Euryphel used the hour he’d originally reserved for a late lunch to see the decemancer’s mother.
In the hours since the first encounter with the decemancer, Euryphel had learned much from his intelligence network. Like he’d originally deduced, Julian hailed from Solar province in Shattradan. His mother, Iolana Dunai, had raised him alone from an early age in a city Euryphel had never heard of; she wasn’t a practitioner, and little about her provoked his interest.
Her husband, however, was a Dunai, and thus a member of the Dunai-Adricaius-Fiorencia conglomerate, a bloodline practitioner clan of no small influence in Koro, Selejo, and Kester. The one place in the North that they didn’t seem to have influence in was, interestingly enough, Shattradan.
From what information Euryphel’s investigators could find, the decemancer’s great-grandfather had left the family enclave in Sussea for Shattradan. His branch remained on good terms with the main family...until Julian’s father seemed to anger them at every turn, marrying a regular, making political enemies, and generally acting arrogant.
Ultimately, when the man found himself in hot water, the family stood aside, cutting off his children and wife—Julian, his sister Germaine, and Iolana. Because of these circumstances, Ignatius Julian Dunai had lived the bland life of a regular despite his relation to the Dunai family and the greater bloodline clan. His potential lay dormant, and he ultimately attended school to learn glossy programmatics.
Euryphel considered the decemancer’s background fairly unremarkable. He looked down at the base of his left index finger, staring at the arrow piercing into his hand.
If he’d learned one thing being Crowned Prime, it was that nothing was truly unremarkable. Bindings of fate connected the lowest to the highest, schemes and plots stretching across chasms of class, leaving none untouched.
A knock on the door stirred him from his thoughts. He sent the wind to create negative pressure behind the door and turn its knob. The door hinged inward to reveal a proud-looking woman with elegant, if aged, features.
She walked through the threshold without saying a word or revealing any emotion. The room was specifically warded for oath breaking, its walls, floors, and ceiling all inscribed with symbols. Consequently, it was quite small. It only took a few steps for Iolana Dunai to arrive before him, bowing her head in supplication.
Euryphel gestured to the lone seat at the center of the room to his left. It had numerous restraining straps on it, but the seat itself was quite comfortable. Iolana sat in the chair without saying anything else.
“You’re Iolana Ignatia Veribus Dunai?”
“That is correct.” Her voice was quiet, but not weak.
Euryphel phrased his next question several different ways, running multiple scenarios and cutting them off once he heard Iolana’s answer. Some of his phrasings were long-winded, others short and to the point, still yet others flattering or intimidating.
In the end, Euryphel realized that Iolana responded best to direct, honest questions.
“Tell me about your son; I need to understand who he is.”
Iolana’s face was still devoid of expression as she began to speak. “He has changed in the past few days, but as I knew him, he was weak-willed, generally unwilling to make difficult decisions. He tried to please people, but only so far as to get them to leave him alone. He was reclusive; if he spent time with others, it was because he felt he had to, rather than out of a genuine desire to be social. He’s certainly intelligent, but intelligence is useless when one isn’t well-liked.”
Iolana sighed and cast her eyes downward. “I considered him to be a failure. It was my own fault, of course: I’m responsible for how he turned out.”
“You’re different from how I expected,” Euryphel said, folding his arms. “There’s no love lost between the two of you, is there?”
“We do love each other,” Iolana said slowly, as though considering how to explain herself. “In our own way.”
“How has he changed since emerging from the Infinity Loop, then?”
Iolana closed her eyes and sighed, considering. “He is much more decisive—I never expected him to leave Selejo so suddenly of his own accord.”
“And why did he leave Selejo? Surely he could have stayed and worked for the Eldemari, rather than coming here, to me.”
“Don’t plead ignorance,” Iolana said, the slightest bit of disdain coloring her voice.
Euryphel cocked his head to the side. “She would’ve treated him well.”
“Ignatius has no leverage in Selejo,” Iolana murmured. “He’d never escape the tethers of an oath; and one cast by the Eldemari herself would be virtually unbreakable.”
Euryphel couldn’t deny that the Eldemari was one of the most potent End practitioners alive. While the prince had a high End affinity, he was eclipsed by the Selejan ruler.
“Do you think your son has more leverage here?”
Iolana looked at him coyly. “How would I know?”
Euryphel waved his hand dismissively. “So that’s all that changed in the loop, his decisiveness?”
Iolana’s mouth twitched. “Aside from the fact that he’s become a practitioner, he also seems unsure of what to do with himself. At least before the loop, he had a plan to become a glossprogger. I know he gave the question of what to do after the loop a good deal of thought while stuck therein; the fact that he is still directionless speaks to a fundamental problem.”
“What are you implying?”
“My son is simple and still, somehow, naive. If you give him reasonable work, he will do it. But you must make your expectations clear beforehand by providing him with clear requirements.”
Iolana’s stoic expression did not falter. “If you want him to be satisfied, make his life regimented. Tell him when to get up in the morning, provide his meals, give him a room to sleep in. And above all else, give him something to do, something that won’t leave him bored.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
She gave him a look. “If you don’t occupy him, he will find ways of his own to be entertained. But from what he’s told me of the Infinity Loop, I think it’s best not to leave him to stew in his thoughts.”
“I said I understood the first time.” His gaze suddenly turned from friendly to imposing. “I am well-aware of the dangers of keeping a powerful decemancer on retainer.” Especially one without an oath.
Iolana inclined her head downward. “Excuse my impudence.”
Satisfied, Euryphel flexed his fingers. “I’m going to be breaking your oath myself, so there should be no need for the restraints.” He kneeled in front of the chair, then placed his hands on Iolana’s bare shins. He felt her flinch as his hands circled her calves.
He closed his eyes and focused. A joint-fulfillment oath, even with partially fulfilled conditions, was tricky to break since it linked three entities: the one requesting the oath, the active party, and the ransom party. In this case, the active party was the decemancer, and the ransom party his mother.
Euryphel typically kept his Mind’s Eye half-lidded; now, he fully opened it, bringing numerous long, swirling bands of multi-colored ribbons into sharp focus. These weren’t necessarily arrows of fate connected to himself, but those connecting other people. The number of ribbons was easily enough to cover 80% of the room’s volume. If he focused inward, he could see the fate ribbons connected to himself: thick, straight, golden, sharp-tipped arrows.
Holding onto Iolana’s legs allowed him to more-easily pick out the threads of fate between her and others. One of these threads would link both her, Julian, and someone in Selejo.
The prince let the other fate ribbons fade into the background as he inspected the thin, ramrod-straight arrows connecting Iolana to the rest of the world.
Where are you... Euryphel thought to himself, pulling apart the tangled braid of arrows with his mind.
There it was: an arrow bolstered by a series of linking red chains, oddly sinister. The chains had started to tighten inward, indicating that the time for the active party to fulfill the oath’s conditions was quickly coming to an end. Euryphel’s attention locked onto that single arrow and the rest of the world fell away. From his forehead sprang a thick, golden thorn: his Mind’s Spear. It proceeded forward steadily, languidly, giving off an air of inevitability. As it approached Iolana’s chained arrow, the chains began to shudder and pull away.
Euryphel could feel Iolana’s legs start to shake a little, as though she were cold.
The prince sent his Mind’s Spear forward, its point digging deeply into the red arrow. The chains struggled around the spearhead, but began to crack as a golden light suffused them. A half-second later, they shattered.
Euryphel retracted his Mind’s Spear back into his head, a bead of sweat forming at his temple. The red arrow still existed between Iolana and the Selejan, but the oath was gone.
The prince opened his eyes and looked up at Iolana. Her face was pale, her knuckle bones tight against her skin.
“Thank you, my Prime,” Iolana whispered.
Euryphel stood up. The oath they had placed on Iolana was made by a powerful practitioner. His Mind’s Eye felt utterly drained.
“It’s appropriate payment for your son’s agreement to work for me,” he replied. “I promise you that so long as he remains loyal, I will treat him well.”
“Why tell me this?”
Euryphel’s mouth curved into a smile. “So that you don’t scheme to take him away.”
“It all depends on whether you ask him for a binding oath,” Iolana replied, her voice tired.
“Don’t worry,” Euryphel said. “I won’t.”
He still remembered the dark expression on the decemancer’s face when he’d asked if he’d be willing to take an oath, back when they first met in the sun room. It had been one question of many, and it had been the only one that made the decemancer turn away abruptly, his eyes smoldering.
It hadn’t even been a life-death oath, so Euryphel couldn’t help but think that the decemancer had an aversion to oaths in general, even those that could be broken. For instance, instead of negotiating the standard contract for becoming the prince’s retainer, the decemancer had asked only to have the oath on his mother broken.
He could understand the decemancer’s aversion: Euryphel didn’t think he could ever trust someone to hold such power over him. Even if you had an oath that could be broken—as most oaths were—you still needed to find someone to break it for you.
And the kind of person required to break an oath set by Euryphel himself, against his will? The prince figured it could only be done by a practitioner with over 5% more End affinity than himself, so around 88% affinity.
After the death of his mother nearly a decade ago, there wasn’t a single person in the SPU who was capable enough.
So while Euryphel found the prospect of forcing an oath onto the decemancer reassuring, he knew that doing so would be equivalent to stabbing himself in the foot. Instead he’d resigned himself to taking a risk on the golden arrows between two of them...the golden arrows that seemed to suggest that their fates were mutually linked, that the SPU’s Crowned Prime and a virtually-unknown decemancer were equals.
He flexed his left hand.
...That they would maybe, possibly, become friends.
“Guardian Jarun’mai, you have news from Selejo,” Euryphel said, gesturing for the guardswoman to take a seat at the low table. A pot of tea lay steaming before him, and he began to pour liquid into two cups of fine porcelain. The parlor was spacious and filled with numerous armchairs and two divans in the style of the North. The low table was a bit odd in comparison, but Euryphel preferred drinking his tea seated on a floor cushion.
She inclined her head respectfully, then sat before the prince. “Did you receive the report on your secured glossY?” she asked. “The Eldemari’s ultimatum?”
“I haven’t read it yet. I figured I could use some context from someone who has been in Cunabulus the past few days.” Cunabulus was the seat of the Eldemari, otherwise known as the Sezakuin’s earthen cradle: a massive Magnestrian metropolis made of hardened red clay from the Vermuthi desert.
Euryphel thought it more resembled a termite’s nest than a cradle.
Guardian Jarun’mai nodded firmly. “The Eldemari has been restless since the day before yesterday. She has sent a few personnel to Pardin, and has held a number of last-minute closed meetings with her most-trusted officials.”
It was as he expected—the Eldemari was trying to keep her loss under wraps. “And what of the situation beyond her palace?”
“So far nothing I’ve heard from the Cuna concerns the decemancer.”
Euryphel smiled. “I presume that you read the ultimatum as soon as it reached your desk.”
“I did,” she replied. “To call its contents ‘garbage’ is too strong a euphemism.”
Euryphel snorted. “Utterly unsurprising...” He pulled out the secured glossY from his pocket and projected the screen onto the table’s pale wood.
For the eyes of the Crowned Prime of the Selejo Prince’s Union, Karen Euryphel Selejo
I hope this correspondence finds you well. It has come to Our attention that you have taken the liberty of poaching a strategic asset in which we have invested no small fortune.
Unless the asset is returned within the week, We will expect compensation on the order of fifty billion auris. We recognize that this may seem exorbitant, but that the amount naturally follows from simple calculus:
As you know, operating the Infinity Loop costs an enormous amount of capital, approximately fifty million auris. The estimated likelihood of awakening a practitioner with over 80% affinity using the Infinity Loop is on the order of one in ten-thousand, after extensive screening has already been conducted. The likelihood of awakening a practitioner with over 99% affinity is impossible to guess.
Euryphel frowned. Referring to him as “Eury” was highly disrespectful. He continued to read until he reached the last line: “The likelihood of awakening a practitioner with over 99% affinity...”
The prince felt his heart skip a beat. He flexed his left hand. It couldn’t be that the Eldemari was referring to the decemancer...? To be fair, he’d never explicitly asked for Julian's potentioreading, instead relying on his own observations to ascertain his power. While he’d recognized the decemancer as being over 90% affinity, he hadn’t guessed it would be 99%.
This being the case, to recoup our losses, a fifty million auri experiment must be repeated, at the barest minimum, ten-thousand times. The product of these values is five-hundred billion auris. Therefore, asking for fifty billion auris is already giving you quite a bit of face.
If these terms are not acceptable to you, then I am afraid our relationship may be greatly strained in the future.
The Eldemari, Maria Elde Sezakuin
Euryphel’s hand clenched the teacup forcefully. His face was devoid of emotion aside from his eyes that smoldered with rage.
“Ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous,” he spat. “The so-called asset left Selejo of his own accord. Moreover, he is a person, not a possession. The Eldemari should know better than almost anyone the risks inherent in investing in personnel.” He felt that there were many other critiques he could give, specifically with regards to the faults in the Eldemari’s calculus, but he knew that venting would get him nowhere.
“I will write and send a counter-offer after conversing with my advisers,” he said, giving the guardswoman a worn look. More meetings... he thought. Just what I need.
“Understood, my Prime.”
He waved the Guardian off. “Good work; inform me immediately if you see further developments in Cunabulus.”
Jarun’mai gave him a rigid salute, then left the room, leaving Euryphel with two hot cups of tea. Now alone, the prince grabbed his secured glossY and sent a message.
From Euryphel: Maria, your ultimatum is absolute trash.
A minute later, a message came back:
From Maria S.: Dearest Eury, what wasn’t to your satisfaction?
Euryphel’s lip curled up. It seemed that she had some time to spare. He pressed the “secured video conference” option on the application; a moment later, he was staring face to face with Maria Sezakuin.
“It’s a pleasure to see you, nephew,” she said, smiling devilishly.
“Yes, Aunt Maria,” he said, gritting his teeth. They were barely blood relatives at all as cousins five-times removed; but if Maria called him nephew to belittle his youth, the prince wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to jab at her advancing age.
“It’s been about a month since we’ve last spoken,” she said. “How are you?”
Euryphel sighed. “Tired. Endless meetings.” He gestured to the screen. “I assume you’re in similar circumstances?”
She chuckled. “Just about. At least you don’t have to worry about old men finding you a new consort.”
Euryphel resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He knew that Maria found the prospect of finding a consort entertaining: She voluntarily hosted numerous galas for the purpose, and found pleasure in winning the attention of powerful, younger men. Some of them were even as young as her son.
“I’m going to speak honestly,” Euryphel said.
“What a surprise,” Maria said, chuckling, her eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly. “Well, I’m waiting.”
“I want to keep the decemancer,” he said. “But out of respect for your investment in the Infinity Loop, I can pledge not to bind him by any oaths.”
His eyes were serious as he spoke, appraising.
“No oaths?” Maria said, frowning. “Isn’t that akin to treading on a precipice?”
“It would be no loss for you if I died,” he snorted.
Maria sneered. “No comment. But what you say is impossible: Your assembly would never permit you to keep an unbound decemancer of 99% affinity.”
“It’s not their decision,” he said coolly. “I’m allowed to keep a personal retainer.”
Maria’s eyes narrowed. “Why not just return him to me? Because you seem to have some good will towards him, I can promise to treat him well and forgive his transgressions.”
“What use do you have for a decemancer?” he asked.
“What use do you have for a decemancer?” she retorted.
The two of them said nothing for the next few seconds, tension palpable even over the video conference.
Euryphel flexed his left hand. “I don’t know yet what use he is to me,” he replied.
“So why risk the ire of the Eldemari, Eury?”
Euryphel had already run scenarios throughout their conversation, choosing the words that best furthered the discussion. But at this moment, he found himself delving into a new scenario just to give himself a moment to think.
It was at moments like these that Euryphel doubted and resented himself.
Maria was right that he was being irrational. This business was all irrational, an apparently 99% affinity decemancer showing up at his door, the shock of a golden arrow lancing his hand. He couldn’t find a logical argument for why he should keep the decemancer—a deadly stranger—as an unbound retainer. The only thing he had to go by was a strong, nagging feeling at the back of his mind, a feeling that said no matter what, do not let this man go. A presentiment that doing so would only lead to regret and destruction.
So, why risk the ire of the Eldemari?
“I know what I feel,” Euryphel replied with conviction. “You know how us End practitioners operate. Sometimes all we have to go on is a feeling.”
Maria’s lips pressed into a fine line. “The two of you have destiny, I take it?”
“If you give me his Infinity Loop recording, I’ll pay ten-billion auris. In addition, I’ll convince the council to remove the embargo on Selejan alcohol.”
“It’s hurting you more than us,” Maria said, her voice biting. “If I agree to this, it will cost me a good deal of face. Losing a 99% affinity decemancer is like losing a priceless artifact.”
“But he was never yours to lose,” the prince replied, giving her a questioning look. “You have to know that. He never agreed to work for Selejo in exchange for using the Infinity Loop, did he?”
“A minor detail,” Maria said. “I’m losing a 99% affinity decemancer, one that you seem desperate to keep in your clutches. You’re lucky he’s not a fire elementalist, or I’d be unable to even consider your offer.”
Euryphel shuddered inwardly. A 99% affinity fire elementalist, the pinnacle of destructive firepower, would easily be a national asset worth billions, if not trillions, of auris. Death practitioners were valued far less because they lacked such immediate destructive power. Deploying legions of constructs demanded time, allowing the enemy the opportunity to prepare a suitable defense or even evacuate. Additionally, such constructs performed well against normal practitioners, but failed to hold their own against peak elementalists. Finally, Death practitioners made poor national heroes: Their powers terrified regulars. Unfortunately, optics like that mattered.
“Remember, I’m not going to keep him bound by any oath if you agree,” he said, reminding her. “If you give him a good enough offer, he should willingly leave my side and go to you.”
“This is true,” Maria said, sighing and pinching the bridge of her nose. “But if there’s fate between the two of you strong enough for you to be willing to take him on without an oath...I have an inkling no amount of money will bring him to Selejo.”
Euryphel looked at her expectantly, waiting for her to indicate whether she would agree or disagree to the terms.
“So, let me understand: In exchange for the loop video and the unbound decemancer, you will give me ten billion auris and advocate for removing the embargo on Selejan alcohol. Is this correct?”
“You know that embargo is worth at least ten billion auris in one year alone,” Euryphel pointed out.
“I’ll agree, but only because I like you, nephew, and would prefer not to see you deposed.”
If Euryphel hadn’t already seen this exact part of the conversation in a scenario, he might have been unable to conceal his shock. The Eldemari agreed to his conditions, just like that?
Maria continued: “I’m sure you’ve felt something is amiss: a tumult, an unnamed undertow of unrest.”
Euryphel took a deep breath. Like himself, Maria had also inherited the blood of their shared Selejan ancestor, Yifara Selejo. When she was his age, her affinity as an End practitioner exceeded his own; with an age advantage of almost two decades, her purported 99% End affinity was paralleled only by Suran Rindo of Citelle.
“I’ve felt a growing unease, though I’m unsure of its source,” Euryphel replied.
“You’re going to need allies,” Maria said. “More than just your Guard.” He heard the unspoken follow-up: More than myself. Maria wasn’t an ally, per se, but she was the reason for the continued peace between Selejo and the SPU. If she wasn’t actively tempering the hawkish voices of her councilors, the peace would have ended years ago.
“There’s nothing else you can tell me?” he asked.
“You know very well how these feelings are,” she said. “Unclear, uncertain, but lingering. Something is coming. It’s the details that defy us.”
“Good luck, Aunt Maria,” Euryphel said, his voice solemn.
The video transmission cut off.