“Dark Lord! It is an honor to have you among us!” greeted an older, dark-skinned man, quite portly and dressed in fine silks. “Please excuse me if I don’t bow—my back isn’t quite what it used to be.”
I kept my face neutral and nodded in acknowledgement as I inspected the group.
“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage. I was not aware the duke was entertaining other guests,” I said coldly. To my surprise, it had the desired effect, and the man cringed a little before schooling his face into an appeasing smile.
“Of course, where are my manners! I am Baron Varath, a humble vassal of our esteemed Duke Illvere. The lovely lady to my right is Viscountess Leonine—” he gestured to a tall woman with silver hair tied in a bun.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, your Lordship,” she said with a curtsy.
“--and to my right is Baron Kirin-of-Iron,” Varath added as he gestured to the blue-skinned man dressed in colorful velvet.
“An honor,” he said curtly, giving a shallow bow.
“Likewise,” I nodded at the group. I found it interesting that Varath had chosen not to introduce Vinara. Was he aware that she had been sent to me as a messenger? Or was her status in the duke’s court such that she did not warrant an introduction?
I opted not to comment on it, wary of expressing any kind of ignorance of their workings.
“Wonderful! Then let us retire inside — I am sure the duke is already on his way here, moreover, he has prepared a feast in your honor!”
The inside of the duke’s residence was just as ostentatious as the outside. I could barely keep myself from scoffing as I took in the downright kitschy decorations that graced the halls. Plush carpets, velvet curtains with golden trims, a smattering of marble statues depicting naked people — was this really what was considered high living among the nobility?
In spite of his one final failing (trying to kill me, that is), I had liked the Baron of Ravenrock. He was friendly and hated to stand on formality — his style had also been much more practical, utilitarian. It was for that reason that I used to help him out with magical services — I knew he wanted what was best for the people, not caring much about himself. It could have been the difference in rank, I supposed, but I found it more likely the duke was simply a worse man than the baron had been.
As our group took a left turn into a large and even more garishly decorated hallway, my eyes fell on someone at the other end who could be none other than the duke, heading red-faced and panting in our direction with an awkward half-jog.
When he finally reached us, the presumed duke was almost completely out of breath, but he straightened and composed himself quickly.
“Ah, esteemed Dark Lord! I am Duke Illvere of Canneria, at your service,” he declared with a sweeping bow, then continued as he straightened. “I apologize for my present state, there were last-minute preparations to see to—”
Odd, that he’d involved himself at all.
“—and your arrival was much sooner than expected.” He went slightly pale in the face. “Of course, not that I’m blaming Your Lordship—”
He was, though. Something about this felt off, but I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly. Was he trying to paint himself as a victim?
“—but in any case, this evening we shall celebrate! For we have our most esteemed Dark Lord as our guest of honor!”
If this body had the ability, I would have gone red from second-hand embarrassment. Did this man have no shame?
The duke led us halfway down the hallway he’d just ran through, turning right into a large dining hall.
I sat at the right-hand side of Duke Illvere, as his guest of honor, and although he had declared me as such, I felt more like a prized trinket being shown off to someone’s friends. I found the duke’s behavior somewhat odd — while he greeted me with the same obsequiousness he had displayed in his letter, he refused to entertain even my most innocent questions, insisting that we would discuss business tomorrow.
Since Sarah was ostensibly my knight, she did not join the dining, instead sitting back near an entrance, looming as menacingly as she could, which is to say, very. I had to admit she and Kallo had completely nailed the armor’s design, and it more than made up for her diminutive stature.
I was woken up from my musings by the doors opening to let inside a bald, middle-aged looking man clothed in the traditional wizard’s garb.
“Apologies for my lateness,” he murmured as he sat down opposite me, to the duke’s left. “I had an experiment which could not be interrupted.”
“You are the court mage, no?” I blurted without thinking. Before I could control my mouth, I continued. “I would love to hear more about your experiment.”
He smiled, ignoring my faux pas. “Indeed, I am. My name is Thaos, adept in service to Duke Illvere,” he tilted his head towards the man in question.
An adept was what one called an established mage, more experienced than a journeyman but not notable enough to be considered among the ranks of the Archmagi. Still, the services of an adept did not come cheap, and I was somewhat surprised to see the duke could afford to keep him on his payroll.
“My experiment touched on the creation of natural Fate connections, and how we may mimic natural connections using mana.”
I hoped he did not notice my surprise when he mentioned Fate magic, because if it was true, then he was likely somehow involved with the conspiracy. He was uniquely suited to trigger a prophetic dream in the duke — but at the same time, he would surely have known I would be on the lookout for fate mages, so it made little sense to give himself away like that.
I schooled my expression in a polite smile. “Oh? That is truly an uncommon topic. I would like to exchange notes with you, if you would be so inclined.”
“To exchange notes with an Archmage? I would be a fool to decline,” he accepted easily. “We can meet in my laboratory, tomorrow in the afternoon?”
I nodded. I wanted to view him through Fate Vision, but my ability in Fate was only middling while for him it was his specialty, so I knew he would be able to sense me weaving it — I would probably not even get anything useful out of it, given the discrepancy in skill. Soul, then? That would show active magic, but he would likely have many outgoing threads anyway, given that he had been recently casting, which wouldn’t tell me much — plus, many who studied Fate also studied Soul, so it ran a non-zero chance of detection.
On a whim, I decided I couldn’t do nothing, and activated Mind Vision, which was relatively unpopular among magi, and given my mastery of it, unlikely to be detected. I didn’t expect it to show anything, so I was barely able to hide my surprise when I noticed the one, thick thread of Mind — a telepathic connection, essentially — going straight up. Now, one would assume the mage had a telepathic link with someone on a floor above, no big deal, but Vision type spells don’t care about things like buildings, or geography, or the laws of physics. Moreover, this one was woven with a veil, which would have made it seem normal to any less experienced practitioner of the Mind.
The thread was not going to another human. It was going out of the mortal plane.
Adept Thaos had a frequently used, direct telepathic link to a god.
An apartment had been arranged for me and my entourage, so it was just me and Sarah waiting in its sitting room after I’d finally excused myself from the dinner. I had hoped she would be able to overhear some interesting tidbits from the duke’s guardsmen, but they had been understandably cagey around her.
It mattered little, in the end, as I had prepared another to act as informant, which was why I was now waiting impatiently.
I was playing around with a few strings of Dimension mana when the bells finally struck midnight, and just a handful of minutes later the door to my rooms opened softly to let in a familiar silhouette.
The present Vinara was nothing like her normal self, however. She was a reserved type, completely taciturn unless she absolutely had to speak, and held herself with a quiet intensity. Right now, however, her gaze held none of that flame — her eyes were blank, as though no one was at home, but someone had left the lights on.
Sarah jumped at the unexpected intrusion, but I motioned for her to stop, waving away her concern. From the corner of my eye, I caught her giving me a stern look.
Like an automaton, she walked to stand before the futon where I was seated, then ceased moving completely once she was in position. I felt a bit bad for making use of her like this, but I wasn’t going to let myself walk into a trap unprepared.
It had been unwise of the duke to send her alone and unwarded in my domain, and while I’m sure she had been checked for Soul magic upon her return, my mastery of Mind was not something I had publicized. The kind of thralldom I had put her in wouldn’t even have registered as active magic under a routine scan, as it was essentially just a second, dormant mind implanted into her body, set to activate under some predetermined triggers.
Such as, say, the twelfth ring of the temple bells after my arrival in Ardenburg.
“Has Theos or anyone else magically inspected you since you arrived?”
“Yes.” Her voice was monotone, completely devoid of any warmth or emotion.
“Did they have anything to comment?”
“Are you aware of any spell cast on you since you arrived?”
Activating Soul Vision, I inspected her more closely. They hadn’t trusted her fully, it seemed. There was a thread of Fate magic attached to her that hadn’t been there when she delivered the letter. A scrying, if I had to guess.
This meant the mage who cast it — Thaos, almost assuredly — could spy on her at any time. If he was watching now, which was fairly likely, then her cover was as good as blown. She was obviously not supposed to be in my rooms.
No point wasting any more time, then, since guards could be coming at any time.
“So, what does the duke have planned for me?”
“Tomorrow afternoon he will invite you to his office with the pretext of discussing your upcoming alliance. He does not intend for you to make it to the office. He has not shared the details with me, but he has spent a significant amount of time with Adept Thaos inside the antechamber since I arrived.”
Crafting a magical trap, then. Did he bait me here to try and kill me? Or does he have something for me?
“Do you have any idea about his further plans?”
I waited for a beat, then realized she wouldn’t talk unless prompted. “Elaborate.”
“He wants to use your army to conquer the southeastern side of the continent.”
I blinked. “Does he think I’ll just cede to his wishes?”
Use the trap to force me into a contract of servitude, maybe? That one seemed likelier by the moment.
I wasn’t hearing any commotion yet, so it was likely I still had some time left. A couple more questions, then.
“Thaos, tell me everything you know about him.”
“Adept Thaos arrived at the estate four years ago and offered to serve as Court Mage against a thousand gold per year plus the cost of any materials used. He has since turned around the duke’s fortune, who had been nearing destitution due to his extravagant tastes. Thaos is known as a practitioner of Fate magic.”
I blinked. A mere thousand gold was a paltry sum for a mage of his caliber. He could have easily charged a hundred times that, not to mention that it seemed the duke owed his wealth to the mage.
“Did the mage and the duke know each other beforehand?”
It made little sense. Unless…
I didn’t have time to finish that thought, as a commotion engulfed the duke’s residence. At first I believed it to be guardsmen headed for me, but then I heard a flood of heavy footsteps running past the door. Confused, I walked out of the room and into the hallway, grabbing one of the passing men by the shoulder.
“What’s going on?” I asked, genuinely confused. If they weren’t here for me, then for what?
“It’s the duke! The duke has been murdered!”