I woke up the next morning in the most comfortable bed I had ever slept in. Not that that was saying much since I’d only slept in military cots, several cheap inns, on the forest floor, and the spartan furnishings my father had allowed me long ago. The bed was so comfortable I almost considered sleeping in, but forced myself out of bed just a bit after my usual time.
In the wardrobe were three sets of clothing that were perfectly fitted for my body. None of which was the simple black clothing I’d worn coming here.
Resigned, after I’d showered and primped myself, I put on the least offensive of the three outfits and put the other two in the dimensional pouch I carried with me.
I made my way to the front door. Neither my brother or sister were up yet, and so I left a note with one of the servants:
Eomi and Kali,
I was nice to see the two of you again. While I would dearly enjoy renewing our acquaintance, I have obligations in the city that I cannot avoid. I will be staying at the Pluckered Peacock in the central market district for the foreseeable future. You can reach me there.
Then I headed out.
Unfortunately, the family servant was probably correct that the Inquisition had undoubtedly been alerted to my presence in the city when I had given my blood at the Library. As a result, I would have to visit the Inquisitors eventually.
Fortunately, the family estate was nearby the main headquarters of the Inquisition. Our family had a long tradition of serving, and the estates had been chosen for proximity, despite the current occupancy. Deciding it was better to arrive dressed like a fop than dressed in uniform to stress that I wanted to take some time off, I chose not to go back to my room in the Inn to change.
The headquarters was a building shaped like a black cube to my rough estimate 1000 feet in all directions. There were no windows, no markings, no ornamentation of any kind on any of the walls. Instead, the black shape was located in the exact center of a field of limestone aggregate. A simple concrete path through the gravel lead from the road to a massive set of doors set into the enormous edifice.
The doors were glass when I got to them, and they swung open easily to my push. Inside I found myself in what I could only describe as a lobby. The kind of hall I remembered from the headquarters of multi-billion dollar corporations back home.
I walked to the large front desk and spoke to one of the receptionists. All the receptionists were wearing the uniform of the inquisition.
“I’m Squire Lieutenant Lynx Elm, I will be in the city for the next month or so, visiting family and following up on some personal projects. I thought I should check in.” I showed the receptionist the ring I hadn’t been able to remove and had been trying to forget since I got it in that strange ceremony back in Larkin.
“Someone will come out to see you momentarily.” The woman I was speaking with said.
I paced for a few trying minutes until a man in the uniform of a knight captain of the Inquisition entered the lobby and walked over to me.
“Lynx Elm. I’m Knight Captain Petr Robin Ginko. If you would come with me.” He said before turning and walking deeper into the building.
I followed him as he walked, neither of us said anything. He led me down a flight of stairs and to an office, and he sat down at a desk then motioned that I sit down as well.
“So you’ve come from Devotion Valley?” He said.
“Yes. The battle war was winding down, we’d conquered the valley, I asked permission from the Lord General and was granted leave to quit the runner program. I came to the city with Chancellor Termass several days ago.”
“Strictly speaking, you didn’t report to the Lord General.” The inquisitor said. “Lord Samdi is still at the battlefront and as an Inquisitor he would be your superior officer.”
A grimace must have shown on my face. And the inquisitor I was speaking waved his hand. “I understand your hesitation completely, and truly Samdi has been sending messages asking to return himself. For various reasons that don’t concern you — though I’m sure that you can figure them out having worked with the man — we would rather keep Samdi as far away as possible from polite society. Preferably where he can be useful but do as little harm as possible.”
“Furthermore, strictly speaking, your commanding officer is your father, who…”
The door to the office opened, and a man stuck his head in, “Petr you have got to hear this Twice-Lived.”
“Karl I’m with a junior.” The man I was talking to said.
“Bring him, this could be educational,” the inquisitor named Karl said.
Petr stood up from behind the desk and motioned I follow. We left the room and walked down the hall to a much bigger room that seemed to be a viewing room to an interrogation room.
“… and furthermore I find the term Twice-Lived to be pejorative. I prefer the term Sequentially Born Imperial Citizen.”
“Who cares what you think.” The inquisitor in the room with the Twice-Lived man said in frustration.
But that didn’t stop the man from continuing. “Twice-Lived isn’t even grammatically correct. Lived is past tense. I have lived once, but I am still living my second life. You could say Twice Born, or Second Life, but Twice-Lived is incorrect usage until after I have to die…”
As the Twice-Lived was speaking, Knight-Captain Petr who I’d been in the meeting with groaned and then opened up a small slot in the wall and said, “Just kill him, I don’t have time for this.”
“… for all you know I could be Thrice Lived or even Four Times Lived…”
The Inquisitor nodded in the direction of Knight-Captain Petr then stepped behind the Twice-Lived dropped a garrote around his neck and suffocated him.
“You… haven’t heard… the last from me…” the Sequentially Born Imperial Citizen croaked before he died.
Once we were back in Knight Captain Petr’s office, he said “What was I saying? Oh yes. It isn’t Samdi who is your commanding officer, nor strictly speaking is anyone at this headquarters. You are in the chain of command. If you hadn’t requested personal leave time, I would simply have given you the regular duties of a junior officer. Your Father, however, is your supervisor and since we have received a dispatch that your father the Knight General will be visiting the headquarters soon, he might as well take charge of you once he gets here.”
“My father is expected here?” I said.
“We got word of it yesterday. Since you lack a proper status, we have no way of communicating with you directly. If you would not mind, I will make a note of where you can be reached. Other than that, your time is yours to do as you see fit. If you have any need for the inquisitors or would like any guidance in our ways, feel free to contact me.”
I was about to leave when the Knight Captain turned to me and said. “One more thing. There have been vandals putting up signs around the city about something called a Strawberry Fields. If you come into any information about this, contact the inquisition immediately.”
After that, I gave the Knight Captain the name of the Inn where I was staying and also the address to the family estate. Undoubtedly he already had the second bit of information, but it wouldn’t hurt to give it again. Then I was led back out to the front door.
I needed to think, so I began walking back to the location of the nearest gate rather than catch a rickshaw. When I passed the family estate, I stopped off at the entrance and left a message telling my siblings that dear old dad would be in the city soon. They must have some way they dealt with him when he was around, but I didn’t feel like asking or finding out.
When I was inside the hub of merchant’s guild gate complex, I stopped off for a snack before heading towards the central market.
Asking around in the market I could not find a merchant who dealt in either chimpanzees or goblins and finding something similar enough to humans probably didn’t matter for the time being. Instead, I bought a score of cages, a table, a chair, a couple canvas bags, a crate of canned fish, some work gloves, liquid soap, 2 massive bags of sand, a half dozen low cut boxes and a bunch of mage light. I also went to a mage supply store and picked up some supplies for blood magic. Test tubes, papers, a small centrifuge, and a runic cooler. All of this, I had delivered to the warehouse I’d rented the day before.
I filled the boxes with sand and lay the cages on top, then scattered these groups around the room.
The warehouse had some security runes set around it, but they weren’t very potent. It took me about two hours to completely redo the security of the warehouse with some extremely powerful warding runes. While I’d learned a lot about breaking through wards from my studies in Devotion Valley, I had done so by learning how to set them up. It was the one branch of Arcane magic I’d had time to study so far, but my affinity with that branch of magic was as high if not higher than with life magic. Someone would have to have an extremely high affinity for arcane magic to break through the wards I’d set up.
Then for the next few hours, I worked on the runes that I got out of the book in the library. When it was dark outside, I left to hunt.
The alley behind the warehouse was dark. One of the things I had noticed when I had been hunting for a place to set up a lab were signs of a colony of feral cats. After a bit of hunting, I found a group of cats congregating two alleys away. Casting a life spell, I stunned them, then put six of the largest in three of the canvas sacs I’d carried with me.
I was about to turn and leave when something a girlfriend from long ago had pestered me about came to mind, and so I stopped. Returning to the unconscious cats lying in the street and laying the bags of cats I was carrying down, I tracked down every visible cat I could see, and cast a spell on each of them to sterilize them. I also threw a quick healing spell and anti-flea spell on each of them. I was silly. Old earth concerns about animal control probably made no difference here. Shaking my head, I was too sentimental.
Back in my the warehouse I gave each cat a bath before recasting the anti-flea spell. Followed up by an anti-worm spell, and anti-rabies magic. Then I took a sample of each cat’s blood carefully marking which vial of blood came from which cat. Finally, each cat was placed inside a cage, with a bowl of water.
Then I went back out with another canvas sac. This time I was hunting for rats. Rats were simultaneously easier to find and harder. Unlike the feral cats, rats didn’t form large colonies. They also tended to hide in the trash, and I wasn’t all that interested in digging through garbage. Hunting for rats required me to catch them in ones and twos, but eventually, I had a bag full of fourteen fat stunned ones. Knowing rats, I was especially careful to cast anti-insect and worm spells on them, as well as using my measly water affinity to hose their unconscious bodies off.
The rats went into a separate cage back in the warehouse after I took samples of each of their blood and marked each vial according to the rat and cage they were in. The rats were far less critical than the cats, but it was essential to keep the records.
In the sunlight of the next morning, I visited Allaana and sparred with her students for a few hours before heading over to the warehouse.
The cats were awake in their cages and were making loud mewling noises. Opening a couple of cans of fish divided the portions into six small bowls and put a dish into each cage. The cats hissed and yowled at me when I came near. One even tried to scratch and bite, but I was expecting it and wore work gloves to protect my hands.
The first test was relatively simple. Using ink mixed with powdered dungeon core I drew the runes to the shield that I had puzzled out from Hener the force mage around the first cat’s cage. Then I powered the runes with enough mana for the spell to stay up for about four hours. With my mage sight, I could see a dome of life magic from around the cage.
Taking out the vial of the first cat’s blood, I took out dabbed enough blood out onto a paper to perform blood magic, then restoppered the vial.
Using the cat’s blood, I used blood magic to scry the cat’s location. The night before I had created a map of the warehouse, essentially a large rectangle with a small drop of blood from each of my captured cats corresponding to the location on the map where I’d put the cage.
Using blood magic, I could use sympathetic life magic with the location of any three other known cats, to try to detect the position of the ‘unknown’ fourth cat with a sample of its blood. The blood of the cat behind the runic shield would be the fourth cat I was searching for.
If the shield I’d constructed was working the way I hoped, I shouldn’t be able to detect the cat behind the runic dome of life magic. Crossing my fingers, I cast the blood magic spell.
The blood on the map went directly to where the cat was located. At the very minimum, the shield would not block scrying. The next test I tried was to try to use blood magic to find the cat but to sense it. I cast that spell, and suddenly I knew exactly where the cat was located.
Then I took out some paper and sketched out the runes for the shielding spell. Strictly speaking, the runes read stop life. What that meant was open to interpretation. So I stood up and walked over to the cat. Functionally there should be very little difference between a blood magic spell and a healing spell or a healing spell, but just in case. I cast the calming spell on the cat, and it fell unconscious. Then I cast a healing spell on it, and I could sense the cat’s body soaking up healing magic.
The next step I took was to render one of the rats unconscious, remove it out of its cage, tied a string around the rat and then gently swung the unconscious rat like a pendulum through the life stopping shield.
Unfortunately, the rat passed through the life shield without any resistance. Stop life apparently didn’t mean stop living things. Then I checked to see if the rat was still living. It was.
Feeling frustrated I put the unconscious rat back in its cage and then sat down at the table I was using as a desk. Taking out some paper, I spent about twenty minutes writing out notes about all my experiments, before leaning back and trying to think of the next step. I could set up the runes on the next Cat so that they were much stronger to see if the amount of power affected anything.
Then I stopped. There was one test that I had forgotten to make. I kept forgetting necessary detection magic. Not blood magic which focused the living essence in blood, but merely sending out a pulse of my own life magic like a bat and using my life sense to feel for reflections. It was a far more passive skill than blood magic, less invasive.
I sent out a pulse, and a fraction of a second I was presented with an image of the life in the warehouse. Five cat-shaped objects were clearly outlined, as were 14 rat shapes in cages, as well as some mice in the walls, and one large sphere where the sixth cat should have been.
Interesting. Completely useless, but interesting.
Just out of curiosity, I moved on to the second cat. This time when I set up the runes, I went out of my way to grind up some of the most potent core fragments that I’d gotten as loot from Tequital before mixing this dust with ink. I then drew the same runic shield as the first one, but when I infused it with mana, I powered it with as much power as I could. The mana flowed out of me like a raging torrent and kept only enough to keep me awake and cast a few spells.
The detection spell worked exactly like it had before. The runes showed a circle of life around the cat rather than the cat itself, meaning that my runes were stopping the detection spell. Life wasn’t getting through.
Next, I tried to knock the cat unconscious. This was different, with the amount of power I had left, I could barely make it through the shield. The cat stretched, glared at me, but did not fall asleep.
I sat down and rested for a few minutes hoping to get some mana back. Fuck it. I sent a tendril of power out and drained all of the rats except one. It wasn’t a whole lot of mana, but it was enough to cast a blood magic spell. I sent out my senses on a wave of blood magic and… nothing… no… no… I could feel something. A faint trace of the cat. It felt like I was trying to yell at a cat a million miles away at the bottom of an ocean somewhere.
Interesting. Completely impractical, but interesting.
Then I tied a rat to a string and swung it through the sphere space of the rune. The rat moved through the area unimpeded, and when I examined it, the rat was still alive.
The last thing I tried was to try and send out a tendril of my witch sense and drain the cat. It was like another sense, a thin straw of power that reached out of my body, stretching out towards the cat and then nothing. When the tendril reached the shield it was as if there was nothing there.
It was getting late, and I used soap and water to wash away the runes I’d drawn on the floor. I was exhausted, but I still took the time to feed the cats a second time before stumbling back to the inn for some food.
The standard room to the inn was lively when I entered. There was a string quartet playing in the corner, and every table was full. I pushed my way to the bar, eventually finding a stool and ordered a meal. The innkeeper put a plate with spiced ground lamb wrapped in grape leaves and something made from quinoa, fried Brussels sprouts, and beans, plus a pint of some sort of wheat beer.
Eating a good meal, did an incredible job of replenishing my internal supply of mana. Just before I went upstairs, the innkeeper came over to me and said, “oh, I forgot, but a messenger dropped this letter off for you.” And handed me a folded parchment closed with the wax seal of our branch of House Naato.
“Thanks,” I said and took the letter upstairs to my room. Flopping down on my bed, I took out a dagger and opened the letter.
I hope this missive finds you in good health. Thank you for letting us know that daddy dearest will be in town. There is a small get together tomorrow evening at the home of Lord Cloy Bear Teak, and we would like to invite you to come as our guest. Think of this as your introduction to proper society. Be at our villa at around 5:30 and the three of us will go together.
Eomi Kitsune Eucalyptus
It looks like I had an appointment for the next day.
That morning I got up and headed over to spar with Allaana’s students. It was fun and a good workout. Allaana would occasionally stop a fight and give pointers. I’d sparred with her a few times, and could usually hold my own, but she was an unyielding opponent.
That morning I was sparring with one of her better students. I could never remember his name, and he stayed quiet whenever he fought. Martiam, the healer had told that he was a mute, and maybe he compensated for his inability to speak by his snake-like reflexes with a practice sword.
We had gone back and forth across the circle. A flurry of blows and feints. Usually, my fights didn’t last this long. I preferred to land killing blows quickly, but I couldn’t get through this guy’s defenses. And it was only a small comfort that he couldn’t get through my own.
We had been exchanging blows for who knows how long. Time was nothing except a constant clank of metal striking at metal. I had tried to out skill this guy, and we were equal, I 'd attempted to disarm him, and he hadn’t succumbed, I had even spent a few moments attacking his sword trying to break his blade, but the practice blade he yielded was made from soft iron and didn’t break easily.
With a flurry of blows, I drove him backward, and he gave ground. If I could use magic, this fight would be over, but we were forbidden from using magic so that we would improve our actual blade work.
Just when he was reaching the border of the circle, he began to speed up his blows and drive me backward. Where was this guy getting his energy from? I exhausted and was about to drop, and he seemed as fresh as the moment he began.
His blows began to push me backward. I forced my sword strikes to fall into a pattern, leaving an opening. It wasn’t a visible opening, but anybody as skilled as he apparently was would be able to see it. I was hoping that he would think that the exhaustion from the fight was making me sloppy.
I was right. He went for the opening, and I was waiting for him. I struck like a lightning bolt from out of the sky. Except he must have known that I was faking because I hadn’t noticed that he had never fully committed, and my strike was met by my opponent stepping out of the way of my blade, while my own sword was knocked out of my hand.
The next thing I knew Martiam was standing over me healing me, and my stomach and side felt like they’d been run over by a tank.
“Good fight Lynx,” Allaana said standing over my body.
“Ow!” I said.
“Seriously. Good fight. I didn’t expect you to last half that long against Melvyn.” Allaana said.
“Melvyn? I was destroyed by a man named Melvyn?”
“Is there something wrong with that?” Allaana said. “He comes from one of the lesser noble family. A long line of mages with body affinity.”
“I thought we weren’t supposed to use mana in the fight,” I complained.
“True, but nobody said, you couldn’t reinforce your body before the fight. That is what Melvyn did. Effective was it not. You did extremely well keeping up with a body affinity warrior, especially one with his status already. That was a test of sorts.”
“Ow!” I said again.
“I really can’t help you much with your forms or technique. You might want to consider coming here more simply to teach. Teaching someone would do your technique wonders. It would force you to break down the movements you do naturally, to pass them on to a student.” Allaana said.
“I will think about it. I don’t know how long I will be in the city and I have other obligations, so I can’t promise anything.”
“That’s fine. I only wanted to give you the option. Think about it and let me know. I’m not sure how much you will get out of these sparring sessions. Beyond the workout factor, you are beyond them.”
The practice yard had a change room and a shower, so I changed into street clothes and made my way to the Mercenary Guild.
Nynaeve was not working when I got there, so I ordered a beer and found a table by one of the walls and began working on fixing the older set of runes I had discovered. Now that I had cast my version of the force rune, I could see similarities to what I had done, but there were plenty of differences.
The most significant difference was that my life shield was entirely made of pure life magic, whereas the protection that was being described in the book was a clever combination of life magic and arcane magic.
It did bother me that I hadn’t found more books on the subject of life shields in the Library. Even as underpowered and awkward as the one that I had been working on yesterday showed an incredible amount of versatility.
One of these days if I had the chance I was going to have to make a thorough study of Arcane Magic. Only using the affinity to break into buildings was trivializing a significant resource.
Considering that this was a culture that made heavy use of blood magic and run by Vampires it made sense that things that blocked life magic would be hidden. Or at least extremely restricted knowledge.
Nynaeve came in at around three in the afternoon, and I waved, but I don’t think she saw me because just as I waved a couple of the mercenaries began to fight. One woman even picked up a chair and was about to smash a man, who was punching another man, over the head. It was then that Nynaeve stepped in with a stout stick and smacked the mercenary holding the chair in hand. She dropped the chair and cried out like a little girl, unlike the very-large very-drunk woman she was. Like a practiced bouncer, Nynaeve moved through the fight smacking several drunken fighters with her stick, quickly ending the brawl.
The mercenary who dropped the chair and yelled “Ow, Nana, why did you go and do that. We were just having a friendly conversation.”
“Ya, Nynaeve. The fight was just getting exciting.” Said another mercenary rubbing a freshly bruised head.
“You can have many ‘friendly conversations’ as you want, but don’t break the furniture when you do it, and try to take the really rough and tumble outside. I am sick and tired of moping up blood stains from the floor after you’ve all left for the night.” said Nynaeve.
There was a rousing chorus of “You’re no fun,” “You suck Nynaeve,” and “It was just starting to get good.” From around the room.
Nynaeve sighed and pulled her braid. “Ugh. Mercenaries.” She said in exasperation as she approached my table.
“Lynx Elm, I don’t know why you come here. You don’t look like the irresponsible idiot type. I doubt you want to become a mercenary. Normally I’d say you’re here to recruit help, but you haven’t even inquired about hiring people.”
“Who knows, maybe here to dig up guild secrets.” I laughed and said “Kidding. Really. I’m kidding. I just feel uncomfortable around the gentry. My own inn is dull. And this bar is just as close to the inn I’m staying at as it is to other places I need to be. Plus I like people-watching, and I am grateful for all your mother’s help.”
Nynaeve looked at me oddly and then said, “You didn’t look like an agent of the Order Numismatica. Although I suppose spies aren’t supposed to look like spies. Not that there is much to learn here except how to stumble around drunk and I don’t see you trying to chat up anyone.”
“I have no idea what the Order Numismatica is, but I do have to ask are we still on for next week. I’m looking forward to probing you with… umm… questions. And over good food and wine, I have ways of making you talk.”
“I’m looking forward to it, but I have to get back to work,” she said.
At around four o’clock I made my way back to my inn and changed into better clothing, then headed out to Resting Hill, by way of the gate hub in the market and then a rickshaw driver to the family estates. I had a much easier time to get into the house this time. The guards at the gate directly looked at me and opened the gate to let me in.
Inside the house I found Eomi waiting in the front room.
“We’re waiting for Kali. She is late. Women! You tell them to get ready for 4:30 and when 5:30 comes around you are still waiting for them to finish primping. We might as well sit down. This will be a while.” Eomi said sighing in exaggerated exasperation. “I’m lying, I’m lying. We have other guests coming to hitch a ride. You are just the first to arrive. There is plenty of time. Would you like something to drink?”
“What are you having?” I asked.
“I’ll have the same then.”
My brother walked over to a table and poured two glass of whiskey and then added just a drop of water to each glass to open up the flavor. “18 years old. I hope that the Empire conquers the island that makes single malt whiskey soon. They make the best single malt whiskey, and I simply love the peaty flavor.”
Eomi handed me a glass. “Have you been enjoying your time in our glorious city?”
Before I could answer a servant ushered in another three people.
“Eomi, my love, how are you,” a young man said as he walked over to the bar and poured himself a glass out of the same decanter Eomi had poured our drink.
“Trass, be a darling and pour some wine, something so deep and red it looks like blood in a glass.” Another woman said as she lounged in a chair.
“And who is this lovely boy, Eomi? You didn’t say you were bringing us a new toy. He looks incredibly tasty.” The third person, a woman who sat down on the couch beside me. “I think I will have whatever he is having. What do you have my darling.”
“Lala this is my brother. Lynx meet Lala. Lala meet Lynx.”
“Eomi, naughty boy, you never mentioned you had a brother. Where have you been hiding him? I thought I’d chased you all through this house. What deep dark corner haven’t we explored and do we have time to rumple ourselves in there before we leave.” Lala said.
“Lynx was raised by daddy dearest. Apparently, he has special genetics, so he wasn’t allowed to get properly decadent like us.”
“Really. I wonder how special.” Lala’s hand began settled on my shoulder and began to slowly make away down my chest. “His body is so young and firm. I may have to take him for a spin. Lynx, there is an old song from centuries ago, but it applies. Whatever Lala wants, Lala gets. And Lala is beginning to want a pet Lynx.”
It was at that moment that Kali came down the stair. “Trass, darling. You came.” Kali rushed over to the young man who had finished distributing drinks and gave him a kiss on both of his cheeks.
“As if you could keep me away. Who else is coming.” Trass said.
“I think this is everyone,” Eomi said. “The party is over on Resting Hill, and you know that they are a different sort. The mage is in the other room, and I only have him booked for another five minutes, so if everyone is ready?”
“It seems crass to drink and not to savor such a marvelous beverage, but oh well, as the common people say, bottoms up,” Trass said chugging back his single malt whiskey.
“Bottoms up” Said Eomi and Lala as they along with myself finished my drink.
The group of us moved into the first room that I had come in on the first day I had arrived. A less formal waiting room. A mage in a wrinkled outfit with a black stripe on his jacket indicating that he was an officially licensed Space Mage.
I said to him, “I was told when I was in Devotion Valley that there were only three Space Mages in the Empire. Are you one of them.”
“No my Lord. There are only three Master Mages capable of transporting people across the continent. But there are twenty of us capable of opening gates around town.” He said.
“Lynx darling, quit yammering with the help, be a good boy and act pretty for me,” Said Lala.
The mage concentrated and a hole opened onto a grassy plot of land just off of a busy street. The six of us made our way through as did the Space Mage.
“Thank you for using About Town Transport, the fee for this service has been added to your account. Feel to contact us at any time for all of your About Town travel needs.” The space mage said, and then opened up another gate and left.
The estates of this region were significantly larger and newer than the ones around Chance Hill. Resting Hill was one of the traditional hills of the Imperial city, but it was located across the river, and so it had been slower to be claimed by the very rich. That had changed when Hapistrel University had become the leading college in the empire with regards to medicine and the healing arts.
Many of the homes of the Platinum Status nobility in this area were not part of clans. Many had risen through either their own effort or the effort of one of their ancestors. Sometimes from as low as Copper Status. As a result, the area had a different feel to it, that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. The feeling wasn’t necessarily less oppressive, or less snobbish, just different, somehow more competitive and at the same time more rigid.
Instead wrought ironwork gates formed into elaborate patterns swung from pillars of marble. The peaks of the gates were gilded mythril. Similar ironwork continued all the way around the vast estates, and growing along the ironwork were towering cypress trees. With my mage sight, I could see incredibly powerful runes worked into all the iron.
The land that was protected by the fence was a vast well-groomed lawn. Two white marble fountains in reflecting pools on either side of a path that ran from the gate to the main house. Majestic oak trees rose up into the sky.
Eomi led the way holding up a parchment that I assume was some sort of invitation, and the guards at the gate waved the lot of us through. We walked along the path, up ahead Kali was chatting with Trass, Eomi was talking with the woman I hadn’t been introduced to yet, and…
I suddenly felt my ass being grabbed. I turned and saw Lala smiling.
“So Eomi says you have special genetics. Call me intrigued. Do you have any high affinities or Knacks.” Lala said.
“Ummm… “ I said, feeling uncomfortable.
“Come on Lynxie-baby, it’s just between you and me,” Lala said.
“I have a high life affinity and a minor body knack,” I said.
“And you don’t have your status yet? You haven’t been assessed? Interesting. Lynx, I have an important question for you.”
“You’re making me blush like a school girl Lynx,” Lala said with complete insincerity, “this might be a bit forward, but have you ever touched a woman’s breasts, and more importantly would you like to touch mine?”
“Genetics are that important?” I said.
In response, she just pressed her ample chest up against my side.
“Ummm… I don’t know what to say, this is so unexpected.”
“I know I seem a bit forward, but I believe in seizing life by the testicles and squeezing. Soon you will turn 16, and after your status ceremony the Order of Seers will map out your affinities and genetic potential and will start to suggest optimal partners and pairings. After that, any little liaisons you will have will become far more… formalized and overseen.”
“Formalized? Order of Seers? I know that the Order of Seers is one of the Imperial Orders but nobody ever actually told me what they do.” I said.
“Lynx Elm has anybody ever told you that you are a peculiar boy. I promise a bounty that few would pass up and you go on and on about such weary subjects. Are you gay by any chance? Otherwise, why would you want to talk about such a dreadful and dreary subject?” She asked.
“Just curious, I haven’t heard much about the other orders except the Inquisition. And I only know about them because I seem to have been recruited.”
“You are an Inquisitor?” Lala said.
“Yes, a Squire Lieutenant,” I said.
“Hmmm, I might have to make some reevaluations. If you don’t mind, I may talk to you later.” Lala said and sashayed over to the conversation that Kali was having with her friend, and I walked alone for the last 20 or so yards to the entrance to the estate.
Two guards that looked more like peacocks than defenders stood outside the front door holding halberds that looked more ceremonial than utilitarian. They ignored our group as we entered the house into a grand foyer. Marble was everywhere — including a stylized rendering of the family seal in marble and mythril on the floor of the lobby — and the ceilings were over thirty feet high, with large crystal and dungeon core chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Rare polished woods from dungeon growing trees were on the railings and treads of the stairway as well as the elaborate pocket doors into the other rooms.
There was already a crowd meandering in the room just off of the main foyer, and Kali headed that way, while we all followed her.
“Kali, Eomi, Verma, Lala, Trass. So glad you could make it. And who is your guest? He looks positively unblemished.”
“This is my younger brother Lynx. He is back from serving in Devotion Valley. I thought I would introduce him to the better parts of society, but they weren’t available, so we came here,” my sister said laughing.
The man laughed too. “The better parts of society are so stodgy and dull, that I cannot imagine a reason why anyone would want to be part of them. Lynx, I am Vermont Lion Sequoia, and it is good to make your acquaintance.”
Vermont held out his hand for me to shake and I took it. I caught a slight twitch in his eye of recognition when he saw the ring of the inquisition on my hand, but he said nothing. I looked at his hand and saw he had a different sort of ring on his own finger, but I did not say anything either.
Eomi walked over to Vermont and said, “I have meant to talk to you about my run for Consul of the Platinum, I could really use your support. You know my opponent Quinlan and what an unmitigated ass he is.”
Vermont raised his hand to stop my brother’s speaking. “I should stop you right there, Quinlan is a guest here tonight, and I don’t want you saying anything you might regret. As to whom I will support, I am still treading lightly through the hills and valleys of the decision process. I will let both of you know when I am ready. Until then, enjoy my little get together.”
“To the beverage table,” said Trass. “Vermont, my taste buds may exalt you, but my liver feels nothing but sadness.”
As the others were moving finding ways to send themselves into inebriation I stood surveying the room. There were roughly thirty guests that I could see, though undoubtedly there were more in other places.
Joining my family over at the bar, I had a servant pour me a snifter of whiskey, and I added a couple drops of water then started wandering around. There were people from all over the empire and even some people from outside the empire. I distinctly heard two people speaking Cretan, and I would have gone over to practice my language skills but they were talking about shipments of porcelains, and the topic sounded dreary.
As I wandered further into the house, Cretan wasn’t even the most exotic language I heard. Here and there were people from other nations on other continents. They stood chatting in foreign garb and often in little groups, cliques sequestered or among the rest of the imperial subjects at the party.
When I overheard a group of three people speaking in Cretan about the situation in Devotion Valley I couldn’t help but step in.
“… We just don’t have enough first-hand knowledge of what’s going on out there. All I can get is official Imperial military propaganda…”
“I hope you don’t mind if I intrude,” I said in my best Cretan. “But I overheard you speaking of Devotion Valley. I just came from there a couple days ago. I came to the city by way of gate, and was stationed there as a Runner and Squire Lieutenant for several years.”
The man looked at the woman who looked at the other man and then came the barrage of questions.
“Is it true the valley has been taken and the army there, defeated?”
“Do you know if it really was Tequital who fought against the Empire, and is he dead or did he escape?”
“How soon do you think the pass will be open for trade?”
I held up my hand and began to tell what happened and what I had seen over the last few days in the valley. From the attack on our side that got defeated by the illusion to the continued barrage of fireballs that abruptly stopped for some unknown reason one day, finally to the Imperial attack on the Argran forces, and how poorly conditioned the enemy was by that point. I mentioned that it sounded as if the vast majority of the healthy men and women from that land had been expended fighting and Argran seemed to only have the young and old left in their military.
“But what about Hisop? Does the empire plan to take that city? What about the primordial dungeon there?” one of the two men I was speaking with asked.
“Sorry, I don’t know that. I assume that the Empire will push through and seize the entire nation, but if they leave Hisop or try to take it is something that I am not involved in.”
The three people started arguing about the various independent city-states that were in empire or that the empire was allied with and hadn’t bothered to conquer. They thanked me, and since I didn’t have anything more to say I drifted away.
Then I felt a presence behind me. I turned and saw Vermont.
“You speak Cretan well,” he said.
“You should have heard me when I began. I spent a year training with someone who’s only means of communication was an extremely backwoods form of Cretan. It took me years of practice not to be embarrassed by speaking the language in public.”
“Still, very few beyond merchants and ambassadors learn anything other than Magrith. Certainly not inquisitors in training. And the news you passed along was fresh and very valuable. I’m impressed.”
I shrugged and took a sip of my drink. “It was nothing. I enjoyed practicing my language skills and sharing some useless information gave me just that chance. What about you. You know that I am an inquisitor, and I noticed you have a ring similar to my own, does that make you one yourself.”
Vermont laughed, “No. I don’t know if I should be complimented or offended by that assumption. I belong to the Imperial Order Numismatica. We oversee the Imperial Treasury.”
“A friend mentioned the Order Numismatica to me today in the context of spying,” I said.
He waved the allegation aside, “I get that a lot. Part of our mandate is gathering information that has to do with matters of trade. Some people just assume that means we’re spies.”
“I would think that pretty much everything involves matters of trade,” I said.
Vermont winked and then “So how do you like my party so far?”
“Until now, I spent a year living in a forest. Then was immediately shipped off to war for a couple of years. Actual civilization is all so new to me.”
“Well, if I that last conversation is any indication, you are doing really well.”
“Thank you. You have an impressive home.” I said.
“You mean an incredibly gaudy home. My great-grandfather founded our noble line after establishing a very profitable trade contract with the Southern continent and then building the city’s gate hub. He built this home to make up for his lack of a distinguished clan name or genetics. Most of the family, of course, think he was compensating for something.”
“What is it with this fascination with genetics?” I asked. “Lala was very close to tearing off my clothes and having sex with me on your front lawn when she found out I had a high affinity and a minor knack.”
Vermont laughed and said “Lala is part of Clan Tequital. That clan has been out of favor for the last century ever since his disappearance. Of course, Chancellor Tequital could show up tomorrow on the heels of a major victory somewhere, and the entire clan would bask in his shared glory.”
“But it goes deeper than that. The empire gives a yearly stipend to every Platinum status noble depending on their bloodline and the power and standing of the members within it. Lala’s grandfather had a high Nature affinity, one of her second cousins has a minor body knack, and she has an uncle who is a captain in the Army. Her status is terribly low. Her family is almost at risk of becoming golds. Having a child by someone with both a high affinity and a knack, as well as a military background. Well… that would advance her standing and her imperial allowance.”
“I see,” I said.
“She is a beautiful woman. Many men would be thrilled to catch her interest,” Vermont said.
“I’m not that thrilled to be seen simply for my stud skills,” I said.
Vermont laughed, “You haven’t met the Order of Seers yet, have you if you are concerned with your stud skills. As a member of the Naato bloodline, if the Seers demand you have a child with someone, you have a child with that person. It doesn’t matter if they are already married if you find them physically attractive or repulsive, or even if they are your own kin. You have a child, or you face sanctions, mostly loss of income, but up to and including banishment or execution.”
“So I have no choice in partners? First I get roped into becoming an inquisitor and now this. I never wanted to go decadent, but I kind of wanted to follow my own interests once I got my status.”
“It isn’t that bad. You have a choice in partners, just not who you marry and who you have children with. For example, I am married to a woman from the Barilli clan — a very proud and noble line, descending from one of the Imperial Chancellors — but I find you to be quite beautiful and fascinating, and would love to spend more time with you while you are in the city.”
I looked at Vermont, paused for a couple of seconds and then said, “Thank you for the compliment; however I enjoy women. I hope that my saying this doesn’t offend you in any way as you have been very hospitable to a newcomer to the Capital.”
Vermont brushed off my turning him down, “Of course not. Everyone has preferences, though if you want to experiment, I would ask you to keep me in mind.”
Changing the conversation, I asked, “What do you think of my brother’s chances to be elected Consul of Platinum? I know nothing of the political situation here.”
“Your brother is well known despite his age. For better or worse, he has never taken part in any real scandals, so the gossip about him is mostly prosaic. His biggest negative is his connections to the Inquisition, and he really isn’t that closely connected. I would say his chances are good,” Vermont said.
“So I’m one of his biggest negatives?”
“More your father. Alas Lynx, although I find you delectable, in society you aren’t really all that well known. From what I hear, you spent your time on the front working as a runner and a healer, both skill are respected. And then, there is a certain something I had heard from my contacts when I had them check you out a few minutes ago. Something about you and a pillbox and a Phlogiston gun and a young woman almost single-handedly defeating the enemy advance. You should know that the military is considering awarding you a medal.”
I blinked, “My actions as a runner have something to do with Trade?”
“Everything has to do with Trade, Lynx. Now enjoy the party. I must be a good host and mingle.” Vermont said.
I moved back and refilled my drink. Then wandered into a different room. This room was a grand library but interspersed among the books were bits of art. Paintings, drawings, etchings, small sculptures. Mostly I didn’t pay much attention to this, but I did idly scan the spines of the books to see if anything was fascinating on the shelf.
Most of the books that I saw were in either Margrith or Cretan were about history, political theory, and economics. However, there were at least four other languages that I didn’t recognize represented on the shelves. Probably written by other nations in speech foreign and mysterious on faraway continents.
I was about to leave the room and walk out onto the back veranda that overlooked an immaculately trimmed hedge maze when an image caught my eye.
Moving closer I saw the same kind of pen, ink, and watercolor drawing that I had seen in that lonely inn outside of Larkin back when I had been on my way to Devotion Valley. And hidden within the image were the words “Find Safety in Strawberry Fields” written in English.
I moved on. I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself. Didn’t want to be seen spending too much time looking at such an incriminating drawing. I purposefully spent time looking at some of the other art in the room even though I didn’t care about any of it.
My heart had stopped pounding by the time I’d left the room, and I was sure that nobody had seen anything that they shouldn’t have.
I looked around and found my brother and sister. They were on the veranda in front of a small crowd who were listening to my brother talk.
“… The simple fact of the matter is that the only way Copper Status people can find out if they have magical affinities is if they join the military and are tested. In a way this is good. It gives the Imperial army access to the best and the brightest of the Coppers. The coppers who want to get ahead.”
“But I can’t help but feel that the empire would be better off if we tested the affinities of every copper when they got their status, not just after they joined the army. What if there was a future arch mage tilling radishes, never knowing that they had the power to improve the empire, simply because they didn’t want to join the army.”
“Quinlan, my opponent says testing every Copper’s affinities is too expensive. That the Order of Status is busy enough just giving them their status when they become adults. I say we can’t afford not to test these coppers. Our empire, if it wants to continue to grow, to continue to prosper, becomes more and more reliant on magic every year. We need more mages, and if that means changing traditions, then I say we should change tradition.”
I was about to leave and go somewhere else when my brother caught sight of me.
“Ah, I would like to introduce you all to my brother, Lynx Elm. He is a mage and just back from the fighting in Devotion Valley. Lynx, why don’t you come up here and say, Hi to everyone.”
Moving over to where Eomi was standing I said, “I really don’t have anything important to say. Not like Eomi. So let me just say ‘Hi’ to everyone, and say ‘here’s to my brother.’” I lifted my glass of whiskey and took a sip.
The mass of people who’d been listening in raised their glasses in a toast to Eomi and thankfully I was out of the spotlight.
The rest of the party was a bit of a blur. Eomi introduced me to several dozen people none of whom I remembered. I got drunk. Then I healed myself sober. Then I started working on getting drunk again.
A little while after two in the morning I found myself back at the family estate. Vermont had tried to get us to stay in a couple of his guest rooms, but my brother insisted on calling for the gating service he had come to the party with. This time I did heal myself sober and then opened the curtains wide so that I would wake up with the sun.
Instead of going back to my inn, I headed over to the warehouse I was renting. My mana was still low from all of the tests I had done the day before I and I knew that I would need a lot more mana today. As I walked through the streets, my witch power whipped around in the crowd, stealing little bits of life from the people around me. Unnoticeable amounts from any one person, but as I walked through the crowded streets, the number of mana in my body built up.
Along the way, I also stopped off at a store that sold magic supplies, and I bought a liberal amount of the ordinary grade of core dust as well as some more runic ink to mix it with.
The day before I had established that a minimal amount of mana for casting the life shield spell would not block any noticeable amount of life magic, while if I used most of my affinity and I used powerful core dust, my life magic senses would be almost completely blocked.
Today, I would need to eliminate some of the variables.
After feeding and watering the cats. After changing the sand under the cat cages. I began to draw out, to the best of my ability precisely the same set of life shielding runes around each cage. I used exactly the same ink with just the same amount and grade of core dust in it. Six pens, each with nearly identical runes.
The biggest problem I had with how runic magic was done in the Empire was that there did not seem to be an empirical way to measure the quantity of power output by any given mage. Or maybe there was at the more prominent mage universities.
As a result, I couldn’t just say “Apply 5 Thaum of Life magic to the runes.” I was stuck with, ‘I applied a small amount of mana yesterday and saw no result, and I applied a large amount of magic and saw a result.’ There wasn’t as far as I knew, a way to set a value to a small amount or large amount.
As a result, I had to arbitrarily give the amount of power I had used on my second cast of the life shield value of 100%. The next step would be to break down and cast fractions of this amount of power and see what happened, knowing all the while that my values were still arbitrary. I knew I should be using some sort of measuring instrument for consistency. Maybe designing and building some kind of dungeon core mana storage crystal. There just wasn’t time, and frankly, I wasn’t planning on publishing my results.
The shield on the first cat I tried to give 25% of the mana I had used that first cast. On the shield around the second cat, I used 40% of the mana I’d used. On the third cat, I estimated around 50% of the mana I’d used. On the fourth, I figured approximately 60%, the fifth 75%, and the last one 90% of the mana.
Then I performed all the tests, including trying to sense the cat with blood magic, trying to locate the cat, trying to heal the cat, using my witch sense on the cat, and swinging a living rat through the space of the shield. If I could completely sense the cat, I wrote a 100% down in my notes. If I couldn’t sense the cat at all, I wrote 0%. Anywhere in the middle, I tried to estimate a percentage. Again, as far as I knew there were no ways to measure what I felt, and I couldn’t rule out that my senses weren’t playing tricks on me.
But in the end, I had several charts of numbers which I then graphed on an XY chart. X being the estimated power I put into the spell in percent. Y being the expected effectiveness of the spell in percentage. And looking at the chart, in almost every instance I got a curve that started doing almost nothing at 25% but by about 50% was rapidly arcing upwards. There was virtually no difference between 75% and 90% and the 100% power from the day before. On my rough drawings, using my horrible measurements, there seemed to be an inflection point at around 65%.
My shield was incredibly inefficient, and I knew I still had something to learn from the spell I had dug up in the library, but unless I had made a mistake — very likely in these crude and hurriedly performed experiments — hypothetically I would be invisible to the Empire’s means of detection if I could somehow find a way to consistently pump out 65% of my power into a shield. Every day, 24 hours a day, for the rest of my life.