Scene 8: Catalyst

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Present Day- 4th of Faquar, 901.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

No plan survived contact with the enemy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lothar crumpled to the ground, and Harvey screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

It’s showtime.

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Scene 7: Fracture

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The wheels of the stagecoach clattered down West Drebon Street. The train didn’t pass near di Danti estate, so Amalia took the coach that passed within a mile of it. She could walk the last leg of the journey to her mother’s place.

Typically, di Danti’s did take public stagecoaches. But it was too short notice to hire a personal coach for the day and you couldn’t keep one full-time in the city, because the roads weren’t wide enough in the residential districts for there to be parked coaches on the sides of the road and two lanes of traffic.

Her father, when he found out that she was taking this trip, would be upset with her. But it wouldn’t be that dangerous because she had her guard, Oslin, with her.

He was not dressed like a guard, of course. That would draw undue attention to them. The only thing that separated him from the everyday men in the city was the revolver hidden under his clothes, and the fact that he was obliged to use it should she be threatened.

There were two other people sharing the ride with her. Riding with strangers was odd, but she was treating it like an adventure. She would not complain about the noise or the discomfort, even if she really wanted to- complaining wasn’t something a di Danti did.

A woman with a baby sat in front of them. The baby would make fussing noises and the mother would try to hush the child.

The carriage hit a rut in the ground and the baby let out a sharp wail. Amalia winced. In a private carriage, she could stretch out her legs across the seat and read a book, if she pleased. It was almost always quiet.

Well, the mother was trying to keep the baby silent, at least.

The other passenger was an old man with a bad comb over. He sat, shoulders slumped, staring at his hands. She couldn’t see properly, but it looked like he was playing with a ring.

When Amalia was younger, there was a man in the village who lost his wife to tuberculosis. He always used to play with his ring, looking melancholic whenever his son looked away.

Amalia caught herself biting her lip and stopped. There were plenty of reasons to look sad and fiddle with rings. It could just be an old habit. And besides, there was nothing she could do about it.

They slowed to a stop at the edge of the city. Anyone entering or leaving had to have their papers checked. It was standard procedure. No one wanted Black Mages getting in, nor black market goods. There were a number of procedures, including checking under the carriage for hidden compartments. It was a thoroughness born out of experience.

They all exited the stagecoach, even the driver. Six watchguards stood outside and a fence extended in either direction, preventing them from running. Two of the watchguards went to the coach. They would inspect it for illegal goods while the other two were by the gate, keeping an eye on the general scene. The last two stood by the passengers, who were told to line up outside the security booth.

“Papers, ma’am?”

The woman with the baby dug her crumpled papers out of her bag. The watchguard looked it over and took inside the security booth. A minute later he came out, handed the papers back to her.

“And what’s your business leaving Port Drebon today, ma’am?”  he asked.

“Visiting me mam in Appleshire, sir.” She shifted the baby, who made a gurgling noise. The watchguard jotted something down on his notepad.

“And the baby? Is it yours?”

“Yes, sir. me mam want’d to see her.” Her lips thinned. She looked nervous.

“Did you bring with you the correspondence between you and your mam?” Amalia didn’t miss the sneer in his voice. She stopped herself from frowning. The watchguard was simply doing his job. No doubt, he was worried about the safety of the baby. There was a rumor a few years ago about babies being sold to black mages and being used in experiments.

“Yes sir.” She shifted the baby on her hip and dug out a small stack of letters. The watchguard leafed through them. He paused on one, letting out a little snort.

“I might be a bit late, so don’t expect me for breakfast. The lines at checkpoints take forever.” The watchguard looked up, staring at the woman. “Do they, Miss Whitovich?”

“I’m very sorry, sir.”

“I’m not sure we should let you through, with such sentiments.”

Amalia fidgeted. Well, if he was going to read between the lines of every letter like that, then she could see the woman’s point.

The watchguard looked over the letters once again, frowning. “It’s the duty of the watchguards to protect the public. To display such animosity towards our public service, well, I admit I’m a bit disturbed. Especially considering the child.” He turned to the other watchguard. “The mother might be a bad influence, assuming she is the real mother, of course.”

She turned white, holding the baby to her chest. The baby let out another wail.

“It seemed rather like a statement of fact than a criticism, to me.” Amalia said, before her good sense could tell her to shut up.

The watchguard turned, face curled in fury. Her guard quickly stood between the two of them, protecting her.

“Just who the hell do you think you are?” the watchguard hissed.

Amalia walked around her guard, placing a calming hand on his arm. She handed her papers to the watchguard with a flourish, purposely showing her ring. It was the signet ring with her family crest. Only nobles carried signet rings.

He paled immediately.

“Ms Whitovich is right. This line is taking too long. Shall we speed it up?” Amalia gave the guard a smile. It wasn’t the kind sort of smile.

“Yes, m’lady. Right away.”

She nodded. The woman with the baby was sent ahead to the watchmirror station. It was just a booth that would record your face for a moment. She went in, stood there for a few seconds, then the watchguard politely, if sullenly, directed her back to the stagecoach.

Amalia was next.

He handed back her papers. “Just step into the watchmirror booth. Sorry for the bother, m’lady.”

She stepped inside. There were three mirrors. One taking in her left side, one her right, and the other the front of her face.

After that, she went back to her seat in the stagecoach. Shortly after, her guard sat down. The man with the poor comb over was next. The driver came back last and then they were off.

“I must advise against doing that again, m’lady.” Said her guard.

“I’ll keep it in mind.” She said, voice dry. Honestly, she was a noble. Watchguards had to obey her orders. Being the daughter of a Judge and Heir to a House made that doubly so. Even if they had wanted to do something, they couldn’t. They knew the repercussions if they tried.

The woman with the baby turned around in her seat. “M’lady?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you for that, back there.”

“It’s no problem. I suspect that watchguard was just nervous, what with all the troubles lately,” Amalia frowned. “Though that is no excuse for his behavior. I apologize on his behalf.”

The woman gave her a strained smile. She had dark bags under her eyes. “Still, thank you.”

“Your welcome.” It was a little thing. Really, anyone in Amalia’s position would have done it. In fact, she enjoyed watching the man’s face go white when he realized just who he was insulting.

The woman turned back to her baby, and Amalia went back to her thoughts. Outside the city was mostly farmland, rolling hills with small farmhouses and barns dotting the landscape. Then the hills of farmland turned into small whitewashed cottages as they approached the only village between the estate and Port Drebon.

Appleshire was a small village, but well known for their annual apple festival, which was in a few days, if she wasn’t mistaken. Amalia watched the villagers running around, likely preparing for it. One was standing on a wooden ladder, putting up white streamers on the roof, while another man on the ground was gesturing wildly. The man on the ladder looked down and said something sharp to the other man. The one standing below the ladder just huffed and stomped off.

Amalia grinned. It reminded her of two women at the estate. They’d always be arguing about something, but somehow they were the best of friends.

The woman with the baby got off at Appleshire, and Amalia enjoyed the quiet, staring out the window. It was only twenty more minutes to the di Danti estate.

The time passed quickly. She almost wished the wait was longer, considering what she’d have to do.

She and Oslin got off at the stop, walking up to the gatehouse. The guards here were under the employ of her family.

“Visiting, m’lady?” said Dawson. He was a middle aged man with a large mustache. He’d been working for the di Danti’s since she was a little girl.

“Yes, I’m visiting Lady di Danti. Do you know if she’s entertaining guests today?”

“No one’s passed through the gates, so I suppose not, m’lady.”

“Excellent.”

“Do you want a ride up to the manor, m’lady?”

“I would very much appreciate it. Thank you, Dawson.”

They walked through the gates and past the gatehouse towards the stable. The wagon was already hitched, loaded with sacks of flour and vegetables.

Her guard would wait at the gate house. The di Danti estates were protected, so there was no need for him.

“Connor is taking the supplies up to the manor. He’ll give you a lift, m’lady.”

“Take care of yourself, Mr. Dawson.”

“Thank you, m’lady.”

She lifted herself up onto the wagon and sat. Connor was stopped by Mr. Dawson, who gestured at the wagon. The boy nodded vigorously, and hurried over.

“Good day, m’lady.” He gingerly sat next to her, taking the reigns of the horses. He looked green.

At one point she might’ve said to him that she was hardly anyone to be afraid of- she wasn’t like her cousin Francis who got the people who lived at his estate in trouble for nothing. Connor was obviously nervous and uncomfortable with sitting so close to her. She wanted to say something, except last time she joked with the the people living on the estate, it hadn’t turned out well for her.

She’d been fifteen and bored. It was the middle of the summer and too warm to stay inside, so she’d gone out to the fields. The di Danti manor was surrounded by vineyards. It was their primary source of revenue before mother decided that investing in factories might yield greater profits.

Amalia ended up running around with a few of the children that were her age, having quite a bit of fun. Of course, her Aunt Basileia managed to see her running with no shoes through a field. She’d even managed to get dirt on her face and pants.

Aunt Basileia told her mother, and so she was called into the study where her mother calmly told her in that icy voice of hers why di Dantis don’t play in fields. She could still remember her words. “Do you not understand the importance of reputation? What will the townsfolk think of you, now?” Amalia had said they might think her kind, to which her mother replied, “No. They’ll think you’re weak like them, and you are not.”

She was even worse when Amalia explained how she wanted to be an Engimancer.

She had stated her case formally, explaining how she could invent things that only the di Danti’s would have access to, and that her knowledge of magics would be a great value to the family.

Her mother’s response was crushing. “An Engimancer? Amalia, really. Why not just become a plumber or a field worker if you’re so eager to abase yourself. If I want information on magics, I’ll just pay someone for it. And if you think you’re smart enough to invent things that no one else has thought of, you’re only fooling yourself. If you’re one-in-a-million, and you are assuredly not, there are twenty-two of you in Jaborre.”

She told mother that engimancy was not about working with your hands, but about inventing new magics. Mother only agreed when Amalia said that while being a magical theorist is more prestigious, they are also subjected to loyalty screenings quarterly. Engimancers get their license and only get loyalty screenings yearly, the same as any other citizen.

The difference between engimancers and magical theorists was cosmetic, at best.They both suffer through the same lessons, but engimancers have to figure out what kind of magics will work instead of philosophizing about what may work, or what should work.

Amalia said that working as an engimancer would test her critical thinking skills, because she would get immediate feedback on whether or not she was on the right track. Those critical thinking skills would carry over to other work, like managing House di Danti later in life.

Whether it was mentioning being compelled less or critical thinking skills, her mother grudgingly agreed to allow her to study engimnacy.

She wondered if her mother would force her to give up engimancy, now that she had an excuse. What mother wanted was for Amalia to study law, but Amalia never had the knack for it. Mostly it just put her straight to sleep. It was easier for her to learn when she had a specific goal in mind. Just learning for the sake of knowing a bunch of laws always seemed pointless and frustrating. She knew it was useful, but her mind refused to work up the energy required to get interested in it.

Amalia blinked, banishing those thoughts. It wouldn’t help her to be defeated before she even met with her mother.

The wagon was pulling up to the manor. It was stone, more like a castle than a manor, but the proper name for the residence of the Head of House was a manor, so that’s what they called it.

She thanked Connor and walked up the stone steps to the front door, ringing the bell. Not even a minute later and the door opened. It was old Mr. Remley, the butler. They only kept a butler and a cook. Maids came in once a week to clean the house, and were thoroughly vetted before they could set foot on the premises.

“Lady Amalia. Welcome home.”

Amalia smiled. “It feels like I haven’t seen you in ages. How are you?”

“I’m well, thank you m’lady. I hope your are doing well. How long are you staying?”

“I am. Actually, not very long. I plan to head back to the townhouse this evening. I’m sorry to trouble you, but do you know where Lady di Danti is?”

“She’s in her study. Will you be staying for dinner, m’lady?”

Amalia’s lips thinned. “I’m not sure. Probably not. Thank you.”

“If it’s any help, m’lady, she’s in a good mood today.” Mr. Remley eyed her in that practiced way that told her he knew she’d done something wrong.

She gave him a wan smile. “A bit.” He nodded, and walked off.

She let out a gust of air and walked to the study. She stood in front of the door for a few moments. This was it. No turning back.

She knocked.

“Enter.”

Amalia opened the door. “Hello, mother.”

“Amalia.” She was at her desk, writing in a thick book. She glanced up. “What is it?”

“I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“You are, but it’s no matter. Sit.”

Amalia walked up to the desk and sat down.

There were two chairs in front of Marion di Danti’s desk. Neither were particularly comfortable, in spite of being squishy. The desk was solid oak. It was carved expertly by craftsman some two hundred years ago. There were bookshelves on the back wall, and the left side of the wall had two large windows, covered by drapes. The right side of the room had a number of drawers where mother kept her files.

Mother stopped writing, putting her pen down. “Stop dawdling and speak.” The whole point was to make her uncomfortable. If she had spoken while her mother was writing, she would have been scolded for interrupting.

“I’ve made a mistake, and I need some advice on how to handle it.” Amalia forced herself to stare at her mother. She wanted to look away.

“Which mistake?”

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

“Yes.”

“I was alone in his office.”

Mother’s lips thinned. She was always rather quick.

“There was a journal. Curious thing, really. I wasn’t even sure why the box would be in his office. It was such an odd thing- ”

“Did you read it?” Mother said, interrupting her.

“No, of course not.”

“Well, at least there’s that.” She sighed. “May I ask what you were thinking?”

“I didn’t- “

“Because I don’t understand how any daughter of mine could be so stupid.”

Amalia frowned. “I get it. I made a major mistake. I’d like to know what we’re going to do about it”

She just sighed. “Consider it fixed. Do you have the journal with you?”

“I’m not that stupid.”

“Good. I’ll arrange for someone to pick it up. Don’t read it in the meantime.”

“I don’t plan on it.”

“Before you leave, I wanted to speak with you about something your father told me.”

“What is it?”

“You were looking into Compulsions.”

“Yes.”

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

“Yes.”

“Well, you may cease looking. I’ll take care of that, too.”

Amalia pointedly didn’t wonder how her mother could do that, at least, not in front of her.

“Thank you.” Amalia stood up. There was no point in continuing their conversation. But- Well,  “May I ask you something?”

“Yes.” said her mother, from the opposite side of the room.

“Why has father forbidden me from looking into Compulsion magics?”

“For many reasons. I would suggest forgetting them for now.”

“Because during compulsion screenings, they ask you if you know about it.” Amalia guessed.

Marion glanced back at Amalia and smiled. It was one of her rare approving smiles.

“Yes. It is knowledge that is privileged. Very few know the secret, and for a good reason. You won’t tell your children, either.”

“But you know what Compulsion magics are.” Amalia said, staring at her mother intently. “And you are in no trouble.”

“They don’t Compel the Heads of Houses yearly, and you can submit a waiver.”

“Which always gets passed because of father.”

“Exactly. Once I’m dead and you have been compelled for the last time, then you will open a safe I have set aside for you, and you will learn about Compulsion spells. Before then, you must not know.”

And that meant… well, that could mean a lot of things. She would have to stop hunting down information on compulsion magics, unfortunately. It wasn’t that hard a decision to make. She was curious, but she didn’t see any easy way of finding that information. Maybe the library would have something, but it would be locked away somewhere if it was such a big secret.

She wondered if the reason they guarded the secret so closely was because there was a counter to it. Someone clever might be able to undo a Compulsion. Or maybe they just didn’t want the information getting out to Black Mages who would surely misuse them, but that didn’t make a whole lot of sense since she knew that one of her amulets that she wore everyday protected her from rogue compulsions.

“I see.” Amalia frowned. “And that’s how you can stop them from asking me about the journal.”

“Yes.”

“Mother?” She said, standing at the door. “Don’t tell father about the journal.”

“I should, but I don’t think he could bare the shame.”

Amalia shut her mouth.

“You wouldn’t know this,” mother said, “but your mistake has put you father in a bad situation at work. You owe him, and you owe me.”

I thought family didn’t hold debts.

“I understand.”

With that, she left. Somehow, telling her mother left her feeling no better. She’d thought that she’d be relieved knowing she wasn’t going to jail or wouldn’t be fined. Now she just felt worse, like someone had punched her in the chest, hard.

She’d caused her father trouble at work. It occurred to her then, that it really was odd that her father had that box in his office. He wasn’t an investigator. She knew she wondered about it before, but back then she’d thought he was doing something that he always did, like maybe he personally involved himself in all the high-profile cases. It seemed like something her father would do.

Now she knew he was in trouble for it.

She didn’t know why he had the box of evidence, and she wasn’t about to ask her mother, but now it was in the back of her mind, bothering her.

But there was no real point in worrying about it. She couldn’t fix it. If she could, her mother would’ve told her how right then and there. So instead, Amalia let the stress bleed out of her. There was no more reason to worry about the Journal. Instead, she could look forward to University, classes, and enjoying the company of her friends.

Tomorrow she’d go to the parade with her friends, and by then the journal would be a distant memory.

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Scene 6: Wringer

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3rd of Faquar, The Fall quarter of year 901

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

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

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

Mass mayhem and havoc were the trademarks of Black Mages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something withered in her at the thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The very thought made her die a little inside.

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

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

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

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

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

The doorbell rang.

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

The doorbell rang, again.

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

Amalia opened the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

“Yes, and I got a waiver.”

“It is restricted for a reason, Amalia!”

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

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

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

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

Her father stayed silent for a few moments.

“Explain what happened,” he said.

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

“And what did he say?”

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

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

“Why?”

“Because Compulsions are restricted magics.”

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

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine. I understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright. Well, I better go to work.”

They said their goodbyes and he left.

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

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

It was time to visit her mother.

 

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Scene 5: Splinter

 Previous | Next

2nd of Faquar, the Fall Quarter of year 901

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

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

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

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

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

Bennett looked up from his beer.

“We’re doing what?” He said sharply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some didn’t have the money to do that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I never said my name.”

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

“What did you do to me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the information?”

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

“And the weapons?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

“Where have you been?”

“Out.”

“Don’t do anything stupid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Scene 4.5: Lines and Letters

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Amalia's townhouse

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

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

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

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


 

12 Sumquar, 11.901

Dear Judge di Danti,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please contact us if you require more information.

Thank you for your patronage,

Rachel Nerney

Co-owner of NNSS


 

92 Sumquar, 11.901

To: Frank Bishop,

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

Regards,

Judge Titus di Danti

Bureau of Security


 

1 Faquar, 11.901

Dear Judge di Danti,

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

Sincerely,

Frank Bishop


 

1 Faquar, 11.901

To: Frank Bishop,

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

-Judge Titus di Danti


 

2 Faquar, 11.901

Dear Titus,

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

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

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

Regards,

Judge Orwyn Pennington, Bureau of Magics

2 Faquar, 11.901


 

To: Orwyn

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

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

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

Regards,

Judge Titus di Danti, Bureau of Security

 

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Scene 4: Speculation

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Port Drebon University was located right off the Loop. It was an oasis of grass and trees amidst a desert of gray buildings. The campus consisted of six buildings, one of those belonging to the College of Magics. It was all stone with elegant spires and narrow windows. Unfortunately, today Amalia didn’t need to go to that building. She walked under the archway and past the fountain, turning left onto the gravel path that cut across the grass.

The L-shaped building on the corner of campus was home to all the professors’ offices. Grand Meister Marcellus wasn’t a professor anymore though, he was the Grand Meister of Magics. Technically it wasn’t his job to collect the loyalty screening papers, but she suspected he just wanted to speak to her because she was a di Danti.

It was strange how life just went on as normal, even when Amalia felt like it shouldn’t be. Surely everything else should pause so she could handle the journal problem. It didn’t stop. She still had to meet Marcellus.

Amalia pushed open the large wooden door into the entrance hall. It was grand, but that was to be expected. This was the best university in the world. Tall marble pillars on her left and right held up the second floor hallways. She checked the slip of paper with the room number. Marcellus’ office was on the second floor. The door looked old and heavy. Amalia took a deep breath and knocked.

“You may enter.” A reedy, muffled voice from inside beckoned her in. Amalia opened the door. The office was covered wall to wall in bookshelves, every one of them filled with books. Some books were even stacked on the floor. It smelled like parchment and dust. She sneezed. Grand Meister Marcellus was an old man with gray hair. He sat behind his desk, which was also covered in books. Amalia cleared her throat.

He stood quickly, beckoning her in.

“Hello, Grand Meister Marcellus. I am Amalia di Danti, of House di Danti, daughter of Marion di Danti. I have come-”

“Yes.” He wheezed. “It was in my appointment books.” He shuffled through some papers. “Ah, yes! Here. Amalia di Danti, studying engimancy.”

Amalia scrambled for something to say. He’d cut her off. It was rude.

“Well, young lady, welcome to Port Drebon University. Please sit down.”

“Of course. Thank you, sir.” She moved a couple books off of the cushy seat in front of his desk and sank into it.

“Do you have your papers?”

“Yes, sir.” She scrambled to get them out of her bag. He was appraising her with beady eyes. She handed them over and he nodded, barely giving them a glance before tossing them in the growing pile of disorganized papers on his desk.

“It seems everything is in order. Now, I wanted to discuss with you your project. It is quite fascinating, I must say. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

“Thank you, sir.” It was her thesis, which was what got her into the university. It was just blueprints and theory now, but eventually it would become working machine that could detect levels of magic in an area. She calculated that the current range of the device would be about two blocks, but she suspected that she could extend that further.

“Have you considered what you will do with it once it’s completed?”

“I’ll give it to the Department of Magics as an aid in investigations, sir. It’s commonly known that Black Magic is quite different from normal magics, so it’s my hope they can use this device to detect the usage of Black Magic, enabling them to better fight crime.” She sat up straighter as she spoke.

“An admirable goal.” He didn’t say anything about her slip.

“Thank you, sir.” Perhaps he didn’t care much for formality. He certainly didn’t seem to care for following protocol.

“Do you have other projects planned during your stay?”

“Well,” This was a risk. She bit her lip. “I thought to learn more about Compulsion screening, or perhaps watchmirrors, sir.”

“Very interesting topics, yes. I think you have some prior experience with watchmirrors, don’t you?”

“Well, yes, but only accidentally. My involvement is supposed to be kept secret, sir.”

“I see. Well, it is possibly the worst kept secret in the University. We’ve had your name down as a potential student since that event.”

“It was an accident, though. I was only playing with a watchmirror Judge di Danti brought home from work. I shouldn’t have even been near it, sir.” She wanted to also tell him that the device she was creating was only a combination of several existing technologies. It wasn’t anything new, per se. She was coming up with any of this in a vacuum. She just got lucky and thought of it before someone else did. She wasn’t even sure if the device would work once it was made.

“Perhaps, but why the interest in Compulsions, if I may? They are restricted magics.”

“Well, I plan to be working in the Department of Magics. I want to increase the efficiency of our department. That means making devices that allow for the easy capture of Black Mages, and perhaps making it quicker to screen people. I thought that if I were allowed to study how Compulsions work, I may create a better machine capable of doing it faster, with less time lost, sir.” She congratulated herself for quickly coming up with a reasonable explanation. Compulsions always lasted exactly 60 minutes. It was a bit inconvenient for both the investigators and the citizens being Compelled. If anyone ever got hurt while under the spell, the investigators would be held liable. So they had to wait in the office under supervision. That meant the whole process lasted longer that it should.

Finding a better way to do it was a good idea, actually. She supposed if she did study Compulsions she ought to figure out how to make them more efficient, if she could. It would be a form of penance.

“I see. That is quite an ambitious goal, Miss di Danti.”

“Not quite. I suspect I will not accomplish most of it, but I will try, and hopefully uncover information that will allow others to carry on in my stead, sir.”

The Grand Meister slowly got to his feet and went to fetch a teapot and two cups. He poured the tea and then passed one to Amalia.

“Thank you, sir.”

He took a sip of his own tea, contemplating. “You remind me of her, you know.” Said the old mage, staring at her intently.

“Sorry sir, who?” Amalia’s brow furrowed.

“And old student of mine, but you may remember her as our former Prime Minister, Meciel Recham.” He took another sip of tea. “You were but a mere child then. Do you remember?”

“I was eleven, I think. I can’t say I do, sir.”  Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She remembered father came home one night, telling mother the prime minister had resigned. It was some big hushed conversation, and her parents shuttled Amalia off to bed before she could hear anything interesting.

“Yes, after many years of service. She was a hero to us all. It is said that Meciel Recham single-handedly saved us from destruction, ridding our nation of black hearts.”

“I heard.” Her tone was dry, “father always says it’s a gross exaggeration, sir.”  Amalia was beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable.

He chuckled, “Oh yes, he would. But Meciel was a prodigy! Why, that girl was the brightest student I’ve ever taught!”

“I had no idea Prime Minister Recham studied here.” She was mildly intrigued. Her father and mother never spoke of the woman, but her tutors almost never shut up about her. She was hailed as the brightest star of Jaborre.

“Yes, as I said, my brightest student.” He cleared his throat. “Well, barring one exception.” He gave her a meaningful look. Amalia spluttered over her tea.

“I wouldn’t be so audacious as to compare myself to the former Prime Minister!” Said the part of her that was completely embarrassed, overriding the part of her that was flattered to be compared to the former prime minister. Well, to be realistic he was probably only saying that because she was a di Danti.

“You both have the same brilliance, the same drive, albeit put to different purposes, though each noble.”

“I’m not driven, not really, sir. I don’t even know what I want.”

“Neither did she, but Meciel put in all of her effort, regardless- not just to learning what was assigned, but going above-…” He cut himself off. “I think,” he paused, taking a breath, “it was part of her brilliance, that she saw what danger black arts pose to humankind, unlike those before her. She saw what she could do was limitless, and realized there would be others just as clever, but lacking in scruples.”

Some part of Amalia should have noticed what Grand Meister Marcellus had just said was significant, but she was still focused on the conflict between the pieces of herself that were trying to appear humble and the pieces that were basking in praise. She also realized that she wasn’t following proper protocol. Again. She wasn’t used to having to refer to people as sir.

“I still don’t see it. I won’t be the next Meciel Recham. I don’t think I could, not even if I tried, sir.” Okay, that was pushing it a bit too far. She should probably stop soliciting compliments from the Grand Meister, now.

“You are of greater import than you believe, Amalia di Danti. You were born of Judge Titus di Danti and Lady Marion di Danti.” Of course. Can’t forget why he’s doing this.

“Not only that,” he continued “but you inherited your father’s talent at solving puzzles and your mother’s sharp intellect. You forget, you are one of the youngest to enter this university. You are already creating new inventions at eighteen! That is far more than I accomplished in my youth, more than even your parents accomplished in their youth.”

“I know. I know these things but-…” But I’ve lived in di Danti Manor my whole life. I’ve seen precious little of the world outside, and I fear that I am ill equipped to survive this world. The embarrassed parts of her had a point. Barely two days in the city and she was stealing contraband and trying to cover up a crime. He was complimenting her and she didn’t deserve it. This guilt was not nearly as crippling as the guilt she felt when she was around her father, but it was still there.

“But what? What has sparked these questions, Amalia di Danti, if you already know the answers?”

“I just- well, what do you think of the black arts, Grand Meister Marcellus?” Her hands felt cold on her lap and her tongue felt like cotton in her mouth. Of all the responses that crossed her mind, that was the last one she wanted to voice.

“That’s-…” A heavy sigh, “do you ever wonder why we have such grand buildings at the University, but so few students? They spoke twice in the last 22 years of closing it. Can you imagine? No magic taught past secondary school in our very capital!”

“I didn’t know. Where did all the other mages go?” A large University meant they had room for many students, students that were no longer there. She had a sinking feeling she knew what he was going to say, that many of the students secretly practiced the black arts, that the growing distaste for all magics and mages was not founded in blind bigotry, but in truth.

“Some are dead.” The old mage’s tone was heavy with grief. “Some fled to Sutanni or Luwana. I do not say I disagree with what was done. It was all they could do after the Harkow Tragedy. My only wish is that so many had not died. But then, it was our own foolishness, our own fault. It is the message I meant to impart to you, that you use your intelligence wisely, for good, like our prime minister.”

Our fault. Our fault? Her brain completely skipped over the advice, finally connecting the dots from when he first implied that Meciel Recham, the prime minister, had practiced Black Magic. The former prime minister was a Black Mage. He couldn’t mean…

“Wait- you’re saying that- you- they-” Her voice rose a whole octave. “Black magic was was taughthere?” How did that even work? Didn’t they notice when the students learning about Black Magic went crazy? No. That couldn’t be true. Black magic wasn’t legal, ever. At least, she never learned the year when it was banned, and always assumed that it had always been banned.

He spoke softly. “There are a great many things I cannot say.” Which means yes, her brain informed her, as she sat there, numb, on her cushioned seat.

“But, how could you believe such a thing?” Said her mouth, blatantly ignoring her brain, which was telling her to not raise her voice when speaking to the eminent Grand Meister Marcellus of Port Drebon University, and that she forgot to call him sir, which was a complete social faux pas and if her Aunt Basileia were here, the woman would rap her her knuckles hard.

“Surely, daughter of Judge Titus di Danti, you know the history of our nation?”

“Of course.” She knew how the government started cracking down on Black Mages after one blew up half of Harkow City, in 872. But Black Mage organizations were always criminal fringe groups, detested by all, and widely known to be violent. Before Harkow, people were too busy worrying about the unrest between various countries to pay much mind to black mages, and that’s how the black mages managed to do so much damage.

A long pause. Grand Meister Marcellus took another sip of his tea.

“Before the Harkow Tragedy, many things were permitted that are not today. After that terrible day, the people cleansed this nation of that terrible evil.”

That was impossible. Black magic wasn’t legal before Harkow, it just wasn’t. He was insane. This entire conversation was nonsense.

“But, how could you not know? I mean, before the Tragedy. Do you honestly think people permitted the practice of something so destructive?”

Then the second shoe dropped. Marcellus said that Meciel Recham was a Black Mage. That was just utter bullshit. There was absolutely no way any of this was true. Was this man right in the head?

Unless, somehow, she’d been mislead. Perhaps Meciel Recham was immune to the destructive nature of Black Magics. It was possible, but it turned her stomach to think about it. She wasn’t quite sure why the idea made her feel so uncomfortable. Her brain didn’t even want to go there. And of course, that meant she had to think about it.

What if not everyone who practices Black Magic is a murderer or monster? It would mean that either her father and every other official in-the-know was lying, or it meant that they all were mistaken. But that was entirely improbable. Someone would have spilled the beans.

Well, it was also possible that Amalia was only getting small pieces of the puzzle, and was putting it together wrong. There might be something she was missing.

Luckily, it was far more likely that old Marcellus was just going senile. One man being sentimental about his lost colleagues made more sense than her father lying to her. Not to mention, it was absurd imagining that Meciel Recham could be a Black Mage. She was the former Prime Minister, for goodness’ sake!

Maybe a couple of his old students or coworkers had been black mages in disguise, and he couldn’t bring himself to believe that they were actually monsters. He seemed like the sort to refuse to believe something out of pride.

With that, Amalia realized she’d said her professor’s beloved dead colleagues were terrible people. Obviously he didn’t believe they were deranged murderers, even if they were. She was immediately struck with a deep mortification, and cursed her mind for being so slow as to completely miss the point.

“I was young, foolish. And Miss di Danti, these questions of yours, they are dangerous. I do not wish to speak of such things.”

“I didn’t mean- I apologize, sir.”

“It is only the exuberance of youth. You are forgiven, Miss di Danti. I have said a great many things I regret in my youth, as well.” Yes, he seemed exactly like the sort of person who would want to always appear right.

But there was still that niggling doubt in the back of her mind. She had to ask.

“Sorry sir, but I must ask. Why do you believe Black Magic wasn’t banned before the Harkow Tragedy?” She felt like she was digging herself deeper into a hole, but she couldn’t help it. She was too curious. And a part of her mind informed her that this was exactly the sort of behavior that got her in trouble when she stole that journal. She needed to take a step back and think before she said anything else stupid.

“I cannot tell you. You are not allowed to know why Black Magic was banned, no one is. It is for the safety of all that this knowledge was locked away.”

Amalia pursed her lips. She wanted so desperately to argue, to insist, but she knew she couldn’t. That was enough questions. She had learned her lesson the first time she did something stupid thanks to her curiosity.

“I apologise, sir. I won’t speak of it again.”

“Thank you. You may go, Miss di Danti.”

Amalia got up to leave.

“Miss di Danti?”

“Yes, sir?”

“I will put in a request for a waiver. Compulsion magics are restricted, but I trust you are responsible enough to learn of it.”

“Thank you, sir.” As she turned away, she grinned. It might not be so impossible to avoid detection, after all. Well, so long as the senile old man actually remembered to put in the request. Obviously, there was something seriously wrong with his head.

Once Amalia left the professor’s office, she thought about a number of things. First, that Grand Meister Marcellus was terrible at keeping secrets. Clearly he shouldn’t have told her any of that, not that she was going to complain. She doubted Compulsion screenings involved obscure questions about their former Prime Minister.

But more importantly, why did Marcellus believe Meciel Recham was a Black Mage? She had been in charge of their government, and the High Council of Judges would’ve known. So basically, she couldn’t have been a black mage. They definitely did loyalty screenings on candidates for the prime minister. If they did it on people attending college, they did it on important figures in the government.

The whole point was the consideration that Marcellus believed Black Magic was once taught. Amalia doubted Marcellus would make something like that up out of thin air, which made it slightly more probable that Meciel Recham was actually a Black Mage. But the very thought that Black Magic was taught at the university baffled Amalia. How did no one know it was dangerous? The idea sparked so many more questions she didn’t even know where to start.

Now, more than ever, Amalia wanted to read that journal. She squashed that desire viciously. Once she managed to cover her tracks, then she would read it. Maybe.

This was frustrating. It was all so unlikely. It was unlikely that Marcellus was lying, because really, who would make this stuff up? If he was speaking to her about it, then he was speaking to other people, too.

That really made her worry, because the board of education should have sacked him by now, especially if he were rambling about Black Mages being taught at the university. Well, he was old and perhaps senile, and a member of the Marcellus family. Maybe they didn’t sack him out of pity?

The sad part was that she could almost see the logic in what he said. Anything associated with the Harkow Tragedy was considered malevolent, so maybe there was a more mundane explanation for this. Perhaps, she thought, the stigma of Black Magic resulted in self selection. People thought Black Magic was evil, so only people who were very desperate or cruel would take an interest in it. That would, of course, result in the maintenance of a terrible reputation for Black Mages.

There was, of course, a more obvious conclusion that fit the evidence better. She had been operating under the assumption that the moment someone read about Black Magic, they started going crazy. But what if it was a gradual change, over decades instead of months. It would be much more difficult to find the link between Black Magic and insanity if the effects only showed up much later in life.

Even if by later in life that meant “five years” it would still explain how the government didn’t realize it for so long. In addition, it explained how her father and other officials could combat Black Magic. You can’t fight something you know nothing about. (It occurred to Amalia that before this moment, she never thought about how her father fought Black Magic, and she wondered what other conclusions she’d failed to realize due to something not occurring to her.)

Amalia could further make the assumption that the more one studied the black arts, the greater the risk for insanity. It would explain why, if Meciel Recham had studied black magic, she and the government officials who fought Black Magic were not all deranged murderers.

Even the policy to execute Black Mages made sense, since the people who they were executing would be beyond help. They knew how to hurt people and had no reserve in doing so. Executing people who were not at the stage where they were beyond reason would be a sufficient deterrent to prevent more people from crossing the line into insanity.

It was, however, much more likely that Marcellus was just an old man who was confused, but now she was bothered by the question of how her father and the rest hunted down black mages if they knew nothing of their methods. It made her wonder.

Perhaps one could learn wickedness but not become it.

When she got back to the townhouse, there was a note in her mailbox from Jeptha. He wanted her to go to the parade tomorrow with him and Philomena. Amalia had to admit, she was curious about Lothar, especially given her newest questions. She hid his journal and refused to look at it, but she was still curious. It burned at the back of consciousness.

Watchmirrors, Compulsion magics, and Black Magic was on her mind as she made herself dinner.

That’s when Amalia got an idea.

She grinned. She knew exactly how to cover her tracks and prevent anyone from finding out she stole that journal. It was deliciously simple.

She’d go to Henrik’s office in the morning and write out a second timesheet for the day she stole the journal. Then she’d slip it into the folder where he kept them all. When he goes to check and realizes there’s two worksheets for the same day- one only filled in to noon, he’d suspect he was compelled. It would be a crime with no real culprit. The man said he always went to lunch at a specific diner. Someone could easily just follow him and Compel him once he got into the restaurant.

A part of Amalia wondered why, if the solution was so obvious, did real Black Mages not use this strategy to infiltrate Council Hall. Was there some protection she was not aware of, or were the Black Mages really that stupid?

Or maybe they were using this exploit, but knew to avoid leaving evidence behind. Amalia favored the last explanation, because it made her feel less like she was making a mistake. At the same time, she knew that wanting something to be true didn’t make it true. She was taking a major risk with this plot, but she couldn’t think of any better options.

But there was too much at stake to hedge it all on this one plan. She desperately wanted to stop thinking about it and just go through with it and hope it worked, because it was the first idea she’d gotten all day and she was starting feel desperate. It was between do this and maybe get caught or do nothing and definitely get caught.

Amalia made a promise to herself. She’d think on it overnight. If she came up with any more obvious flaws, she would find another way.

And you know what else? After this, she would be obeying the law to the letter. It was just not safe to keep acting on impulse and idle curiosity. Her father did not know what she did, but Amalia knew, and she vowed to make it up to him. She’d do something to make him proud. She’d uphold the law and avoid Black Magic, even if it didn’t make people go insane. The journal would be tossed in the river, unread.

In the end, she decided to tell Jeptha that she would attend the parade. She supposed it was morbid curiosity. Plus, it would be the first city parade she would attend. Philomena and Jeptha were both going, and she didn’t want to be left out. She was in the city, now. Amalia hadn’t been a part of their “city” lives before, and she wanted to be be included.

 

Previous | Next

Scene 3: Examination

Previous | Next

2nd of Faquar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amalia shut her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amalia cleared the dishes and went to wash them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, shit. Compulsion screening papers.

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

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

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

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

No one retained the memories of being Compelled.

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

She was screwed.

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They should install them in here, too.”

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

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

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

“It’s fine. I’m sorry I kept you.”

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

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

“Alright. Have a good day, m’lady!”

Amalia smiled and waved back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scene 2: Suspicion

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1st of Faquar, the Fall Quarter of the year 11,901.

The next day, Amalia moved into her townhouse. The air was clear and crisp. Jeptha, fair skinned and perpetually smiling, was helping her carry boxes and move furniture.

The night passed without incident, in spite of Amalia’s increasing worry over the journal. She didn’t get to speak to her father much, in spite of her attempts to subtly figure out if he’d noticed the missing journal.

He was too busy arguing about something with mother. For a few terrified minutes she’d thought he’d found out and was telling mother to do something about it, but mother walked in the room later and didn’t say anything. If mother thought Amalia was behind it, she wouldn’t hesitate to call her out on it. The argument probably had nothing to do with the missing journal. Her father was likely still upset she was going to live in the city.

Many times she wanted to tell her father the truth, have him discreetly return it and absolve herself of the whole matter. But her mouth would not open. How would he look at her, knowing she stole, knowing she wondered at the minds of Black Mages? He would be ashamed.

She wanted to throw that wretched journal in the fire, but halted her hand for fear of being cursed. Who knew what manner of wickedness Black Mages wielded in the protection of their journals? She didn’t know, and she did not want to experience it.

In any event, there was no mention of a missing journal, nor any suspicion that Amalia left her father’s office with more than when she had entered, so she shoved the journal under some of her books and put it out of her mind. If she never read it and kept it out of sight, no one would know. She did not want to even think on it, for every time she saw the book she was reminded of her guilt and shame. And it served her no use to be in such a state when she had to pack her clothes and figure out what she was bringing to the new townhouse.

The townhouse, named Nottingate House, was on the Second Loop, the second of five concentric roads that encircled the city, radiating out from Council Hall. She’d become rather taken with it when she realized she could see the park through the front windows. It was the main reason she chose this townhouse over one closer to the University. As a person who grew up in the country, she was unaccustomed to buildings of dour gray stone and streets clogged with pedestrian traffic.

The building was narrow in the front but long, extending so that there were more rooms than you would initially expect. The first floor was comprised of a kitchen, dining area, and parlor. Upstairs was the bathroom, workroom, spare room, and bedroom. The furniture was installed in the morning, and they were now adding in her personal touches and effects.

It was odd, buying a townhouse. Typically, people from families like her’s inherited houses. The di Danti’s did own a property in Port Drebon, but right now her Aunt Basileia was living there, and the old dowager moved for no one, not even the heir to the House. Mother could have forced the issue, but buying real estate in the city was a good investment, and the di Dantis never accumulated much in the way of properties, so they figured it was a responsible acquisition.

Father thought it was ridiculous to buy an entire townhouse for her to attend University, and said Amalia could just ride with him in the morning. He took the carriage to Port Drebon every day.

Amalia argued that it was a 45 minute drive, and that she’d spend most of the day waiting in the library, because she only had two classes. The majority of her work would be the completion of her journeyman’s project. If she had to commute, she would lose hours everyday that she could be working on her project, and it was too fragile to cart back and forth.

In the end, she’d won, and the townhouse was purchased. They hadn’t bought any new furniture, of course. Most of it came from storage, or from her rooms at the Manor. Her father, who was still a bit upset about the townhouse, insisted she do some of the work in moving her belongings to the new place, to teach Amalia responsibility. Mother didn’t care and no one was stupid enough to tell Aunt Basileia that her niece was doing manual labor, because she’d start a major fuss over it and no one wanted that. So Amalia bore it and invited her friends over to help her unpack.

Jeptha arrived in what was to be her new workroom, carrying a box.

“Philomena’s downstairs bullying the coachman into helping us.”

Amalia laughed. “I take it he’s having no parts of her?”

“None at all.” Said Jeptha. Philomena was another close friend. They’d grown up together, as their parents were associates. Jeptha was originally from another city, Harkow, up north. They met when they were eleven years old. Her father and his mother worked on a project together. As a result, Jeptha and Amalia spent a large amount of time together as children.

Footsteps tramped up the narrow stairs. “That lazy man! He refuses to help. Here we are, with more boxes than hands, and all he’ll do is sit in the driver’s seat.” A petite woman with sharp features and tanned skin stalked into the room, face cross. Philomena was the most stubborn person either of them had ever met.

Jeptha and Amalia shared a look, and then he turned to address her in a futile attempt to  placate the indomitable fury that was a ticked off Philomena. Amalia was too busy arranging her desk so that she could view the street and park to pay them any mind.

Along the west wall went her bookcase. The workers carried it up earlier that morning, almost nicking the wall twice. She opened the first box of books, sorting out how she was going to arrange them. Alphabetically, or in order of how likely she was to use them?

A second box hit the floor with a heavy thud, and Philomena began shoving books into the bookcase haphazardly. Amalia resigned herself to reorganizing it all after they’d both left.

It was then she realized.

The journal. She froze, hand midway to the shelf, petrified. She didn’t know which box it was in, if it had even been packed. Either way it was an unmitigated disaster. Any moment Jeptha or Philomena could come across it and— Stop. They wouldn’t know what it was, would they? Well, Philomena wouldn’t, but Jeptha’s mother was a General in the army. He would recognize something was off.

She was so stupid.

“Jeptha, let me get that. You carried up two boxes already.” She hoped her voice didn’t sound too strangled, and by the look Jeptha was giving her, she knew she failed.

“What’s—”

There was a knock on the doorframe. Amalia looked up, and her anxiety immediately doubled, with an added dollop of guilt on top.

Her father was here.

“Good afternoon Mr. Harland, Ms. Pelorian. How are you both doing today?” He greeted her friends.

“Hello Judge!” Jeptha gave her father a mock salute. “Splendid, as usual.”

“Of course. And you, Philomena?”

“I am fine, thank you Judge di Danti.” Philomena seemed to still be intimidated by her father, even after all these years. Jeptha, on the other hand, showed a certain lack of regard that bordered on disrespect.

“I see you’re both helping my daughter. I thank you on her behalf, as she has no doubt neglected her manners.”

“I thanked them both.” Amalia said, indignant.

“No she hasn’t. Right bossy, she is.”

“Oh don’t say that, Jeptha. She thanked both of us at least twice.”

“See? And thanks again if you’ve forgotten.” She threw Jeptha a baleful look, temporarily distracted from the thought of the journal. Speaking of said journal, there were three large boxes of books, and it could be in any one of them. She needed to keep them from rifling through the boxes.

The thought of her father or friends discovering that journal was even worse than her private guilt. What would they see when they looked at her, Lothar’s journal in hand? Would they see her like they all saw Black Mages, like strange alien creatures with no empathy? Would they wonder if she was just as lacking, if it was just a matter of time before she became just like him?

Amalia didn’t want to find out.

“I jest. I am here only to insure that my daughter is safe in her new home.” He gave them a fond smile. “Amalia, your mother wanted me to give you this.” He handed her a map of the city.

“That was thoughtful of her, but I know my way to the University and Council Hall.”

“Yes, but we know you, you will want to explore the city.” This brought to mind, of course, her curiosity and how that same damned desire lead her to pick up the book that was currently the source of all her troubles. And her father bought her a gift, after she had stolen from his office. Not that he knew she’d stolen from his office, but she did, and that was enough.

“How are you handling my absence?” Her voice may have contained a bit of dry humor.

“I’ll be fine. I just wanted to be sure you’re safe. It’s only natural for you to be making your own way at this time of your life.”

“And how goes the investigation?” She asked, more than a little curious. It was in the papers that morning. The black mage’s name was Lothar. He was some sort of Sutanni nationalist who wanted destroy Jaborre. It was horrific thinking there were people out there like that.

“I can’t tell you anything that is not already in the papers. The investigators Compelled him to tell the truth. He admitted to being a practitioner of the Black Arts, and was behind the factory bombings. He gave the weapons he stole to Sutanni sympathizers and even helped a few spies across the border. Now the department will have to track them down, too. The only additional part is— well, that is an internal matter that won’t be printed in any paper.”

Amalia froze. She shrunk in on herself, anxiety eating at her. Jeptha was whining at her father, and Philomena was scolding him, but Amalia heard nothing but the blood rushing in her ears.

“I’m sorry. It is an internal investigation and I cannot provide any details.” Her father said.

“I won’t tell anyone! You know I’m trustworthy Judge D! Besides, it’s this one” Jeptha gestured at Philomena, “you have to worry about, not me.”

“I wouldn’t!”

“Your dad owns the press. Don’t tell me you don’t know.” Jeptha grinned at Philomena who glared at him in return.

“I don’t!”

Amalia didn’t bother speaking. Her thoughts were on her father’s words. Internal investigation? It couldn’t be. Jeptha’ gaze lingered on her for a moment, and Amalia realized he was trying to cheer her. She gave him a wan grin.

“I really wouldn’t know.” Philomena’s voice went flat. “I don’t know anything about my father’s work.” Her tone was entirely off, but Amalia was too distracted by her anxiety to pay it any mind. Philomena’s father owned the major publishing company in Port Drebon.

Titus di Danti let out an expansive sigh, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “You three never change.”

“Nope!” Jeptha grinned.

Her father sighed again. “It’s confidential. Pretend I didn’t say anything. Now, to the heart of my visit. Do you remember where the bridge to Old City is?”

“Yes, you told me before.” Said her mouth. Her brain was still too busy analyzing what he said before about the internal investigation. How much should she be panicking?

“Well, where is it?”

“I think…” It had been a while since he told her, and she hadn’t exactly been paying attention. She had no intention of going there. “It’s off Finner bridge, right?” Well, technically there were three bridges that crossed the river, but Finner was the closest to where she lived.

“Correct, but don’t let me catch you down there. One of the stipulations your mother and I set for allowing you to live here is for you to never enter Old City. Do you understand? It’s dangerous.”

Across the Cyremont River was Old City. Port Drebon, like every city, had a good part of town and a bad part of town. Originally, Old City was crowded with dockworkers and had a thriving fishing industry. It became overcrowded with immigrants, and the Council sought to expand the city across the river. As property in the new part of the city became expensive, property in Old City became cheap. People who couldn’t afford to move to Port Drebon before were able to afford it, and Old City remained crowded as a result. The overcrowding and poverty led to resentment of the people living in Port Drebon proper, and so Old City became a slum that bred dissenters and separatists. It was a hive of criminals, muggers, and Black Mages.

“I know. I won’t.”

“Yes, but I must impress upon you: the remnants of the Free Mage Armament are in Old City. You are a Judge’s daughter. Do not force me to choose between obeying the laws of my country and saving my daughter.” Judges did not negotiate with Black Mages, even when said Black Mages were holding their families hostage. Amalia knew there had been situations like that in the past.

The Free Mage Armament was a vicious group of Black Mages that used to attack Judges and their families, trying to destroy the government. They were monsters, worse than the average Black Mage, and far worse than Lothar. Her father was instrumental in the destruction of the Free Mage Armament, so the remnants might try to get at her father by targeting Amalia.

“I won’t. I said I promise. I won’t go to the other side of the river.”

“Actually, just do your mother and I a favor. Don’t go beyond the third loop of any quad and avoid the east side of the city, altogether.” Okay. Now he was being ridiculous.

“Father, stop. I can judge for myself what’s dangerous. I know not to go down by the docks and to avoid the sleazier parts of the East Quads.”

He sighed. “Fine. So long as you are careful.”

“I will be. I always am.”

“I just wanted to make sure.” He said. “I don’t know what will come of this Lothar investigation, and I want to be sure that you know what to do if you are in any trouble.”

“Of course.”

“Have you read over the paperwork on the Aegis system?” The Aegis was a protective barrier guarding the house. It was powered by crystals. They needed to be recharged every day or so.

“Yes. Every twenty hours. I read over it.” Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She read over the parts about when to charge it and what each dial did, but that was all.

“And you know how to set the controls?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

Father spent some time making polite conversation with Jeptha and Philomena, then went to double check that the protective spells surrounding her townhouse had been properly installed. It was another stipulation he made before allowing her to live in the city by herself. She had to wear her protective amulet every time she left the house and keep it charged at all times.

He also assigned a personal bodyguard to her, though Oslin was someone she knew from back home, and he knew to stay out of the way. On good days she could pretend she didn’t have a bodyguard at all.

Amalia thought he was being ridiculous. There was a Watchmirror on every street corner. Anything reflected in the watchmirror appeared on another mirror inside Council Hall. They could see everything that went on within the city.

She was safe. No one would dare touch her, as her father no doubt had Watchguards monitoring the mirrors outside her townhouse day and night. The amulet alone was more than enough protection.

Finally, her father left, but not without parting words. “You have done more for this country in your eighteen years than most could ever dream, and I have faith that I will see more greatness from you in the future. You make your mother and I very proud.”

The words weighed heavily on her.

She supposed if she hadn’t stolen that journal, she would be full of pride, if not a bit embarrassed. It was only a happy accident that she’d stumbled upon a way to improve upon Watchmirrors when she was a teenager, and she hadn’t done anything truly spectacular since then.

She hadn’t even used her knowledge of engimancy to do it. She was just bored one day and wandered into her dad’s office at home and found an unused watchmirror. She’d fiddled with the controls for a while and managed to get it to show a recording that someone had erased. Apparently people don’t spend hours fiddling with controls, and didn’t realize the erased images were retrievable.

But with the theft of the Journal, all his words did was make her feel guilty. He was proud of a thief. He was proud of a thief who possessed a book of Black Magic.

Once he was gone she let out a soft sigh of relief. That was one variable out of the equation, one less person to worry about discovering the journal. What was she thinking, taking that thing?

Now all she had to do was convince Phil and Jeptha that she had it handled, and she could search the boxes herself and see if it was there. If not, then she would rent a coach and tell her mother that— that she’d forgotten something at home. It wasn’t a lie, not really. She could then shove it into the back of her closet and forget it ever existed.

It ended up taking little to convince Jeptha and Philomena that she could handle the rest on her own. They’d been at the townhouse since this morning and were tired. Jeptha, who apparently lived not far from her townhouse, insisted on giving her directions before he left. He used the map her father gave her (A Tourist’s Guide to Port Drebon, her father must have picked it up at a stall on the way to the townhouse. Amalia suspected her mother had nothing to do with it,) and circled Amalia’s townhouse and drew an arrow between it and his apartment.

“See? Now you have to visit.”

She promised, and he left with Philomena.

Then she went to hunt down that stupid stupid journal.

 

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Scene 1: Novel

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“Remember me now?”

“You!” He gasped, “But you’re-”

“Dead?” She said in a pleasant tone, “Oh, no. I’m afraid you’re gravely mistaken.”


 Four Days Ago…

93rd of Sumquar, the Summer Quarter of the year 11,901.

The city of Port Drebon was alive. The noonday sun reflected off the windows of the towering stone and brick buildings. Sounds carried up from the streets, children laughing and the general murmur of conversation filled the air. The clatter of horse drawn carriages and the cracks of whips were interspersed between the shouts of vendors, advertising their wares to eager tourists.

Gazing out over the city from her father’s stately office in Council Hall, Amalia was awestruck. To think that tomorrow she would be living in this grand city herself, all on her own. It boggled the mind.

She would be an adult, attending Port Drebon University’s College of Magics with her contemporaries, working her Engimancy outside the meagre help she gave father on his projects. Finally, her skills would be put to the test.

Her father was not here. His secretary, a thin and nervous man by the name of Henrik, informed her that he had just stepped out and would be back at any moment.

Her father was a Judge, one of five under the authority of the Prime Minister. The Judges each traditionally governed a Bureau, though their duties to any specific bureau were typically ceremonial, unless they took special interest in a project. Their real duties lie in voting on legislation and presiding over court cases where the verdict was contested.

She eyed the brass plaque on her father’s desk, reading Titus di Danti, Judge of Security. Technically that meant he was in charge of the department that ensured enemy nations, such as the Sutanni Empire, were not plotting war or inciting dissent amongst the people.

Her visit was initiated on a whim. She was at her new townhouse today, moving some boxes in ahead of time to save herself effort tomorrow, and finished early. The coachman was out eating lunch, so she decided to visit her father. Council Hall was right on The Loop, the circular road that tied the city together, so she walked down Cercis Street and turned onto The Loop, dodging crowds of tourists anxious to see with their own eyes the majestic hub of the state.

The location of her townhouse was truly favorable, close to both the University and Council Hall. The only downside was the size of the place. She privately admitted to herself that it would be a challenge living someplace that was significantly smaller than the manor, with only her bodyguard for company. But if she got lonely, she could always visit her home. There were no trains running close to di Danti Manor, but there was a stagecoach that carried passengers past it. Not that her mother had much time anyway, as she was busy overseeing the opening of her third factory, expanding the family business.

She stopped staring at her father’s desk and opened the drapes a crack, looking out over the city again. There were birds wheeling in circles around Council Hall, swooping down to get close to the windows, as though to catch a glimpse of the goings-on inside. They were the reason her father kept the thick drapes shut.

Those pigeons outside were no ordinary birds. They were black mages who stole the form of birds to spy on the Council. Protective magical barriers around the building prevented the black mages from entering, and the protective amulet that Amalia wore would keep the birds from attacking her when she walked down the street. They hardly ever tried, but it was better to be safe.

When she was a teenager studying magic, she became curious about how the black mages transformed into animals. She’d run the equations and deemed it practically impossible. The energy required to do such a thing would take factories full of crystals.

When she told her father, he forbid her from researching it further, because the magic they used to accomplish such feats involved the sacrifice of lives in profane rituals. She’d always wondered if there was a way of doing it without all the murder. It would be lovely to fly.

Currently, there were three gray pigeons, a moth, and one ridiculously conspicuous blackbird trying to squeeze onto the window sill. Every time she’d open the drapes a crack, they’d all flutter to attention, trying to get a good look before she dropped the curtain back down. It was an amusing distraction.

Amalia was not a woman of patience, and as the minutes ticked by she became increasingly distracted by the box of books lying atop her father’s heavy oaken desk. There was something strange about them, something that made her eyes drift back to them, even when she meant to be looking elsewhere.

When she attempted to identify the source of this feeling, she determined it was because those books inside the box were unlike the well-kept volumes lining the walls. These books were old and battle worn, with thrice-cracked spines and yellowed pages.

She dropped her hand from the velvet hangings covering the window, and crossed the the thick carpet to her father’s desk to examine them.

Inside the box there were two stacks of seven volumes, each different from the last. Their titles were unfamiliar to her, and as she lifted the first book, revealing the cover of the book underneath it, she realized why. She dropped the book back on top of the stack in disgust.

They were books on the darkest and most foul of magics. They were books of Black Magic.

It was then her brain connected the dots. Her father was overseeing a case. He mentioned last night that the Chief Investigator planned to raid the apartment of the man behind the factory bombings today. The man was suspected of being involved in a series of attacks on the city over the last few months. The attacks were part of a campaign by the Sutanni Empire to weaken the country. These must be his books, set aside as evidence. Father probably just stepped out to collect the paperwork.

It would do her no good for her father to see her holding such a book. Firstly, it was illegal to read books of Black Magic, and second, it was immoral. Black magic made people go insane. Invariably, practitioners become killers bent on destruction.

Yet some small part of her wondered at what knowledge was contained inside those tomes. What sick, twisted imaginings were scrawled between their covers? How did they justify themselves, casting dark rituals, summoning eldritch abominations, and cursing their fellow humans to die horrible deaths?

She’d always wondered. It was a question no one ever deigned to answer. It seemed self evident to most that Black Mages were murderous and deranged. Amalia thought they had to have some reason to turn to wickedness. People weren’t just born like that, were they? She wasn’t sure. Everyone knew that the knowledge contained in books of Black Magic corrupts the reader. But no one knows how Black Magic corrupts people. It seemed hard to imagine people suddenly deciding to torture and maim.

She knew that most people believed themselves to be doing good, even when they were breaking the law or hurting people. They made excuses for themselves, reasoned that there was no other choice- they murdered to protect their families, to protect an ideal. But Amalia could not think of any justification for gratuitous violence, which seemed to be the only goal of the Black Mages. Perhaps that was why she stood over the stack of books, contemplating them, when she ought to have moved away.

But she did not. Instead, she kept studying their outsides, trying to guess at their insides without looking. Surely, it would do no harm? Whispered the part of her that was deeply curious. Two other parts argued in synchrony, both pointing out that her father could walk in any moment, and that people went insane from reading about Black Magic. It was evil.

But what does evil look like? Amalia wasn’t even sure if there was such a thing as evil. She was not used to denying her curiosity. In fact, it was her curiosity that motivated her to study Engimancy. She was able to help improve the Watchmirrors that guarded every street corner as a teenager due to that curiosity. Most her age were still struggling to understand basic enchantments.

Shoved between the two stacks was a thin black journal, grouped with the other seven, unseen until she had disturbed the book on top. A part of her mind remarked that she could easily drop it in her purse, that no one would notice because the books hadn’t been catalogued yet, not if they came straight from a crime scene. Another part of her simultaneously screeched what is wrong with you? That’s stealing!

Outside the office, she heard her father’s deep baritone and Henrik’s nervous stutter in reply. This, this moment right here, was likely the only chance she would ever get to answer these questions. The likelihood of being in her father’s office again while he had such evidence in it and that evidence being uncatalogued was miniscule.

With that in mind, a snap decision was made. The journal was slipped into her purse. Immediately after, she felt sick. This is wrong. She made to put it back, because it had all been a mistake and what was she thinking? when her father entered the office.

Too late.

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Prologue

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Please note that the opinions expressed in Watchmirror do not necessarily reflect the author’s. Please obey the law and act responsibly.


Amalia slid past a bickering couple and a juggler, ignoring the ugly feeling building in the pit of her stomach. She’d been waiting under the awning at the corner of The Loop and East Drebon Street for thirty minutes, but her friends had yet to arrive.

They were there for the parade, the first celebration after a long period of fear and horror. Finally, the great and terrible Black Mage Lothar, who had terrorized their city for months, was behind bars and on his way to the executioner. The city of Port Drebon breathed a collective sigh of relief.

She was wandering around the general area, keeping the shop where they were supposed to meet within sight. The street was crowded, the air thick with excited chattering. She couldn’t wander far, but it was better than standing still. She scanned the faces around her for sight of her friends, but they still weren’t here. People moved in clumps of three or five, talking amongst themselves.

Children pulled their parents towards vendors lining the sidewalk, each cart stuffed with sticky sweets. Couples and groups of friends congregated around stalls, snapping up foods and commemorative trinkets. On either side of the avenue rose buildings of brick and concrete, stones warmed by the sun. Brightly-colored banners flew proudly out every window, fluttering in the breeze.

They were probably just late. Jeptha was the sort of person who tried to appear like a reasonable adult, while in actuality, he was irresponsible and forgetful.  He always ended up arriving late or forgetting to bring his share of the food at parties. He’d insist he thought they were all arriving at another time, or that it was Amalia’s turn to bring the food. In spite of that, Jeptha was actually pretty popular. She guessed he just had one of those personalities. She knew he was coming with Philomena, so maybe they both ran late because of him.

Or maybe they went ahead without her. Her stomach soured at the thought. It stung, because she was so rarely in the city. She was usually at the family Manor, far removed from city life.

This was stupid. She should just go home. She didn’t want to be here. It was too loud and the only reason she’d agreed to come in the first place was to socialize. She’d been bogged down with stress and needed some time to reconnect, to ground herself.

The whole idea of the parade was distasteful; the Black Mage, Lothar, was a monster. He’d blown up three buildings with people in them. But making a spectacle out of his death like this, celebrating in the streets, it just seemed so ugly.

Her father had voted against the parade, of course. It was, he said, an incredibly risky and irresponsible idea. Lothar should be brought to justice inside the Port Drebon Prison, like all the other Black Mages. When that failed to sway the Judges, he’d put himself in charge, personally overseeing the security for the event.

“Amalia!”

She turned around and let out a breath of air. Relief.

“I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Jeptha called out. His dirty blonde hair was sticking to his forehead and his face was flushed.

“Hey, Jeptha.”

“Were you waiting long? I thought we were meeting at twelve.” They were supposed to have met at eleven thirty. Her lips quirked upwards. Of course.

“I just got here. Is Phil around?” she frowned. “I thought she was coming with you.”

He shook his head. “Something came up. She can’t make it.”

Amalia nodded. Then they should get up to the front of the crowd. Her father was head of the Bureau of Security, so he might be there. She knew he liked being personally involved, and it was good publicity.

“We’ll go on then?” she asked. “I want to get a good view.” He probably knew she didn’t want to get a good view of the prisoner, but it’d be rude to say she was looking for her father. It was like her Aunt Basileia always said: if you actually were important, then everyone already knows. Talking about it came dangerously close to boasting.

But she wanted her friends to see and admire him, anyway. A little reminder every once in a while never hurt anyone, and the Lord of an ancient and noble family, tracing their lineage back fifteen generations to the founding of their country, was something to be proud of.

Jeptha shrugged. “Sure.”

They started walking in silence. She was a little annoyed at Jeptha, now that the relief had finally worn off. She forced herself to stop frowning. It wasn’t the sort of thing you could call someone out on without looking graceless. She was a di Danti, and she was in public. Decorum at all times.

They stuck close together, winding around the groups of people talking, heading towards the main road. There were a number of watchguards standing about, on the look out for troublemakers. As they walked further, she noted buildings stretching on for half a block. Some were three or four stories tall.

There was a magic shop at the end of the block advertizing crystals and loops of metal. They were closed. Not all practitioners were Black Mages. In fact, Black Mages practiced an entirely different sort of magic. It wasn’t right that Black Mages gave the rest of them a bad name.

In between the buildings were glowing translucent barriers of magic that prevented anyone from slipping down the alleyways. It was one of the safety precautions set in place by the Council.

“How’s the townhouse?” Jeptha asked, breaking the silence. “Everything was still in boxes when we left.”

“I haven’t unpacked much yet.”

“It’ll feel more like home when everything is in its place.”

“I’ll get around to it.”

Amalia looked away. It wasn’t like she could really explain. She glanced back and saw Jeptha was staring at her, brow furrowed.

“It’s kind of a big deal, you moving out to the city, I mean.”

She nodded. “It is.”

“It’s a big change.”

“Yes, it isn’t what I expected.” She was up half of the night from the sound of people shouting in the street. Someone must’ve had a party. It was louder than the country, and occasionally pungent odors wafted up from the street.

“So, you pretty much kicked us out the other day.”

She frowned. “I didn’t intend for it to appear that way.”

“And you forgot to respond to the invitation,” he said. “I found out from your dad that you’d be here today.”

“Shit. I’m sorry.” She winced. It wasn’t on purpose.

“You know, moving, it can be stressful. And everyone handles stress differently, and that’s okay.”

“I’ve had a lot on my mind,” she said.

“But if it gets worse, you’ll talk to us, right? Because Phil’s pretty worried, and so is your dad.”

“I will,” she promised. “It’s a temporary thing.”

“Okay.”

“Did you want to see Lothar?” she asked, changing the subject.

“I don’t care.” He shrugged. “I’m just here for the music and the food.”

“Oh. Well, we don’t have to go to the front.”

“But you want to catch a glimpse of your dear old dad?”

She went red. “I mean, I see him at home. It’s just-”

He laughed, like it was the funniest thing he’d heard in his life, and linked his arm around hers, grinning. “Come on. We’ll go see your old man. Then we’re getting food.”

She smiled back. She needed this: her friends, laughing and joking, talking about nothing important. It was like the first breath of air after being held underwater for a long, long time.

“So why couldn’t Philomena come?”

“She wouldn’t say. She’s been all weird. Honestly, I’ve been wondering if there’s something going on between the two of you. You’ve both been acting kind of off.”

“I didn’t notice.” Her lips quirked up. “So you thought I was the safer of the two of us to ask?” Philomena had the worse temper out of the two of them, and took offense easily. That wasn’t to say she was a bad person. Phil was just sensitive.

“Pretty much.”

“I’ll ask her when I see her next.”

“Thanks.” Jeptha bit his lip. “So do you want to do anything after this?”

Amalia hesitated. She didn’t want to give Jeptha the wrong idea. It wasn’t like that between them. She didn’t want to say no, because she didn’t want him to think she didn’t enjoy spending time with him. On the other hand, she didn’t want to appear disingenuous. Maybe he was just asking her as a friend?

“That sounds fun. Maybe we can see if Phil’s done with whatever she’s doing by then.”

“Sure.” He shrugged. Jeptha didn’t look upset, so maybe it was okay.

“What do you want to do?”

“Don’t know. We could take the train up to Appleshire. I think there’s a festival this week.” He glanced over at her, noting her sour expression. “Or we could all just go back to my apartment and listen to some music.”

“That sounds nice. I think this fills my quota for crowds for a while.” Amalia thought she was more like her Uncle, in that way. Her mother was energized by social engagements and crowds of people, while Amalia found them exhausting. Her Uncle was serious and a bit solemn, avoiding social events when he could.

The closer they got to the front, the more crowded it became. People around them were shouting and bumping into Amalia and Jeptha. She gripped his arm tightly. She didn’t want to lose him in the crowd. A vendor stall was set up in the middle of the crowd, selling fruit juice. He must have set up there because people wouldn’t want to have to elbow through everyone to get to the food stands. It was clever. It was hot out and the crowd wasn’t making it any better. The juice was practically flying off the stand.

There was a loud roar, and Amalia could see the top of the prisoner’s carriage over the heads of the crowd if she stood on her toes. They’d cordoned off a section of the street for it and the guard to pass through.There was an entire squad of watchguards around it, protecting it from the angry mob, and protecting the crowd from the Black Mage inside it. She thought for a second she could see her father on one of the horses, but a burly man’s head blocked her view.

Jeptha tugged her arm, gesturing to go around the clump of people surrounding the stand. They could get a better view. They started maneuvering through the crowds.

“Excuse me, pardon me.” She said, as they slid past the loitering people, moving closer toward her father. Those around her glanced over briefly before going back to their conversations, ignoring them.

“Excuse me.” She said sharply. She wouldn’t shout, it was uncivilized. If they waited too long she’d never get to see her father. It wasn’t like she got to see him in a parade often.

A loud cheer distracted her from her train of thought.

Confetti was being shot into the air from the rooftops, raining down on the crowd. Amalia squinted up at the rooftop. There was something odd about–

A flash of light tore through the sky, like a glint of metal reflecting the sun spreading outwards. Then the fiery explosion blasted the heavens with a deafening roar, shattering windows, and sending brick and stone hurtling toward the ground. Amalia was hit with a blast of concussive force and saw white.

After that, she saw nothing at all.


 

Everything was silent. Amalia felt like there was something she ought to be doing, but she couldn’t think. It was all muddled, like she was underwater. She couldn’t see. No, that wasn’t right. Her eyes were shut.

When did she shut her eyes?

She opened them, then immediately regretted that decision. It was too bright, like she was looking into a sun. She tried to move, only to realize every muscle ached and her skin prickled with burns down her exposed arms. The back of her shirt was soaked through with something wet and sticky. More alarmingly, the back of her skull throbbed. She tried to remember what she had been doing.

The explosion, she remembered, as her brain slowly pulled together the pieces of her memory. The force of the blast must have hit anyone near the carriage carrying the prisoner.

She was lying in the remains of the vendor’s stall. Her hair was stuck together in clumps to the side of her face. It smelled sticky sweet. Juice ran down the back of her neck as she picked herself out of the ruins of the stall. It trickled down her arms and burned where it touched the scrapes.

She reached for her protective amulet. The crystal was dull. Great. It must’ve burned through all its power trying to protect her from the blast.

She slowly picked herself off the ground, using the crumpled frame of the vendor’s stall to support her weight. Her ears were ringing and the back of her head was pounding. The effort to stand sent a sharp jab of pain through her skull, and she almost lost her grip on the stall.

She gently prodded the wound. Her fingers came away bloody. She knew head wounds bled a lot, and it didn’t mean the wound was serious, but the sight of her blood made her nauseous.

Jeptha was with her. She needed to find him. Amalia leaned on the stall, scanning the ground. There was dust and debris everywhere. She could see people lying on the ground, unconscious, but Jeptha wasn’t among them.

Her breath caught. There was a piece of metal impaling one woman through the chest. Not unconscious. They were–

She had to find Jeptha.

A man was being supported by two others. His leg was covered in blood. Amalia looked away. People had their mouths open in silent screams, running from the site of the blast, desperate to escape the smoke and fiery debris that were flooding the streets.

They’re not screaming silently, she just couldn’t hear them.

It was probably temporary. Well, she hoped it was. She didn’t know anything about hearing loss. It hadn’t occurred to Amalia to read about it, just like she’d never read about head wounds or anything about anatomy. She grimaced.

That lack of interest could get her into serious trouble, now. Best case scenario was a minor head wound and temporary hearing loss, but she was pretty sure she had been standing closer to the middle of the road before the blast, which meant she was thrown through the air and hit her head hard. The protection amulet would have absorbed most of the energy, but it wasn’t enough to block all of it. That was why all the people around her were–

But Jeptha had an amulet, too. He’d be okay. But he’s forgetful. He might have forgotten to charge the amulet. He might be lying under debris right now, or even

Shut up, shut up, shut up! He wasn’t dead. He was somewhere in this area. She wished she could hear. He could be calling for help. But then again, would she be able to pick his voice out of all the other people who were, no doubt, screaming? Irrelevant. She couldn’t hear.

The dark spots distorting her vision weren’t making it any easier. He would be somewhere nearby, and was wearing a blue outer robe. It would stand out against the brick. She just needed to search for the blue.

The sick feeling in her stomach remained.

She needed to focus, but anytime she tried paying close attention to anything, her vision went fuzzy around the edges and the head wound throbbed. Ignore it. Keep going.

Every step hurt. The naked skin that was exposed to the blast, like her face and arms, were stinging with numerous tiny cuts. Her bones ached.

She walked shakily towards a large piece of debris, each step slightly more stable than the last. A street urchin wearing clunky goggles knocked into her, causing her to stumble. He was grasping the arm of a raggedy man whose hands were bound in metal. He was in a prisoner’s uniform. Oh shit.

The Black Mage Lothar. He was escaping! A surge of adrenaline shot through her, dulling the pain. All of this work, her father’s work, worth nothing if that man escaped.

And she didn’t think, not even for one second. She just raced after them, pausing only to grab the arm of a nearby watchguard.

“I know where Lothar is!” Her words sounded as though they were muffled, almost inaudible past the ringing. Still, it was an improvement. The damage to her ears likely wasn’t permanent if she was already able to distinguish sounds. A part of her noted how odd it was being unable to properly hear her own words. Another part of her wondered if she was just imagining the faint sounds. Minds were known to play tricks on people in times of stress.

She saw the watchguard’s mouth move. “What?” He couldn’t hear either. She tugged his arm, pointing toward the fleeing Black Mage and boy.

“Quickly! He’s getting away!” The watchguard glanced at his partner, who looked suspicious. She lost all patience.

“I’m Judge di Danti’s daughter! FOLLOW ME!” She shouted, flashing her signet ring. It was an identifying mark of her status and family name. They’d understand that. She didn’t even glance back to see if they were following her. She was a di Danti, heir of an ancient family, of course they were. Watchguards had standing orders to protect the families of Nobles during emergencies. They were supposed to keep her out of harm’s way. She would ask her father to excuse them from any punishment they’d be due for not evacuating her from the area immediately.

But what about Jeptha?

The watchguards were competent. If he was alive, they’d get him out of the area. If he wasn’t… well, then there was nothing anyone could do for him, anyway. She didn’t know how to help someone who was injured. This, she could do. She could save her father’s reputation. And her ears were recovering. The head still hurt but it was less painful than before. She’d be fine. If it was serious, she suspected she wouldn’t have been able to get up. That was how these things worked, wasn’t it?

Those few, precious, seconds cost her. Why hadn’t she just flashed the ring the second she saw the watchguards? She was losing time. Lothar and the boy had disappeared into the smoke. The two were running towards the alley, but the alleys were all blocked off. The main street would be monitored, and there were watchguards every few paces. They wouldn’t have gone down the main street to face the watchguards and they couldn’t duck into an alley. Where could they have gone? She was breathing heavily and her heart was pounding.

She wracked her brain. Anything, any clue would be helpful. Confetti was dropped from the rooftops. Of course, the insides of the buildings were all open for business, and most have back doors opening to the alleyways. They could have just ducked inside a building and left through the back entrance. It was the obvious solution.

She ran inside the nearest shop, ignoring the shopkeeper’s indignant shout as she rushed past him and out the back door, bruising her shoulder as she slammed into the door frame. Her reflexes were still suffering from the blast. The watchguards followed, and together the three of them burst into the alley.

She glanced both ways, and there he was, Lothar and the boy.He was limping, his black hair matted with blood.

“They’re there!” Lothar half turned, eyes widening in fear as he saw his pursuers. The boy didn’t look. The watchguard to Amalia’s right brought out his revolver in a flash.

A number of loud cracks rang through the air, the sound of gunshots.

Lothar staggered, a red bloom slowly spreading on his side. He stumbled into the boy before crumpling to the ground, clutching the wound.

The urchin let out a feral scream. He started tugging on the man’s arm as though to pull him up.

“NO! DAD! DAD! NO!” The boy sobbed. A balding man with a pot belly burst out of the backdoor of a nearby building, grabbing the boy by the waist and tugging him back, forcing him to run. “Put me down. No! You bastard, put me down! DAD!”  The boy kept screaming, but the balding man ignored him, dragging the boy as fast as he could away from Lothar, his father.

Amalia stopped in her tracks, staring ahead in shock. She didn’t know what she expected to happen when she called the watchguards to her, but this was not it. She wanted justice, she decided, her father’s justice. She couldn’t imagine her father shooting a boy’s father down in an alley.

A small part of her brain noted that she could hear again. It still sounded off, but oh, she could hear! See? She was fine. She would be fine. The other part of her viciously told that part to shut up. You’re not supposed to be relieved when someone’s been shot right in front of you.

The first watchguard cursed as he fumbled with his revolver while the second watchguard fired at the fleeing man and goggle boy. They started running after them. Amalia snapped out of her stupor.

“Stop! Stop shooting!” They looked to her in confusion, which was quickly turning to uncertainty and suspicion.

“What’s wrong, ma’am?”

“He’s just a child, don’t shoot him.”She turned back towards Lothar, who was lying in the alley, hands pressed to his side in an attempt to stop the bleeding. He was looking away from the watchguards, away from her, watching the boy and old man run. It was that expression, his wistful expression of longing and agony, that would be seared into her retinas permanently. He stopped being a deranged murderer and became a man. The boy and man turned a corner, out of sight, and Lothar let his head drop to the ground.

The first watchguard stared at her like she’d just grown a second head. “He’s a drek, they’re all dreks! I’m doing my job.”

But they stopped shooting and weren’t pursuing the boy. Amalia supposed they couldn’t. Watchguards traveled in pairs, and were required to always stay together. And, her brain helpfully provided as an afterthought, they had to protect her. She wasn’t going anywhere, so they couldn’t, either.

“You are not permitted to simply open fire. You must realize I will report you to my father. There are laws- procedures and protocols. They exist for a reason.”

“That’s cheap for you to say from your fancy manor while we’re on the streets fighting these monsters. Now get out of my way.”

“Why? What are you going to do?” She asked, turning to face them fully now, ignoring the few people who ran past them. Apparently others had the same idea, and were using the buildings to escape the smoke and dust.

“I’m going to execute the drek, what do you think I’m doing?” He lifted his gun to fire. This wasn’t justice. Another part of her brain, the part of her that was typically telling her to be more cautious, was screaming at her to stay quiet. She ignored it.

Amalia spoke quickly. “He will be executed soon enough, do not disobey your orders.”

“My orders are to kill dreks.”

“Your orders are to arrest lawbreakers, not execute them!” Her fists were clenched tightly at her sides. They were supposed to listen to her. She was in charge here, not them. She was the daughter of a Judge and heir to a noble House. Who the hell were these watchguards, anyway?

“Listen, lady, I don’t know who you are, because I’m starting to suspect you aren’t a noble, so you better lift your hands where I can see them, look forward, and don’t blink. Now.” The second watchguard was watching their rear, looking around with his weapon drawn, as though expecting a trap.

“My name is Amalia di Danti, daughter of Marion and Titus di Danti, heir to House di Danti. You obey my orders, not the other way around.” She stared down at them imperiously, and made no move to raise her arms.

“How the hell would we know that? And frankly, lady, this entire thing smells like a trap. What did you think? You’d get us all here and- and-”

“And do what?” she said contemptuously. “I lead you straight to your prisoner. He’s captured, now, under your command.”

“That’s exactly it! Children of nobles don’t run around hunting down criminals!”

“I- “ It was true. A week ago she never would have done it. “It’s what my father would want. His Bureau worked diligently to prevent this man from escaping. It’s a matter of honor.” Except that wasn’t true. She had embarrassed her family’s name, even if her father wasn’t aware of it. That’s why she was doing this. She was evening the score, making up for her failures. Her mother wanted her to honor the family name, prove that she was worthy to be heir. If this didn’t prove she was worthy, she didn’t know what would.

Neither said anything, looking at one another as though passing along some secret message. One was by Lothar and the second watchguard stood by her.

“And besides, it’s what any good citizen would do. If we see a crime, we must report it. It would be criminal for me not to do anything.”

“Okay. Okay, fine.” The first watchguard looked frazzled. “Now you need to step aside and let us do our jobs.”

“What, exactly, do you intend on doing?”

“Follow the law, which says to shoot the drek.”

“The law says no such thing!”

The first watchguard made like he was going to fire, so Amalia quickly stepped between him and Lothar, staring down the barrel of the watchguard’s gun.

Amalia’s heart was pounding out of her chest and her hands were clammy with cold sweat. They couldn’t shoot the daughter of a Judge. She kept repeating that to herself. It was illegal, more illegal that killing a drek, worthy of a death sentence if they were caught. She knew that, but the gun was still pointed at her and and it still had the potential to kill her.

The other part of her screamed to get out of the way of the man with the gun, but she couldn’t move her body. That boy’s father wasn’t going to die in an alley, surrounded by trash and broken bottles.

The other watchguard, the one that had been to her left, rounded on her. “You would die to protect a drek?”

“Of course not.” Her lips said, but she hadn’t taken her eyes off the gun, which the first guard had barely lowered. Her muscles tensed and goose bumps rose on her arms. “I just won’t stand by and let you commit a crime.” Her voice had a slight tremor to it. She hoped they hadn’t noticed.

“You’re committing a crime by getting in our way.” His face behind the visor was contorted in anger. All she could see was the face and the gun. She needed to calm down, but her muscles wouldn’t loosen and her spine wouldn’t relax.

“I’m doing what my father would want.” Her voice cracked. Her mouth was too dry.

The first watchguard sighed, rolling his eyes. “Idiotic little idealist.” He spat. “They blew up the Lowell Building! There are people dead thanks to this bastard.”

Amalia turned towards the first watchguard, disgusted. “Could you actually order someone to be murdered in cold blood? Look at him, he’s defenseless.” She wanted to say that it would make him no better than the dreks, because dreks were the only kind of people capable of killing mercilessly and without remorse. Everyone knew that. But it was really stupid to insult someone pointing a gun at you.

“Black mages are never defenseless. Who knows how many people this bastard’s sacrificed in profane rituals. Watch him.” The first watchguard gestured at Lothar. “He’s faking it. Any moment he’ll get up and run, then you can explain to your father how the Black Mage that’s terrorized Port Drebon got away.”

Alright. If an appeal to their morals wouldn’t work, how about an appeal to self interest?

“You will wait for my father to get here and you will put down your gun. As a matter of fact, I am saving you both your jobs. He would be incredibly angry with you, exposing his daughter to violence and death.”

The two looked at each other again, frowning. “Arthur?” Said the second watchguard.

The first watchguard, Arthur, lowered his weapon.

“Keep your guns out, but don’t shoot.” Amalia compromised. “Wait until my father gets here. If Lothar makes a move to escape, then you can shoot him.”

Someone coughed behind her. Lothar. She felt a flash of worry. He was going to bleed out on the street. This was pointless. Shooting him would be merciful- except she couldn’t just stand there and watch someone get shot. She doubted she could order them to help him, either. She really really wanted her father to get here. The pain from the cut on her head was intensifying and she needed to think.

“Hey!” Shouted a man.  Amalia turned to see two more watchguards running towards them. Finally, backup. It was over. They’d go and get her dad, and everything would be okay.

“What’s happened here?” Said the blonde watchguard. The new watchguards weren’t wearing their helmets. Amalia spoke before the two could get a word in.

“My name is Amalia di Danti, daughter of Marion and Titus di Danti, Heir to House di Danti.” She thought she ought to make it clear just who was in charge right away.

“I saw Lothar escaping, and I directed these two guards to subdue him. We are now waiting on further orders from Judge Titus di Danti.”

The blonde watchguard and his partner looked at one another. “Do you have proof you’re a noble?”

She thrust out her hand. “My signet ring.”

The blonde watchguard took one look and snorted, laughing. “Train your gun on her, Arthur. She’s no noble.”

What? No, of course she was- this wasn’t- this can’t be. They’re- how could they make such a- but they were trained to be able to distinguish between signet rings!

“What? Of course I’m a noble. I’m Amalia di Danti, daughter of Judge Titus di Danti.”

“Little Lady di Danti lives in her manor in the country. No one’s ever seen the girl. Did you really think you could fool us with a fake ring and some fancy clothes?”

His partner spoke up, sneering. “You’re just some drek trying to trick us! What’s your real name?” The watchgua- Arthur, quickly trained his gun on her, and Amalia’s heart sped up. She could hardly hear what they were saying. Dreks and a trick, something about dreks and a trick. I’m not a drek. I’m not- I don’t know any Black Magic!

“I am Amalia di Danti, daughter of Marion and Judge Titus di Danti, Heir of House di Danti. You will be severely reprimanded for pointing a weapon at me. If you wish to save your jobs, then put down your weapons!” Her voice went shrill at the end. She had to convince them. She was a di Danti. She was Titus and Marion’s child. She was noble.

“Look,” said the blonde watchguard, “we know you’re one of those sympathizers. You lost today. There’s no way out. Now move aside or we won’t make it quick.” His voice sounded like it was coming from far away.

“I’m not!” She thought, in a distant corner of her mind, that she might be hyperventilating. “I’m Judge Titus’s daughter, of the line of Marion di Danti.”

She couldn’t hear what they were saying anymore, it was being drowned out by a tidal wave of fear. She only heard words like Black Mage and lying and separatist.

For the second time in as many minutes, a gunshot tore the air. Amalia let out an inelegant shriek and spun around to see that the second watchguard had fired his revolver.

Lothar was lying limp, skull shattered from the shot at point-blank range. She hadn’t even seen the watchguard move. Amalia almost retched.They’d killed him. He’s not alive anymore. He was there just a second ago and now he isn’t. The second guard then raised his gun and aimed at Amalia. She froze, all thoughts of Lothar’s death fleeing her brain from sheer terror. Four pistols aimed at her. Just one could kill her, but this was four people convinced she was a monster, four guns which meant- which meant they’d all be waiting for the other to do it. If any one of them had even a shred of doubt, she could use it. Which one was on the fence? She had to figure out which one could be persuaded.

“I think we should kill you, too, imposter.” Sneered the second watchguard. A hysterical part of her mind noted that he sounded like a cartoon villain. Who said that? And he was out of the equation. He killed Lothar. There would be no empathy from him. Blonde guy was in charge, and the others listened to him. The partner just went along with whatever he said. Arthur was nervous, which was dangerous. Talking to him might just make him more nervous.

She looked the blonde watchguard in the eye, voice growing unsteady. “I am not a Black Mage. I swear to you. I am Amalia di Danti. Call my father here with your Handmirror. He’ll tell you.” Handmirrors. Communication devices that allowed you to see the reflection of the person who held the matching mirror. All of the watchguards had them and used hand signals to pass along messages. She could have just made the watchguard give her his, and she could have signaled to her father, told him where Lothar went. Why hadn’t she? Stupid girl, wanting to impress her father.

“What, do you think we’re fools? He’d kill us for sheer stupidity.” Said the blonde one’s partner. “Besides, don’t you know you’re only making it worse for yourself? Impersonating the daughter of a Judge is treason.” She wondered what was worse than being murdered, and her brain immediately shut down that line of thought. The blonde one just looked exasperated, dismissive.

“No! Look at the signet ring. I swear to you, it’s genuine. Look!” She tried rubbing off the dirt. That was why they hadn’t recognized it. Blood and dirt on her hands. Her blood. Her blood would be on the ground. She couldn’t wipe it off, her hands were shaking too hard. She felt like she should be crying but no tears would come.

She was losing it. She couldn’t focus like this.

“Just shut up and get on the ground.”

“I’m not a drek!”

The second watchguard fired a shot into the air. “I said get on the ground!”

Her legs were shaking too much. She couldn’t move. “Please please just listen to me…” she squeaked out.

“I won’t say it again.”

“Would you please just listen to me!” She raised her hands in the air, obviously disarmed. Arthur was her only hope. He was the only one who wasn’t completely convinced. A mad gamble only made when one has little to lose.

“I know you’re scared, I am too. The explosion, everything– but we can’t just fall back to violence every time we’re scared. So please, put down your weapons. My father will be here any moment, and he’ll take care of everything.” Appeal to a higher power. He wanted to be told what to do, to have the decision taken out of his hands.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” The partner sneered, “he’s going to take care of us? What do you think, you’re going to kill us?” Her eyes widened with fear.

“No, no. That’s not what I said.” She realized her voice was hysterical, but she felt like she was out of control.

“Don’t listen to her anymore. I’ll bet you ten to one she set the explosion.”

“Just get on the ground!”

“I can’t, I can’t- I can’t move.”

“GET ON THE GROUND!”

“Please don’t. Please. Don’t kill me. I promise you, I’m not lying. Please, just put the guns away.” Her hands were cold and shaking. The adrenaline pumping through her system was useless. She couldn’t run and she couldn’t fight.

“And give you time to work your wickedness?” The watchguard sneered. “I think not.”

“I swear! I’m begging you plea–”

A gunshot rang out across the alley, and a second body joined Lothar’s on the ground.


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