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.
“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?”
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“Back then there were just two. And it was really polarized, because there was a lot of stuff going on.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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?
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-”
“…-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.”
“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.”
“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?”
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.”
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.”
“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.
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?”
“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.
Her eyes settled back on the screen.
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
“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.”
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.