Minister Delcroix sat at his desk, reading the most recent reports to have been filed on the incident at the Ransom School. Only one of the files was written under the official letterhead of the Ministry of Instruction, his own department. The others were from various departments he had no official connection to, but numerous unofficial ones.
It wasn’t like he didn’t have enough matters to attend to regarding foreign powers and their attempts to influence the Royal Court. He had a list of people who needed to be investigated. Bribes. Blackmail. Suspect sympathies.
Ranvar was far too powerful an entity to take on directly. None of her neighbours would dare a conventional attack, but they frequently attempted something more insipid, if allowed.
It was his job to not allow it. Would that they accepted their place under Ranvarian rule, but they would not. No one would, of course. It was human nature to try to break free of shackles and yokes, even comfortable ones, but they were a long way from achieving their freedom. The leash was long enough to allow them their machinations and plotting, and short enough to bring them to heel if they ever came close to posing an actual threat.
He held up a report from the Ministry for the Interior. Primarily a bureau for the protection and maintenance of state resources, which tangentially included schools, although the current minister seemed to have an obsession with the declining number of trees in Ranvar. He was constantly lobbying for the annexing of regions containing forests. Rather a flimsy excuse for war.
The report was on the latest incident at the Ransom School—which were becoming something of a regular event. The Ministry’s report was difficult to read due to the excessively small writing, probably in an effort to save on paper and thus prolong the life of a tree somewhere on Ranvarian soil. Delcroix took out his seldom used glasses and put them on. At least, it used to be seldom.
He was getting older, there was no denying it. Arcanum could accomplish many things, but immunity from old age was not one of them. Delcroix had been a Minister for seven years, ever since the untimely demise of his predecessor. It was something of a departmental tradition for all outgoing ministers to do so in untimely fashion. He hoped to buck the trend.
He read the report, looking for discrepancies. There didn’t appear to be any. Blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of Master Ferityn, the mage from the Royal College who had inexplicably attacked a Ransom student. And lost.
But his defeat at the hands of a child was not the most remarkable feature of the incident. It had been his disregard for the very clear instructions sent out to all staff and faculty operating at the school to leave this particular student alone.
Schools didn’t come under the purview of the Ministry of Instruction, not directly, but there was no mistaking the signs that the mage had been under the influence of someone wishing to provoke the van Dastan girl.
A foreign agency? It was hard to tell and difficult to ask the man himself. The experience had left him shattered and unable to do much else apart from ramble incoherently.
There were other candidates, not least of which the young prince she had humiliated. Prince Leovek was well down the pecking order and his powers were limited, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t somehow involved. Lack of evidence did not mean the absence of guilt. Still, it would come as a great surprise if he’d managed to convince even a second grade mage like Ferityn to challenge a direct edict from the Royal Court. Surprising, but not impossible.
If it had been a petty act of revenge, Leovek’s position would save him from public humiliation, but in private he would be severely punished.
Delcroix took off the glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. The school had become a lightning rod for controversy of late. Young minds were ideal for shaping, which was why the best of them were gathered in one place and guarded jealously. What Ranvar could do with them at this impressionable stage of their lives, others could do also, given the chance. Children were a resource far more important than trees.
His own daughter attended Ransom, and did so with great aplomb. She was a special child, and not just because she was his offspring. She had always been remarkable. Determined, driven, ambitious. He smiled to himself thinking of her. He tended to keep his distance, curious to see how far she could get without his assistance. He held great affection for her, but restrained himself from pursuing his fatherly urges. If she was to truly reach her potential, she would need space to do it. He was ready to step in if she fell, but so far she hadn’t faltered even once.
Happily, her name hadn’t appeared in any of the reports. Whatever was going on at Ransom, his daughter was not involved. The Tutt boy, however, was a constant in all of them.
Which was hardly unexpected. He was linked to the van Dastan girl purely by dint of being enrolled at the same time as her, so obviously would be present during these incidents.
There had definitely been something special about him, also, and it would be a shame if he somehow got embroiled in these unnecessary altercations. The Secret Service needed to be much more preemptive in their duties. A strongly worded note to the Chief of Staff would seem appropriate.
He reached for the pen usually found in his top pocket, and grabbed at air. He had been doing this repeatedly recently. He kept reminding himself he had given the pen away as a gift, to the boy he was just thinking about, in fact, and then he would forget all over again. Old age.
He picked up the bell on his desk and rang it. The door on the other side of the office opened before the last chime had a chance to fade and a tall, thin man came in, spun around to close the door, and then continued to turn until he was facing the Minister’s desk once more.
“You have an appointment. The Crown Princess has invited you to her latest garden party. I believe this one is for the Farmer’s Association.” He spoke in a crisp, lilting tone that carried the remnants of a southern accent thoroughly whipped into submission, but still peeking defiantly.
“A garden party in winter?”
“It’s not quite winter yet, Minister. I believe it’s a themed party, to celebrate the harvest. A bumper year.”
It was not an invitation that he particularly wanted to accept. Farmers, although a vital part of Ranvar’s economy, were not big players on the international stage, and garden parties yielded little in the way of actionable intelligence. But the Crown Princess had taken to inviting all the ministers to her luncheons and soirées.
She was very beautiful and very charming. The kind of woman men had great difficulty saying no to, and a great desire to please. She had qualities he admired but did not value. His own wife was of a completely different type. Her abiding quality was that she could be relied upon, unreservedly. In his line of work, that was far more attractive.
“It starts in twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes? Aren’t you supposed to inform me of these things in advance?”
“Yes, Minister. I believe twenty minutes is fair warning. Any longer and you’d be liable to forget.”
“Are you suggesting I’m losing my powers of recall, Stodar?”
“No, sir. Senility has yet to claim you. Overburdening yourself with too many obligations concurrently is your greatest enemy, and one that would no doubt claim you as its victim, were it not for myself, standing at the gates like a warrior demon.”
“I see,” said Delcroix. His secretary was prone to speaking with rather more familiarity than expected of one in his position, but then he too carried the mantle of absolute reliability, and used it to get away with thinly veiled impertinence. Very thinly. “Stodar, I seem to have misplaced my pen.”
“Yes, Minister. I believe you gave it away, to a boy.”
“We’ve spoken about this already?”
“We have. You don’t recall?”
“I recall I asked you to get me a replacement.” He didn’t, in fact, recall but it seemed like what he would have asked.
“You did. It arrived this morning.” Stodar took out a pen from his breast pocket and put it on the desk.
Delcroix picked it up. “If it arrived this morning, why didn’t you give it to me?”
“I think you’ll find I did.”
Since he was holding the pen, it was a hard point to argue. The pen was reassuringly heavy and gave off a faint buzz of latent Arcanum. “It’s built to the same specifications?”
“It is. It would have taken another week, but I threw my weight around. Actually, I threw your weight around. The Master at Arms may behave somewhat anxiously around you next time you see him. I mean, more than normal.”
“Did you threaten him?”
“Not personally, no.”
He put the pen in his pocket where it immediately felt correct, unable to recall what he had wanted to do with it. He really needed to start writing things down. Which reminded him of the note to the head of the Secret Service.
“You have fifteen minutes,” said Stodar.
The note could wait. He rose from the desk. “Send for a carriage.”
Stodar nodded and left. Delcroix turned around and went to the door on the far side of the room, discreetly set into the corner. He opened it and entered the dressing room he used when his duties prevented him from leaving work. There was a rail with identical shirts, jackets and trousers to the ones he had on. There were also some uniforms for official engagements. He did not have one for garden parties, themed or otherwise.
There was also another door that led to a bathroom. He went in to freshen up. He was known for his dark demeanour and harsh look, which often proved useful, but it would only attract attention if he attended a civic event dressed like an executioner.
He washed his face and hands. He looked in the mirror over the sink. Gray hairs slowly turning white. There was a movement behind him.
“You have something to report?”
“Yes, Master,” said a whisper from the shadowy corner, barely audible over the burble of tap water. “The uprising in Gweur has dissipated.”
“Dissipated? They’ve disbanded?” He had expected the calls for change to lessen once their figurehead was removed, but a complete abandonment of the movement this quickly was unexpected.
“The leaders of the movement have disappeared.”
Delcroix dried himself off with a towel. He could use a little colour, something to break up the monotony of black and white. He returned to the dressing room. “How can they have disappeared? Didn’t you track them?”
“Unable to,” said the voice from somewhere behind his jackets. “Crude Arcanum was used.”
Delcroix stopped looking through the drawers for a handkerchief or pair of cufflinks that might be hiding in there. Crude Arcanum? A volatile and unwieldy material that wasn’t very good for much, apart from obfuscation. It did a wonderful job of flooding an area with so much background radiation that tracking a particular signal became almost impossible. Was this a deliberate act, or just the best they could do?
If the demon had passed on some kind of ability to her followers in Gweur, they would have to be stopped before they learned how to refine and develop their powers. It wasn’t so far fetched. The first Ranvarian mages had gained access to magic from a demon.
“Increase the number of Instructors in the field and find them. I want to know where they went and what they’re doing.”
“Yes, Master.” His shirts rippled as though from a strong draft, and he was alone again.
He opened the last draw and next to a neat stack of white underpants was a small, gift-wrapped box. He picked it up.
From your most important daughter.
He vaguely remembered it—a present for his birthday? Not a recent one, he was sure. Judging by the handwriting, which was that of a young child, it had been sitting there, waiting to be opened, for several years. He couldn’t blame encroaching senility for this, it was from when his faculties were at their peak. Perhaps as far back as when he was first promoted to Minister.
From your most important daughter.
He smiled. She was his only child. The statement was instructive rather than comparative.
He opened her gift, belatedly. Inside was a neck tie. A bright red one made of silk and very wide, a fashion no longer worn. It didn’t matter, he would honour his daughter even if she wasn’t here to witness his appreciation.
“Your carriage awaits,” said Stodar when Minister Delcroix returned to his office, the bright red tie adorning his chest. There was a flicker of something across Stodar’s brow, but he kept his sartorial views to himself.
Delcroix took out the pen to quickly write a note, but then thought better of it. “I want you to send the Chief of Staff at the Secret Service a request for a meeting.” Better to speak to him face to face.
“How polite would you like the request to be?” asked Stodar.
“Not at all,” said Delcroix. He headed for the door. The sooner he made his obligatory appearance, the sooner he could make his excuses and leave.
“Minister, did you forget something?” Stodar was holding the pen. “If I’m not there to protect you, at least keep this with you.”
The trip to the palace took only a few minutes. It was a mild, sunny afternoon with a slight nip to it when the breeze picked up. Delcroix walked up the decorative path on the far left of the grounds, under the archway of vines guarded by immense gryphons carved out of hedges, and into the reception garden.
Wafting smoke and the delicious smell of food over flames welcomed him as he approached. There was a steady wash of conversation and the sizzle of cooking meat. The garden was a broad rectangle of perfectly manicured lawn, with a white stone fountain in the middle splashing water up into the air and back down.
Around the edges, long tables were covered in platters of food of every description. In between them were slightly shorter metal tables grilling meat over red hot coals.
There were richly oiled wooden chairs with fat, colourful cushions but most of the thirty or forty guests were standing in clustered groups, talking and laughing, clutching plates and glasses.
These weren’t the kinds of farmers who toiled the fields. These were the landowners who employed thousands to do the toiling for them. They were robust men with robust wives, who rose early and spent most of their time in Spring and Summer outdoors, supervising the cultivation of crops that fed the nation, and made deserved fortunes in the process.
Ranvar’s ability to feed itself was crucial to its survival and independence. When you didn’t rely on others for basic needs, you didn’t have to make deals or sign treaties. Their part in Ranvar’s success was no less than the Royal College’s.
A number of other ministers were already present. Kuplas from the Foreign Ministry, Reshvay from the Ministry for War, Bol from the Ministry of the Interior. He had no interest in talking shop.
He scanned the area for his hosts so he could pay his respects. He found them easily. The Crown Princess, an elegant woman, relaxed and smiling in whatever company she found herself, somehow luminous and clearly the centre of attention. She had a group of women surrounding her, rich farmers’ wives who lived in luxury but saw the realities of life around them and were unimpressed by showy, flashy things. They hung on her every word.
And beside her, looking uncomfortable, was Prince Ranade, chewing on his own moustache as the meat sizzled and seared around him like hot pokers in a torture chamber.
Delcroix waited for the carefully orchestrated rotation of one group for the next, and slipped in. He introduced himself with a deep bow.
“There’s no need to be so formal, Minister,” said the princess. “Thank you so much for coming. I’m sure you’re very busy but I think it is so beneficial for our most important producers to know their hard work is appreciated and under the watchful gaze of our most important protectors, don’t you think?”
“I do if you do, ma’am,” said Delcroix.
“That’s a no,” said Prince Ranade, his head turned just enough to keep an eye on a cut of beef hissing and spitting to the left of him.
“Darling, please. The harvest is a time to be thankful and appreciative.”
“Time to eat something if you ask me,” muttered the prince.
“That’s a wonderfully bold tie you’re wearing, Minister.”
“It was a gift from my daughter, when she was very young. She’s quite grown up now, but it reminds me of the babe she once was.”
“Oh, Minister, that’s so lovely.” There were tears forming in the princess’s eyes.
The prince’s eyes held something more akin to an accusation, to which Delcroix would gladly plead guilty. If the Minister of Instruction couldn’t employ a little manipulation every now and again, he really wasn’t fit for purpose.
A new group moved into place and Delcroix shifted away. He had served his time and had no intention to mingle; he would leave that to the other ministers. No one would expect the Minister of Instruction to make small talk. Most would prefer he didn’t talk to them at all, ever. He turned to leave and stopped. Something about the picture in front of him didn’t look right.
In amongst the landed Ranvarians, there was a man dressed in a black robe with a hood. An air of menace sitting on him like a viper coiled around his head. He hadn’t been there a moment ago.
“Still.” His voice wasn’t loud, but it cut through the noise like a sharp knife.
No one moved. The only sound was the persistent sizzle of burning meat.
The man, his face hidden, walked through the crowd who were still as statues. No one could move.
Where are the Secret Service? thought Delcroix. And then he realised, Crude Arcanum.
No one was coming, because no one could see them beneath the blanket of null. They were under constant observation from a watch station in the palace, and all their sensors were telling them everything was fine. No spikes in threat, no elevated emotions, just calm, flat normality.
He could feel it now, hanging over him, sticking to his clothes and reinforcing the command to not move. Only, Delcroix could move.
He could feel his pen burning hot in his top pocket. It had absorbed far more Arcanum than it was designed to, but it had done its job.
The man was walking towards the prince. Decroix started walking to intercept him. It took a moment for the intruder to realise he wasn’t the only one capable of mobility. His hood fell back to reveal a confused young man with unkempt, blond hair and wild, confused eyes spitting sparks.
He raised his hand. “Stop! Don’t move!” His words grew more panicked as he realised how impotent they were. “Still! Still!”
The pen in Delcroix’s pocket was searing hot now, threatening to burn right through the material.
The man raised his other hand. It had a knife in it.
Delcroix may no longer have been in his prime, he was older and slower, but he was still Emil Delcroix, Minister of Instruction and First Grade Mage. It would take more than a madman with a knife to overcome him. Judging by his lightning-infused eyes, though, there was enough Arcanum flowing through him to destroy half the city, probably primed to explode at death.
The man changed targets and lunged at Delcroix, all thoughts of using magic having given way to brute force and cold steel.
Delcroix took the pen out of his pocket, clenching his teeth against the pain as it scalded his skin, and used his empty hand to make three gestures that broke the man’s legs.
He stumbled and fell, dropping the knife and screaming in pain. Delcroix landed with his knee on the man’s back. He grabbed the dirty yellow hair and pulled the head back. With his other hand, he flipped off the top of the pen and plunged the nib into the middle of the man’s back, where his shoulders were widest.
Words of power were primitive and hard to control. Fortunately, the young assassin had suppressed everyone else’s will, leaving only his own open to coercion. The pen began to glow as it absorbed more and more of the Arcanum inside the man’s body. It was being released with abandon, an amount that no human body could tolerate for long. He had come here to die and take as many as he could with him.
The pen was bright red and vibrating. Delcroix snatched it and threw it into the fountain. There was a moment of stillness and then an explosion that evaporated the water, sending a rolling fog surging in all directions.
The grills roared and flashed flames high into the air, and then went out, all extinguished in the same instant.
Secret Service agents began materialising in the mist, too late to save anyone who might have needed saving.
Delcroix lifted his knee and rolled the man over. His face was shrivelled to near lifelessness.
He softly breathed out the words, “Give her back.”
“Give who back,” said Delcroix, wrapping his burned hand in his daughter’s tie.
“Junia. Give her back. She isn’t yours.”
Junia. The demon. He had asked for her followers to be found, but he’d found them himself, or at least one.
“She’s dead. She took her own life, I’m afraid.”
The man made a horrible wheezing sound. It took a moment to realise he was laughing. “Dead? No, she isn’t dead. If she was, how could I do this?”
Delcroix jumped back as the body beneath him began shaking. It was drawing in Arcanum but from where? There was no source here, not this powerful. There was a pop of air, like a balloon bursting, and the body was gone.
The Secret Service released the Prince and his ministers first. They were told to wait for orders before releasing the other guests. Delcroix did his best to explain what had happened, as far as he understood it.
“It will not do for our guests to reveal what happened here today,” said Prince Ranade. He was standing next to his wife who was still frozen in place, a slight look of concern on her face. He examined her until his expression matched hers.
“They will be instructed otherwise,” said Delcroix.
“Good. So this is to do with the demon girl?”
“I believe so. He was one of her followers. He thought we held her here against her will. They don’t believe she’s dead.”
“What they believe is of no importance. Kuplas, have a brigade of the dragon troops withdraw from the Eastern border and fitted for bombing runs. I think the people of Gweur are in need of a reminder about their responsibilities.”
“Your Highness,” said Delcroix, “if I may. Would it be possible to delay that order?”
“You don’t think the citizens of Gweur should be held accountable for the actions of their own?” asked the prince.
“I absolutely do, I would never suggest otherwise. But I believe there are more of them out there, planning their next move. What magic they have acquired is simplistic and hard to track, but I believe we can flush them out if we wait for the right time to launch an attack. If we go on the offensive now, they may scatter and go underground.”
“I see. Kuplas, have the brigade restationed with full payloads but don’t deploy them. Yet. Reshvay, prepare ground troops to be moved at short notice. We should at least be prepared.”
Both men nodded their assent.
“I expect you to provide me with locations for the followers of this cult within the next few days,” the prince said.
“Your humble servant,” said Delcroix.
“And you’re sure this has nothing to do with the traitor? He is still in your keeping?”
Delcroix was surprised by the question. The two appeared to be completely unrelated. But lack of evidence did not prove lack of guilt.
“He is, sire, but I will check to make sure he didn’t somehow instigate any of this. I don’t believe he was involved, but I will investigate to make certain.”
“Good. Do that. For a man, a non-Ranvarian, to be able to possess such power, to be able to teleport into our midst, and then recharge himself to teleport out again, that would take a great mage. Did he seem to be a great mage to you?”
“No, sire,” said Delcroix.
“Then he had the assistance of one.”
It was very possible. A great mage, or something even more powerful.
“I will be thorough,” said Delcroix.
“At least this incident hasn’t been a complete loss,” said Prince Ranade. “An enemy identified can at least be sought out and destroyed.” He turned to the gold-masked Secret Service agent next to him. “Start releasing the guests. Leave my wife till last.” He walked over to one of the smoking grills and picked up the large metal tongs. He speared a chop off the top and shook the moisture off it. He put it up to his mouth and took great, chomping bites out of the flesh.
Delcroix sent for a team from the Ministry to take care of the farmers and other guests and staff. They came out of the Arcanum-induced paralysis bewildered and confused. They barely knew what had happened as it was, convincing them it was something else entirely wouldn’t be too difficult.
After that had been arranged, he returned to his office and took the red tie off his burnt hand. Stodar applied salve and dressed it properly. There were no sarcastic comments. Delcroix carefully folded the tie and put it back in its box. If there was blood on it, it didn’t show.
He removed his clothes and washed his arms and face thoroughly. He would have liked to soak in a tub for an hour, but he didn’t have the time.
He dressed in a crisp, clean shirt and trousers that weren’t covered in dirt and grass stains. He began to feel a little bit more like a civil servant again. He walked through the Ministry to the door leading to the lower levels.
The guards down there were oblivious to the day’s events. They were too consumed with their own duties, and rightly so. At his command they burst into activity, pulling levers and sliding bolts in various parts of the room, eventually opening one of the iron-bound doors. They stood aside to let him in. He sensed their great relief when he didn’t ask any of them to accompany him.
The prisoner was sat on his bed, reading. It was a book of fairytales and contained no words of power or hidden spells. He had requested it because he used to read it to his daughter when she was a child.
Between them was a shimmering wall, similar to the pen in its ability to absorb Arcanum, only significantly more powerful. It reminded him he’d have to order another pen. Perhaps he should get two.
“Archmage, I hope you are well.”
“I am, thank you, Emil. Although, Archmage I am not.”
“No. But it’s hard to think of you otherwise.”
Archmage van Dastan put down the book. He was a large man, heavy set with a bald head and a thick beard that had gotten considerably thicker. “How are things in the sunlight?”
“As you would expect. Light and shadow.”
“And my daughter? Is she well?”
“Yes. She is a student at Ransom, as I believe I mentioned last time. There has been… some bullying. Attempted bullying, I should say.”
“Ha!” van Dastan grinned, unperturbed by the news. “Did she kill anyone?”
“No. Some broken bones.”
“She has a soft heart, that one. Be careful you keep her safe. I accept my incarceration for now, but were anything to happen to her…”
“You make it sound like you are here voluntarily.” He received only an enigmatic smile in reply. “Why would you choose to stay if you could leave?”
“You know, Emil, I spent the last few years thinking I was ensuring a bright future for my child, but in the end she wished to walk her own path. It took me quite by surprise to realise just how selfish and presumptuous I had become. Now, I’d like to see where she would go without me there to ‘interfere’. This seems as good a place as any to stay out of her way, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” said Delcroix. “I understand what you mean. I assure you, her well being is as important to me as my own daughter’s.”
“Good man. Anything else I can help you with?”
“No, sir, not right now.”
Delcroix left the former Archmage to his reading and traversed the long stairway back to the sunlight. Nothing indicated van Dastan knew about the Gweurians, or cared for their cause. He, at least, was where he was meant to be and under restraint. His own, mainly.
It was the demon that posed the most intriguing questions now. The Gweurian had been convinced she was still alive, and his demonstration had been very convincing. Had Tenner been able to somehow induce the demon’s body to continue producing Arcanum? The reports he’d received didn’t indicate it, but then they weren’t very clear about what Tenner was actually doing.
Perhaps a more thorough report was needed. Perhaps one given in person. In fact, perhaps he should go and see what Tenner was up to in that odd building of his.