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The foreign minister and the amba.s.sador from Gweur, a small country west of Ranvar, had been excitedly agreeing with one another for the last ten minutes. Prince Ranade had lost interest about nine minutes ago.
He frowned at his plate and pushed up a lettuce leaf with his silver fork, hoping to find something more appetising underneath. He was disappointed. As the Crown Prince of Ranvar, he could order the palace chef to bring him any meal he wished. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to be able to command his wife to stop intercepting those orders. He had agreed to a more healthy diet, but who ate salad for breakfast?
He was forty, only slightly overweight, and next in line to be king. He had been next in line his whole life and seemed no nearer to the throne. Which didn’t mean he had no power. Quite the contrary. He practically ran the country. All decisions came through him, all major policies were drawn up under his instructions. But it was still his father’s signature that was required to put them into effect.
King Ranvar XIV was confined to his bed, as he had been for the last six years. He was weak and near death, but refused to take the final step. Not that the prince wanted to see his father dead. He loved his father and respected him as a king, when he was the king. But he wasn’t any longer, and yet he was.
The reason the king was bedridden had nothing to do with age. At sixty-six, there was plenty of life left to live and plenty of men who functioned perfectly well. But the king had been a mage; a practising one. And supernatural forces exerted strains on the human body.
It hadn’t been proved, not scientifically, although tests had been carried out and many papers had been written. The Arcanum community were just as keen to know the truth about side-effects, and why they affected some and not others. But all the tests came back inconclusive.
Prince Ranade didn’t need evidence. He had seen his father’s deterioration with his own eyes. The tremors came first, then the loss of muscle. And slowly, the dementia. It could have just been nature taking its course. Once you get to a certain age, illness can come in many forms and often for reasons that aren’t understood. But this was not natural. The prince, while not a full mage, had been trained in Arcanum as all the royal family were. He was adept at a few minor skills, one of which was magic sensitivity. He could feel the magic ravaging the insides of his father’s body. And there was nothing he could do about it. There was nothing anyone could do about it.
He had decided to not use his own gifts unless strictly necessary. Far better to allow others more powerful in that area to operate at his behest. Most mages were only too happy to fling magic about and hang the consequences. The prince was only too happy to let them.
The lettuce was crisp and fresh. The tomatoes succulent. The entire salad was beautifully put together and covered in a rich dressing. But it was still a salad.
I will have to have a chat with the Royal chef in private, he thought.
Some of his ancestors had executed their unreasonable spouses, but there were laws now to prevent that sort of thing. Prince Ranade understood better than anyone why they were necessary.
Foreign Minister Kuplas sighed heavily and pinched the bridge of his nose. “If you please, Your Majesty, the situation in Gweur is reaching a tipping point.”
“Yes, of course,” said Prince Ranade, not really sure what situation the foreign minister was referring to. Generally, things were only brought to his attention once all normal channels had been exhausted. “What exactly is the problem?”
Amba.s.sador Adamal snorted air through his impressive moustache and violently crunched on a m.u.f.fin. The m.u.f.fin was oozing with b.u.t.ter, the prince couldn’t help but notice.
Minister Kuplas’ mouth formed a flat, grim line across his face. “Forces of darkness, Your Majesty.”
“Don’t be so theatrical, Kuplas,” said the prince a little testily. His true ire was caused by the radishes, elegantly cut into roses, but his melodramatic foreign minister wasn’t helping. “You mean this cult, do you?”
“My apologies, Your Majesty. Yes, but it is less of a cult and more of a group of agitators. Encouraging people to do as they wish and enjoy themselves before the end of days, or beginning of the new order, or something along those lines. It’s hard to tell with these free-spirited types. They want everything and nothing.”
“There is discontent among our people,” said the amba.s.sador through his m.u.f.fin. “I fear for the future of our beloved nation as a strong independent force for good, and as a loyal friend to the Kingdom of Ranvar.” He continued to feed his grief.
Ranvar and Gweur had a special relations.h.i.+p. One that the Gweur government were very keen to maintain. They knew full well what Ranvar was capable of doing to them if they didn’t.
“Can’t we send over a few more troops to quell the disturbances?” said the prince. It seemed a fairly obvious solution. There were already troops on Gweur soil, by invitation, of course. A few more wouldn’t raise eyebrows.
The foreign minister shook his head. “There are no disturbances to quell. The people are simply refusing to do their work. Factories are empty, fields are untilled. They believe there is more to life. They believe magic can be made available to all.”
Prince Ranade raised a heavy eyebrow. Like his father, his facial hair was red and wiry, even though the hair on his head was blond to the point of being white. “Well, good luck to them on that score. Took me twelve years just to be able to light a candle.”
“Hah!” said Amba.s.sador Adamal. “They not only claim it, they have made demonstrations.”
“Magic outside of Ranvar?” said the prince. “Why was I not informed of this?”
“Parlour tricks, Your Majesty,” said Minister Kuplas. “Or so we thought, until recently. It seems one among them genuinely has the gift. A young woman who does not appear on any register and who has no birth certificate. We believe she is the leader of the movement. We have also learned of women matching her description going back at least two hundred years, possibly more.”
“The same woman?” asked the prince.
“It appears so,” said the foreign minister.
“And what have you done about her?”
“She is currently residing in a cell under the Ministry of Instruction. We thought it best to extract her from Gweur—with the permission of the Gweur government, of course.”
“Good riddance to her,” said the amba.s.sador as he slapped more b.u.t.ter on another m.u.f.fin.
“And what have you gleaned?” asked the prince, now quite interested. “Where is she from? What power does she possess?”
The foreign minister sighed heavily. “Unfortunately, she has been impervious to reason, and also to pain. We have learned nothing of her true purpose, or nature.”
“This really won’t do. Delcroix, isn’t this the sort of thing you’re supposed to be good at?”
Minister for Instruction Delcroix sat at the other end of the table in front of a salad identical to the prince’s.
“Indeed, Your Majesty. Unfortunately, we suspect the woman isn’t entirely human.”
“What is she then?”
“That’s what we plan to find out. There is an expert arriving today to help us determine exactly what we’re dealing with.”
“An expert? A Ranvarian expert?” asked the prince.
“Yes, Sire. I aim to keep this matter internal.”
“And so you should. Tell me, Delcroix, did my wife force that salad on you?”
Delcroix looked down at the salad. “No, Your Majesty, this was my choice. I haven’t seen the Crown Princess today.”
That hardly makes a difference, thought the prince. I haven’t seen her either, yet here I am, sitting with this leafy monstrosity.
“Kuplas, have a word with the Ministry of War and see if they can spare a troop from the Dragon Corps. The main forces will be deployed along the eastern frontier, but the striplings in training should be available. Have them run some exercises around the Gweur border, maybe even into Gweur airs.p.a.ce, with your permission, of course.” He nodded at the amba.s.sador.
“Of course, of course,” said the amba.s.sador. “That would be very helpful. I will arrange it immediately.” He stood up, bowed, and hastily exited, leaving a half-eaten m.u.f.fin behind. It would have been unseemly to grab it, the prince decided.
The sight of a dozen dragons running formations in their skies should remind the Gweur population the price of freedom.
“Delcroix, impress on your expert the urgency of this matter. We need to know if there truly is a threat, and from where.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” said Minister Delcroix. He rose to leave.
“And with regard to your other responsibilities, he is still safely locked away, isn’t he?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“You’re sure? You’ve checked?”
“Every hour, Your Majesty.”
“I suppose that’s adequate. Just be careful. I know that’s your stock in trade but he was not easily subdued.”
“I will be extra vigilant, Your Majesty. He will not escape from me again.”
“Yes. It’s the again part that worries me. He is your highest priority. Don’t let little witches be a distraction.”
Lamworth Tenner stood in the hallway of the Ministry of Instruction admiring the painting on the wall. It was of King Ranvar VI who had been responsible for the ministry’s inception. It was also the only painting he had seen where the frame was part of the painting. It looked very much like a real frame, carved with ornate designs, but in fact it was clever use of paint and light. A testament to the ministry’s dedication to convincing people of truths that did not exist.
“Ah, Lamworth, you’re here,” said Delcroix walking towards him down the hall. “I take it my people have briefed you on the sensitive nature of this business.”
“Yes,” said Tenner. “I have to say, Minister, I’m not altogether sure I believe it.”
“Good, that makes two of us. This way.” He led Tenner to a door that looked like it would open into a large office but in fact behind it there was a staircase. “I won’t give you any details, I’d rather you make up your own mind without any influence from me, or anyone else. Just get as much information of any kind out of her.”
“I will do my best,” said Tenner as he followed him down the winding stairs. “If she does turn out to be a demon, I’d be very interested to know how she got here. There hasn’t been a sighting for over a thousand years.”
“Yes, well, judging by the way she keeps popping up in the record, she may very well have been that last sighting.”
After a surprisingly long jaunt down several levels, they came to the bottom and a very well guarded room. Tenner counted ten nervous-looking soldiers in the immediate area, and the sound of more nearby. There were a series of heavy doors with back iron reinforcements along one wall. It would take a great deal of effort to break through them.
Minister Delcroix produced a key. “I won’t accompany you in, I find her rather irritating. I’ll send in a couple of guards with you, but my advice would be to keep your distance.”
“Understood,” said Tenner, already feeling quite excited. He tried his best to keep himself calm. It was very unlikely she was a genuine demon, but even a tangential connection would be worth the trip.
“And try not to think of this as one of your experiments. Think of it more as a matter of national security.” Delcroix opened the door.
“Yes. Will do.” Tenner entered the dark room. Two soldiers followed him in, both carrying lanterns. They immediately went to the two corners either side of the door and stood there like statues, lights held aloft.
The door closed behind them. The key turned in the lock with a thunk.
On the far wall, hands chained up high, wide apart, feet chained low, also wide apart, stood a young woman. She looked like she might be twenty-five. Certainly no more than thirty. She wore a simple smock, white and fairly new. It hung off her like she had been hurriedly dressed and without her partic.i.p.ation. The back was untied and the fit was loose.
Her skin was pale but smooth and youthful, covered in dark smudges around her neck and her wrists. It may have been dirt, it may have been the remnants of bruising fast-healed with potent salves. Her lips look dried and cracked and her yellow hair hung lank, hiding most of her face. She seemed to be muttering to herself.
Tenner approached cautiously, his head tilted to try and get a better look under the curtain of greasy hair.
“Ah, h.e.l.lo. It’s Junia, isn’t it? I was told that was your name.” There was no reaction. “My name’s Lamworth. That isn’t my true name, though. My mage name is Dariah.”
She looked up, then. Her eyes were bright and clear and he could see every line, every curve of her face despite the shadows obscuring everything else in the room.
“You give me your name, child?” she asked in a small, feminine voice that matched her face, but her condescending words were incongruous. A mocking smile lifted the corners of her lips. “Are you a fool, or just as tired of life as I?”
Tenner’s heart leapt in his chest. There was something here, something he had been looking for and failed to find. She was far younger than him, or at least it appeared so, but when she spoke, he felt the weight of centuries. His search had been so very long and so very fruitless, could it be his relentless pursuit had finally paid off?
“I give it to you gladly. Perhaps I could have yours in return?” He spoke quietly, with deference, as though speaking to a grandmother from a great family. “If you don’t mind.”
“My name, my name...” Her head fell forward again so she spoke to the floor. “It has been so long, so many years playing at life, waking each morning and putting on sweet little Junia like putting on this shapeless smock, both equally as unfitting. And then walking and talking and eating and s.h.i.+tting. And then sleeping and rising and repeating it all. My name? You desire to know my name? It will do you no good, little wizard. What use is a name when the thing it names is no more potent than dust?”
“I do not wish to use it against you, only to address you correctly. It is a joy and a pleasure to meet you, Old Mother.”
Her head snapped up and one eye rose at a slant. “Joy? What do you people know of joy? I have travelled all over this rock of yours and I have seen the great cities and the wild places. The dark men who fight naked in the far deserts until they fall weeping to the ground, bloodied and broken. The genteel ladies who dress like colourful birds and peck at each other like dull, grey pigeons. Your world is full of beauty none of you has seen, and enormous ugliness you place on pedestals and wors.h.i.+p like G.o.ds. You are worms still wriggling in the earth. You have yet to experience joy.”
“I wish I could see through your eyes,” said Tenner sincerely. “Long have I wished to see the truth of this world.”
“Is that what you wish, child? I don’t believe you would like what you see. The truth of the world is that it is a giant nursery where babes squabble over toys. There is little worth seeing, and nothing more than once. I closed that door a long time ago, when I realised the view through it was no more substantial than a picture in a book; and with the same purpose. To be looked at and then forgotten, shadows to remind you of something no longer within reach.
“It is another door I wish to open, one that refuses to open even a crack. That door is far more appealing, but heavy and firmly shut. Why won’t it open? Why have I been barred entrance? Why?”
Her head lolled from side to side in despair.
Tenner leaned forward, his cheek almost touching hers. “Tell me about this door,” he said with great pa.s.sion. “If I can help you open it, I will. Perhaps together we can find the key.”
“Hah!” cried out the girl. “There is no key. There is no need for one. The door swings open with the slightest push, or so it should. Junia is on the other side. Junia is holding the door in place against me. Too long have I worn her like a skein wrapped around me and forgotten what it is to be free. I shall lie down like a sick dog and never get up. I accept my fate.”
“No!” cried out Tenner, startling the guards and making them s.h.i.+ft about uncomfortably. He lowered his voice again. “Old Mother, do not give up, yet. I can help you.”
“Help me?” She laughed, but her throat was dry and the sounds that emerged were broken and half formed. “What can the wizardling do that I cannot? What power do you possess when up is down and down is up?”
He felt the s.h.i.+ft in the world, the power in her words rearranging existence. The guards behind him exclaimed in surprise as they fell upwards towards the ceiling, cras.h.i.+ng loudly as though having dropped from a great height.
Tenner willed himself to refuse the call. He denied what seemed so obviously true. Down was not up, no matter how incontrovertible it seemed. He broke out into a sweat, his entire body aflame under the skin as if from a fever.
“You fight the truth, child,” she said, perhaps a little impressed. “You struggle well, for a human. But you struggle for nought.”
“Do not lose faith, Old Mother,” said Tenner through shaking lips. His body rattled like it was being broken from within, but still he refused to believe. His own faith was being tested to its limits, the effort soaking him in sweat, the strain spreading through him until every muscle stood out. There was thunder in his ears and it sounded like Death’s footsteps running towards him. “As long the door exists, it can be opened.”
The world stilled, or at least it felt so to Tenner. There were two loud thumps as the guards landed on the ground, still and lifeless. Their bodies were unmarked and their faces held expressions of great confusion. Tenner breathed easily again, his chest rising and falling to quickly regain the air it had lost. He took out a handkerchief and wiped the sheen off his forehead.
“Perhaps you can help this old woman, Lamworth.”
Tenner looked up, dabbing his face with the handkerchief. Her appearance had become even more youthful, even more beautiful. She did not seem to be hanging from the wall, it was more like the wall was an ornament she wore.
“I think I can,” he said, “ but I will need you to do something for me first.”
She smiled mockingly again. “And what favour do you wish me to grant?”
Tenner folded up the handkerchief and put it away. “I need you to die.”
Prince Ranade was very angry. He was sitting at the dinner table facing yet another salad. He had spoken to the chef, privately, and made it very clear how he expected the evening meal to proceed. He had taken into account his wife’s interference, and arranged for a decoy salad to be prepared. The genuine repast would be delivered by means of stealth and subterfuge. The finest agents of the Secret Service were placed at the chef’s disposal to ensure the prompt and successful delivery of the real meal, codename Silver Spoon. And yet, the only thing to arrive was the salad. Had his wife infiltrated the Secret Service? It had never been achieved before, but he wouldn’t put it past her.
What was the point of being the most powerful man in Ranvar if he couldn’t even order himself a steak when he wanted? Were the rest of his edicts followed with equal incompetence?
“In the afternoon, Your Majesty will be hosting a garden party for—”
“Will there be a buffet, Monfoth?” he asked his aide.
Monfoth was technically aide to the king, but since the king was incapacitated, he provided the same service—a tight schedule planned well in advance—to the Prince Regent. He was nearly eighty and wished dearly to retire to his cottage in the country. It had been awarded to him on his sixtieth birthday and he had visited it only twice since then.
“I believe so, my liege. The Princess has taken care of arrangements.”
Ranade’s heart sank. “Carry on, what else?”
Monfoth went over his notes, trying to find his place. “Oh, there is one other thing. Your brother asked for an audience.”
“My brother? Which one?”
“Leovek, my liege.”
“Leovek? What does that runt want? Shouldn’t he be at school?”
“Yes, my liege. He is in the uppercla.s.s at Ransom. It seems he got himself into an… awkward situation. The Ranvar protocol was enacted.”
Prince Ranade nearly choked on a slice of beetroot. “What?” he roared, once he’d cleared his throat. “How did the little twerp do that? When was the last time it was even used?”
“A hundred and forty seven years ago, my liege.”
The Ranvar protocol gave the Secret Service the right to incapacitate a member of the Royal household, but only when it pertained to their safety in the face of a sudden and immediate danger. Too often, a prince or princess would panic or refuse to do as they were told, believing their position too lofty to be truly under threat. They were considered a danger to themselves and subdued in a swift and painless manner, to be revived once they had been carried clear.
“And it was a justified use of the protocol, was it?” he asked the aide.
“An investigation is underway, but yes, I believe it was justified. It involved the girl.”
“The girl? What girl?”
“The Van Dastan girl,” said Monfoth. “Apparently he insulted her and she didn’t take kindly to it.”
Ranade rolled his eyes. “I’m surprised she didn’t kill him on the spot. Is she… upset?”
“I don’t believe so. Reports suggest her reaction was quite measured. She treated it as a minor nuisance.”
“Ha! That about sums up the little twerp. Send him a letter telling him to stop acting like a whiney runt or I’ll send a group of Instructors down to that school and have him publicly flogged.”
“I’m afraid you can’t do that. Not since the Agvarian Act of—”
“Yes, yes, I am fully aware of the limitations placed on me by that infernal act, but he isn’t. That girl has done more for the kingdom than he ever will. Make sure he understands she is to be left alone. And make sure the Secret Service understand it, too. If she wants a normal school life, she’s going to get it, fifth prince be d.a.m.ned. That’s all for now.”
“I’ll see to it at once, my liege.” Monfoth bowed and backed out of the room.
“Now, Delcroix, what have you got for me.”
Minister Delcroix, who had been waiting patiently by the door, stepped forward.
“If I may, Your Majesty, I’d liked to introduce Lamworth Tenner.”
Tenner also stepped forward and bowed. “It is an honour, Your Majesty.”
“Yes, I’m sure it is. You can dispense with the formalities. Is this the expert you spoke of?”
“It is, Your Majesty,” said Delcroix. “Our foremost expert in the field of demonology.”
“And what of the woman you apprehended? Did she reveal herself to you, Tenner?”
“Ah, yes, in a manner of speaking. I believe she was a demon.”
“Was? What do you mean was?”
“The subject died a few hours ago,” said Delcroix. “Took her own life.”
“Why the h.e.l.l would she do that?” said the prince.
Delcroix looked at Tenner who cleared his throat.
“From what I could piece together, her actions in Gweur were designed to attract out attention. She wanted to be caught. I believe she had been left behind when the gate to the Other Place closed—I’m not sure why, an oversight perhaps—and living disguised as a human for hundreds of years had left her sapped of her strength. Her mind, too, had become unstable. She wished to end her suffering, and needed a strong source of magic to do it. The Ministry of Instruction houses most of the relics from the dark times, I believe the arcanum field they produce was enough to allow her a way out.”
“Hmph,” said the prince. “So there’s no imminent invasion from the Other Place?”
“No, Your Majesty. Not to my knowledge.”
“It would be very inconvenient to have to fight a demonic war right now.”
“She gave no indication that was going to happen. She was rather a sad figure, I found. Terribly lonely.”
“And you’re sure she’s dead. Actually dead, dead.”
“Oh yes, although… with your indulgence, I would very much like to take the body back to my research facility. I think there is much we can learn from even an empty vessel.”
“And where is this research facility?”
“Mr Tenner is a teacher at the Ransom School,” said Delcroix.
Prince Ranade looked at Tenner with renewed interest. “I see. So you’ll know my younger brother.”
“Prince Leovek? Certainly. I teach him first year Arcanum.”
“And how would you rate him, as a student?”
Tenner took a moment to consider. “Unremarkable, Your Majesty.”
“Ha! Seems you have a good eye. Take the corpse, but I want a full report on what you find. Delcroix, I expect you to keep abreast of this and any other developments. If there is something more here than meets the eye, I don’t want to be taken unawares.”
“You can count on me, Your Majesty.”
Both men bowed and left. Prince Ranade sat alone with his salad, formulating a new plan. Operation Cheese Sandwich.
It was already dark by the time Tenner’s carriage was ready.
“You’ll find your package inside,” said Delcroix. “I don’t suppose you’ll mind sharing the journey with it sat opposite you.”
“Certainly not,” said Tenner. “I can’t thank you enough, Minister. This has been the most rewarding experience of my career as a demonologist to date. Many of my colleagues believe me to be a crackpot.”
“Really? I can’t imagine why.” Delcroix smiled, grimly. “Don’t get too carried away. This may just be a random encounter with an ent.i.ty out of time, but there could be more to it. I expect you to contact me the moment you discover something, no matter how trivial.”
“You will be the first to know, I guarantee it.”
The men shook hands and nodded stiffly at one another, and then Tenner climbed into the carriage. The other occupant was dressed like a lady of means, a black lace dress and a large hat hiding her face behind a veil. Closer inspection revealed black bandages wrapped around her torso to keep everything together for ease of transport. Arms and legs wrapped up made her much more convenient to carry.
Tenner knocked on the carriage roof with his cane and the driver snapped the reins. The carriage and rider both belonged to the Ministry of Instruction, which meant a smooth, uninterrupted journey back to Ransom. Once the city lights faded away, Tenner watched the darkness outside the window, a smile on his lips as he looked forward to taking his prize home and unwrapping it.
There was a sudden, terrible gasp and his companion’s eyes flew open. “What is this?” she hissed. “Why am I bound?”
“For your own protection, Old Mother. You need only bear it a little longer. Once we reach our destination, you will be freer than you have been in a long time, I promise you.”
This seemed to mollify her, leaving her content to breathe deeply, filling her emptied lungs. Eventually, her breathing calmed.
“So, we begin our journey,” she said. “The four of us.”
“Four?” said Tenner. “But we are only two.”
“And the man above.”
“The driver? He makes three.”
“And the one below.”
Tenner felt a chill go through him. He raised his cane and knocked on the roof. The carriage slowed, and then stopped. He opened the door and jumped out, ignoring the driver’s questioning look. They were in the middle of the highway with only trees on either side.
Tenner bent down and looked under the carriage. It was too dark to see clearly. He stuck out his cane, said a few ancient words under his breath, and the tip of the cane glowed a brilliant white. He jabbed it under the carriage.
There was a grating squeal, like a piston in dire need of oiling, and a dark shape shot out. Its form was hard to make out but it was as large as a man. It flew past him and the rush of air pushed Tenner back, but he managed to reach out and grab part of it.
There was a tearing sound and another squeal, but the apparition escaped into the night sky. Tenner looked at the torn fragment in his fist. It looked like black material from an ordinary cape. He took out his handkerchief, opened it up and placed the torn cloth inside. Then he wrapped it up and put it back in his pocket. He had ways to determine exactly what he had encountered.
He looked up at the driver who was resolutely staring ahead. Tenner climbed back in and gave the signal to keep going. The rest of the journey proved uneventful, his fellow pa.s.senger remaining silent. When they reached the school, the gates opened without questions, as all gates did for vehicles bearing the Ministry’s emblem.
The driver had been told where to go and took the carriage around the library to the PaG.o.da. It stood dark and foreboding, a silhouette against the night sky. Tenner disembarked and unlocked the large door while the driver lifted the motionless corpse out of the carriage. He held the door while the large man carried the small woman like she was nothing. But she was far from nothing. Tenner felt a rush of excitement run through him. He looked around and saw a dim glow in one of the library windows.
It was far too late for the librarian to still be at work, and unlike her to leave a lantern unattended, but these were matters that didn’t concern him. There was still plenty of time before dawn, and much work to be done. He entered the PaG.o.da and closed the door behind him.