Bitter 532

“I gave it to you,” said Britta. “See? I have a receipt.” She held up the piece of paper he’d given her.

“That’s just a bunch of meaningless scribbles,” he said, snatching the paper back and scrunching it up into a ball. “Learn to read.”

The man, it turned out, hadn’t written the receipt in some strange local language, he had assumed she was illiterate and wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a genuine receipt and a fake one. He had been half right.

“I told you it was a magic letter,” she said. “ The gnome wizard must have put a spell on it, or something.” She made a big show of searching herself and then pulled out the letter. “See? It came back.”

Keith the Door Mage did not look impressed. “You tricked me. Now they’re all laughing at me in the office.”

Keith, even though he was just in charge of telling people to clear off, considered himself better than the rabble clamouring to get in. He was already in, so he had that going for him. He also had a bit of an insecurity issue. He didn’t like being made a laughing stock.

He came towards Britta, eyes ablaze with rage, the two other men closing in with him. Britta pushed Stan in the way. “Don’t make me set my servant on you. He has idiot strength.”

Stan was doing his best to stay in character while trying to squirm out of the way. “Mathter no, please, Thtan doethn’t want to kill again. Not again. Red, everywhere, red, red, red.”

He was, Britta was beginning to realise, a massive ham.

The door behind them opened and a taller man with a fancier robe — this one was white with blue swirls all over it like it had been tie-dyed — came into the room, which was starting to get very crowded.

“Where is she? Where is the messenger?” He had a pointy little bearded that glistened with oil. He smelled quite nice. Flowery.

“Assistant Dean,” said Keith, his manner suddenly changed to polite and slightly nervous. “This is her. I was just about to—”

“So you’re the one, are you? You’re the one he sent?”

“Um, yes?” Britta could tell this was someone who thought of themselves as very important. Her school had teachers like him, always ready to be exasperated by how dumb everyone else was. “I’m supposed to deliver it to the Dean.”

“Yes, yes, give it to me and I’ll see that he gets it.”

He was the same as the door mage, just with a more colourful outfit. “Here.” She gave him the letter. There was no point trying to argue with him, she could tell. She had a deputy head just like him.

The assistant dean held the letter between thumb and forefinger and waggled it. The letter slowly turned to glittering dust and disappeared.

“I think you’ve been rumbled,” Stan whispered.

Britta had made a copy of the letter when she gave it to Keith. She hadn’t trusted him and her Mirror spell enabled her to make a duplicate. She had tried the same thing on the assistant dean, but he was a higher level mage than Keith.

“I’m supposed to hand it to the dean,” said Britta.

“The dean isn’t feeling well,” said the assistant dean, “and neither will you if you don’t tell me where your master is.”

“You know,” said Britta, “as a representative of the gnome wizard, I would have thought you’d have been a bit more welcoming.”

“Welcoming?” said the assistant dean. “Welcoming? That rebel will be welcomed back with a noose. Do you know how much trouble he got us into with his whole ‘Resist the Empire’ nonsense? We were in danger of being shut down, thanks to him.”

“Rebel wizard?” said Stan, no longer bent over.

“Makes a huge mess and then runs off, taking the vault key with him. How are we supposed to teach anyone without any books?”

“The books are in the vault, are they?” asked Britta.

“Of course. Where else would you keep books? Did he send the key back with you? Do you have it?”

“No. Don’t you have a spare?” That remark earned her a contemptuous look. “Can’t you use magic to break in?” They were a building full of mages, after all.

“The vault is impervious to all magic. That’s why it’s the vault.” His contempt for her suggestions was growing. “You’re sure he didn’t give it to you. About this long, made of brass, glows in the dark.”

“Sorry,” said Britta. “Haven’t seen it. I only have the letter.” She held up the real letter.

He took it from her and shook it just like the last one. This time it didn’t dissolve into magic dust. He opened it and took out the paper inside. He looked into the envelope to make sure there was nothing inside.

Then he unfolded the letter and read it, his eyes quickly scanning the page, turning it over to read the back, and then turning to the front again. Then he folded it up and put it back in the envelope. He handed it back to Britta with his eyes closed and a pained look on his face.

“No good?” she asked.

He shook his head. “The man’s a fool. Thinks we can win a war against the Empire. Where is he? Where is he hiding himself?”

Stan took the letter from Britta. All this anti-Empire talk was right up his alley and she could see how excited he was by the idea of a rebel wizard joining his side. Britta wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do now. She didn’t care what was in the letter. Part two of her quest probably. Delivering the letter should have netted her something, but if the game was going to drag this out, she might as well cut her losses.

It was annoying. She should get something, even a few measly experience points would do.

“Maybe you should show it to the dean,” she suggested. “There might be a special message in there only the dean would understand.”

“There’s a message alright,” said the assistant dean. “I’d rather not upset the dean with the ravings of a lunatic.”

“Oh dear,” said Stan, “this isn’t very nice.” He was reading the letter with one hand over his mouth, looking shocked.

She didn’t care what was in the letter, but she couldn’t help but be curious. “What does it say?”

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