns, but she’d have to get in real close.

There was a tank of argon-helium gases in the corner, an extra she had been planning to bring to the shop at University. But the argon-helium mixture was used in welding precisely because it was inert. It wouldn’t explode. Sure, it was heavy, but it wouldn’t do real damage, and it wasn’t like she could lift it and swing it around.

Oh who was she kidding? She couldn’t do this.

But she reached into the tray where she kept the charged crystals and replaced the crystal in her new amulet- the offensive blaster- anyway. Two to three shots and it was out of juice, at least by her calculations. She wasn’t taking the risk.

Her hands were shaking- how was she supposed to aim like this? and really the suspense was the worst part. She could hear him or her walking up the steps slowly, each step creaking with every step.

Stairs.

Fuck it.

She wasn’t waiting in her workshop to die. She was a di Danti.

She ripped open the door as the mage- it was the man- reached the top of the stairs. His face widened in surprise, and he lifted his gun as she practically charged at him down the hallway. He fired twice- her amulet absorbed the shots-

And she fired the amulet. Twice. He was just out of range for the first shot and only stumbled, grabbing for the handrail. She didn’t give him the chance.

He flew backwards with a shout, and hit the slanted ceiling so hard he bounced before dropping and tumbling down the steps.

She froze at the top of the stairs, staring down.

That was how it went, right? People died because of her. Because, fuck, he wasn’t moving.

The woman’s inhuman shriek… goggle boy’s screaming and she wanted to step forward and help him, because he was what, fourteen at most? What was he even doing here?

But she stopped. She was at the top of her steps and a dead body was at the bottom. And it was a woman screaming, a burglar or would be kidnapper, not goggle boy. Just a momentary hallucination. No big deal.

The woman had brown hair and ran to the man’s prone form. She looked up at Amalia, face twisting into an expression of hatred. Amalia didn’t wait for the woman to start chasing her, she turned around and ran into her workshop.

“Wobbie scum! I’ll slit your throat!” The woman’s shriek followed her up the steps. Amalia slammed the door behind her and grabbed for another crystal. She needed her amulet at full strength. Both of them. The tray with the crystals dropped to the ground and she almost screamed in frustration.

She heard gunshots from downstairs.

The watchguards were already here? It hadn’t been seven minutes. She knew that for sure.

Amalia grabbed the crystals off the floor and quickly replaced the ones in her defensive and blasting amulets. She turned to the bookcase. With luck the man had been the one with the explosives. If she could move the bookcase in front of the door, maybe that’d hold her off for a minute.

There was the woman’s muffled laughter downstairs and more gunshots. The watchguards were shouting in alarm and one of them was screaming. Amalia redoubled her efforts, but the bookcase was heavy.

Which was the whole point. Was there some kind of leverage she could use?

And up until this point, she hadn’t even considered that the watchguards could lose. Because it sounded like they were losing and there was another room-shaking explosion. Alright. The woman was the powerhouse between the two of them, because she obviously had her own amulet and some way of setting off explosions- and how was she doing that? Amalia hadn’t seen any packages on her, nothing large enough to be explosives.

There couldn’t be anything up her sleeves because that woman wasn’t even wearing sleeves- her arms were bare and covered in tattoos. And Amalia hadn’t gotten a close look, but they almost looked like whorls etched into her skin.

Huh. Now, how would that even work? Unless, well, they were probably decorative. But maybe she had hidden crystals down her back? But that’d burn her skin, probably. How much heat would that give off? An explosive powerful enough to… Wrong time wrong place, brain.

The bookcase had barely even moved. Fine. She couldn’t do that. And it was pointless anyway because the black mage was capable of making or using explosives, so it wouldn’t make a difference.

And Amalia stood there. Blasting amulet raised, for all the help it would do her, waiting. The sounds of the fight stopped, and she waited.

There were footsteps on the stairs again, and Amalia swallowed. Could her defensive amulet even take a hit from explosives powerful enough to take out her security system and blast in her front door? Probably. Three hits, at most. She kept her eye on the door, and reached down grabbing another crystal from the fallen tray. Could she replace it fast enough? Depended on the woman. How fast was she able to fire again?

But she’d taken down at least three watchguards. Shit. She wasn’t making it out of this.

“Ma’am?” A distinctly male voice.

“Yes?”

“Are you alright in there? This is the Port Drebon Watchguards. The threats have been neutralized. It’s safe to come out now.”

“I’m fine.” Said her mouth. She thought her voice cracked on the last word.

“Can you open the door?”

And that’s when she realized her illegal research was covering her desk and she had used an experimental, illegal weapon to defend herself.

“One moment.” She said, and then quickly amended. “I’ll need some identification. Proof you’re who you say you are.” First it was good practice, and second she needed to hide this shit.

“Alright ma’am. I’ll slide it under the door.”

Amalia snatched up the blueprints and the scrap metal, quickly dropping it into the box next to the desk. It was still out from when she’d been unpacking her soldering equipment.

“Are you alright, ma’am? I heard some noise. My papers are right there.” The identification papers were slid through the gap underneath the door.

“I- slipped. I’m fine.” She tossed the three broken amulets, partially completed defensive amulet, and the completed blaster amulet, into the box and shut it, grabbing some books from the shelf and stacking them on top of the box.

Then she picked up the papers and glanced through them.

James Milligan, Watchguard. They looked legitimate.

She held them under the light, checking for the faint watermark and the smaller signifiers that it was genuine and not a forgery.

Amalia opened the door.

The watchguard had his helmet off, and she was staring into the eyes of the blonde watchguard, pointing the gun-

“Ma’am? Ma’am!”

Amalia found herself leaning against the doorframe, sweating and shaking.

“Sorry. I-” She looked up at him and felt a wave of nausea. …bits of skull… She looked back down at the floor. “Bit shaken up.”

“It’s fine, ma’am. You’ve been through a traumatizing experience. Your father has been alerted and is on his way.”

“They’re dead?” She asked, staring at her feet. They were in slippers, still. She’d never really put on any real clothes today- just a loose nightshirt and a robe. Hadn’t felt up to it.

“The female is. The man knocked his head pretty hard, but you don’t need to worry. He’s been sedated and is on his way to the Port Drebon Watchguard Station. They’ll find out what-”

“James you need to get down here!” A voice from downstairs. Another watchguard.

“What is it?” James the watchguard shouted back. He turned to Amalia. “Just wait here, alright?”

Amalia nodded, still looking anywhere but at him.

“He’s going into…”

And she wasn’t taking orders. Not today. She edged down the stairs, prepared to run back up if anything even looked remotely dangerous. The site that greeted her at the bottom of the stairs wasn’t pretty.

The man, the black mage, was convulsing. The watchguards standing over him were cursing.

“…second one this week!”

And all she could think was how convenient it was, that this man was dying. Because now she wouldn’t get in trouble for the experimental amulets.

The black mage on the ground was choking on the air like he was having an asthma attack. His eyes rolled back in his head and he stilled. Amalia looked away. The woman was lying in the remains of her front door. The tattoos were whorls. She wished she had an eidetic memory, because she desperately wanted to study those arms. She didn’t recognize any of the whorls, but she was too far away to actually see anything. Still, where did she hide the crystals?

She surreptitiously studied the woman from the stairs. No abnormal bumps or anything. Of course, she could be lying on top of them.

Amalia gripped the bannister, mouth dry. Watchguards were everywhere.

“Ma’am, you need to leave.” The man’s voice fuzzed off into static. She was sweating again and she could see Lothar’s shattered skull and the barrel of the gun, light glinting off the watchguard’s armplates. And he was telling her to get on the ground, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t move and stars he was going to kill her and there was nothing she could do. Couldn’t fight, couldn’t run, and all the adrenaline rushing through her system wasn’t making one bit of a difference. They wouldn’t believe her.

“…probably shell shock. I heard a rumor she was at the parade. It’s not uncommon. Sometimes people never recover, they can’t handle the stress.” Said a woman’s voice. A watchguard. Amalia realized she was slumped against the bannister, shaking.

She walked down the last two steps with all the grace she could muster, hiding her shaking hands in her pockets.

The watchguards got her coldest stare. “Di Danti’s do not suffer from common mental illnesses.”

“I apologize, m’lady. But if you are, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” said the Watchguard. Her male partner nodded.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

The watchguards looked skeptical. She felt a small ball of anger roar into an inferno.

“Do you realize how much damage they did to my house? I’ve barely lived here a week and they’ve managed to destroy the front door. And that couch- the one covered in blood and dust- that’s from the villa in Pankhurst. It’s been in my family for four generations. And that rug that you’re stepping on with your bloody boots? That’s almost five hundred years old. How am I supposed to explain this to my Head of House, my mother?”

“I’m very sorry, m’lady.”

“Yes, well, your ‘sorry’ does little to repair my priceless furniture, so pardon me if I ignore it.” She gave them a withering look. The watchguards flinched.

“I’ll be in my quarters. Alert me when my father arrives. Expect to have words with him.” And with that she marched back upstairs and into her room, shutting the door behind her.

Her face crumpled, and she slid down to the wooden floor, shaking. She was fine. She was fine. It would be fine. She clenched her hands into fists. She’d fought them off, right? She’d survived. Again. When she thought she was two seconds away from death. She’d done it.

Her breath came out in harsh pants. This wasn’t- why was she even in the city? Why had she even wanted this?

What was worth getting attacked in your home and-

Fuck.

She dropped her head back, leaning her weight against the solid wall. Slowly, her fists uncurled, and her palms stung from where her nails dug into the flesh. Her ankle was starting to throb again. The pain had been forgotten in the excitement and now she was feeling it.

And she’d acted like an asshole to those watch- those people. The ones who’d helped her, who probably weren’t like the watchguards from- she focused on the ground beneath her and her breathing, slow and steady.

She’d just have to avoid that word from now on. It seemed to trigger the, the shell shock. If that was even what was wrong with her.

Di Danti’s didn’t get that, did they? And if they did, they certainly couldn’t let people go about telling other people. It’d spread and everyone would think she was weak, like her mother said.

People don’t think you’re like them when you display anything less than your best. They think you’re weak, they think they can step on you, that they can take advantage.

So people couldn’t know. And her mother couldn’t know, because Amalia’d already embarrassed her enough. And her father would just worry himself needlessly, because what could he do? She was pretty sure there weren’t doctors for this kind of thing.

She let out a soft breath. So she’d keep away from certain words, and she’d keep doing the breathing exercises.

And it’d probably go away. She couldn’t imagine people living like this for years. And even the watchguard said that only some people suffer from it for long periods of time, right?

And she certainly wasn’t weak in the mind, so that was unlikely to happen to her. She’d be fine. She’d deal with it, and it’d go away. And then things would go back to normal.

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Scene 13: Jeopardy

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Amalia sat at her workbench surrounded by five brand-new protection amulets. She’d bought them on her way back from school, after meeting the woman from the library. She’d consulted her new guard- she really needed to learn the poor man’s name- on where to find shops selling magical machines. The amulets themselves ended up not being that expensive, but the crystals that powered them were. Luckily, she had a few extra crystals on hand at the apartment, and she didn’t have to buy the crystals with the amulets; they were sold separately.

She was still reveling in the joy of having her own allowance. Back at home her mother had final say on all purchases, and while mother wasn’t awful about it, she didn’t approve of Amalia buying things just to break them.

And that was exactly what she was going to do. She was going to take apart these amulets and figure out how they work.

By law, taking apart the amulets was illegal. People were not allowed to alter machines once they bought them, and taking it apart to see how it works with the intention of building a better version was especially illegal. However this crime paled in comparison to stealing a book of black magic. Getting caught making her own protective amulet only amounted to a small fine, and no one would smear Amalia’s reputation for it.

She could just attempt to make her own from scratch, but that was a monumental task that would take months, not days. And she wanted this made soon. Being potentially involved with a spy and/or aware of a conspiracy meant that she needed better protection. Well, not really. It seemed that even ordinary citizens needed powerful protection amulets if they wanted to traverse the city safely.

And besides, the law prohibiting the modification of magical machines was idiotic. She would have to have a specific license in addition to her current Engimancy license to be able to take these apart. She’d briefly entertained just getting the additional license, but the paperwork took months to process and required the applicant to have five years of experience in the industry, and sign non disclosure agreements, and she would have to work for one of the companies that make the amulets, and she would have to have that company’s written permission, as well as send in paperwork detailing what she planned on changing with regards to that amulet… it went on and on.

It was obscenely frustrating and obnoxious.

She didn’t see how those laws could benefit engimancers or the people who need protection amulets. It wasn’t like she was planning on selling her modified amulets to anyone, so she wouldn’t be stealing a profit from the companies who made them. And no other products were treated quite like magical machines were- no one cared if you tore out pages in your own books or modified your own clothing. It was a stupid set of laws.

Oh well, time to break some pointless, unnecessary laws for the sake of her protection.

She picked up the first amulet. It was oval, with a small latch on the front that clasped shut. The small hatch contained the socket that usually housed the crystal.There were no screws or anything else that would make it easy to open. Which shouldn’t surprise her because no one wanted it to be opened.

The socket’s edge wasn’t soldered to the main case, so she used a thin metal lever to pop it out. Something made a nasty cracking noise as she applied force to it. Oh well, that was why she bought five. She could sort out how to open it without damaging it once she’d seen the insides.

With the socket removed she could see that the back of the crystal socket was soldered to the first disc. Well, that was inconvenient.

Opening the actual casing took a bit of effort. She pried it open where the chain connecting the top top of the amulet looped through a small metal piece. There was a small gap between the two pieces of metal that cased the amulet’s innards.

The whole thing popped open, revealing a mesh of wires and thin discs surrounded by a thin plastic coating that prevented the wires from making contact with the metal casing. The wire mesh surrounded three slim discs separated by thin sheets of plastic.

She cut the wire mesh- which likely carried out the function of aiming the protective barrier- so she could get to the discs. The top disc had metal whorls pressed into its surface, forming a complicated pattern that was almost beautiful in its complexity.

Each whorl carried out some function. As an engimancer, she studied how magic was bent into different forms by different kinds of whorls, and then used that knowledge to design magical machines like these amulets.

Amalia's amulet

At first glance she could already recognize a few pieces of the puzzle. A large swirl next to a double bond of wire with three lines leading in from the other side that meant this piece would send the magic out of the front disc into the next disc.

The front piece basically functioned as a sieve pulling energy from the crystal to different parts of the machine. It looked like the wire mesh sent the magic out of the amulet in a pulse.

She gently separated the discs from the plastic. Holes had been cut in the thin sheets of plastic so the specific pieces could communicate. It was very sloppy work overall. They had tried to squeeze in whatever they could onto the disc, and a few of the whorls were sloppy molded.

And with parts of it– it was impossible to figure out what they were trying to do. Half of the third disc wasn’t even hooked up to the power crystal. She groaned and dropped her head into her hands. She sincerely hoped her own amulet wasn’t so shitty. It was a premium model, so it shouldn’t be, but the seller in the shop assured her that these were good models as well.

The whole point of this exercise, of course, was to see how she could improve it, and to do that she needed to know what each whorl did. So she took out a piece of paper and wrote down all the functional whorls she could recognize. Then she drew the ones she didn’t, annotating their positions on the discs.

A few of the ones she didn’t know were found in her textbooks. About eight or so were unknown to her.

But that was why she bought extra amulets.

She used a small tool to remove one of the unknown whorls and see what happens. Basically, it was a simple experiment. Remove one variable and see what changes. It should give her an idea how that whorl functioned.

She reconnected all the pieces using straight wire, because straight wires do not influence the form of the magic.

And then she moved the butchered amulet to the extra room. The room was used for storage and served as a charging station for the crystals. Every night before bed she’d put the crystals from the security system into the rack under the skylight. Then she’d replace all the crystals.

In this case, since she didn’t know what was going to happen with the whorl missing from the protective amulet, so she took the rack of crystals down from the skylight where they were charging and put them in the hall outside. She’d put them back later.

Amalia put a small crystal in the socket to the amulet and set it in the center of the room. Then she stepped away.

Standing at the doorway to the room, Amalia took a small rhasi from her pocket, and hurled the coin at the amulet. The wire mesh flashed and the coin hurtled straight back at her. She squeaked, jerking out of the way as the coin embedding itself in the ceiling.

Well, then.

After that, she used the door as a shield.

Eight long hours and two more holes in the wall (she’d put boards over the skylight and window after the first hit. No need to explain broken glass to her father,) she had down how two of the eight unknown whorls worked. She’d skipped dinner and worked on through the night. It wasn’t like she would be able to sleep anyway, so why keep up the pretense?

The third unknown whorl remained a mystery until she’d fired multiple coins at the amulet while walking towards it. It turned out, unknown whorl three, four, and five controlled whether or not it stopped slow moving objects instead of only stopping fast moving objects. She’d ended up being able to make it repel still objects.

And by that she means she got the amulet to float. It was probably the most interesting thing she’d done. Ever.

At that point, she was bored of repetitive tests. So she decided to fiddle with the wire mesh that was supposed to go around the disc.

It was made of whorls of metal, only they were spread out differently in three-dimensional space instead of flat on a planar surface. It made them more difficult and annoying to work with, but allowed for more combinations.

Two more hours and her eyes were blurring from exhaustion.

But as she sat at her desk at five in the morning, as the first brush of dawn colored the sky gray, she understood why no one wanted people to be able to take these apart without a license.

A few changes and her amulet could become a weapon. She could make it fire bullets back at someone. She could send out a wave of force that could probably knock someone off their feet. Granted, she’d need a bigger crystal if she wanted to do that, and even with a bigger crystal, she’d still only get maybe two good shots out of the deal, but it was better than nothing. And, okay, knocking someone back- at most- two feet wasn’t really a powerful weapon, but still.

Her head felt fuzzy and her tongue felt like sandpaper in her mouth. She’d think more in the morning. Afternoon. Later.

And as she got ready for bed, her brain started sketching the schematics for one that could, maybe, punch a hole in someone’s chest. Or in a wall. She could concentrate the power into one small fist-sized punch. Not that she wanted to punch a hole through someone’s chest. Like, there were plenty of legitimate uses for such a design. Demolition, maybe?

And most people didn’t want to put holes in people’s chests anyway. The whole license thing was really frustrating. If she just used the amulet and never checked out the insides, she’d be using a shitty product that would probably burn out due to inefficient heat distribution in, what, a year? How were consumers supposed to know the product that they’re buying is even capable of doing what it says it does? And she guessed there were laws preventing companies from abusing that. Probably. Because she couldn’t imagine the government could be that irresponsible.

And it’s not like the majority of people knew how to tell the difference between one functional whorl and the next, either. Most people were completely ignorant of how magic works. Like how people think doctors can make you grow extra limbs, or how some people believe magic can summon lindworms from the abyss. Half of it’s ignorance and the other half is sheer stupidity.

She flopped face down onto her bed.

But on the other hand, with the license system was in place, you had a dedicated force of people you knew weren’t going to turn the amulets into weapons. And they could check the quality of the products. It could just be that there weren’t enough licensed practitioners around to meet the demand. And those people were checked every year, so the public could feel safe knowing the engimancers weren’t turning amulets into hidden magical revolvers or something stupid like that. Whatever. She was too tired to do this anymore.


 

She slept for maybe three hours before she woke up panting, covered in cold sweat. Images were on replay behind her eyelids. Lothar’s skull, the clumps of brain matter… chunk of hair on the ground– she turned over and retched onto the floor.

After, she lay on the bed, legs tangled in the sweaty sheets, staring at her dresser. Breathe in, breathe out. Focus on the sensations around you. The pungent odor of the sick, the stale smell of sweat over spicy wood. She was fine. She’d make an amulet with a better crystal system- it’d last longer and protect her thoroughly, and then she wouldn’t have to feel like that again.

Twenty minutes later found Amalia sipping well-earned tea in the kitchen. She’d cleaned up her sick (which was potentially the most disgusting thing she’d ever done and the smell almost made her gag again) and then took a shower. She was starting to feel human again. Today was her day off class, so it wasn’t like she had to keep a schedule. If she got tired again, she’d just take a nap.

She ate food, alleviating the headache,- she probably should have eaten dinner last night- and then went back to work.

Amulets four and five were in one piece, and she could make, maybe if she was lucky, two different kinds of amulets. She had an idea of one that would knock someone off their feet. Offensive, but not lethal. That design was the easy one- at least, compared to the defensive model she had in mind.

First she sketched the designs out on paper, she needed to figure out how to incorporate her edits. Then came the calculations. The casing didn’t support a larger crystal, so she would have to improvise. She didn’t want this to be noticeably different from a normal amulet.

So she was taking the front panel and crystal socket from the first amulet she’d experimented on- the front disc had cracked but the casing and socket were still in good shape- and she could just solder the two front pieces together. That should theoretically give her twice the original power. It wouldn’t sit flat on her chest, because the cover to the second socket would make the back uneven, but it was just a small detail that few would ever notice.

However, that solution created a whole new host of problems. The first disc handled power distribution, and was facing the original crystal socket. The secondary socket was on the opposite side.

Usually a metal bracket wrapped around the crystal inside the socket, and was pressed into the first disc. She couldn’t do that with the the second crystal socket, so she’d clip the bottom of the second crystal’s socket to a wire and run it to the front. Of course, she’d need to insulate it from the casing and the wire mesh that wraps around the discs. It was going to be sloppy. She grimaced.

And you know what really annoyed her? They used the cheapest possible metal, which would warp if the magic power was increased. And of course, since form equals function, that would destroy the function amulet. So she was going to have to replace some of the metal whorls on the disc, and put converters into the areas she didn’t need to change, so no one area got overloaded.

Those changes wouldn’t take up too much room, thank goodness, and her tools were high quality so she could make more delicate, smaller whorls than they did, which would take up less space. And she wouldn’t need anymore wire, because all she needed was the standard wire she kept on hand for her experiments. The soldering iron was still packed with the other engimancy gear, so she’d have to dig all of that out.


 

The dics ended up being an utter mess. She couldn’t spread the converters out, so they popped out of the discs instead. Re-doing the whorls on the discs in her own metal was tedious at best, and frustrating at worst. They were small, so to curl them properly, she had to use specialized tools to grip the metal and had to view them through a magnifying glass. Using it for too long made her eyes ache. Well, that probably had more to do with using it all last night and not sleeping much.

Then there was the issue with second crystal socket: she’d had to re-arrange the wire mesh to accommodate it.

The whorls in the mesh were significantly more complicated and difficult to work with than those on flat discs, and several times she almost threw her tools down and called it a day- just trash the whole project. It wasn’t worth it.

Fuck it. She got this far, she wasn’t giving up now.

So instead, she got creative. She couldn’t re-bend everything into the proper shapes, and wouldn’t even know where to begin with that, so she cut the mesh of one of the amulets in half and replaced the back half of the mesh with the front half from the other one. It was just one big repeating pattern, anway. And while the protection would be weaker to attacks from directly above or to the sides, it would still offer more protection than the original, and the overall effect would be the same. Before she put the casing on– and that meant reconfiguring the casing and still wasn’t entirely sure how she was going to do that, because the two front pieces didn’t really fit together properly–

But before she even bothered with the casing, because that was a whole other beast entirely at this point, and she was having a sinking feeling that this wouldn’t end up looking like the original as much as she wanted… she needed to test the device to make sure it worked as intended.

So she tossed a rhasi at the machine from her position behind the door, just in case she miscalculated something.

It sailed past the amulet, unhindered. The amulet sparked with white sparks twice before shuddering to a stop. A faint curl of smoke drifted up from the discs. She waited another minute, just to be safe, and went to the center of the room to pick it up.

The wood beneath the amulet was black, with thin lines- almost like veins- leading away from the amulet. What the heck?

It didn’t make sense. It should have worked. It really should have worked. She stomped over to the amulet and took out the crystals. Both were entirely drained. What did they do, drop all their power into the floor?

The veins on the floor were, well, incredibly creepy. Great. Now she’d need to find a rug to cover the floor in addition to a couple small paintings to cover the holes in the wall. Father likely wouldn’t check the ceiling, so she wouldn’t worry about that one.

She put the two used crystals on the rack in the hallway- she’d put it back after she was done.

Back in her workshop, she put aside the defensive amulet. Fuck it. She just just needed a break, and after lunch she could work on the offensive amulet. Her first experiment with the whorls got her relatively close to what she wanted, anyway. She’d need to tweak the outer wire mesh and play with a few whorls, but it wouldn’t be nearly as complicated as the defensive amulet, since she wasn’t planning on giving it a secondary crystal. And she’d get to play with new whorls, which were always more fun to experiment with than ones she already knew.

After lunch found her frowning over the wire mesh. She wanted to focus all the energy out the front of the amulet, not dispersed around the person it protected.

Some time later, she wasn’t really keeping track anymore, she came up with an idea and fixed it.

So now she had to test it. She filled one of her boxes with books off her bookshelf and other heavy items. A person was what? 130-200 lbs? This was close enough. And she was really hoping nothing caught on fire. She liked her books.

She flung a coin at it, and the coin sailed past the amulet (as intended), and the amulet fired a pulse of energy at the box, knocking it back a couple feet. YES!

She grinned, elated. Yes, yes yes! She did it!

Amalia makes the amulet

But that wasn’t the end to the tests. Next she put the amulet in the middle of several boxes, because she wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t firing off energy towards, say, the person that was holding it or innocent bystanders.

But it turned out she did it right. It worked. It really worked.

She smiled so wide it hurt her cheeks. This? This was a high. This was the best feeling in the world. She created something new, something that worked.

Now she had to make it so it operated on the press of a button, which should be significantly less difficult than anything she did so far. She just cut out the disc controlling the detector- the part that detected whether or not an object was coming towards the amulet- and she didn’t have any scrap metal, so she’d just need to make it so the crystal itself acted as an on switch.

Two springs and a couple small pieces of plastic, and a small chain later (taken from one of the other amulets), and she had a functioning button.

The casing needed to be soldered together, because right now she was just keeping it together with-

A loud buzzing filled the townhouse, interrupting her thoughts.

What?

It sounded like the alarm to the aegis security system, the alarm that indicates a break in. But why…?

And then it hit her. Usually she charged the aegis crystals before she went to bed. So the aegis had been operating on backup power.

And now that power was failing.

Someone was getting in.

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Scene 12: Gamble

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Oh, so you don’t want to think about it because it makes you uncomfortable?”


6th of Faquar, 11,901

Amalia arrived to class twenty minutes early. She wanted to make sure she’d budgeted enough time to get there, and she didn’t want anyone to see her limping into the room. Her ankle still ached so her guard had ordered a carriage to take her to class. She hadn’t realized you could order one on such short notice. At the very least, her old guard Oslin hadn’t.

Either way, it saved her the embarrassment of limping into class. She’d worn long sleeves to covered the scratches on her arms, and replaced the large bandage on her cheek with a much smaller one. It was only a graze, really. She could only imagine how terrible she looked yesterday, walking into the library like that. No wonder they hadn’t wanted to help her.

Of the seven people attending her ethics class only two besides her were here. They’d come in after her, which was a relief. Di Dantis did not show weakness. The people in this class would be her peers, and she wanted to impress them.

Classes were every other day, so she didn’t have math today. She’d have to apologize to Professor Hall tomorrow. The professor was her math teacher and in charge of her project. She really didn’t want to get on the woman’s bad side.

One of her two new classmates was a stranger. He was a tall boy with light brown hair. He was skimming his text and not speaking to anyone. She wanted to introduce herself, but she wasn’t sure he was interested in socializing.

The other student was Lucilia Sinclair. Amalia knew her from social gatherings when they were children. Her great-uncle was a Judge a long time ago who was assassinated by black mages. She remembered learning about him when she was a child. Lucilia and Amalia were never very close, though they were polite.

She and Lucilia didn’t have much to say to each other either, so Amalia took out the newspaper. She’d deliberately avoided reading it at breakfast for this very reason. She wanted something to do before class started. Now, however, Amalia was wondering if that was a good idea.

Yesterday’s newspaper mentioned that day, and she’d subsequently felt ill. Her hands started getting clammy. She couldn’t do that in front of Lucilia. The girl would tell everyone, and then they’d all know there was something wrong with her.

Focus on breathing. The air went through her nostrils and her chest expanded, taking in the air before expelling it again. She was safe. There was nothing wrong. She was fine.

And she was reading the damn paper.

The front page story was on Chief Investigator Boswell. He’d gone missing the day of the parade and hadn’t been seen since. Officials were offering rewards for information on his whereabouts. There was even speculation that the explosion at the parade was just a distraction to prevent people from paying attention to the real operation.

Amalia knew that was untrue. She never told her father that the boy and old man behind it looked to be Lothar’s family. It hadn’t occurred to her at the time to say something. She wanted to, but her father would probably just yell at her again and say she should’ve told him in the first place. It was true. She should’ve said something.

Now the papers were misinformed.

The next section was about the parade. There were various witness accounts. Amalia skipped it. She didn’t want to read any of that- she’d been there and knew what had happened. She quickly switched to the next section before her brain could remind her exactly what had happened.

It was another article on Pankhurst. Part of the city was still underwater from the tsunami. Amalia skimmed the rest. It was terrible, but not really that interesting. Her parents would donate money and that would help the relief effort along. There really wasn’t much else to be done.

She skimmed over the rest of the articles. There was a piece on rising criminality in the city, another piece about a man found dead in the Cyremont River. Nothing she felt like reading first thing in the morning.

She set the paper down and dug through the bag for paper and her pen. Her Aunt Basileia sent a note this morning requesting her presence for tea at earliest convenience, which meant Amalia had better write back soon and tell her Aunt when they could meet. No doubt Aunt Basileia found out about Amalia’s antics with either the journal or the parade, or worse, both, and wanted to spend tea scolding Amalia for her behavior.

She was leaning on setting the date for tomorrow to get it over with, but she really didn’t want to go to her Aunt’s house with a limp. The woman would be livid.

Maybe her Aunt had helped cover up what Amalia had done with the journal. But then again, she doubted her mother wanted to deal with Aunt Basileia, either. Of course, if her mother just blackmailed people into silence, they’d still know she did something wrong, and Amalia would likely never raise herself to a position of power within the Department of Magics. Well, not unless the people who knew were old. Then Amalia might get in when she’s 50 and the current people who know are dead. She grimaced.

The door opened and four students followed the Professor into the classroom.

They must’ve stayed outside to chat instead of coming in. It really was no matter. They were all people she knew from her mother’s social circles. Amalia glanced over at the stranger again. It was like being a child all over again, meeting someone her age that she’d never seen before.

Everyone stood to greet the professor. He nodded and they sat down.

Professor Hargrave was a middle aged man with a wide girth. He did not appreciate students who socialized in his class, and anyone who spoke out of turn was to leave, immediately. Amalia internally groaned. It was like her Aunt Basileia all over again.

“The main issue we will deal with today is intent.” He began, glaring at them as though to dare them not to take notes. “The intent to commit a criminal act, which in itself is a crime, is considered…”

Amalia glanced over at the wooden desk next to her’s, where Honorius Pheidias was sitting. She couldn’t remember if they were related or not. She’d memorized her family tree years ago, but hadn’t really paid attention to much outside the main branch, but she knew there were di Dantis who married into the Pheidias family. It was especially embarrassing because she couldn’t remember how closely Honorius was related to Harriet Pheidias, who was another Judge who’d been assassinated. It happened before she was born, but she really should remember.

To her right was the window, looking out over the campus. There was a small grassy area surrounded by a cobblestone pathway. Amalia drew her attention back to the professor. He didn’t seem like the sort to suffer daydreamers in his class.

“A license, of course, indicates that someone has intent to use their knowledge for legitimate purposes. While a failure to be screened indicates that they are hiding criminal intent. Now, I know this seems basic to all of you, but I want us to be on the same page as we move forward.”

It annoyed her, lectures like this. Not because what he said held no logic, but because it implied that doing something criminal, even once, made someone a bad person. She’d made mistakes. Did that make her some kind of horrible person who needed to be arrested? She didn’t think so. Then again, criminals always found excuses for their behavior.

If someone looked at the consequences of her actions- according to the law,- they’d see she stole a evidence, interfered with an active investigation, prevented the carriage of justice, and aided in the escape of two wanted criminals.

But in all those cases, she hadn’t meant any harm. She never meant to harm anyone.

“…with Black Mages is the corruption they spread. Take for example the West Drebon St. Parade Bombers, Bennett Miller and Harvey Kane, featured in yesterday’s paper. The Black Mage Lothar raised Kane, who became a Black Mage himself. It spreads from person to person like a disease. And if you doubt it, you need look no further than Bennett Miller, whose brother was one of the infamous Old City Bridge Bombers. Whether Adam corrupted Bennett or vice versa is merely semantics at this juncture…”

It really happened, didn’t it? The bombing was real. She felt a thin sheen of sweat breaking out on her temples. She wasn’t doing this in class, not in front of all these people. Think about her breathing. The wooden chair was under her, Lothar was lying on the ground, skull shattered, the wooden floor was beneath her feet and in her hand was her favorite fountain pen, the one with the golden cap that her father gave her for her fifteenth birthday. She breathed out through her nose.

She was okay. It was fine.

Her hand was shaking so she put the pen down, dropping it beneath her desk. If she looked like she wasn’t paying attention, fine. She wasn’t. She couldn’t if he was going to keep talking about that.

She waited for her hand to stop shaking and picked up the pen again, and flipped to a different page in her notebook. It’d look like she was writing down notes, if she just wrote down ideas on her project. She didn’t have any of her notes with her, so she’d be working from memory.

She frowned a little. She really didn’t want to work on that right now. Well, there was something she’d been considering since that day.

Amalia could try to make a better version of the amulets. The only reason she hadn’t before was because of intent. She didn’t have the proper licenses to legally take apart amulets and fiddle with their insides, but getting fined was nothing compared to getting killed, so she was looking into it, anyway.

And maybe this wasn’t the right thing to do, because her last attempts at fixing problems ended in disaster. But this was something she could do, something she could solve. The rest of it was a morass of unanswered questions and things she didn’t want to think about. Creating a better amulet would make her feel safer, and it would make other people safer, too.

She could give the blueprints to her father or to her mother and see that they would be given to the authorities to make the streets safer.

Another part of her remarked that she was always looking for a large and quick way of patching over her mistakes, like this one grand gesture would clear her name of any wrongdoing. But she really couldn’t see anything wrong with that, specifically, only that her father would tell her to stop rushing things.

But so long as the scales were even between her and her mother, what did it matter how it was done? And making the amulet would probably be a net gain, and if it didn’t work there was nothing lost. Her mother could change the wording of the questions in Compulsion loyalty screenings, so she was pretty safe as far as that went.

Amalia shifted her notes over slightly, taking them out of the teacher’s line of sight. She didn’t think the older man could see what she was writing from the second row of seats. Charlotte Larsen was sitting in front of her, and the girl had curly brown hair that was always sticking up. It provided adequate cover. But it was better to be cautious.

Charlotte was like Jeptha- a commoner family that was friends with nobles and traveled in the same social circles. The Larsen’s were involved in the imports business, and had branched out into selling inks and chlorine. Amalia’s mother did a deal with them just last year, which was why she knew. Amalia had to sit through all the meetings, because her mother wanted her to be prepared to take on the position of Head of House as Amalia got older, and part of that was managing the business.

It was part of why Amalia really didn’t want to have to wait until she was 50 to gain any recognition in the Department of Magics, because she probably would have to work as Head of House full-time and quit her job by that time. She loved that she was a di Danti, but sometimes she really hated the responsibility that came with it.

Between sketching ideas down for how amulets might work, from the likely to the fanciful, and jotting down a few reminders about things she needed to check for her project, class passed quickly.

When it was over, she hung back. Partly that was because she wanted as few students as possible to see her limping, and she especially didn’t want Lucilia Sinclair to see, and partly because she wanted to speak to her professor.

Once Gillian Burns, (the great-grandson of Lord Burns,) and Friedwald Annesley, (who she might also be related to,) left the room, Amalia started limping up to Professor Hargrave’s desk.

“Hello Professor Hargrave. I’m Amalia di Danti, heir to House di danti.”

“I know who you are, Ms di Danti.” The man gave her an irritable scowl.

“I’m sorry, sir. I was in an accident the other day, you see…”

“Your mother sent a note explaining that you might have difficulty paying attention because of your injuries. I know. You do not need to explain.”

Amalia opened her mouth and then shut it. Really, he was being entirely rude and she didn’t even know what to say to that kind of behavior.

“Was there something you wanted, Ms di Danti?”

“Actually, yes. I have a question, if it isn’t too much trouble, sir.”

“Ask away.” He looked like he’d rather be doing anything else.

“Well, I was curious about admissions, and how they’ve changed over the years with accordance to ethical standards. Have there been any major shifts from students choosing apprenticeships over universities because of it, sir?” She hoped that was sufficiently vague.

The man frowned. “Well, there have been updates to our admission requirements, but I really don’t see why you need to know that. And as far as I know, there’ve been no major shifts regarding apprenticeships. Everyone knows they’re inferior to university learning.”

“But aren’t the people who become apprentices held to the same standards as people who join universities?”

“You have to apply for the same licenses, and so does your teacher. If anything, it’s even more stringent. But it’s not like the teachers were employed by a University. The only people who offer that are people who are not rigorous enough to become proper professors.” He scowled. “If classroom learning is so difficult for you, it might be an option but I really wouldn’t recommend it.”

Amalia blanched. “No, of course not. I wasn’t suggesting that I- no. I was just curious about it, that’s all. I apologise, sir.”

With that, she scurried out the door as fast as her ankle would allow her. That had been embarrassing, though she found out what she’d wanted to know.

She wasn’t satisfied with the population disappearing as an explanation for why enrollment was dropping. It still didn’t explain why there were so few mages enrolled in university. So she went back to her old idea that maybe it had something to do with admissions requirements or a rise in students deciding to take up apprenticeships. First she wanted to see if universities and apprenticeships had the same requirements. They did, so that meant students wouldn’t decide to take apprenticeships over university because of admissions requirements.

Tuition hadn’t risen enough to warrant the mass exodus from school, and that still didn’t explain why enrollment in magics was suffering, especially, since there was no difference in tuition between 871 and today, adjusting for inflation.

Her guard grabbed her bag from her the moment she left the classroom and hefted it over his shoulder. She didn’t argue because it was easier to make it look like she wasn’t limping when she wasn’t carrying textbooks.

“Are we heading home, m’lady?”

“We’re heading to the library.” She had more research to do.

Port Drebon University Library had more people in it today, the second official day of classes, than it had the days before when she’d been researching on her own. There were several students in the stacks and a woman speaking to the librarian.

“-please. And let her know we are so honored she still visits this library, even by proxy!” The Librarian was gushing. It was kind of funny. You didn’t get to see middle-aged women fussing so much. Amalia was curious enough to listen in on the conversation as she walked past.” Though she is always welcome to come in person. Why, I remember seeing her up on stage giving that spee-”

“That is enough. Thank you.” Said the woman. Amalia walked away quicker. That woman didn’t look like she’d want a student listening in on her conversation.

The guard took up position in her corner of her stacks, close enough to hear her if she screamed, but not close enough to hear if she were having a quiet conversation, and certainly not close enough to read her research.

She was starting to like him, even with the obsessive hovering.

So let’s say for argument’s sake that some mages at university were taught black magic, and then the government found out and they all fled or were arrested.

Then what? Twenty years later the black mages would be long gone. As far as Amalia knew, jobs involving magic paid a lot of money for an ordinary job, so she’d expect a great number of people to be taking classes on magics. People certainly hadn’t gotten stupid in the last 20 years, either, so it wasn’t that everyone suddenly found magics too difficult to study.

She knew there were plenty of devisers- people who built magical machines but didn’t design them- and there were plenty of people who fixed the machines, too. But you didn’t need a university degree to do that work. You did need a degree to be able to design new machines or work as a doctor.

A lack of people working as engimancers or doctors would result in a shortage of doctors and engimancers across the country. And her observations of the world so far matched that expectation. Her Aunt constantly bemoaned the lack of doctors, and there were fewer engimancers than there used to be. Most new designs seemed to be coming from Sutanni or the Republic of Luwanna.

If all the engimancers went to those countries, then that made sense. But that was years ago. Even if that was the case, why were there still so few people graduating with degrees in engimancy?

Their population had recovered. They stopped the people from emigrating out of the country. Something was still happening that caused a lot less people to become engimancers and doctors, as well as a number of other professions.

Amalia looked through history books trying to find information on anything about 874 or 877, and large emigrations out of the country.

There was nothing. By all accounts, those years were perfectly uneventful. When Amalia went to check the years the books were published, she found nothing published before 877.

And that rang a bell.

There were no newspapers before 877, either. She was starting to get annoyed. Was this the result of another “theft?”

Actually, she ought to ask. Because the last “theft” occurred at the Free Public Library. If there was also a “theft” here, then something was definitely odd going on.

She walked up to the librarian, who was still hassling that woman, who seemed to be waiting around for something.

“Hi. I’m sorry to interrupt, but can I ask a quick question?”

“Oh!” the librarian blushed. “Of course. Fire away.”

“I was in the history section, and I noticed that there were no first-edition books. What happened to them?”

“Oh-” the librarian looked over at the woman, who was staring at Amalia. Odd. “this is embarrassing, but we actually had a theft some years back.”

“I see. Thank you.” Amalia turned around and left the women to their conversation.

There was definitely a conspiracy, she decided.

Something happened in 877, something that some persons were going through a great deal of trouble to hide, something that involved universities, emigration, and mages.  And she was going to find out exactly what-

“Hello.” Said the woman who had been talking to the librarian.

Amalia turned around, surprised. “Hello.”

The woman’s lips curled into a smile. “I’m Irene Morgan. It’s a pleasure to meet you. You’re interested in history?”

“Um, yes.” The woman had very blue eyes, brown hair, and an intense stare that made her feel uncomfortable, like she was being sized up and found wanting.

“And you’re researching first edition history texts?” Irene said with a raised brow.

“Well, yes? It’s complicated, and probably really boring. I wouldn’t want to waste your time.” Amalia subtly moved to stand in front of her desk with her research on it. She wasn’t entirely comfortable with some stranger reading over her research, especially considering that she was pretty sure something illegal had happened during that time period. She wasn’t sure who was involved, or what had happened, but if the wrong person found out, she might be in a lot of trouble.

“You don’t seem like someone who researches boring subjects.” The woman said with a smile. She turned around and grabbed a chair pulling it up to the table.

Amalia shut her notebook with a snap, dropping it on top of her texts. The bindings weren’t facing the woman.

“What if I were researching something to do with engimancy? How do I know you have a license?”

Irene rolled her eyes. “You study engimancy?”

“Yes.”

“Those books don’t look like they’re about engimancy.”

“You’ve studied engimancy?”

The woman smiled. “Yes, in fact, I have. It’s quite fascinating.”

“I agree. It was one of my best subjects. My tutors always said I had an intuitive grasp of the math involved.” Where was her hovering, over protective guard when you needed him?

The woman leaned back in her chair. “I apologize if I’m making you uncomfortable. Honestly, I’m just trying to get away from that librarian.”

Amalia grinned. “She sounded like she was fawning over someone you know?” She phrased it like a question.

“My employer. I work for the retired Prime Minister.”

Oh.” She worked for Prime Minister Recham? The one who Grand Meister Marcellus said studied black magic?

“I’ve heard of her. She studied magics here, didn’t she?”

“Yes, but I think that was before either of us were born.” The woman quirked her lips up. “Do you like trivia on old Prime Ministers, as well?”

“Oh, no. I just met with the Grand Meister a couple days ago, and he mentioned it.”

Her eyebrows raised. “The Grand Meister? Well, you must be someone special.”

“I apologize. My name is Amalia di Danti, heir to House di Danti.”

“I see. I suppose you don’t want a commoner taking up more of your time.” Irene said, though she somehow made it sound more humorous than hurt, or perhaps like she already knew how Amalia would respond.

“No, of course not. It’s fine.”

The woman gave her another brilliant smile.

“So you study engimancy here?”

“Yes. Though I haven’t really attended any true classes, well, not that ethics isn’t important. Of course it’s important. It’s just- a lot of it seems-”

“Irrelevant?”

“Well, a bit.” Amalia sat down in her chair. “They’re far too obsessed with talking about criminals for my liking. It’s like they’re constantly linking all mages with those few who are causing trouble. Honestly, it’s like they want fewer people to be interested in magics.”

“I’ve been there. It’s like they want you to think that any misstep leads down the path of wickedness, when of course that isn’t true.”

“Exactly. Plenty of people make mistakes, and simply being curious about something doesn’t mean you want to use it. Sometimes people want to know things just because no one else knows it, or because people try to keep information from them, and that makes it look even more appealing.” Amalia froze. “Not that black magic is at all appealing, of course. I wasn’t saying that. I just meant that- because you have to get a license to do things like, alter amulets- not that licenses are bad things, either.”

“Of course not. It just gets frustrating when you’re in the middle of a project and you realize you have to stop for two years to get the proper license, and all your work is void unless you do.”

“Yes. Exactly!” She let out a relieved laugh. None of her friends really understood that, because none of them were interested in magics.

“Do you have a handmirror?”

“What?” That was a non-sequitur if Amalia ever heard one. What did portable two-way watchmirrors have to do with anything?

“I’m not going to report you, promise. I was just asking because I have one, and it’s quicker than mail. I have some first edition copies of history texts at my house- my employer is a collecter and the old woman doesn’t care if I borrow a few- and you’re welcome to them if you want to take a look.”

“I don’t have one yet, but I have reason to believe I will be acquiring one soon. I can take your code and when I get it I’ll send you a mail?” Handmirrors needed both parties to be connected to the same frequency at the same time to work. She’d have to tell Irene when she wanted to talk the first time. After that, they could just decide to talk once a week or whenever.

“Sure.” Irene picked Amalia’s notebook off the text and opened to a blank page, scrawling a series of symbols into the page.

“Thanks.”

Irene smiled. “I’d stay, but I really need to get these books to my employer.” Amalia finally noticed the books under Irene’s arm.

“Oh, well, it was nice meeting you.” She didn’t know whether to call her Irene or Ms Morgan. The woman looked slightly older than her, maybe thirty at oldest. But she didn’t call Amalia m’lady or ma’am, which was what a commoner was supposed to call a noble. Since the woman was ignoring protocol, Amalia wasn’t sure what she was supposed to call her.

“It was nice meeting you too, Amalia.” She waved, and then walked off, past Amalia’s useless guard and out of the stacks.

She understood the implicit meaning hidden in Irene’s words, though. Handmirrors weren’t screened like mail was. They could talk about first edition books all they liked and no one would know any better.

She wasn’t sure that was a good idea, because Irene could be some sort of- she didn’t know- it felt absurd to say a spy. It sounded utterly paranoid. But if someone in the government was responsible for hiding information, then maybe they’d hire someone like Irene to tail anyone who researched certain topics.

It’d be a gamble talking to her, but Amalia was confident that, as daughter of a Judge, she could come out alive. At the very least, it’d be difficult to cover up her murder.

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