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Preface from Mooderino
Despite the late hour, Prince Ranade did not feel particularly tired. On the contrary, he was quite chipper, pleased to have been roused at such an anti-social time — a time when his wife was fast asleep and unable to dictate his routine. Herbal teas were her new obsession. Which would be of no concern to him if instead of forcing him to change his perfectly adequate imbibing habits, she had inflicted the tepid tasteless beverages on herself (although she probably did that, too — and convinced herself she enjoyed them).
A boon to the digestive system, apparently. Although, she would have to allow him digestible food first.
Coffee was out, tea was frowned upon. Alcohol was considered a treat for special occasions, and watered down to barely present.
A ruler of a nation, a commander of vast armies, and a hostage to emotional blackmail, such was the life of a prince of Ranvar.
Guards in polished armour stood stiffly to attention all the way down the long corridor. No doubt, they could eat and drink what they pleased.
“Monforth,” he said to the elderly man gliding across the thick red carpet alongside him, “I take it this midnight gathering will concern some threat or other?”
Monforth, carrying files and papers which he constantly shuffled to check and confirm whatever it was his prince asked, bowed his bald head just enough to suggest a nod. “Indeed, sire.”
“A loss of life?” asked the Prince, carefully building up to the more worrisome question.
“I believe so, sire.”
“No, sire, not that I’m aware of.”
“Good, good. That’s something.” The Prince let out a loud breath. “I expect this will be quite a taxing session of the joint heads.”
“I imagine so, sire.”
“Have some strong coffee brought up.” He made it sound as casual and unimportant as was humanly possible. “I think this calls for something to keep us alert and focused, don’t you?”
“Absolutely, sire. I believe the Princess has left standing orders for her special brew to be used for occasions such as this.”
The Prince stopped, an innate sense of self-preservation warning him he was about to walk into a trap. “Special brew? Of coffee? Coffee is coffee. What’s so special about this brew? She has her own coffee now?”
“Yes, sire. Her Royal Highness has found a very talented coffee artisan who produces a very, erm, unique blend. The Princess considers it the ideal, erm, refreshment for meetings such as this.”
The polite emphasis on certain words to make them more palatable did not escape the Prince’s attention. Monforth was a diplomat at heart, so he could be relied upon to obfuscate the truth whenever possible.
The Prince resumed walking. “And it’s made of actual coffee?”
“I believe it is made from the most expensive bean available, which are required to undergo a process which is called decaffeination.”
“Is that kind of language necessary, Monforth?”
“I apologise, sire. I believe it means the stimulant is removed from the end product.”
“The stimulant? Removed? Why would anyone want to drink it, then?”
“For the taste, sire?” suggested Monforth.
The Prince scowled. “The woman’s a monster. And you’re sure we can’t have her locked in a tower or something.”
“I’m afraid it’s still considered unconstitutional. The research you commissioned has revealed no loopholes. Divorce is your only real recourse, and I fear that would only provoke Her Royal Highness.”
“Yes, that would only lead to disaster. At least now she is only trying to keep me healthy, misguided as her methods may be. Imagine if she actually wished to do me harm.” He shuddered and reminded himself that it was a regent’s role in life to suffer for his people..
Two guards positioned either side of the double-doors ahead opened one door each. The Prince walked into a large room with a long table. There were five men seated around it, arguing. Since they were all facing the other direction, none of them noticed his arrival, which had been silent.
The servants all noticed his appearance in the doorway, of course, and stood erect and motionless, eyes fixedly staring at nothing, which would normally alert the others in the room, but in this case, they were all too engrossed in a discussion about the Ransom school.
Monforth took a step forward to let them know the Prince was in attendance, most likely with a small cough. The Prince stopped him with a raise of his hands and listened to his most trusted counsel in bemused silence.
“The boy is the key.”
“The boy is a child. The matter is resolved.”
“Surely you jest. Resolved? Have you no inkling of what is to come?”
“What is to come?”
“I have no idea. But it’s coming, I assure you of that.”
“If we continue to treat every shadow as a gateway for demons, it isn’t the demons who will overcome us, it will be our own stupidity.”
It felt like this argument had been going on for some time now. It was energetic and vehement, but in tones of disdainful politeness that suggested no one was open to be proved wrong about their firmly held views.
“Gentlemen,” said one of them, standing up and looking to the door.
The others immediately rose and turned to face the prince. In unison, as though they had practised it, they bowed from the shoulder, formal and obedient, greeting him with, “Your Majesty.”
There was also a side table with a large urn on it and a young serving boy next to it, smartly dressed in the palace livery, bowing low but keeping quiet, waiting to pour hot beverages as called upon. The Prince gave the large silver urn a suspicious look. The boy took this as an indication of the Prince’s desire to be served a drink and moved to pick up a porcelain cup.
The Prince waved him off. He wouldn’t be drinking any of that filth. The thought of it was enough to make him want to decaffeinate right there and then.
“Gentlemen,” said the Prince as he sat at the head of the table. “I take it there’s some urgent matter that can’t wait until the morning.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” said Foreign Minister Kuplas, “I’m afraid so. It’s Gweur.”
“What have they done now?” the Prince demanded. “More rogue mages?”
Kuplas shook his thin, angular head, and then sat up and pulled down his jacket where the lapels met. “No, sire, although there may be a connection. We learned earlier this evening of a coup. The government has fallen — the government that viewed our special relationship as a favourable one — has been replaced by a group that is rather more ambivalent towards Ranvar.”
“You mean they think we’re tyrants who need to be ejected from every corner of Gweurian soil,” said the Prince.
“Yes, sire, I think that would be the sum of it,” said Kuplas.
“And these upstarts, they have some affiliation to the religious zealots we’ve been chasing around the Gweurian countryside?”
“I’m sorry to say it isn’t very clear.” Kuplas looked pained. He pinched the bridge of his long nose. “If I were to guess, then I would say there is a connection, but exactly what…” He looked across the table at the masked figure of the Secret Service’s Chief of Staff. “Chief?”
The Chief’s large shoulders rose as his chest filled with air. Then sank again. “We suspect they are in some kind of alliance together, the leadership of the cult and the leadership of the new ruling party, but there’s been no direct contact between them.”
“As far as you know,” said Reshvay, Minister for War. His tone was dismissive and carried no small amount of accusation in it.
The Secret Service was meant to have rounded up the conspirators by now, extracted an explanation of how they were able to acquire raw Arcanum and, more to the point, who taught them (rather crudely) how to use it. Once the head had been cut off, the rest should have fallen into despair and despondency. That had not been the case.
“We have kept the zealots contained,” said the chief. “There has been no activity for several weeks. There was no sign there would be anything like this. If it was a joint venture — and there’s nothing to prove it was — the zealots did not participate. No magic was used.”
“No,” said Kuplas. “No magic, but plenty of sharp blades. The incumbents — all carefully selected for their good judgement and cooperative attitudes — were all executed on the steps of their parliament building. Many of them had to be transported several kilometres to bring them from their homes. This was carefully planned and carried out to send a message.”
“And what message was that?” the Prince pressed. They all stared at him. “Gentlemen? What is the significance for Ranvar?”
“Other than the loss of a useful ally,” said Kuplas, “it isn’t entirely clear as of yet, sire. We expect them to start making demands and stipulations once they’ve swept the blood off their streets and had a chance to wash the splatter off the walls.”
“Was there much resistance?” asked the Prince. “The army? We trained their national guard for them, did we not?”
“Yes, sire,” said Reshvay, somewhat bitterly. “Capitulated like a bunch of peasants.” He shook his head, his large walrus-moustached trembling with rage.
“They can hardly be blamed if we were responsible for their training,” said a voice from the other end of the table.
The Prince drew back in his chair to look at the speaker. A young man, certainly young for this table. Elegant, well-turned out. A bit of a dandy, perhaps. Popular with the ladies, no doubt.
“And you are…”
“Carmine, Your Majesty. Mol Carmine. Acting Minister of Instruction.” He stood up and bowed again.
“Yes, I recall seeing your file. Very impressive. We have high hopes for you.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. I hope to make you—”
“Yes, yes,” said the Prince, keen to avoid the usual ritual rambling he was subjected to at every opportunity by his subordinates. A simple yes was far preferable. “Sit down. If you’re half as effective as your predecessor, I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
Carmine sat down. The Prince turned to Reshvay. “He’s one of yours, is he?”
Reshavay nodded. “Youngest Major General we’ve ever had. Ran my intelligence unit. Very bright. He won’t disappoint.”
“Good, good,” said the Prince. “And what do you make of the Gweur situation, General Carmine? An active threat to our security?”
“Yes, sire,” said Carmine. “Active, but not imminently. Simmering hostilities will soon be coming to the boil.”
“How long would you say before we’ll have to start worrying?” asked the Prince.
“Once they’ve settled down, they will start to make contact with their neighbours in a bid to build an alliance against us. Within two weeks they will have trade agreements in place that will have surprisingly favourable terms for their new partners, who will rally around them in the name of justice and profit. Military spending will go up and the rise of a nationalist agenda will lead to heightened recruiting for their armed forces. Within six weeks they will have a viable defensive capability. Within three months they will have a viable offensive capability.”
Prince Ranade sat back, impressed by the specificity of the timeline presented to him. His ministers usually did their utmost to avoid being pinned down to exact dates. How accurate this one would turn out to be would be another matter, but these things were best judged after the facts were known. If the young man wished to make a name for himself as someone with a prescient understanding of the threats Ranvar faced, then let him prove himself.
“The rest of you agree?” said the Prince as he glanced from one to the next.
“Our borders are secure,” said Minister Bol, who ran the Ministry for the Interior. “They won’t cause us any issues, no matter what they attempt.”
“Not unless they manage to round up a few friends from the other side of our borders,” grumbled Reshvay. “It’s been a while since the last gathering of discontents. We’re probably due.”
“And what would you say is our best option, currently?” the Prince asked the table. “A friendly fly-over by a troop of dragons?”
There was an awkwardness as the ministers looked at each other.
“I’m afraid the dragons are not available, at the moment,” said Reshvay.
“What do you mean? None of them? How can that be?” demanded the Prince, perturbed that he was only now being made aware of what was clearly a problem. “What’s wrong with them? Are they ill?”
“We aren’t exactly sure,” said Reshvay. “It seems there’s a problem with the High Father. It has led to a general torpor in the condition of the whole species. Archmage van Dastan would be the one to ask. He was supposed to be here.”
“I see,” said the Prince. “Are there any more mundane actions we can take in the meantime?”
“It’s a little extreme,” said Carmine, “but there is the option of usurping the usurpers.”
“Take out the new government?” asked the Chief.
“It wouldn’t be that difficult,” said Carmine. “They are in a state of flux at the moment, if we were going to make a move, now would be the ideal time.”
It was a bold suggestion. “And how would you do it?” asked the Prince. “Magic?”
Using magic to assassinate leaders who were not amenable to seeing sense was the traditional method, although it hadn’t been used in some time.
“No, sire,” said acting-Minister Carmine. “I’m not a mage, myself, and I prefer not to put too much reliance on unstable forces I don’t fully understand. I’m sure it would work, probably, but it would also make it obvious where the order originated from. I would much rather use a method less reliant on Arcanum and the restrictions that substance incurs.”
Prince Ranade was surprised. It was rare to find someone referencing Arcanum as a liability. He couldn’t even recall the last time it had happened.
“Such as?” asked the Prince.
“Poison,” said Carmine. He said the word like it was a weapon itself. “Undetectable, it will seem like death by natural causes. We target one or two key players, the older members of the new coalition who have been keeping everyone from fighting each other, and let them fall apart of their own volition. It would give the dragons time to recuperate or a remedy found.”
It was an interesting approach. Not definitive, just enough of a nudge to keep the newly ascended off-balance.
“A remedy for the dragons, and a remedy for the agitators of Gweur. How would you administer this remedy?” asked the Prince.
Carmine turned to the Chief of Staff. “Chief?”
“Hm? Yes, I suppose we could administer the, ah, remedy. Others will rise to take their place, of course. We can’t poison them all. It isn’t like they won’t notice something’s amiss, even if they don’t know who’s behind it.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll guess,” said Carmine.
“Won’t they retaliate?” asked the Prince.
“If they have the ability to, then yes, sire, I think they will. It would be better for us to goad them into taking action when they aren’t fully prepared. And if the zealots are involved, this may force their hand and thus reveal themselves.”
The Prince mulled it over, stroking his moustache. “Hmm. Yes. It would be better than waiting for them to get comfortable.” He looked around the table. “This matter with the dragons is a concern. I would like to speak to the Archmage about it.”
There were nervous looks around the table again.
“He hasn’t been very responsive,” said Bol. “I’ve tried to arrange a meeting with him, but I’ve been told he’s too busy.”
“Doing what?” asked the Prince.
“I don’t know,” said Minister Bol.
“He’s inside the Royal College,” said the Chief. “That’s all we’ve been able to discern for sure.”
“I can go speak with him, if you wish,” said Carmine.
“Didn’t you say you weren’t a mage?” asked the Prince, curious as to why the new man would volunteer for such a task. The Archmage was an intimidating man at the best of times. Facing him on his home ground was something few people would want to willingly subject themselves to.
“I am not a mage, that is true,” said Carmine. “In fact, to be perfectly frank with you, sire, I don’t fully trust those who are. A prejudice of mine.”
“And why is that?” asked the Prince. “Do you have reason to be wary of mages?”
“I feel I have reason to be wary of any man who is imbued with the ability to defeat entire armies alone. There is something not quite right for a single man to hold such vast power.”
“You mean like a king, or a prince?” asked Prince Ranade.
“No, Your Majesty, not at all. A king acts in the interest of his subjects and of his kingdom. It is a burden as much as it is a blessing.”
“I can certainly attest to that,” grumbled the Prince.
“A mage acts in the best interest of… well, I can’t say I’m entirely sure.”
“And how long will it take you to prepare the targets and deploy the remedy?” asked the Prince, making it sound like he was asking the royal gardener about the whitefly problem.
“Immediately, Your Majesty,” said Carmine. “My preparations are complete. As soon as the Chief makes his agents available to me, I will be able to start.”
All eyes turned towards the Chief of Staff. “What? I mean, they are ready now. What is it you want them to do?”
“I’ll brief them personally,” said Carmine. “It won’t be very complicated. I’m sorry to impose. I would use my own people, but I’ve only just moved into my new office and I have to say it isn’t at all clear how my predecessor was able to accomplish so much on such a low budget and with only a small number of staff. I’m hoping my performance on this matter will help me get some additional funding for the Ministry.”
“You understand this isn’t the requisitions and appropriations committee, don’t you?” said Minister Bol, nonplussed at the attempt by someone to pad their ministerial allowance.
Carmine smiled innocently and rubbed the back of his head. “Apologies. I still have a lot to learn about how to conduct myself in these kinds of situations. Please forgive my shameless attempt to extract money from the royal exchequer, Your Majesty.” His voice was softly persuasive even when going in reverse. The smile turned into a boyish grin.
“Ha!” laughed the Prince in a curt bark. “You may only be the acting Minister of Instruction but you seem to have the art of it well in hand. Intelligence officer was he?” Reshavay nodded. “Let’s hope he isn’t too smart for his own good.”
Prince Ranade relaxed into a contemplative posture, a hand pulling on one end of his moustache. The ministers recognised his need to review his decision and waited silently.
In fact, the decision was already made. Gweur was not important enough to waste a large amount of resources on, but enough of a potential worry to be dealt with as quickly as possible. Something as mundane as removing a couple of pivotal figures to slow down their grasp for self-determination was an adequate response. And there were other matters to consider. The condition of the dragons, for a start. He didn’t believe it was something that should be underestimated.
“I wish to know more about this other matter,” the Prince said presently. The ministers waited for something more specific. They had no idea which matter he was referring to. “I’m speaking about the Ransom boy. You all seem to be showing an extraordinary level of interest in this child. Someone please expand on the basis of this attentiveness.”
There was a pause as the ministers collected their thoughts, and hoped for someone else to take the lead. Such reluctance was unusual for this group, who always tried to outdo each other when it came to making bold claims and insisting on unproven threats. It could only mean there was something very unsettling at the source of their concerns. Something they couldn’t even name.
“It is,” said Minister Kuplas, “something of an unusual situation.”
“How so?” asked the Prince.
“The demons are drawn to him,” said Kuplas. “The Royal College have made him their ward. The Secret Service have had to keep tabs on him, and even then he has managed to evade their surveillance.”
“There’s nothing to surveil,” bit back the Chief. “The boy is like any other student. The matter from before has been resolved.”
“The boy is a magnet for trouble,” blustered Reshvay. “Even if there are no signs of a problem currently, it is only a question of time. It would be safer to have him removed, for the greater good.”
“My understanding,” said Carmine, his voice the calmest of them, “is that this Tutt boy is merely a victim of circumstance. He happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and became caught up in events beyond his control. His greatest achievement was to survive unscathed.”
The rest of the table looked at Carmine with the studied authority of men who had learned to see trouble before it made itself known, facing a youngster who had not.
Carmine realised he had exposed himself and retreated into affable charm. “I’m sorry, did I speak out of turn?”
Kuplas slowly turned away from Carmine, towards the prince. “It is as our colleague has pointed out so astutely. He emerged unscathed, from an encounter, no, from several encounters, that even a great mage, even the Archmage himself, would have struggled to withstand. Unscathed. And he is merely a boy of no ability and no standing. The idea of such an unknown quantity is disturbing. The potential for such a presence is terrifying.”
Reshvay slammed his fist on the table. “Squash him! Squash him now before it’s too late.”
“He is a child,” said the Chief. “And an unnecessary distraction when we have far more pressing concerns. If anyone needs to be kept under observation, it’s the Archmage’s daughter.”
“I wholeheartedly agree,” said Kuplas. “Remind me again who it is she associates most closely with among the Ransom students?”
Even under his mask, the Chief’s scowl was apparent.
“Fascinating,” mused the Prince. “I had thought we had heard the last of this pup. Nicolav Tutt, that was his name, was it not? It seems young master Tutt has the gift of being the centre of attention. Very well, now he has mine. Chief, I want you to increase monitoring on our young enigma. I wish him to be unaware of it, though.”
The chief nodded, but not in his usually definitive manner.
“I’m sorry to say,” said Reshvay, “the Chief’s people have had something of a chequered history when it comes to keeping their eye on the boy.”
“It’s the girl,” said the Chief. “She is unmanageable, as her father trained her to be.”
“Do you think,” asked the Prince, “this could all be part of a much more involved conspiracy hatched by the Archmage himself?”
There was another pause, but this one was heavier, ready to burst but wary of the damage that might be caused.
“I think that is more than likely the case,” said Minister Kuplas, softly.
“More than likely but less than certain?” said the Prince.
“If I may,” said Carmine. “I realise I’m coming in late on all of this, but perhaps I might be allowed to lend a little scrutiny with regard to the boy? The Chief does have his hands full with affairs of national security.”
“Aren’t you also a little too busy with your small budget and lack of staff?” said the Chief, bristling at the implied ineffectiveness of his department.
“It won’t take much effort,” said Carmie. “You see, even though I don’t claim to understand the source of this boy’s importance, I do recognise he is a rather unique individual, as my predecessor did before me, and I’ve had his movements observed, purely as a precautionary measure.”
“In the school?” said the Chief, ready to make a territorial issue of it.
“He isn’t in the school, currently,” said Carmine.
“What?!” said the Chief, startled and embarrassed by the news. “Where the hell is he?”
“At the Royal College.”
“Under the Archmage’s orders?” asked the Prince.
“I am not sure,” said Carmine. “Possibly.”
“How did he leave the school without your men reporting it?” War Minister Reshvay asked the Chief of the Secret Service, in no way hiding his petty delight at the mask man’s failure to keep track of the boy whether in captivity or the wild.
The Chief answered by shifting to ask Carmine a question of his own. “Is the girl with him?”
”The Archmage’s daughter? Yes, I have been told she is.”
“Just the two of them?” asked Kuplas.
“No. That is, my predecessor’s daughter is also with them.”
“And which of the three was it you were keeping such a close eye on?” Minister Kuplas asked.
“It seems,” said Carmine, “that they come as a packet of three.”
“The only person who can really explain this is the Archmage,” the Prince growled. “Monforth have him summoned. And make it clear it is more than a polite request.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Monforth, who had remained standing behind the Prince’s chair during the meeting, walked over to one of the servants who were lined up along one wall, waiting to be of service. He passed him a note that had already been written and the newly appointed messenger immediately ran off. Monforth returned to his position.
“The rest of you, begin your tasks,” said the Prince. “And increase your efforts regarding the boy — we will monitor him for various angles and see what kind of picture emerges. Don’t be too heavy-handed. He is to be allowed the freedom to act as he pleases, for the present.”
They all stood, bowed, and then left.
“I’ll try that coffee, I think,” said the Prince, suddenly feeling weary. If the Archmage was behind any of this, it would be most troublesome. An external foe, from outside of Ranvar’s borders or outside of its plane of existence, was one thing. The most powerful mage in the kingdom working his treasonous spells from inside these very city walls was another thing altogether. A far more problematic one.
But it could be the Archmage’s interest had been piqued for the same reasons as his ministers’. The boy was a curious nexus of unlikely fates. If he wasn’t the agent of some more powerful entity, he was to be pitied. An innocent. The forces he was likely to encounter would not leave him innocent for long.
A cup of black coffee was placed in front of him. It looked like regular coffee, but that was how she worked her own treasonous magic. He took a sip.
“Hmm. Not as bad as I expected. It could use a lump or two of sugar.”
“Ah,” said Monforth. “We no longer stock sugar, not exactly. We do have a sugar substitute that I’m told is nearly identical, other than a slight bitter aftertaste.”
Bitter sugar? What kind of madness was this?
“Just bring me some milk! Or has the blasted woman replaced the cows with Dalmatians in horned helmets?”
He sat with a grim expression, waiting for his warm milk to arrive, and then continued to wait for what he expected would be a rather less warm arrival from the Royal College.