My adversary had underestimated me in two crucial ways.
First, this method of imprisonment played into my strengths. Time alone—time to think, to ruminate, to brood—was to my advantage under almost any circumstance.
So I sat and I thought.
The guest room in Baron Lurton’s estate was finely decorated and comfortably furnished. But like Valthan’s office, it was bereft of windows and the only door (a monstrously heavy oaken piece) led directly out to a common area well-trafficked by courtiers, staff, and petitioners. Escape was, again, quite nearly impossible. This guest room must have been outfitted with that in mind.
My fuming mind wandered around the circumstances of my imprisonment. First, there were the immediate consequences. I would not be meeting Mal and Naht at ten bells. They would be tracing my steps to find me, and I could only hope they would do so safely. There was no doubt that Naht was in good hands, but I was concerned that Mal would place herself in some amount of danger for my sake. I was almost hoping they would go on and leave me to my future, if only because I could imagine few pleasant ways out of my current predicament, even with their help.
I had surrendered my pack to Valthan. He was likely to see the remaining books I had borrowed: Logos of the North, History of the North, and The Transmutation of Souls. It’s possible he would leave it aside after removing my spellbook for safekeeping, but Valthan seemed a reasonably diligent fellow and I would have to assume he would be thorough in his inspection of my belongings. Anyway: this was bad. My destination would be utterly clear to him (“I will travel yet further,” I had told him just a few minutes before). And it would be all too easy to infer nefarious motives from a book of forbidden magic being in the possession of a fugitive wizard.
After I had given over my pack, Emile, the yellow-clad ranger we had met on the road, had led me to my “guest room.” So, Valthan’s inquiry as to whether I had been traveling with anyone was likely rhetorical: Emile had seen Mal. It was, fortunately, quite likely that she had forgotten about Naht, as all of the ways she would have related to him had been clouded by Mal’s spell. Still, maybe Valthan had heard something about Naht. Or about a “demon,” anyway. He had apparently received word of a warrant for my arrest, containing who-knows-what details that Piear may have supplied to Henri.
Now: how did he know about all that in the first place?
The night that Mal, Naht, and I fled Fertheaux, Piear and Jan would probably have searched for us for a few hours before giving up and returning to the village. If he was feeling particularly thorough, Piear might have tasked Jan with organizing a special watch over the village for a few nights. Then he would’ve been free to take to the road the next morning to seek Henri’s counsel. He would have arrived at castle Ilianath the same evening we spent the night at the Academy in Peraise. In the worst case for us, he would have had an audience with Henri that very evening (perhaps not long after Spook arrived with my letter of resignation), and then a Warrant from the Marquis of Ilianath Pertaining to the Arrest of Horwendell, Wizard would have been issued and communicated by courier the next day. Again, in the very worst case for us, a courier would have been dispatched directly for Épineuil: one day to Fertheaux, one day to Paraise, then the week’s journey out to Épineuil. Two days behind us. And yet none had passed us.
Maybe there was a worse case: that Henri still had someone available to him to cast a long-distance sending. But who? I had no apprentice. My master, the previous court wizard, had passed well over a decade ago. None had been paying any visits to Ilianath at the time. In the city and its outlying villages and forests and fields, the only other person I had met with the knowledge or talent to send such a message would be Mal, and…
The woman in white.
My hand fell from my beard to my lap, where I could clench it without pulling out hair. My knuckles whitened with the anger.
A theory began to bind itself in my mind, almost as if the ideas were knitting themselves together of their own accord. When the white magus had attempted to simply project herself to Naht, she had been thwarted by Mal. My counterspells were an obstacle, but it was Mal’s ability to tear the projection asunder that truly neutered the strategy. But she could still project elsewhere. Suppose she had projected herself to Ilianath and placed her magic at Henri’s disposal.
But why project and why not travel? Projection spells are exceedingly difficult, and beyond that, they are taxing. Much like a hard day of barn-raising can leave a laborer tired, sore, and weak for a day after, a projection can enervate the mind for days. Recreating a projection so soon after having one forcefully disrupted… it almost defied belief. But it would be a necessary measure if this woman had business to attend to. Duties. Obligations.
Like those of a court wizard.
It wasn’t the only explanation for any of the facts, but it seemed like the only explanation for all of the facts. There were other ways to come by the skills to project, but court wizardry was the surest. There were other ways that she could’ve known that she could use Piear and Henri to get to Naht… but were she a court wizard, she would understand deeply how my involvement was only easy as long as Henri approved. There were other reasons to project to commit murder instead of traveling to do so… but a court wizard might find it to be the only way to get it done from within a busy court, conducting it within the private confines of their study, safe from prying eyes and ears. No long absences to beg from one’s lord or explain to one’s colleagues.
I still didn’t recognize her. But perhaps she could have modified the spell to project some sort of disguised self. It sounded quite difficult—part of the reason a projection was even possible was that it projected one’s own body, a comfortable and familiar tool, easily named and easily manipulated. Was I overestimating my adversary? I shook my head. Maybe I was cynical. Maybe I was being too pessimistic. But I couldn’t bear to be optimistic and be wrong.
So which wizard?
A few hours after midnight there was a faint knock on the door. So faint that I barely heard it. It puzzled me. Captors don’t have a habit of knocking with such polite timidity, even if they call themselves “hosts.”
I responded to the second round of soft knocking with a “… Come in?”, emitted at an awkward volume.
The door creaked open and then closed. A little, ruddy-red figure in a blue tunic stepped into the room. Naht.
My heart lurched and began to race as my mind tumbled into motion.
I lowered my voice. “Naht! What…”
He pressed his finger to his lips in an amusing display of assumed elderly authority. He crept toward the bed and unslung my pack from his shoulder, depositing it with a whumph on the golden-quilted bed.
“Please be careful. We’ll meet you… tomorrow. Look for Spook. Is that okay?”
His cadence told me that Malisa had put those particular words in his mouth, having likely put him up to the whole thing. Her magic being what it was, he could rummage through the estate for my belongings with impunity, unless Valthan had deployed some way to defeat the seeming. But Valthan probably had no way to know he was up against something like that, and had evidently not prepared for the case, thinking the matter concluded with me safely in custody.
But a wizard reunited with his spellbook was no longer a wizard safely in custody.
I suppressed a sickly, worried chuckle as excitement seized my fingers and limbs. Naht had put on a front of confidence, but he was clearly humming with nerves. His mischievous streak earlier in the day notwithstanding, he was a court wizard’s kid and was not used to transgressing serious boundaries. Breaking a wizard out of prison, even cloaked by powerful magic, was a new experience for him, and the fear was probably clawing at his heart and throat, much like it was at mine.
“This is very brave of you,” I whispered. “I’ll make good on it, I promise. I’ll meet you tomorrow.”
Naht didn’t seem sure if he should smile, so it came out as sort of a grimace. At any rate, he crept back out the way he came.
Once the door was closed, I shuffled the pack over to the floor behind the bed opposite the doorway. I took a quick inventory of the tomes therein—all accounted for—and opened my spellbook onto my lap.
This was the second way my adversary had estimated me. It was really a way in which she had underestimated us. The patience of a wizard, the awesome power of a woods witch, and the courage of a ten-year-old kid: it would take more than simply a warrant for my arrest to crack us.
I grinned with anxious energy and opened my spellbook. Every tool I had ever employed sprawled out at my fingertips. I had all the time I needed to array them against my obstacles. No mortal prison could hold me for long. Its gaolers could but look on helplessly.
Poor, poor Valthan. He never stood a chance.