Chapter 066
Marred Perfection

For nearly six years now, Zorian had been living in this endlessly repeating month. It felt longer, to be honest. So many things had happened, and his worldview had undergone such radical changes, that he felt it would only be right if the whole thing had taken place over a decade or more. It made him wonder how the original Zach would compare to the boy he had come to know – they seemed vaguely similar at first glance, but those were no doubt just surface similarities. There was no way that Zach had stayed the same over several decades, Zorian just hadn’t known the boy all that well before the time loop and thus couldn’t spot the differences.

Nevertheless, Zorian had spent a bit over half a decade in the time loop, and in all that time he had never really sat down with his mother to have a chat about things. Some people would have been very ashamed about this, but not Zorian. Indeed, he felt that one of the really nice things about the time loop was that he could virtually eliminate his interaction with his parents.

Now, for the first time in years, he was going to strike up a conversation with Mother… and it would be about Daimen.

He hadn’t thought he’d ever want his parents to talk more about his older brother, but life was funny like that sometimes.

“Actually, this reminds me of something,” Mother said. “Your father and I are going to Koth to visit Daimen.”

Oh good. He’d been waiting for her to mention their trip to Koth. Thankfully, this wasn’t something he had to steer the conversation to – despite her choice of words, the topic was clearly at the forefront of her mind. She found a way to bring it up in every single restart.

“Well that’s a little sudden,” Zorian commented lightly. “What brought this up?”

If his mother was surprised by him showing actual interest in family matters, she didn’t show it.

“It’s only proper for us to visit Daimen from time to time,” she said in a lecturing tone. “It has been nearly a year since we’ve last seen each other. Family ties are important.”

“Uh huh,” Zorian said in a patronizing tone. “Wouldn’t it make more sense for Daimen to visit you instead? Seems that would be way easier than you travelling all the way to Koth.”

“Well,” she said, pausing a little. “You’re probably right about that. But you know how driven Daimen is. He’s been really fired up about whatever he’s been looking for. There is no way he’d take a break right now, not even to visit his family.”

“I see,” said Zorian. The old, bitter part of him knew that they would never have been so understanding if he had tried to do the same. No, had he ignored his family for nearly a year, missing all the family dinners and such, he would have never heard the end of it. But that wasn’t helpful right now, so he pushed such thoughts away and focused on something else. “Since he won’t come to you, you’ll come to him. Fair enough. Although, if this is a family meeting, how come you aren’t making the rest of us take the trip with you? It’s not much of a family reunion if more than half of it isn’t even there.”

“How do you know we aren’t making you come with us?” she asked curiously.

Zorian paused for a moment. Crap… she hadn’t actually mentioned that part yet, did she? Oh well, this was pretty easy to salvage…

“What, you’re going to stop me from going to the academy at the very last moment?” Zorian asked her with a raised eyebrow. “Or Fortov? Or drag Kirielle around a completely alien country where she is liable to pick up ten different exotic diseases in a matter of days?”

“Actually, it’s good that you’ve reminded me about Kirielle-” she began, only for him to cut her off almost immediately.

“I’ll do it,” he said.

She blinked in surprise, momentarily stunned into silence.

“I beg your pardon?” she asked.

“You wanted to ask me if I would take Kirielle with me to Cyoria, right?” Zorian ‘guessed’. “I imagine this was why you even brought this topic up in the first place. I’ll do it. I’ll take her with me to Cyoria.”

“Yesss!” Kirielle yelled, cunningly hidden just out of sight so she could eavesdrop on their conversation.

Zorian rolled his eyes at her outburst and even Mother felt the need to direct an exasperated look in Kirielle’s direction. Not that the little imp saw it – she was still hiding and pretending she wasn’t spying on them.

“That was surprisingly easy,” Mother commented, shifting her attention back to him. “I know Kirielle has been a little difficult lately. I’m glad you can see beyond that.”

“Yes, well, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can go back to discussing your actual reasons for rushing to Koth so suddenly,” Zorian said.

Mother gave him an appraising look.

“Why do you care about this so much?” she asked. “Not that I’m complaining about you taking interest in family matters. In fact, I think it’s a positive thing. However, you can’t deny that this is somewhat unlike you.”

“And you can’t deny this trip is somewhat unusual,” Zorian immediately shot back. “You’re leaving Kirielle in my hands for at least two months and probably more, which you probably don’t like at all…”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” she interjected.

“…and you’re leaving your company without proper leadership in the middle of the summer, which I’m sure is driving father more than a little crazy,” finished Zorian, ignoring her comment.

It wasn’t that their business couldn’t survive without them for a few months. The company his parents had built was long past the phase where they needed to get personally involved in every little detail or business deal – so long as no crisis popped up, they could easily leave the whole thing to their subordinates for a couple of months. But what if there was a crisis? There was no way his parents were not thinking about this and worrying. Especially father, who seemed to think most of his workers were either lazy or incompetent. That is, if Zorian had interpreted his father’s random grumbling correctly over the years.

“Your father has indeed been a little hesitant to leave the company to its own devices for so long,” Mother admitted. “But it’s…”

She hesitated, visibly considering whether to tell him the truth or not. Not for the first time, Zorian wondered if he should just use his mental powers and read her thoughts. He really didn’t want to. Even though they didn’t get along very well, there was just something very amoral about intruding on his mother’s thoughts like that.

“It’s what?” he asked slowly.

“You’re very pushy today,” she remarked, an unhappy frown on her face.

“You keep criticizing me for not thinking about the family and our reputation,” Zorian said, not able to keep a flash of annoyance out of his voice. “Yet now that you clearly have some kind of family emergency on your hands, you are keeping me in the dark about it. I think I have the right to be a little rude.”

“It’s not a family emergency,” she said, rubbing her forehead in frustration. “Not like you’re thinking, anyway. It’s just…”

She sighed, deeply and heavily, like she was carrying some kind of great weight on her shoulders.

“Can you cast some of those privacy wards that prevent sound from leaving the area? This is not something that I want Kirielle to hear.”

Zorian nodded and promptly erected a two-layer barrier – one to block out sound from leaving the room and the other to prevent anyone from stepping foot in it without exerting a considerable amount of physical force. Just in case Kirielle decided to be a bit bolder than usual.

“It’s done,” Zorian told Mother. “Now what’s this about?”

“Daimen is getting married,” she finally admitted.

Zorian stared at her for a second, trying to process that. What? That was the big secret?

Okay, so he could understand why his parents would consider this to be big news. However, he expected them to be… well, happier about it. The way mother behaved, he would have thought that somebody had died, not that a wedding had been announced.

“I don’t understand,” Zorian admitted after a few seconds. “Why is this such a bad thing? If I remember correctly, you even made some pointed noises to him that he wasn’t that young anymore and that he should think about settling down. Is there something wrong with the fiancée?”

“The girl is fine,” Mother sighed. “She’s from a powerful family of mages that are movers and shakers in their state. She’s basically local nobility.”

“So he’s marrying into nobility, then?” Zorian asked. “Funny, I would have expected you to be ecstatic about that.”

Mother gave him a rather unamused look.

“No? You don’t like the fact that he’s marrying into nobility?” Zorian asked, baffled. He honestly didn’t understand why Mother disapproved of this so much. This sounded like something she’d be thrilled about.

“It isn’t a good thing that she’s local nobility. That only makes things worse,” Mother explained. “Bad enough that he wants to marry some distant foreigner when there are so many perfectly good local girls he could go for. Daughters of influential families that would be happy to forge ties with us in exchange for getting a genius mage of his caliber into their fold. But nevermind that. I could stomach this if this was just random girl he picked up in Koth and brought home. But this girl… she’s practically a princess. There is absolutely no way she would agree to move here to Altazia with Daimen. Instead, it will be him staying in Koth with her.”

“Ahh…” Zorian said, finally understanding what the issue was. If Daimen married this girl and remained permanently in Koth, his parents would gain nothing from this. Even though he would be marrying into nobility, it would be very distant, foreign nobility. That would only give his parents some mild bragging rights, but none of the practical benefits that marrying some influential family in Eldemar (or at least in a country on the same continent) would.

Plus, if Daimen remained in Koth, his parents would only ever see their favorite son (and his new family) once in a blue moon. The distance between Koth and Eldemar was not something casually crossed.

“So,” Zorian said. “I’m guessing you’ve already tried to talk him out of this through your letters?”

“Yes,” Mother said. “We wrote to him at length as to why this is a poor idea. No matter how amazing he thinks this girl is, he could do so much better here in Eldemar.”

“But Daimen didn’t listen to you?” Zorian surmised, not without some schadenfreude at their predicament.

“He said he loves her,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “He won’t budge an inch on the matter. He won’t even delay the marriage, much less cancel it. Keeps insisting she’s perfect and that he can’t let the opportunity slip away. It’s too sudden! Why won’t he listen to me!?”

Zorian clacked his tongue. He didn’t know why she was so surprised. Love always made people unreasonable, and Daimen had had his parents doting on him for as long as Zorian could remember. Why would he give up what was apparently the love of his life just because his parents didn’t approve?

That said – and Zorian couldn’t believe he was thinking this – he actually agreed with Daimen here. What right did their parents have to get in between him and his new fiancée? It was ultimately his decision to make.

Though admittedly, it was also his parents’ right to drop everything and go all the way to Koth to try and convince him otherwise in person.

“I suppose you think that going there and trying to convince him face-to-face will be more effective than letters,” Zorian surmised.

“You can never be as convincing in a letter as you can when being physically there in front of someone,” Mother said. “But I don’t know whether that will be enough, that’s all. We still have to try. I know he’s young and in love, but he’s making a big mistake and he needs to know that.”

“Hmm,” Zorian hummed. “Alright. I’m not going to get involved with this and I’m sure you don’t expect me to. Thank you for explaining things, at least.”

“Don’t spread this around,” she warned. “I’m telling you this because I know you can keep a secret. There is still a chance we can set this right.”

“Alright,” agreed Zorian easily. “Quick question, then. Do you know what Daimen has been working on in Koth and where he is right now?”

“No, he was always very secretive about that. He was worried someone would intercept his letters and beat him to his prize. The world of treasure hunters is very competitive, from what I hear. We agreed he would come and pick us up in Jasuka once we arrived there.”

Zorian nodded. About what he expected, really. It made sense for his parents to arrive in Jasuka, since the city was the main entrance port for ships entering the Koth region from the north, and it made sense for Daimen to go and meet them there. Sadly, this meeting was too late for Zorian’s purposes, so he needed some clue with which he could track his eldest brother down.

Like, say, the identity of this fiancée of his.

“Do you know the name of this girl he wants to marry?” Zorian asked. “Or maybe the name of this noble family of theirs and which country it is from? I’m curious.”

“Her name is Orissa Siqi Taramatula, of the Taramatula family,” Mother said. “They are from the state of Haramao, wherever that is. Supposedly they’re very distinctive, because their family magic is based around these… magical bees that they cultivate.”

“Bees?” Zorian asked curiously.

“Yes. They breed several species of magical bees and use their secret family magic to control and direct them. They’re supposedly very versatile,” Mother explained. “They produce some sort of extremely valuable honey, they can be deadly in battle and they’re very good at tracking things down. It’s this last thing that led Daimen to contact them. He hired their best trackers for his mission, and the daughter of the family head came along with the group. One thing led to another and, well… now we have this situation on our hands. Hopefully her family is as unenthusiastic about this as we are and we can get their help with this.”

Ha. It would seem that Daimen was finally going to learn how unpleasant their parents could really be when they disapproved of their children’s choices.

In any case, this was probably already enough information to track down Daimen – this Taramatula family sounded like they would be trivially easy to locate, and they probably knew where Daimen was. Still, it might not hurt to see if he could get anything else out of mother – maybe Daimen let something important slip through in his letters.

He opened his mouth to ask another question, only to get interrupted by a knock at the door.

Oh right. Ilsa was here to talk to him.

Mother motioned for him to go open the door, and Zorian obliged her. Continuing the conversation would have to wait until he dealt with the academy representative.

* * *

Xvim’s home was currently host to a very unusual group. Zorian, Zach, Xvim, Alanic, Kael and Taiven were all gathered in Xvim’s living room, poring over the various documents Zach and Zorian had collected over the restarts. Everyone who was aware of the time loop was there. Zorian would have normally left Kael and Taiven out of this meeting – Kael because he had told him to keep secrets from him in subsequent restarts and Taiven because she never fully believed in the time loop anyway – but Xvim and Alanic insisted that they should be involved with things this time. This wasn’t something Xvim and Alanic usually did, but Zorian had come to expect these kinds of sudden requests from them lately. Ever since they had started leaving messages and research notes to their future selves via Zorian, their actions tended to vary a lot from restart to restart.

Zorian saw no reason to refuse the request, so Kael and Taiven got to join them this time.

Unlike everyone else, Zorian didn’t bother reading any of the documents. There was no need to. He was, after all, the one who had taken all the various notes and records and turned them into the relatively concise reports they were currently reading. Well, he and his simulacrums, anyway – he tended to delegate this kind of work to his copies these days. He just had to remember to read through their finished work at least once or else they would try to sneak things in as a form of silent protest against being given boring chores to do. But really, what did he have them for if not so he could delegate the boring, time-consuming stuff to them?

“Well, that is good news, about the Ibasan gate,” Zach said, leafing through the information they gathered on the structure in the previous restart. “I was all but sure that Quatach-Ichl had stuck a human soul somewhere in there to make the gate. I mean, even the Bakora gates require some sort of spirit to function like they do.”

“Bakora gates open portals all on their own, though,” Zorian said. “The Ibasan gates don’t. They just keep a portal someone else created open indefinitely.”

“Yes, it’s hard to see what a soul in there would do, except maybe provide a power source,” Alanic spoke up. “It’s not like sticking any random soul in there would allow it to open dimensional passages on its own. I guess if you added a soul of a willing mage in there, like Sudomir did with his wife-”

Kael made a very sour face at the reminder about that. He didn’t have a very high opinion of Sudomir’s ‘act of love’ and flat out said so earlier. It didn’t help that Sudomir had pretty much hunted down all of Kael’s friends and would have likely done the same to the boy if he hadn’t been scouted out by the academy by then.

“-then maybe you could improve the efficiency of the structure or something,” Alanic finished. “Otherwise, there would be little point to it.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining,” Zach said. “I mean, if the Ibasan gate is just a spell stabilization frame made out of exotic materials and spell formula, that means we can copy their design easily enough, right? Zorian?”

“I’m not sure something this intricate and advanced deserves to be called ‘just’ anything,” Zorian remarked. “As for recreating it… well, if it were just you and me working on this, I’d say it would take us years to figure out how to reproduce it. But since we’ll be using the whole ‘army of experts’ approach we used in the previous restart… it will still take at least a year, but probably not more than one.”

“Still a year?” Zach whined, visibly disappointed. “Why?”

“The short time during which we have access to the gate is really hampering us,” Zorian explained, clacking his tongue unhappily. “We may have an army of experts, but they only have a couple of hours before the end of the restart to examine the gate. There is only so much they can do in such a short time.”

“Why not just attack the base before the end of the restart?” Taiven asked. “Is this Quatach-Ichl really that unbeatable?”

“Yes,” Zach and Zorian answered in unison.

“Okay, okay, no need to pile up on me,” she grumbled. “And is there no time during which he’s absent from Cyoria or something?”

Zorian was just about to explain why that wouldn’t work when he remembered something. He reached for a nearby stack of papers and started quickly leafing through a timeline of the invasion he and Zach had painstakingly made. A definitive timeline was, of course, completely impossible – things changed often, depending on what Zach and Zorian did in any particular restart. However, certain things seemed very resistant to change, and virtually always happened on schedule if they didn’t specifically try to disrupt them. He was sure he remembered something about… ah!

“Here,” Zorian said triumphantly, pointing at one of the paragraphs. “At the beginning of the third week of the restart, Quatach-Ichl has a tendency to return to Ulquaan Ibasa and stay there for three whole days. So long as we don’t disrupt the invasion too badly until then, he’s likely to do just that in this restart too. Then, if we managed to seize the Ibasan base at the very start of this period, we will have three whole days to study the gate without interruption.”

“That’s a big if,” Zach pointed out. “You’re talking about attacking the base while it’s fully staffed and defended. Trust me, that’s very different than taking out those bunch of incompetents that loiter around the base during the invasion itself. And you’re talking about doing it without giving them enough time to raise the alarm and summon Quatach-Ichl back. Or get reinforcements from Sudomir’s mansion, for that matter.”

“Yeah,” said Zorian thoughtfully. “Alanic’s soldiers alone aren’t going to cut it this time. We’re going to need to hire aranean mercenaries if this is ever going to work. I’m pretty sure I can find a web that would be interested if we offer enough payment.”

“And Sudomir?” Alanic asked.

“Oh, that one is easy,” Zorian said. “He’s still a mayor of Knyazov Dveri. We just create a big enough disturbance in the town and wait for him to show up, as he surely must. Then we kill his bodyguards and kidnap him in broad daylight.”

There was a brief silence as everyone gave him strange looks.

“What?” Zorian said defensively. “You’ve got a better idea?”

“You’ve become a scary person, Zorian,” Taiven remarked.

“Why kidnap?” Alanic asked. “Why not just assassinate him?”

“He cryptically hinted that he was very hard to kill when I spoke to him,” Zorian said. “I don’t know what magic he used for that, but it’s possible that just killing him wouldn’t work. So I figured it was safer to just put him to sleep and keep him that way for as long as necessary.”

“Well, I at least approve of this course of action,” Alanic said. “If nothing else, this will give me a chance to interrogate Sudomir once he has been captured. I note we’ve never really done that properly in any of the past restarts.”

“Yeah, it was never really a priority, and the man’s plans were all pretty crazy anyway,” Zorian shrugged.

“Crazy or not, he clearly had plenty of talent in magic,” Kael said. “You shouldn’t just limit yourself to questioning him about his crimes and links to Ulquaan Ibasa. You should interrogate him for everything he knows about necromancy and other magic as well.”

Unsurprisingly, this made him the new target of everyone’s strange looks, much like Zorian had been earlier.

“Look,” Kael said, trying to sound calm. “I probably hate this monster more than anyone in this room. Chances are that a portion of his knowledge comes from the very people I knew. People he killed and, in all probability, whose souls he interrogated for secrets. Magical and otherwise. But that’s precisely why you should do the same to him! It’s…”

He struggled for a moment to find the right word.

“Just,” Alanic offered quietly.

“Appropriate,” Kael corrected. “It’s appropriate for him to suffer a similar fate. Fitting.”

It took another two hours for them to create a basic outline for a plan of attack on the Ibasan base. The biggest surprise to Zorian was that Taiven wanted to participate in the fighting. Specifically, she wanted to join the soldiers and battle mages that Alanic would be mustering for the operation. Alanic provisionally agreed to this, though he told her he would throw her out of the battlegroup immediately if she proved incapable of following the chain of command.

The tiny flinch she did after hearing that told Zorian that she’d likely had problems with that in the past… but she agreed with his condition anyway.

In the end, the meeting was dismissed and everyone went their own way… except for Zorian, who stayed behind to talk to Xvim about something.

“So,” Xvim began. “We’re alone, Mister Kazinski. What is it that you wanted to talk to me about that you didn’t want the others to overhear?”

“First,” Zorian said, taking out a notebook out of his jacket pocket, “take a look at this.”

The notebook was, of course, the very list of people to interrogate for secrets that Xvim had given him in one of the previous restarts. The one that had caused him so much self-doubt and worrying. Xvim carefully started leafing through it, his frown deepening ever further as time went by. Zorian patiently waited for him to finish, not saying a word.

“I suppose I’m the one who gave you this,” Xvim said, giving Zorian a questioning look. Zorian nodded. “I see. Then… should I assume you’re here because you’ve already gone through the entire list and now need more names?”

No,” Zorian said, a little more forcefully than he intended. “No, I’ve done no such thing. I… I managed to get a couple of people there to willingly teach me what they knew, despite your assurances that they wouldn’t do that under any circumstances. I tried to convince the others to do the same, but when they refused… I just moved on to other things. I haven’t invaded the mind of anyone on that list. Well, aside from an occasional surface scan…”

Xvim stared first at Zorian, and then at the notebook in his hands, staying silent for a while. Finally, he wordlessly handed the notebook back to Zorian.

“That,” Xvim decided, “is relieving to hear.”

Zorian blinked in surprise at the statement.

“I don’t know whether my past self would agree with me. Probably not, if he gave you that list,” Xvim continued. “And I can definitely see the logic in giving you that list, even though I don’t like it. All that said, I don’t understand what the purpose of this talk is. If you don’t need more names, why did you show me that book?”

“I have decided I won’t be going after these people,” Zorian said. And what a load off his chest that was, too. “Not the way you… not the way your past iteration had urged me to do.”

“Hm. I’m not sure whether to praise you for your ethics or berate you for being too soft to do what has to be done,” Xvim grumbled, shaking his head slightly. “Then again, the way you phrased that makes me think you still have some sort of designs for the list. I’m guessing that’s where I come in, yes?”

“See, the idea is this – I want you to talk to these people and try to get their secrets yourself,” Zorian told him bluntly. He paused for a moment. “And then share these secrets with me, of course.”

Xvim looked at him like he was stupid for a moment then let out a brief chuckle of amusement.

“Mister Kazinski,” Xvim told him, “if I could get these people to share their secrets with me like that, don’t you think I would have already done so?”

“Not for all of them,” Zorian pointed out. “Some of them are clearly on the list because you thought I might be interested in what they had to offer, but you probably don’t care for their specialties. I doubt you even tried to trade for they have to offer.”

“That much is true,” Xvim admitted.

“As for the rest… how much did you really offer them for their life’s work?” Zorian asked.

“I’m always fair in my dealings, mister Kazinski,” Xvim said with a frown.

“Yes, but what if you gave them an outrageous offer?” Zorian smiled. “The collected secrets of dozens of mages. More money than they’d ever seen in their life. Rare materials that cannot be obtained on the open market. A chance to hire a group of archmages for a task. That sort of thing.”

Xvim raised an eyebrow at him. “If you can offer all that, why do you need me?”

“See?” Zorian said, pointing straight at his face. “That reaction there. Disbelief and amusement. You know I’m a time traveler, and you still can’t take me seriously when I say what I offer. How do you think other people would react? Those kind of claims, when they come from me or Zach, really are outrageous to people. And not in a good way. We’re just teenagers with no known accomplishments. We only have borrowed fame from our families to fall back on, and that can only take you so far. You, on the other hand, are a highly respected archmage. They know you. You’re friends and acquaintances with some of them. It won’t be so ridiculous if you offer these things.”

“It will still sound rather ridiculous,” Xvim pointed out. “People will think I’ve gone mad. Well, more than they already do, anyway.”

“Don’t worry, your reputation will be restored at the end of every restart,” Zorian told him.

“How very comforting,” Xvim deadpanned.

They were both silent for a while as Xvim considered the idea.

“There is some merit to it,” Xvim eventually admitted. “Some of these people… I don’t think there is anything I could offer them to share their findings with me. Most, though, probably have their price, if one were willing to go high enough, and the offer looked credible. And on that note, are you sure you can really deliver what you offer? Take money, for example – I’m not sure you understand what kind of sums are exchanged between high-level mages on deals like these. What sounds like an outrageous sum to you might look like pocket change to them.”

Zorian didn’t try to explain. He simply reached into his pocket and handed Xvim a bank check he had made for the occasion. Xvim glanced at it and immediately raised his eyebrows at the sum written on the piece of paper.

“That’s a lot of zeroes,” Xvim said after a short pause.

“No, mister Chao,” Zorian said with a toothy smile. “That is just pocket change.”

* * *

The coming week was a relatively busy one, with many things happening. An invasion of the Ibasan base beneath Cyoria was being organized, the Silent Doorway Adepts were being convinced that time travel was real and that they should give them access to their Bakora gate and associated experts again, some changes were being planned for their tour of Altazia’s various Black Rooms and the plot to convince various experts to part with their closely-guarded secrets was slowly going forward. Thankfully, it was no longer just Zorian working alone on all these things, as it once was, so this kind of workload was easy enough to maintain.

That said, all of this was mostly irrelevant to simulacrum number two, whose job was simply to go to school and then disappear at the end of the day. Strangely enough, number two didn’t mind his task. He knew that his predecessors had been rather unenthusiastic about their task, but he personally found it just to his liking. Maybe it was because the original had created him right after he had finished another negotiation session with the Silent Doorway Adepts, but he felt this sort of relaxing task was just what he needed.

Still, actually paying attention to classes was out of the question, so he picked up a couple of advanced books to read during lectures and breaks.

It was during one of the breaks that he found Neolu watching over his shoulder curiously.

“What?” he asked. He was rather surprised, really – this wasn’t like in the previous restart, where the earlier simulacrums ended up secretly befriending her during their short lives. He was sure of it. So why exactly was she taking interest in him and his reading choices?

“Why are you reading dictionaries of Xlotic languages?” she asked curiously.

Oh. Right. Of course she would be interested in that. She was from Xlotic herself, after all.

He had found out a fair amount about Neolu in the previous restart, partially because Neolu herself felt the need to tell him about herself and partially because he had needed to reconstruct what his simulacrums had done by subtly questioning people and reading their thoughts. Neoluma-Manu Iljatir (Neolu for short) was a daughter of a regular, but very wealthy house from Kontemar – one of the bigger Ikosian successor states on the Xlotic coast. The darker, bronze-colored skin of hers hinted at it, but that kind of complexion was also common in southern Altazia and the Shivan archipelago, and thus not a dead giveaway. The blue, tattoo-like markings on her cheeks and forehead were the signature trait of her house, and nobody knew if they were merely cosmetic or held some kind of secret Iljatir family magic.

For Neolu to travel all the way from Xlotic to Eldemar in order to study magic was rather unusual, to say the least. It wasn’t like Xlotic didn’t have plenty of prestigious academies of its own. It was once the heartland of the Ikosian empire after all, and though the Cataclysm hurt the region badly, that still counted for something. Nonetheless, Neolu’s father decided to send her all the way to Eldemar for her magical education. Officially it was because Cyoria’s academy was the world’s most renowned magical academy and he wanted nothing but the very best for his daughter, but rumor had it she had been involved in some kind of scandal back home and he wanted her out of people’s sight for a while. Sending her to a distant but prestigious magical academy was probably a good solution in his book.

That was just a rumor, though, and even if Neolu was here in unofficial exile, one certainly couldn’t tell that by her behavior. She seemed quite happy to be in Cyoria, and never gave the slightest amount of indication that she was bitter about her family or home. It was possible that the rumors were just rubbish in this case and that she had just really wanted to go to a foreign country for her education and her father couldn’t bear to refuse her request.

Well, no matter. Not his business anyway. As for him reading Xlotic dictionaries, well… he was actually trying to make himself somewhat useful by helping simulacrum number one, who was steadily making his way to Koth right now. He had been in mental contact with his fellow simulacrum for a while now, and while the dictionaries he was reading were kind of outdated, it was better than nothing.

Of course, he couldn’t really tell that to Neolu.

“I was thinking of visiting Xlotic once I graduate from the academy,” he told her instead.

“Really!?” she gasped. “Oh, that’s wonderful! Trust me, it’s a beautiful place. You should visit my place when you do – I can give you a tour of the city and tell you where to go if you want to see something interesting.”

Hmm. Now that was an interesting idea. Didn’t Zach say that it was easy to convince Neolu that time travel was real? Maybe they should recruit her as a guide when they went looking for the piece of the key that was supposedly lost in Xlotic. She probably wouldn’t be able to help them too much, but she could at least make sure they didn’t make any major social blunders and act as a translator for them while they gathered their bearings. And maybe put in a good word for them to her House, so they could hopefully tap into their contacts throughout the region.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Zorian said. “Say, do you think you could help me translate a few things? I have this list of phrases that I got from my friend who has been to Xlotic, but I can’t seem to find them in the books…”

* * *

Once Zorian’s simulacrum had finally reached Koth again, actually tracking down Daimen proved to be quite easy. Admittedly, this was only because he had managed to get the identity of his fiancée out of Mother. Turns out, Daimen was not quite as driven as Mother imagined him to be – instead of ceaselessly pursuing whatever goal he came to Koth for, he was taking a bit of a break to spend time with his girl at the Taramatula family estate. Well, considering he had been doing that for several weeks now, ‘a bit’ was probably an understatement. Anyway. All Zorian had to do was talk to a high-ranking member of the House, ask him where Daimen was, lift the information straight from his mind when he claimed he didn’t know anything regarding the matter, and then make his way to the place with Zach in tow.

Thus it was that the two of them found themselves waiting in front of the entrance to the Taramatula estate, stubbornly insisting that they wanted to talk to Daimen and ignoring the guards who were equally stubborn in claiming they’d never seen the man in their life.

In all honestly, Zorian was kind of amazed they hadn’t tried to violently get rid of them yet. He knew that Houses back in Eldemar tended to be a bit trigger happy when faced with visitors who couldn’t take the hint. Though if they did, Zach and Zorian were entirely capable and willing to take them down and then keep doing the same to any reinforcements the House sent their way. Maybe they could sense that somehow?

Eventually, a rather severe-looking middle aged woman in white-and-orange clothing arrived to see what the disturbance was. She said her name was Ulanna, but she made no mention of what her position in the House was and what sort of authority she was wielding.

“You say you are Daimen’s younger brother?” she asked with an arched eyebrow. Ulanna actually spoke grammatically perfect Ikosian, unlike most people they found in Koth, though her accent was pretty thick.

“Yes, Zorian Kazinski. You can show him this as proof,” said Zorian, handing her a rolled up painting that he had shamelessly stolen from Daimen’s room back in Cirin. The painting depicted three female students from Daimen’s year at the academy, scantily dressed and posing suggestively. He had supposedly gotten that painting as a gift from the girls in question, and always kept it displayed prominently in his room, ignoring Mother’s objection that it was ‘obscene’.

The woman slowly and dramatically unfurled the painting, stoically scrutinized the contents with a raised eyebrow, and then gave him a mildly amused look.

“I see,” she said. “If nothing else, you seem to have a similar sense of humor as he does. I’ll be sure to show this to him. I’m sure there is an interesting story behind it.”

“Oh absolutely,” Zorian said with a sunny grin. “I’m sure he’d love to tell you all about it.”

About fifteen minutes later, Ulanna returned with Daimen in tow.

It had been a while since Zorian had last seen his brother, but he hadn’t changed much in the meantime. He was still the same tall, handsome guy with a muscular, athletic build and a confident swagger. Zorian would recognize him just about anywhere.

Zorian had changed a lot since their last meeting, however. He had become good enough at magic to notice that Daimen had discreetly cast a divination spell at him to confirm he really was Zorian and not a disguised imposter. He had gotten good enough at his mental powers to immediately tell when he was in the presence of another psychic individual.

He closed his eyes momentarily. Daimen was psychic. Of course. The one thing that Zorian was somewhat special at, and Daimen had to have it too. To tell the truth, though, he had somewhat been expecting it. It would certainly explain where that incredible social sense and persuasiveness of his had come from – even as a child, Daimen could wade through social situations that even adult men would struggle at. How good was Daimen at controlling his gift, though? Zorian felt an urge to send a telepathic probe at him to check, but restrained himself. Maybe later. The situation was still a little tense right now, no sense in making himself even more suspicious.

Also, if Daimen was Open and had some measure of control over it, then he should have very much noticed that Zorian was like him. Why hadn’t he said anything to him or his parents?

Yeah, he definitely needed to confront him about this at some point.

“Zorian?” Daimen said. “Is that really you?”

“Who else could I be?” Zorian shot back. “I know we haven’t seen each other in a while, but have you really forgotten what your little brother looked like already?”

Daimen laughed awkwardly. “No, of course not. It’s just that this is very unexpected. Shouldn’t you be in school or something?”

“I should,” Zorian admitted. “But I decided to take a trip to Koth instead. Then I remembered you’re already here and thought it would only be polite to drop by and say hi.”

“Uh huh,” Daimen said. He gave him a measuring look. “Tell me honestly – are you here on our parents’ behalf?”

“No,” Zorian said, shaking his head.

“So you’re not going to try and get in between me and Orissa?” he asked.

“No, why would I?” said Zorian. “I’m happy for you. You’re on your own when it comes to dealing with Mother and Father, though.”

“You little brat,” Daimen growled. “Then why the hell did you pick that of all things as your proof of identity, hmm?”

“It was a lovely painting,” Ulanna commented stoically beside him. “You must have been very popular in your school days, mister Kazinski.”

Daimen ignored her comment in favor of focusing on Zorian.

“It sure seems like you’re trying to get me in trouble here, is what I’m saying,” he told Zorian.

“All I know about how to properly treat a brother I learned from you, brother dearest,” Zorian said with a sickly smile.

“Oh?” Ulanna asked. “It sounds like you have some fascinating stories.”

“Yeah, there are some nice ones,” Zorian said. “My personal favorite is when he thought it would be funny to constantly lock his little brother out of the house for hours on end.”

“Actually I just wanted the house all for myself, and you didn’t want to go out and play outside like a normal kid,” Daimen pointed out. “Besides, I actually paid a price for that one.”

“Yes, that’s why I said it was my personal favorite,” Zorian said.

“What exactly happened?” Zach asked, causing Daimen and Ulanna to truly focus on him for the first time since the conversation started. He had been uncharacteristically quiet up until this moment, just observing the interaction from the sidelines and not saying anything.

“Zorian learned how to pick locks just so he could enter the house again, that’s what,” Daimen explained with annoyance. “I mean, what kind of kid does that? And then some stupid police officer that had no idea he was trying to break into his own house sees him and arrests him for burglary. Man, was Mother pissed about that when she found out. At both of us, really, but especially me since I was older and was supposed to be watching him instead of chasing him out of the house to do my own thing.”

“Perfectly understandable,” Ulanna commented.

“Yeah, yeah, I was a bit of a brat as a kid,” Daimen said dismissively. “Who wasn’t? Anyway, come inside, you two. I must say, it’s pretty impressive that you were able to travel all the way here from Eldemar…”

“Pretty irresponsible too,” Ulanna added from beside him.

“Well yeah, but I’m the last person who can lecture people about that,” Daimen said. “Man, compared to some of the stuff I did when I was their age, this is nothing!”

Ulanna raised an eyebrow at him.

“Err,” fumbled Daimen, before rounding back at Zach and Zorian. “And what the hell are you two waiting for? A written invitation? Get inside already before I dig myself an even deeper hole! I swear, this just isn’t my day…”

With that, Daimen turned towards the actual building of the estate and marched towards it, trusting them to follow after him. With a careless shrug and a smile at a job well done, Zorian followed after him.


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