“I am not fond of treachery,” Baelin’s wrathful voice filled the room.
Everyone, even Professor Jules, shrank in their seats. Isolde’s eyes looked down at the table, while Alex grit his teeth. He heard Amir’s loud shaky breaths nearby.
A line of senior Watchers of Roal—along with a handful of stern looking investigators from the Generasi Bureau of Investigations—stood behind the ancient wizard.
“I had thought it strange that the second attack only occurred once the expedition team had been formed.” The chancellor’s piercing, goat-like eyes scanned everyone in the room.
Alex’s stomach sank as those eyes paused on him, then shifted to other members of the team. Would Baelin suspect him? The chancellor knew that he’d kept some pretty big secrets in the past, but he also knew about The Mark. That would effectively eliminate him from any suspicions Baelin might have, since it stifled spellcasting. Alex might have overcome some of its influence, but that was different from being able to summon powerful demons. He let out a quiet sigh of relief, then his breath caught as his eyes drifted to Amir.
Or at least…it would have disqualified him if he hadn’t told someone on the research team that he was taking Professor Mangal’s summoning class.
Baelin finished his slow, deliberate scan of the team during which time and all sound in the room had seemed to stop.
He finally spoke again. “In a different time, I dwelled within a bustling metropolis. The city shone with a luster so dazzling that travellers would come from the world’s ends just to gaze upon its beauty. But—beneath the surface—vermin lived in its sewers and underbelly, growing more abundant with time. As long as they remained hidden from most, this fine city ignored their presence…to their own peril. With time, these rats did what rats do; they left their hidden places and soon flourished throughout the city, spreading ugliness, disease and death. The infestation became so vast that laying bait and traps was like adding a drop of clean water to a fouled river…pointless. Needless to say, most of the population became hostage to fear and disease, and either died or fled.” He paused and seemed to bristle with anger. “Whoever is behind these attacks is like the hidden vermin, sewing fear and chaos in Generasi. They must be baited and rooted out, trapped, exposed…or destroyed. So, I thought to lay that bait,” he paused, letting the weight of his words sink in before he continued. “To my other colleagues, I said I would be taking a day off, but did not tell them I would be leaving Generasi. I made sure that I was seen outside my residence and then I waited. For all appearances, to most, I was here. But, to the research team and the research team alone, the message was that I would be away.”
Alex’s heart pounded harder as the meaning of what Baelin had just said washed over him. He glanced around the room at the other members of the expedition: everyone was looking at each other with a mix of anxiety and suspicion.
“When this recent attack began, I teleported to the temple district under a cloak of invisibility to ensure that no lives would be lost,” Baelin said. “…but of course, the coward was not present. And my…interrogations of the summoned creatures I captured…”
“...yielded no new information. So, we are left with you. This research team. I will say it bluntly: someone here is involved in some capacity, having had knowledge of my supposed absence: but, this alone is not enough to be conclusive.” Baelin’s deep voice rumbled. “After all, the timing of the attack could be a coincidence, or the summoner could have known of my departure through other means. However, it does place strong suspicion on everyone here, and narrows the possibilities.”
The Watchers of Roal glared at the expeditionary team, their eyes hardened. Alex noticed gloved hands tightening on swords and staves.
“The fact that none of you made an excuse to not attend this meeting…is interesting,” the chancellor said. “I had hoped that the culprit might scurry away like a faun before a wolf and thus reveal their guilt. But, things in life are rarely so easy. And so, we shall have to turn to the next method.”
He spread his hands. “If the guilty party comes forth and confesses their involvement—and that of any accomplices—then you may have a better time receiving amnesty from the court. You will avoid being questioned by the investigators present. You will most likely avoid execution, and though your term of imprisonment will still be dire, your confinement might be improved by taking the right path now. And…should none of you be the summoner—but the guilt lies with an accomplice—then you would benefit from coming forward immediately. Your sentence for being an accomplice to these…travesties, could likely be far reduced. Is this not correct, Captain Francesco?”
He looked at an investigator nearby: a coarse-featured man with steel grey mutton chops. His face looked like it would have been more at home on an executioner.
“I can’t speak for the council or the courts,” the man said. “But, I will say that submitting oneself or one’s accomplices to the authorities has won mercy in the past. My office would put in a good word after any confession or tip is secured that leads to an arrest. So. Does anyone have anything to say?”
Silence hung in the air.
Francesco’s eyes narrowed. “That is unfortunate. Then, I am afraid I must ask each of you to submit yourselves for questioning. You will be taken to the closest department of investigations in the city. This will be done today and keep in mind that if you have nothing to hide, then submitting yourselves will be the way to show that.”
Anxiety raced through Alex as he looked for hidden meaning in the man’s words. Something about the captain’s manner…didn’t really make him feel like any questioning would be a comfortable experience.
Then again…Alex was a man with secrets himself. There was the time he’d set the soldiers on McHarris because of his habit of using rotten ingredients in the food he sold, there were the dungeon core remains, his part in The Heroes, what he knew about what Kybas was doing, and even more stuff….he definitely had things to hide.
Did he ever act in a way that made him look suspicious?
His mind began combing through what he’d done since coming to Generasi, seeing if anything would raise suspicions. He froze.
He had been at—and was involved with—the first demon summoner attack. That incident had been recorded by one of The Watchers, so they had his name somewhere connecting him to that demon summoning. Now, he was on the research team that was under suspicion. Even someone with half a brain would notice the connection. His heart jumped.
Then there was Minervus.
Just before he died, he’d accused Alex in front of a bunch of people of a screw up that had caused the rampage in Shale’s workshop. Alex had also talked to him alone right after that shift. Then, he’d gotten killed by the mana vampire. No investigator had even questioned him about Minervus’ death—probably because it was obvious who the culprit was—but now that he was part of a group of people under suspicion? Maybe they’d start wondering if it really had been the mana vampire who’d killed Minervus, or maybe they’d start thinking it was him who’d killed him then made it look like the mana vampire had done it.
He knew that if he were investigating this, he’d be one of the first people he’d be looking at.
Then, what to do?
Not talking to them at all was tempting. He remembered being questioned by The Watchers when he was testing Selina’s gift at the beach. It wasn’t pleasant or something he cared to repeat. Also, running away from the priests had worked wonders in Thameland…
But then again, what would happen if they started questioning other people about him without talking to him too? They’d end up building a story about him, without having his side. He thought about what could have happened at Shale’s if Minervus had waited until he’d left before accusing him. He wouldn’t have been there to give his side of the story, and once Minervus had done his damage, it would’ve been harder—if not impossible—to change people’s minds.
Another possibility came to him: if this demon summoner really was one of them, then wouldn’t it be in their best interest to throw suspicion on someone else, why not throw it on him?
Alex’s heart was pounding.
It was strange. All his battles with monsters had made him fairly calm when he was dealing with horrible creatures that were trying to tear out his guts or cut his face off or burn him with lava, or kill him in all sorts of nasty ways. Yet—since he had no experience with being under investigation and suspicion—he felt as anxious as when he’d faced the hive-queen.
He hesitated, deciding on whether or not to volunteer. Folks were still squirming in their seats.
Desperate for help to make a decision, he tried activating The Mark to see if it would give him any insights on what to do. ‘Choosing if you should talk to the authorities’ had to be a skill, right?
Unfortunately, nothing came back.
It made sense. He really didn’t have experience with that. And also, he was trying to make a personal decision, not learn or apply a skill.
But, maybe if he changed the way he was thinking about things…
He thought about the skill of ‘Coming off as trustworthy’, and was immediately flooded with memories of the time he’d successfully gotten himself cleared of blame in Shale’s Workshop, the time he’d told Peter and Paul—the two guards he knew back in Alric—about McHarris’ underhanded deeds, the time he’d spoken to Baelin with sincerity about The Mark, and times he’d dodged having someone find out he was The Fool.
It showed him how to keep his face straight, how to make sure his body language conveyed that he was telling the truth. He noticed The Mark didn’t provide any instances of where he’d lied to people. Probably because he was focusing on telling the truth.
Alex took a deep breath, preparing to be the first to volunteer…except he found that in the time he’d been thinking about what to do, others had already raised their hands or were talking to the investigators.
Alex looked at Isolde. “You going to talk to them?”
She sniffed. “I will, but I would rather not: I do not enjoy my honour and loyalty being questioned. In the Rhinean Empire, if anyone asked a member of the nobility to ‘submit themselves to questioning’ without support of a liege, they would be in full legal right to demand satisfaction, or punish their insolence, depending on the offender’s station.”
He startled, looking at Isolde.
That was right. They’d all been hanging out together as basically equals at Generasi, but she was a noblewoman. Of what rank…he actually had no idea, it had never come up. In some ways, it was surprising: he knew a lot about the other members of his cabal in some ways and shockingly little in others. The power she was talking about was strange to him, just the thought of being legally allowed to punish someone for talking bad to you.
What a strange concept.
If only he’d been born a noble.
Now where was he?
‘Oh yeah,’ he thought. ‘Avoiding wizard jail.’
He and Isolde got up to go talk to the investigators.