Chapter XII: Duties

Épineuil was one of the jewels in the crown of Orland. It was not the foremost of the kingdom’s centers of commerce and culture: that would be Rellenreaux, the glimmering ruby set in the fore-ridge of that crown. Épineuil was contented to be a humbler but no less beautiful sapphire. It connected the southern midlands to the northern lowlands, the kingdom’s two breadbaskets and two distinct cultural regions, and the town itself enjoyed all of the bountiful rewards of that exchange.

The town itself was a riot of color, the pigments and paints from every corner of the seven kingdoms adorning every free square inch of plaster and every yard of cloth. The two distinct Orlan accents could be heard issuing from every stall, every window, and every alley (mine would mark me obviously for a southerner). I even caught the distinct turn of the Veldic language being used to facilitate a conversation with some other traveler from a far-flung place.

My travel robe and Mal’s black gown wouldn’t be terribly far out of place here, besides being somewhat somber and out of fashion. It would make it somewhat obvious that I was a courtier, and one look at my beard would fairly well give away which kind of courtier I was. Which, I suppose, was the point. It would serve me well enough here, I thought.

So we stood in the center of the gate square, essentially a street so broad that it had earned the designation of a square, while the sun made its final retreat beneath the city walls and the last of the citizens and visitors to the city, soaked in shadows, concluded their days.

Mal began. “Well. We have a day or so. I’ll take Naht and try and find a night’s rest. I take it you were mostly truthful about the reagents and… Valthan?”

“Hmm. Yes. I suppose it would only be polite to call on him. Court Wizard to the Baron. Junior, as far as we go, but knowledgeable and respectable.”

Mal clearly was about to say something, but I’ll never know what. Naht was staring greedily at a fruit stand, and she broke out laughing instead.

“We’ll meet back here. Ten bells? It seems like our charge,” she continued in a pontifical impression of my voice, “requires moral instruction.”

I left the square and made my way up the emptying streets to the north. My first stop was the Academy. The Astronomy of the North was dense but short, and I had mostly exhausted it of the knowledge I had required of it. If I were contemplating truly exploring new fields of magic it would have been an invaluable reference, but I was only preparing to navigate in the north and perhaps become conversant in the northern practice of magic should the time come: and for all that, my notes would suffice.

I moved The Astronomy of the North to the top of my pack, above my spare robe, which itself was above the other resources Sandron had lent me—some of which he had advised to keep well out-of-view.

My feelings of contentment had not abated, and, indeed, swelled with each passing minute. Naht’s struggles were far from over, but he was climbing out of his torpor and beginning to explore the world again, even if it was just for a few hours at a time. I had already gotten to return one of the books Sandron had lent me: even if he wouldn’t know it for some days or weeks, I imagined that I had repaid some of his faith in me ahead of schedule.

And it wasn’t for nothing that Épineuil was a beautiful town, and I had a moment to myself to simply enjoy it.

The Academy was perched on the corner of the main market square, now empty but for an armored night sentry leaning against a wall, his lantern glowing placidly by his feet.

I shuffled off my pack and took a seat on the edge of a planter before the Academy. I made some minimal effort to look non-suspicious within the sentry’s view, but I supposed my beard and robe would, again, do most of the work for me.

I sighed, and my mind wandered. It wasn’t simply the robe and beard. If I could magically bequeath Naht fifty years of age and a beard of a robe of his own (and to be clear, I could not), it still would not serve to make him inconspicuous in the eyes of this sentry. Or anyone else, for that matter. Mal’s seeming was buying him time, but only Mal’s ultimate solution—the help of an emperor-dragon-god—would give him the gift of being… unassuming.

Hmm. The seeming. The farmer’s cart. Naht had wanted to complain that what the man didn’t know (about a mischievous child searching through his possessions) couldn’t hurt him. I disagreed with that claim, philosophically, but now couldn’t help but thinking that’s exactly what we were doing, writ large: what the town of Épineuil didn’t know about Naht couldn’t hurt them. The obvious justification seemed to be that there was, truly, no harm to do. The child’s “accursedness” was…

… What was the curse, anyway?

Unusual skin tones. Bony prominences on the face and sometimes upper arms and back. Horns, like a ram’s or a dragon’s. Eyes with homochromatic pupils, irises, and sclera. A tail. Unseemly at worst, difficult to tailor for, but harmless.

As some scholars would have it: soullessness, perhaps. An irresistible bent for evil, for destruction. As legends would have it: the ability to shapeshift, to steal bodies or even souls from bodies.

I felt myself getting angry. What rubbish. For legends to run wild was one thing. But for scholars and courtiers like myself, whose very duty it is to understand reality to its fullest… these scholars could not have possibly encountered these ideas in reality. Certainly not the reality I had been living in with Naht. It was not reality. It was reckless speculation. An absolute betrayal of their life’s work. Of my life’s work.

My eyes, hard under a furrowed brow, drifted back to my pack. The Transmutation of Souls: A Compilation of Attestations. An Ivian Leauge era work by Rector Ystile, whose status within the League-era College hierarchy afforded the book just enough prestige to allow it to remain in the College collections. Most other similar works had been burned. Even this one was guarded carefully, lest the wicked be given the chance to recreate the malign magics that ancient warlocks used to touch and exploit the soul.

I needed to know more about Naht’s curse. Was lifting it with powerful transmutation magic within the Emperor’s reach, as Mal figured? Or was there another way? What did the curse do, beyond the superficial? Was there truly demonic influence to fear?

And how better to understand a curse than to understand the soul the bears it?

I would need the warlocks’ secrets.

The same ranger we met on the road, her chaps and tunic still slightly dusty from a hard day’s work, showed me into Valthan’s office, gave a polite bow, and closed the door behind her.

Valthan’s office was sparser than mine. It was, like mine, dominated by a heavy wooden desk expertly crafted to maximize both storage space and aesthetic pleasure. But fewer tools and knick-knacks cluttered its surface, and for that matter, the wood-paneled walls were considerably more bare. I surmised it to be some combination of his personal organizing preferences and his short years in service to the Baron, such that he simply had less time to experience the natural accrual of tools that plagues wizards’ careers like a fungus.

Valthan himself was a thin man with a protruding chin, an immaculate moustache, and hungry eyes. The robe helped to fill out his wiry frame and give him the personal presence befitting a wizard.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I am quite fond of our wizard robes.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, my friend?” Valthan asked. There was an odd note in his voice.

“To myself, of course,” I chuckled. “I was passing through and it seemed only right. I read your essay on the creative properties of fire; I’ve been trying to write a letter on how the southern fire-star Gamede might be able to link those ideas—very well articulated, I should say, fine work—to… well, something, surely. You can see why the letter is yet unfinished.”

“I thank you. It was a small thing, I think. We all know how fire can be used to create, but the aetheric processes underlying it are… ah, never mind. You did read it, after all. I trust you have found the town pleasing?”

“Always! I’ve been meaning to ask, though, if that fellow Phanel is still doing business on that… street in the west, that curves out behind the butcher? I will travel yet further and could use some dried insects and such for some spells.”

Valthan hesitated. He had clearly been dying to say something to me, but it was unclear what.

A sickly feeling took hold of my heart. I tried to convince myself that nothing was wrong.

“Do tell me he’s still in business. He was such a good fellow.”

“Horwendell, did you come to town with anyone?”

“Well… Valthan, what’s wrong?”

He shook his head, wearing an exquisitely pained expression. Potentially a faked one, I thought. “Don’t… don’t do anything you’ll regret.”

“Valthan. Speak plainly.”

“Why don’t you, friend? You’re a fugitive. The reeve of Fertheaux has successfully petitioned your Marquis for your arrest. Word reached me several days ago. The Baron intends to honor the warrant on this Marquis’ behalf, though he did not know you’d come knocking.”

I took his advice—not doing anything I might regret—and clammed up. The ranger was waiting just outside the door, within shouting distance of the rest of the household citizens-at-arms. That door was the only exit. I was not adequately prepared for an escape.

How did he know? I had believed we had traveled well ahead of any such news. Since I wasn’t at my post in Ilianath, there would be nobody for Henri to prevail upon to send a message faster than the speed of a march down the old league roads. And no obvious couriers had passed us as we had done just that. I hadn’t been worrying about this at all. If only I had been.

Valthan shook his head again. Sadly, this time. More ersatz sympathy? It was hard to say. “Friend, tell me what you intend. Perhaps I can help.”

“I resigned my post with Henri, as you must well know. Reeve Piear is meddling.” I sighed. “Could I not prevail upon you to…?”

“Absolutely not. I have a great respect for you, friend, but my bond to my liege is not broken so easily.”

“Stop calling me friend,” I snapped. “It’s not making me feel particularly generous at the moment.”

Valthan drew up. “I’m afraid your generosity is not my concern. You will remain in my custody for the time being. Remain here while I instruct Emile to make a guest room ready for you.”

I sighed again, frustrated with my miniature outburst. It was not made in a productive spirit, I’ll admit. “I am sorry to have placed you in this position, and I do thank you for your hospitality. I’ll not burden you further.”

“Very good. Your spellbook, please.”