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.

 

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Scene 3: Examination

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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.

Previous | Next

Scene 2: Suspicion

Previous | Next

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.

 

Previous | Next

Scene 1: Novel

Previous | Next


“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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