When Acting-Minister for Instruction Mol Carmine came to, he found himself standing in the middle of the orchard at the back of his family’s estate. Dawn was breaking and he was naked. The cold morning mist smelled of damp and ash; it reminded him strongly of his childhood. He shivered.
Birds called to each other in the distance, none daring to perch in the fruit trees. Nests were regularly removed and the estate’s hawks patrolled the perimeter.
The fog in his head was quickly dissipating and the chill across his body became more noticeable. He had been a sleepwalker as a child, doors and windows needing to be locked to prevent him from harming himself. He had long outgrown that phase, or so he had thought, but that didn’t explain why no one had stopped him, or why they hadn’t noticed his absence.
Navigating his way through the house, down the stairs and out into the grounds must have made some noise at the very least. Someone must have heard or seen him, and it would be obvious something was amiss.
The household staff were usually prescient enough to not need instructing on such matters, well-trained by having seen what happened to those who failed to measure up to his exacting standards. Another lesson would need to be taught, he decided.
There was a bitter taste on his tongue and his hand was holding onto something very tightly. He brought his clenched fist up to his face. He was squeezing a small, empty glass bottle in his cold, numb hand.
The bottle looked vaguely familiar, the remnants of a red liquid smeared across the transparent sides. He licked his lips and the memory of a taste passed down his throat. He had no recollection of drinking the contents, but clearly he had. While sleepwalking? That would be new — he had never managed anything that complex when he was a child.
Carmine took a deep breath and let a stream of white air out of his mouth. He looked around to get his bearings, and then set off towards the gate that led to the garden path. The kitchen door was probably the best route back into the house in his current state of undress. The dewy ground felt uncomfortable under his bare feet.
It was shady in the orchard and the lines of yellow sunlight streaking through the leafy boughs offered very little warmth. A sudden darkness crossed his mind and he thought he was about to pass out. Was he ill? He squeezed the vial tighter.
A darker shadow passed over him, but this one was not inside his mind. It flitted through the trees.
“My master, I come to report as instructed,” it whispered rather gloomily.
“What? Who’s there?”
For a moment Carmine was chilled on the inside, but the moment passed. He remembered this was his inheritance, power over these dark creatures. He looked down at the vial again. This was also part of it, this concoction that made him their master. As was the loss of memory and fogginess that came with it. He would have to be careful lest his other childhood ailments were also resurrected. That would not be at all good.
“Yes, report. Where is Rutga? Does he have the boy?”
“We do not know.”
“Where is the boy now?”
“We do not know?
“Where is Rutga.”
“We do not know.”
Carmine was taken by surprise by the last answer — although none of them had pleased him — and he almost tripped over a tree root. He stopped and raised his foot, one hand planted on the tree trunk, and rubbed his wet toes. He remained still, his eyes closed gathering his thoughts.
“How is that possible?” he asked calmly. “I sent you to keep an eye on them, didn’t I?”
“Yes, my master,” said the shade from somewhere behind him. It liked to remain in the corner of his eye.
“Where did you see them last?”
“At the school with the children,” hissed the whispery voice.
“Gone. Hidden. Taken. Chased away. We were chased away.”
“By whom?” said Carmine.
“The late master’s daughter…” The voice drifted away like a sigh.
“I see,” said Carmine. It wasn’t surprising that she would be aware of these clandestine creatures that no one else would have noticed. Delzina would have encountered them before, been familiar with them, know how to deal with them. She was a very accomplished girl. It was what drew him to her. It was why they would make a fine couple, he was sure.
“Very well,” he said, “Miss Delcroix is to be left alone. Do not engage her or provoke her.”
“It will be as you say, my master.”
There was almost a tenderness bordering on relief in the shade’s voice. He must have imagined it, Carmine told himself.
“You must search for the boy, scour the school.”
“It has been done. The result was failure.”
“The Secret Service, perhaps they have him?”
“They do not.”
If they said they’d looked for him and couldn’t find him, he was inclined to believe it. They had never failed him before but there was a good chance the boy wasn’t acting alone. Carmine knew there were others also watching the boy, it was why he was watching him.
Where had he gone? If he wasn’t on the school grounds, he can’t have gone far. Rutga was supposed to have secured the boy and taken him to a safe location. Perhaps he had. But then why wouldn’t the shades know?
No, something else had happened, something unforeseen. Whatever it was, he would have to find out. It was his job, after all.
He suddenly noticed that all his muscles ached, as if after hard labour. He stretched his arms and rolled his shoulders. It was nothing, he told himself. The pressure of his new position had nothing to do with it. A little tension was to be expected. War was in the offing, nothing was going to happen smoothly. There would be hitches.
The shade moved between the trees, watching. It didn’t make Carmine self-conscious. These creatures weren’t judgmental, they just did what you asked of them, did their job.
“I want you to locate Rutga. Search the city, all his known hideouts and regular haunts. Make him your first priority.”
“As you wish, my master…” The voice faded into the distance.
If the boy had been whisked away by some powerful entity, kept somewhere away from prying eyes, then it would be hard to track him down. Rutga was another matter. Once he was found, he could at least give an idea of what happened. After which, he would be appropriately punished.
Carmine walked out of the orchard and bright sunshine washed over him. The house loomed before him, the tower on one side and the dome of his father’s observatory on the other. He took another deep breath of cold damp air and headed home.
As he made his way through the vegetables in the small plot outside the kitchen, Shavay, the old gardener, came out of the shed carrying a basket. He saw his young master walking nude among the cabbages and lettuces and stood there gawking and grinning stupidly.
Carmine lost control of himself for a moment and scowled. His face must have taken on a rather terrifying appearance because the gardener shied away, grin frozen like the rictus smile on a corpse, and hurriedly ducked back into the safety of his shed.
Carmine calmed himself and entered the kitchen via the back door which wasn’t locked. The cook and two of the maids were in there. He was sure they noticed him but no one said a word, including him. He went up to his room and washed up.
By the time he came down for breakfast, Carmine was feeling much more composed. He ate his breakfast while going through his mail, none of which was very important. There would be reports waiting for him at the Ministry.
He had the carriage brought round and gave the housekeeper instructions for the day. She nodded and betrayed nothing by her eyes, but no doubt she already knew about Carmine’s early morning jaunt. She had been with the family from before Carmine had been born, so she knew about his history regarding nocturnal outings. He could trust her to be discreet. The others, though, would most likely chatter and spread gossip. He would make them regret it, but he didn’t have the time right now.
The black carriage was waiting for him at the front door and Carmine climbed in, adjusting his clothes as he sat down. He was dressed in much the same way as his predecessor, who he had greatly admired — no flash over substance, no cheap attempts at attracting attention — and he felt comfortable taking his place. He might have been young but he was more than capable.
“What did you do with Nic?” said a feminine voice from the opposite seat.
The voice startled him, more from its unexpected appearance than any perceived threat. It was the voice of a child.
He looked more intently at the shadows that, now that he focused, were unnaturally dark. They dissipated and the Archmage’s daughter was sitting there in her school uniform, legs crossed, no sign of any apprehension on her face.
“Miss van Dastan,” he said, making sure to sound unperturbed. “This is a surprise. May I call you Simole?”
“You can call me whatever you want,” she said. “Where is Nic?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know.” He knew she was a very capable mage and not someone to trifle with, not without preparation. But he was being honest with her. If she could identify a lie, she wouldn’t be able to in this case. “Are you saying he’s no longer at the school?”
Simole’s eyes narrowed. She seemed to be making an assessment. He had the feeling she didn’t like him very much. That was fine. She was a teenage girl who didn’t get along with her father. She was bound to regard all men with a degree of suspicion.
“You didn’t take him? I know you sent those pets of yours to watch him.”
“I wouldn’t call them pets,” said Carmine, “but yes, I did. For his own safety… and also for the safety of everyone. He seems to have become unexpectedly central to proceedings. I’m new in the job, so I have yet to make a determination as to why.”
“Good luck with that.”
Carmine kept his smile inside. Apparently, it wasn’t just grown men she had a scepticism towards. Perhaps he could use this to his advantage.
“In any case,” he continued, “they have lost track of him, too. Which leads me to believe he has either been taken or willingly went with someone very powerful.”
“Yes,” said Simole. “Probably.”
“Do you know who that might be?” He asked. “Perhaps your father? They’re fairly close, I understand.”
Little Simole’s eyes burned with what Carmine would call a mild fury, if such a thing could be said to exist.
“No, not him,” she said, her voice flat and disinterested. “Never mind, then. Sorry to have bothered you.”
Before he could say anything else, she opened the door to the moving carriage and jumped out, slamming it shut behind her. By the time Carmine lowered the window and looked out, there was no sign of her.
Carmine walked purposefully through the main entrance of the Ministry for Instruction, the guards stationed on either side of the doorway nodding respectfully in his direction. Only a few months ago, he had been another one of many adjuncts to Minister Delcroix. Now he was the master of all he surveyed.
He walked past door after door, some leading to offices, others to less welcoming rooms. Beneath the Ministry was a labyrinth of endless corridors and passages holding some of the most reprehensible people in the kingdom. People who were considered too dangerous for regular incarceration in one of His Majesty’s prisons.
In his old office, which had been a dark and dusty room with barred narrow windows, he had occasionally heard the excruciating wails of men, and sometimes women, from below.
“I am innocent. Innocent!”
The tunnels spread out under the other ministries on either side and behind this building, but no one dared go down to see what the noises might be.
Some people claimed there were no longer prisoners held at the Ministry, the voices were the ghosts of those who had died under torture in a previous, more barbaric age. Carmine had evidence to the contrary.
As Carmine approached the double-doors of his office, a guardsman on sentry duty stepped forwards, his spear ready. “You may go no further,” he declared sullenly.
Carmine didn’t recognise the soldier. Stationed here because of the war, told not to let anyone pass without the correct authorisation.
“You’re new?” he said sympathetically. “You’re doing your duty, that’s commendable, but you need to be a little more circumspect in how you go about it. Causing offence to someone in a higher position won’t do you any good. No good at all.”
The guard, still tightly gripping the shaft of his spear, looked a little confused. “Better a little trouble than to let an enemy of the state through. You don’t have a ministry insignia. Everyone has to wear theirs under the current orders of the acting-minister.”
It was an accurate and valid point. At least the man took his duties seriously. Carmine had left his official insignia of office — a rather gauche medallion worn around the neck on a heavy gold chain — at home. He didn’t like it and didn’t feel the need to wear it. His staff all knew who he was. His regular staff.
“Quite right — my fault entirely. Why don’t we both go to my office and verify who I am with my assistant?”
The guard thought it over for a moment. “No, you’ll have to go home and get it. If you have one.”
Carmine’s patience was running thin. He had tried to be civil with the man, but he was a little too officious for his own good. There were cells down below full of people like him, people who had decided they knew better than their betters.
“I don’t have time for this.” He pushed the guard aside with a simple shove. He was a little shorter than the man, but he had been trained to a much higher level of combat. The guard went flying back, thumping into the wall.
He would have to have the man reprimanded, even though he wasn’t to blame. Such confusions happened during wartime, they still needed to be dealt with.
Carmine heard the hurried patter of running boots behind him. He turned around, ready to really let him have it this time, but it was his assistant, Stodar, running towards him, holding a folder tied with ribbon.
“Minister, there you are. I tried to intercept you in your carriage but you had already exited and taken the other route to your office. My apologies.”
“What is it, Stodar? What couldn’t wait?”
“It’s a summons from the palace. All ministers. I’ve gathered the overnight reports for you.” Stodar wasn’t even out of breath. Had the man really run all the way to the stables to inform him? He dismissed the thought as irrelevant.
“Thank you.” Carmine took the folder and started walking back towards the exit. “This man,” he said, pointing at the bewildered-looking guard, “have him reassigned to external duty. And make sure he’s paired with one of our regulars. Can’t have a man inside the Ministry who doesn’t know who anyone is.”
Stodar gave the guard a piercing glare and the man blushed. He hadn’t reacted like that under Carmine’s glare. He would have to learn that ability.
The ride to the palace was a short one and Carmine only had enough time to browse through the reports Stodar had prepared. They told him nothing new.
Enemy forces were remaining in position, ready to move at a moment’s notice. The Gweurvians were in charge, at least nominally, and they hadn’t given the go-ahead. What they were waiting for? If he could deduce that much, they would at least have something to work towards.
Carmine walked into the main assembly hall to be met with a barrage of angry shouting and accusations. The room was long and thin with a table with eight chairs — nine, actually, but the ninth was never filled.
A full assembly was rare, usually only called at times of celebration or to mark the passing of a revered personage. And occasionally to deal with a matter of grave importance, although such things were usually decided by the cabinet members, those in the eight chairs.
Seven were currently filled, with the other ministers standing behind the ministers they were most closely allied with. Thirty-two ministries were represented, including the most insignificant and pointless ones that were little more than cosmetic. The Ministry for Swamps and Floodplains (which hadn’t been active in over a hundred years since the swamps had been reclaimed as farmland and the floodplains were protected by levees), the Ministry for Mining Rights (the rights all being owned by the royal family of Ranvar, but appearances needed to be maintained), the Ministry for Carriages (whose regulations hadn’t required changing since its creation), and so on.
Some ministries served a purpose but held no particular civic responsibility. The Ministry for the Defence of the King’s Good Name was very active but rarely did the minister in charge attend anything other than the most obligatory assemblies. He was currently standing behind Minister for War Reshvay, watching the other ministers with a keen eye. Taking mental notes to jot down later, most probably.
Only a few hundred years ago, the Royal Court had been a place of debate and thoughtful interactions. That all changed when a group who had fought to give the southern marsh region more autonomy had attempted to assassinate the Leader of the Chamber, a staunch loyalist. Under torture, they had confessed their ultimate goal to overthrow the monarchy and were hung in the central plaza. The assembly was soon after reduced in number and filled with bootlickers and sycophants, although the history books would describe them as more closely aligned with the king. There was still room for discussion, none for dissent.
Things had changed little since then, the room for compromise a thin sliver it would be hard to get your fingers through.
The cabinet ministers were hunched over, leaning across to each other, whispering their thoughts to one another, ignoring their inconsequential fellows.
Most people only remembered the major ministries, because there was no real reason to know more. Carmine had memorised all the different ministries when he was a child. His goal had always been to rise to a position of importance in one of them, even though his family was not well connected politically. His idea was to choose one of the lesser ones and transform it into a force to be reckoned with. But fate had intervened, and now he was the one being transformed.
“This is an outrage,” said a rotund, bald man Carmine recognised as the Minister for Inns and Taverns, although he couldn’t immediately recall his name. “We are practically defenceless while all around us the jackals sharpen their knives.” His body pitched forward in sympathetic momentum with his words, nearly sending him over the chairs in front of him if not for the men either side of him holding him back.
“Jackals don’t use knives,” said an elderly man Carmine seemed to recall was the Minister for Fish and Game. He was seated on a chair pulled back from the table to indicate he wasn’t part of the cabinet, but his age required he sit. His knees were far apart with his cane between them, resting both hands on top.
“This is hardly the time to be pedantic. Why isn’t something being done? These low, ungrateful tracts of mud think they can challenge us? They need to be shown their place.”
There was a round of harrumphing and a general mood of dissatisfaction.
Carmine took a seat at the table, the only empty one, squeezing in between two lanky men who saw who they were now positioned behind and made their way to other parts of the table.
“Here now,” said someone to Carmine’s left. “Here’s the man who can provide us with answers. The Minister for Instruction.”
“Acting-minister,” said someone from Carmine’s right.
All heads turned to look at him. Carmine took a moment to pour himself some water from the carafe on the table. He knew full well they didn’t see him as one of their own yet, never mind someone to fear and obey. His predecessor had cast a long shadow and it lingered still.
Carmine took a sip of water while the gathered men waited impatiently.
“Gentlemen,” began Carmine, “ministers, please. There is much to discuss and only a limited amount of time before I must leave to attend to other matters.”
He took another sip of water. Let their indignation fester, it would only be to his advantage.
The truth was he enjoyed being the centre of attention. He liked that everyone here was senior to him in terms of age and experience, yet they were forced to turn to him for insight into the state of current affairs.
No one spoke, wary of only causing further delays. They were all seasoned enough to know when someone was toying with them. They might not have much regard for him, but he was the Minister for Instruction, acting or otherwise. The office he represented was still one of the most powerful.
“The latest reports I’ve received show that there are forces lined up along all our eastern borders but that they are not in the process of preparing for deployment.”
“Then what in blast are they doing?”
Carmine turned his head to face the speaker. “Minister Anatole.” Carmine was pleased it had been someone whose name he knew. It made him look that much better informed. “I understand why you would ask that, but please consider the sensitive nature of such a question. We can not afford to have our plans leaked to the enemy. All I can tell you at the moment is that there is no danger of an imminent attack.”
His point was accurate, it would be foolish to reveal such information in a venue this exposed, but it was also true that you couldn’t reveal what you didn’t know, whether it be to the enemy or to your own peers.
“How long would they need to mobilise?”
Carmine didn’t see who spoke this time, so nodded instead. “Our estimates put a major offensive requiring forty-eight hours at the very least, but more likely anything up to a week. Obviously, we would be well aware of their intentions within hours of the decision being made.”
“But how do we defend ourselves without dragons?”
“Is it true the enemy have acquired their own dragons?”
“Why can’t we reinstate the dragon healers? They can’t all be dead.”
The questions were coming all at once, overlapping and leaving no room for answers.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen.” Carmine’s pleas for a chance to speak went unheard.
“Quiet, you fools!” boomed Minister Reshvay. The War Minister was on his feet, which didn’t happen very often. Carmine couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen him up, let alone walking around. How the man travelled from location to location was a mystery. By magic carpet, perhaps.
The gathered men had fallen into silence at Reshvay’s admonishment.
“How and when we choose to deal with these blackguards remains a process of the utmost secrecy,” said Reshvay. “As Minister Carmine has said, we cannot afford any leaks, intentional or otherwise.” Reshvay stared around the table, simultaneously questioning the loyalty and intelligence of everyone present. It was a bold double-slap to the face.
But Reshvay had earned his position and no one present dared to challenge him. That was the kind of esteem Carmine wished to be held in.
“We all know the danger of spies in our midst,” continues Reshvay, remaining on his feet, hands on the table. “We all know the history of betrayal within our own ranks.”
He looked around again. Eyes nervously avoided returning the stare.
There had been several betrayals over the years, none successful. The great power of Ranvar made it so the only true threat came from within her own borders as brother vied with brother to redistribute that power that was already held, leading to strictly drawn up rules of conduct that kept a delicate balance in place. Most of the time.
“Now,” said Reshvay, leaning back into a standing position, breaking the spell, “you have been summoned today to ensure your resources are available should they be required. You won’t be informed of what will be needed from you until the last possible moment, so it is imperative you keep your decks clear and your personnel on active duty.”
Reshvay hadn’t given them any more information than Carmine had, but the impression he left was very different. The ministers had an air of hardened resolve about them. They were ready to do their part, even though there had been zero indication of what that entailed.
There was a sudden burst of noise from the other end of the room where most of the ministers were clumped together. They parted as another figure entered the chamber. It was one that didn’t require any introduction.
“Well?” said the Archmage. “You called for me. Here I am.”
There was an even greater sense of nervousness in the room now. Most here still saw the Archmage as the criminal he had only recently been. Despite his reprieve, he was viewed with suspicion, and a wariness lest he revert to his previous ambitions.
The Archmage wasn’t alone. Beside his stood a young woman. One that Carmine had only recently been visited by — Simole, the Archmage’s daughter.
She only added to the Archmage’s air of disdain for the proceedings. It was highly irregular to bring an unsanctioned guest to the chamber, let alone a child.
Carmine avoided making eye-contact with her. No doubt she knew he would be here, but there was no point in revealing their encounter to the Archmage if it wasn’t necessary. From what Carmine knew about their relationship, it wasn’t particularly cordial. It was highly likely she hadn’t told her father who she spent her time with. The more pressing question was what was she doing here?
“Archmage,” said Foreign Minister Duplas, rising from his chair. “The prince has already been made aware of your arrival and will summon us when he is ready. In the meantime, perhaps you can advise us on the current state of the dragon population that have been put under your care.”
“The same,” said the Archmage.
There was a disappointed grumble around the table.
“No improvement in their condition at all?” asked Reshvay, sitting heavily into his seat.
“None,” said the Archmage. “But their health is of no concern.”
The mood in the room changed to one of surprise and confusion.
“You say no concern?” said Reshvay, his whiskers shaking. “Blast it, man, what are you saying?”
The Archmage raised his arms, causing a few ministers to scurry away from any potential explosions. “The Royal College will provide the support the dragons would have ten-fold. Mages will be assigned to every platoon and brigade. We will use the full power of Arcanum that is at our disposal.”
There was a mildly positive reaction to this announcement, some cautious smiles shared between the less well-informed ministers. The implication of what was being proposed was not lost on the more astute members of the assembly.
“Are you saying you will put the mages under our direct control?” asked Minister Duplas in a quiet, unassuming voice.
“No, of course not,” said the Archmage. “Obviously I will remain in charge of the members of the Royal College as constitutionally guaranteed, but—”
“This is an outrage,” said Reshvay, jumping back to his feet. “Are you trying to usurp command of His Majesty’s forces?”
“There’s such a thing as separation of mage and state, you know?” added Duplas. “And for good reason.”
The struggle for power between mages and non-mages had been going on since the birth of the nation of Ranvar. Only a very firm declaration by both sides on the merits of keeping the strongest mages away from the reins of power had allowed peace to exist. It was clear to everyone, including the members of the Royal College, that if someone with near limitless power became ruler, whether in name or in action, they would be impossible to mediate with. A dictator, benign or otherwise, was in no one’s interest.
“I have no intention of promoting myself into some kind of administrative role,” said the Archmage. “I find it tedious enough handling the affairs of the Royal College, which I delegate as much as possible. I have no interest in governing an entire country.”
The room was silent, the doubt tangible.
“No one ever claims to want to be a despot,” said Carmine into the silence.
The Archmage turned to look at him. “Indeed. But these are unusual times, Minister…?”
“Carmine. Acting-minister Carmine.” He smiled and bowed his head a little, happy to accept his role with humility.
“Well, acting-Minister, placing my mages within the troops is an entirely temporary measure for only as long as this emergency exists. And it won’t exist for very long once my mages take to the battlefield. I plan to shorten this exercise to the least amount of distraction possible. There is also no need to keep this information hidden from our enemies. They are likely to surrender as soon as they learn of it.”
He sounded very much like the whole thing was a huge waste of his time, and the sooner he could be done with it, the sooner he would be able to return to his real work, whatever that might be.
“Yes,” said Minister Duplas. “I understand. But it hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that you are employing the same tactics as our own when we wish to infiltrate another regime.”
It was, Carmine knew, standard procedure to offer assistance, have operatives installed as consultants and trainees in an ally’s armed forces, and then take control of those forces from the inside.
“That’s not how I operate,” said the Archmage, “that’s how you operate. I am making the best proposition possible under the circumstances. It is, of course, up to Prince Ranade to make the final decision.”
There was a murmur of agreement on this point.
A soldier came hurrying in and whispered into Minister Duplas’ ear.
“The prince has sent for us,” said Duplas. “Archmage, ministers of the cabinet, if you will.”
Eight ministers rose from the table, including Carmine, and followed Duplas and the Archmage, accompanied by his daughter, into the next room, an antechamber through which was the prince’s private office. There were nearly as many guards in the room as ministers, stiff men in full armour carrying halberds that nearly touched the high ceiling.
“Wait here,” the Archmage said to his daughter.
“You also,” Duplas said to Carmine.
“What?” spluttered Carmine, completely taken by surprise. “But I’m—”
“Acting-minister,” said Reshvay. “There is still protocol to follow.”
Carmine was bursting with anger but he knew there was no point displaying it. His time would come, and sooner than any of these old men realised. He snapped his mouth shut and nodded.
He was left alone with the girl and the guards.
Ten minutes passed. Carmine felt a searing embarrassment in front of these lowly soldiers who had witnessed his humiliation. He focused on making sure his face didn’t show it.
The Archmage’s daughter looked like she couldn’t have cared less about being excluded. She had the air of a teenage girl who had been forced along to some dull affair under parental-duress. A mode entirely fitting for someone of her age.
“I don’t suppose you had any luck finding your friend,” he said to her.
She looked almost startled by his question. “Do I know you?” Then she turned and walked away from him to go stand by a window.
Carmine was a little thrown at being brushed off by a child. Apparently her desire to not reveal her associations to her father extended to when he wasn’t in the room. Then again, he was the Archmage, he could probably see and hear through the walls.
After half an hour, the doors opened and the ministers came out looking weary. Whatever had transpired hadn’t left them full of optimism, that was evident.
“The prince is taking the Archmage’s proposal under advisement,” said Duplas in response to Carmine’s carefully understated look of curiosity.
“Yes,” said Carmine, as though this was the outcome he had expected. In truth, he had been too agitated by his exclusion to give the matter much thought. “When will he make his decision?”
“This evening,” said Duplas. “In the meantime, we should prepare for the eventuality. We questioned the wisdom of the Archmage’s plan, but there wasn’t an alternative to suggest in its place, so…”
Duplas looked tired and distracted. “Don’t worry, my boy. It will all be fine.” He seemed to be consoling himself more than Carmine, who did not appreciate being called a boy. He let it pass, though.
The room was full of distracted men now, all lost in thought. They left one by one until there was only Carmine and the Archmage left, and his daughter at the window.
The Archmage snapped his fingers and everything froze. The guards, already stood to attention, no longer blinked, the daughter a statue staring at the sky.
“It went to plan, I take it,” said Carmine.
“As well as could be expected,” said the Archmage. “The boy, do you have him?”
Carmine shook his head. He saw the frown begin to form on the Archmage’s face. “He is being helped.”
“Yes,” said the Archmage. “As are you. Find him.” He held out a small bottle.
“I will.” Carmine took the bottle of dark liquid. His hand trembled slightly. “This stuff, is it really safe?”
“Of course. Why, have you had ill effects?”
“No, no, it’s nothing. A little lightheadedness.” Carmine put the bottle in his pocket. “I didn’t think you would bring your daughter.”
“She will play a part in this before the end.”
“Can she be trusted?” asked Carmine.
“It will make no difference,” said the Archmage. “Why? You sense something?”
“No, it’s not that... She seemed different somehow. None of my concern. I leave you to it. I can go?”
The Archmage nodded.
Carmine moved through the room like he was walking under water. It was a strange experience. He opened the door and stepped outside to normality, relatively speaking. He patted the bottle in his pocket. He wouldn’t need it much longer. Find the boy, prepare for war, and then the other ministers would learn their lesson. He headed back to the ministry.
“He saw through your disguise,” said the Archmage.
The demon turned from the window. “No. He merely thought he saw a shadow in the corner of his eye. No cause for concern, my child. And what of the prince? Did he agree to place a mage in every corner of his army?”
“He will. He put on a show of deliberating to appease his ministers, but he will. He has no other choice.”
“Very well,” said the demon. “And the boy?”
“Yes,” said the Archmage. “We still have to take care of the boy.”