It wasn’t normal to see an agent’s face. They kept them on the whole time they were around people, probably even when they were off-duty. He had seen the Chief of Staff without his, but that was different — it was hard to even be in the same room as him when he was wearing his mask.
But this agent had just whipped his off, as though it was something he felt was in the way. And then he had mentioned Nic’s father, which was also surprising, and very distracting.
Perhaps that explained the reveal — a family friend wanting Nic to know about their shared history. The man had a smile and none of the intimidation the other agents seemed to carry around like a brandished sword, but he did have cold, cold eyes that were hard for Nic to look into. Was that a trait shared by all agents?
For a moment, Nic wondered if his father had been in the Secret Service. It seemed impossible. Nic’s mother had said he was a regular soldier, had described his uniform, his medals, his sword. All of it was that of an infantryman.
But then, wouldn’t the Secret Service require you to keep your work secret? Even from your family? Up until now, Nic had just assumed they weren’t allowed to get married or have children. It didn’t sound implausible. But maybe a life of service to the crown with no personal life was something only a young boy would consider acceptable. To Nic, the idea of a wife and family felt so far away as to not even be a possibility. But he knew that would change.
The area around the entrance to the girls’ dorm was empty, no students, no porters, late afternoon and everyone busy or absent. It was just him, in a rush to find an agent, and the agent.
There was no time to discuss his father, even though he had never met anyone who had worked with him or even known him. He was a mystery as far as friends and family. It had seemed normal, as all things did when you had no choice but to take what you were given.
Nic looked up at the man who had said his name was Rutga. His first name? His last name? He was tall but slightly stooped, a man resting between battles. He had a soldier’s face — scars that had browned with age into creases and ones that had formed welts on his neck, like someone had tried to hang him and decapitate him on several occasions.
He was much older than he had expected an agent to look, but he had no real reason to think that way. A well-trained agent could be any age, as long as he could do the job.
Nic shook his head and tried to focus on the matter at hand — the imminent attack on the capital. “Sorry, I need to speak to someone in the Secret Service.”
“You can speak to me,” said the man.
“Dragons,” blurted out Nic, like that explained everything, the beginning and end of the story in one word. “The capital.”
Nic was stumbling over his words, his focus all over the place since he encountered this agent. He had been desperate to find one, had done so almost immediately, and now he couldn’t even think straight, let alone put a sentence together.
“Yes, yes, we know all about it,” said the man. “You don’t have to worry about any of that. We have people taking care of it.”
“No, I mean, I know where they are, how they hide during the day. I need you to send a message to your commander. They need to warn the capital.”
“I see,” said the agent. “Well, you better come with me then.” He smiled encouragingly, but it was an oddly artificial expression, a combination of muscle movements from an old memory. He put his mask back on his whole body changed, becoming straighter and more powerful.
Nic had seen the effect before, with the Chief of Staff. The mask had a way of creating an entirely new persona.
“This way,” said the agent. He stepped forward to guide Nic, and Nic instinctively stepped back.
He wasn’t sure why he had done that. There was no threat coming from the man, his movements were actually quite gentle. But not in a way that was reassuring. It reminded Nic of a hunter trying to get close enough to his prey to make sure of the kill. Simply wring its neck with your bare hands and save the cost of an arrow.
“Who are you, really?” said Nic. Despite everything that clearly showed who this man was simply by looking at him, something felt off.
“I told you, Rutga. Sergeant-at-Arms. Listen, I’ll be happy to give you all the answers you want, maybe even tell you a few stories about the old days, if you’ve got the patience for an old man’s rambling, but we have to go, right now.”
There was no reason not to trust the man, but Nic’s body refused to accept the invitation. He had to get a message to the capital, to the Chief of Staff. This man could be the easiest way to do that, but somehow Nic knew he wasn’t. He couldn’t explain it. He looked wrong in the uniform.
Nic closed his eyes for a second, switch to the bird’s eye view of the world, and asked to be shown all the Secret Service agents on school grounds.
Lights appeared all around the school, all around but not near him.
“You aren’t a Secret Service agent,” said Nic. “You don’t belong in that mask. Where did you get it?”
Suddenly, Nic was sure the man had taken what he was wearing from someone who had not given it up willingly.
“No, you’re right. I’m borrowing this getup to avoid creating a fuss. In my line of work, you don’t want to attract too much attention. Blend in and keep your head down, as I used to tell your father. Not that he ever listened. Now, let’s not end up like him.”
Rutga had his arm around Nic. He’d closed the gap between them in an instant. If he was an old man as he claimed, as he had appeared, to be fair, then he was still a sprightly one. The pressure from his hand resting lightly on Nic’s shoulder was irresistible. Nic found himself walking alongside the man in the mask, his feet moving of their own volition. There was no force being applied, no pressure, no shoving or pushing. But the urge to keep going with the forward momentum flowed through him.
They were already around the corner, away from the sight of the main path, and away from the areas occupied by agents. This man seemed to have a map of his own, and he was using to stay clear of everyone Nic might hope to bump.
“Where are you taking me?” asked Nic, inexorably drawn into the next step and then the one after that. “Who are you working for?”
Rutga just smiled and nodded, his hand guiding Nic with the lightest of fingertip adjustments.
This wasn’t magic, but it was every bit as beguiling — a trick that was impressive no matter how it was done.
“I’m here to help, Nic. You’re worried about the capital, aren’t you? That’s where I’m taking you. You’ll be safe there, you can trust me. I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to my old friend’s boy.”
For some reason, his words only made Nic more anxious. He wanted to break free and run, but he couldn’t. It was like his muscles were locked into one set of movements. The one Rutga had chosen for him.
They were headed into the trees, a small copse behind the dormitories. Nic had seen it often enough from above to know there was nothing in there, it just led to the outer wall.
Nic tried to see where it was they were headed, and saw the carriage, completely black, almost a shadow with nothing to cast it. It had been there all the time, but he hadn’t been able to see it, so well did it hide between the lines of the trees.
How had it got here? There were no paths leading into these trees, no obvious route to get from the main path around the school to this out of the way corner. Yet, there it was, attached to four horses. The livery seemed familiar.
Nic had a great sense of foreboding. He had no idea what was about to happen, only that his entire being told him to not go. But he had no idea how to stop it from happening. It was clear to him that there was no way he could outfight or outrun this man. He couldn’t even walk in the opposite direction.
But Nic had been in the presence of many imposing figures. Their sure knowledge of how intimidating they were to others often made them overconfident and lacking in due care when it came to securing their goals. It was a long shot, but what other options did he have?
Nic took a breath, and pushed himself into the force making him move against his will. Accepted it, agreed with it, and moved forward quicker than he was being asked to.
His willingness to cooperate took Nic away from Rutga’s touch. He immediately turned and kicked out, hoping to strike Rutga in the ankle, maybe knock him off his feet or at the very least, cause him some pain so he wouldn’t be able to chase him. Running seemed like the one thing the old man might not be too keen on.
But Rutga simply lifted his foot and Nic’s swipe went through without hitting anything. The lack of contact threw Nic off balance, making him almost fall. Rutga caught him, spun him, and brought him back to his feet, once more facing the direction he had been going, like he’d never even thought of going any other way.
“No, no, Nic, not like that. If you were going to attempt something so direct, you should have done it immediately, outside the building. If you want to surprise someone, first surprise yourself. It’s very easy to see a slow deliberation. A commotion might even have attracted some attention. Once you were back here where no one can see you, you needed a better plan, more information to work with. Wait until you can understand the options open to you.” He carefully guiding Nic between the trees so he didn’t stumble.
It was good advice. Rutga spoke in a genial, friendly manner. He seemed almost like a teacher. A good one — patient and willing to explain himself.
They were at the carriage now. There was a driver wrapped in a large black cloak. The carriage belonged to the Ministry for Instruction, Nic was sure. The door was open and the interior was dark. Rutga helped Nic up and placed him on the seat.
“How… how did you know my father? In the army?” He has said ‘trainee’, did that mean they were comrades in arms? “Were you his instructor?”
“More of a teacher,” said Rutga. “Well, I tried my best. He wasn’t that easy to teach.”
“He wasn’t a good student?”
“Oh, he was the best. A fantastic student — maybe too good.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he was able to fit in anywhere, with anyone. Five minutes talking to someone he’d never met before, and they were like old friends. He could watch a stranger and see the man for who he really was, what he’d be interested in talking about, how to best approach him. Those sorts of things are fundamental to our line of work.”
“What line of work is that?”
“The securing of goals, making sure the right people make the right decisions.”
They were moving, rocking slightly as the carriage passed over uneven ground. The windows were covered in black cloth so Nic couldn’t see outside. Somehow, they were navigating between the trees, which seemed impossible.
“You aren’t a Secret Service agent, are you?” said Nic.
“Not officially, no.” Rutga removed the mask and put it down on the seat next to him. He seemed glad to take it off. There was no transformation this time.
“You... kill people,” said Nic, seeing through the euphemisms easily enough, his own likely fate now much more obvious. “My father was an assassin.”
The carriage was moving more swiftly now, on firm, even ground. Would anyone notice them leaving the school?
“He was far more than that,” said Rutga. “He could take a life, I’m not going to deny that. But he could achieve the same objective by using persuasion and encouragement. Not through violence or threats, but simply by understanding what it was people really wanted. Not what they said or how they tried to present themselves, but what was in their heart. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it. I warned him he was allowing himself to get too close to his targets, but that’s why I say he was so hard to teach. He could grasp an idea quicker than anyone, see the pros and cons, the structure, the flaws — things it had taken scholars hundreds of years to work out were immediately obvious to him — but then he went on and drew his own conclusion, went against the received wisdom, and sometimes also the received orders.”
“He was insubordinate?”
“I suppose you could call it that. I would say he reacted to new information while in the field. In some cases, he felt he could achieve the primary objective in a more effective, less invasive manner. Our superiors didn’t always agree with his choices. But then, you can’t fully understand a situation until you're face to face with it, and by then, there isn’t time to go back and discuss the new variables with those in charge. You have to make your call and live with the consequences.”
“Do you know how he died?” asked Nic.
“Ah, well, I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure. Probably not the way it was reported.”
“Was he considered a traitor?”
“What? No. How did you come to that conclusion? No, no, he was a true patriot, and no one who knew him would claim otherwise. Just because he was liable to the occasional bout of thinking for himself, don’t for a second believe he wasn’t acting in the best interests of our people. You have nothing to worry about on that score.”
“But he’d be dangerous if he refused to do as he was told, wouldn’t he?” said Nic. “He’d know where the bodies were buried. Probably buried most of them himself.”
“Ah, I suppose you could think of it like that, but he never went rogue. There was nowhere else to go, and he had his wife and a son on the way. He wouldn’t put that at risk.”
“I’m serious about the dragons. I need to warn them I know where they are. I know how they hide from us during the day.”
“Do you now? Well, it’s not really as important as you think. These shadow creatures, they aren’t even real. They look much scarier than they are. It’s all sleight of hand and illusion, you know? Nothing we can’t handle.”
“You know about the shadow dragons?” said Nic. “Do you work for the Ministry for Instruction?”
“I work for Ranvar, for the people, for their safety. Who gives the orders doesn’t really matter. I do my job and we can all sleep safely at night, that’s the important thing.”
“Did you work for Minister Delcroix before?” asked Nic.
“A fine gentleman, very good at his job.”
“Do you think Minister Carmine was qualified to take over?”
“You’re asking very tough questions. I’m not the person to decide such things, I merely follow orders as best I can. No one is perfect, no one is incapable of making mistakes, but once we have our roles, we must do our best. It’s far too easy to fail because of hesitation and doubt. Even the right idea will fail if executed poorly.”
“From what you say, my father didn’t do that,” said Nic.
“Oh, he did. He very much did. Every action was executed brilliantly. It’s just that it wasn’t always the action he was asked to perform.” Rutga smiled, for once with genuine warmth.
“I’m not sure I trust Minister Carmine,” said Nic, which was an incredibly ill-advised thing to say at the best of times. In a ministry carriage to a ministry employee, it might even be called stupid.
“Well, of course there are risks. There always are. That’s the nature of the job. But you have to have a little faith, Nic. A young man trying his best, a man who has been trained and prepared for the role, he could just be unconventional, like your father.”
“My father died.”
“Yes, but only after many successes,” said Rutga.
“After you take… care of me, had he given you any instructions about Minister Delcroix’s daughter?”
“The young girl?” said Rutga, recognition in his voice. “No, why would he?”
“He might be interested in her,” said Nic. “More than he should be.”
“Well, I don’t think you can blame him for that. Pretty thing.”
“You know her?”
“No, no, just by sight. The old minister had big plans for her, his heir apparent, he would call her. I don’t think you need to worry about her. As I recall, she’s very good at looking after herself. Don’t go jumping to conclusions, Nic. I’ve only been tasked with keeping you safe and away from danger. You don’t need to take part in any more of this. You’re free.”
“But the dragons… people will die.”
“People always die. It’s the ones left behind we need to care for. They can still have happy lives and carry on, there’s no shame in that. A better life, in some cases. Isn’t that what we all strive for?”
Nic got the feeling there was no talking Rutga away from whatever he had planned. He was involved with the dragons, with Gweur…
“How does helping Gweur defeat our army make life better for Ranvar’s people?” asked Nic. “Do you really believe they intend to treat us kindly after what we’ve done to them.”
“The Gweurvians are simple people. They will do as they’re told, and their lives will be better than they were before. That’s fair, isn’t it? They improve, we improve, we all get a little better.”
“Except the people who died.”
“Of course. Sacrifices have to be made.”
The carriage began to slow. In the dimness of the carriage, Nic could tell Rutga was surprised as they came to a stop.
Rutga banged on the roof. “What is it?”
“It’s a group of Gweurvians,” said Nic, his eyes closed. “Twelve of them, it looks like.” He opened his eyes to find Rutga staring at him, not quite so sure of himself. “I think they’re the riders of the shadow dragons. They can’t be carried during the day when the dragons are fully formed, so they’ve been hiding. I don’t know how, but they can make themselves impossible to detect.”
“I see. I suppose I better see what they want. Stay here.” Rutga opened the door and exited.
Nic immediately tried the door on the other side. As futile as it might be to attempt an escape, he wanted to be ready just in case an opportunity might present itself. But the doors were locked on both sides, and behind the black cloth, there was no window.
“We’re here for the boy,” said a voice.
“Sorry, friend, there must be a miscommunication,” said Rutga. “The boy is staying with me. That’s what I’ve been told, and that’s how we’ll be proceeding.”
“He comes with us, now,” said another voice. “Do not get in the way.”
Neither of the Gweurvian speakers sounded the least bit intimidated by Rutga.
Nic closed his eyes and watched from above. It was starting to get dark, the sky still not showing any stars, but it wouldn’t be long now. He could see the group of men in a loose triangular formation, a demanding wedge, two at the front confronting Rutga while the others watched and waited. They didn’t appear to be armed, not with weapons.
“I have my orders,” said Rutga.
“Orders change,” said the Gweurvian. His eyes glowed blue.
It was one against twelve, which weren’t favourable odds to start with. But they were using magic, be it in a very crude form. That made it very unlikely Rutga would win this fight. He expected to be handed over. He wasn’t sure what the Gwuervians would do with him and he would rather not find out. There might be a chance for him to get away from them, though.
Rutga, it seemed, had other ideas.
He leapt forward, crying out, “Now!” as he hurled a stick at the nearest Gweurvian. It bounced off his forehead, sending him to the ground in a heap.
The instruction was aimed at the coach driver, who had been huddled in his voluminous cloak until this moment. Now he threw off his swaddling and broke apart like bats rushing out of a cave at dusk.
Shades, like the ones Dizzy had dealt with, came flying out of the discarded garment. They rushed to provide support for Rutga, who didn’t look like he needed it. If Nic had thought he might have had a chance to outrun Rutga, he had been mistaken. The man moved with a swiftness and agility Nic had never seen, not even from the agents he’d spent time with.
The Gweurvians didn’t react quite as readily as their posturing had intimated. They seemed unnerved by the shades, which were barely visible in the evening light, looking more like ghosts.
The Gweuvian whose eyes had lit up, opened his mouth, which was filled with more blue light, but getting darker and more intense.
Rutga rolled towards him and came up with the heel of his palm raised. He stuck the open-mouthed Gweurvian in the chin and slammed his jaw shut. His eyes widened for a second, and then his head exploded.
A wave of energy shot out in all directions, flattening Rutga and the Gweurvians and shredding the shades into pieces.
Nic felt the jolt in his mind and opened his eyes. He heard a click and tried the carriage door again. It was unlocked.
He jumped out and ran away from the carnage. Rutga had tried to protect him, an unlikely thing to try if he planned to dispose of him in any case. Perhaps Nic had misjudged him. He would have liked to have asked him some more questions about his father, but this was his best chance at getting away, so he ran.
He had seen where he was — nearly at the capital. From here, he could make it to the city in less than an hour, but it might already be too late. It was nearly dark enough for the shadow dragons to manifest fully. Although, they would be riderless.
Nic scrambled to the top of a ridge and the lights of the city were visible in the distance. And above the city, dark shapes were taking form.
He closed his eyes and reached out his mind, hoping to detect some kind of intent. If he knew what they had been told to do… then what? He wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t think of anything else.
He sensed them as empty minds, roaming with no purpose. Without the Gweurvians to guide them, they had no evil intentions. They would still cause panic in the populace if they were seen.
Nic put himself inside the head of the largest one, saw through its eyes. He could feel the dragon’s movements — it felt the same as when he had been inside a real dragon. He had been able to control that one, he tried the same here.
The shadow dragon turned and Nic could see himself in the distance, the dragon’s sight far superior to his own. It flew to him.
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