Month 10, Day 1, Thursday 1:00 p.m.
Damien brushed dust and cobwebs out of his hair as he slipped through the secret passageway behind the family study, where his older brother was currently receiving a report from the investigator assigned to the recent theft from the University. Damien’s hair, which he had painstakingly styled that morning, would be ruined, and he shuddered at the idea of spiders crawling under the collar of his shirt, but it was worth it.
He waved away another cobweb, then activated the spell array on the wall. A tiny tube opened up in the stone, a peephole that would be invisible from the other side…if the illusion spell worked properly. He leaned forward and peered through with one eye.
Damien quickly dubbed the man talking to his brother Investigator Cough for his irritating hacking.
The man had brought a Shipp evidence box, which sat on the desk in front of Damien’s brother, Titus. The metal cube was on its transparent setting, and within lay what Damien thought was a dead crow. It was hard to tell from his vantage point, but he could make out black feathers and some blood.
“Are you sure it was her?” Titus said, peering down at the thing with his hands in his pockets.
Damien knew that was a habit formed to keep him from reaching out to touch something—and unwittingly damage the evidence needed for investigations. It was unnecessary. The stasis artifact precluded any danger of damage or contamination.
“It is possible that some other sorcerer created a Lino-Wharton blood messenger, of course, but the chosen recipient, as well as the existence of a sliver of lodestone in its brain, makes it unlikely.”
“And the man? Ennis Naught, if I’m correct—the one who claims to be her father?” Titus glanced toward the wall where Damien was peeking through, but didn’t seem to notice anything amiss.
“When he first flagged down a guard, he was screaming about his daughter falling to her death from the window. He seemed to be under the impression that she had transformed into the raven directly rather than simply using it as a medium to speak to him. Once we were able to calm him down and explain, he was quick enough to tell us everything. He had no useful information. Apparently, she asked no more than a few questions, and he spent their entire conversation talking. He doesn’t even know if she still has the text.”
Titus scowled down at the man, who coughed uncomfortably under the weight of the famous Westbay gaze. “Were any precautions taken to ensure the prisoner was truthful?”
“Of course. All the high-security wing cells have the strongest legal ward against untruth built in, and we had a prognos come in to watch him give his statement. No signs of lying about what the person who contacted him said or did, or about his knowledge of the text. The prognos said he likely ‘bent the truth’ to make himself seem more likeable in the retelling. Siobhan, it appears, did not respond favorably to the marriage contract with the Gervins.”
Damien had only met a prognos once. The large eye in the middle of their head had felt like it was looking right through his skin into his mind. A prognos was necessary when interrogating witnesses or suspects in any serious investigation. The “strongest legal wards” against lies were little more than vague compulsions, and thus utterly useless against a determined liar. It was said the best prognos diviners could see directly into the past to discover the identity of a criminal, but Damien knew that was a myth. His family would use one on every team of coppers if it was true, despite the cost. Prognos were simply perceptive, able to read people’s intentions with uncanny clarity, like the main character in his favorite detective periodicals.
Titus ran his fingers through his hair, which somehow didn’t muss its perfection, even though he spent barely a few seconds on it in the morning, unlike Damien.
He couldn’t help but wonder if Titus had some secret spell for perfect hair and, if he did, why his older brother had never shared this knowledge with him.
“Let us hope she doesn’t change her mind about the Gervins. Is there any more news about the rest of the items discovered in the University’s archaeological dig?”
“The University is being somewhat reticent in sharing information…”
Titus waved his hand impatiently. “I know how it is.”
Investigator Cough nodded an apology. “As far as I know, they successfully decrypted one of the remaining texts, but sources say it contained no valuable information, magical or otherwise.”
Titus clenched his jaw, but then sighed deeply. “Alright, Investigator Kuchen. Is there anything else to report?”
“We are placing wards around Naught’s cell that should notify us of any further visitors, human or not. If anything but the bugs or the guards tries to get to his cell again, we’ll know, and we’ll be able to track them when they leave, for almost a kilometer. We will have an Apprentice constantly monitoring the spell’s output for notable occurrences.”
Titus nodded. “Alright, Kuchen. You are dismissed. Get back to the investigation. Find her.”
The shorter man bowed and took the Shipp evidence box from the desk, turning off the metal’s invisibility function and hurrying away. Sporadic coughing marked his travel down the hall.
Titus stared at his desk for a while, seemingly deep in thought.
Just as Damien was about to release the snooping spell and sneak away, Titus turned to face him, staring straight into the peephole. “I know you’re eavesdropping, Damien. Why not come out and speak with me?”
Damien let out a small squeak as his heart nearly leapt out of his chest. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself, hand pressing on his chest, then said, “How did you know I was here? Is the illusion spell malfunctioning?”
Titus chuckled. “I’m the one who showed you that passageway and the eavesdropping spell, if you remember?” That had been when they were younger, when this was still their father’s office.
Damien flushed, but he did as his brother asked, turning and exiting the dust-filled passage. In the main hallway, he paused to make sure the entrance was properly disguised behind him, then walked around the corner, and, with some trepidation, opened the door to the study where his brother waited. “I didn’t mean to pry. It’s just, Father hasn’t let me out of the house since I returned from Paneth, and the little I have heard about this case is so interesting.”
Titus clapped a hand on Damien’s shoulder and smiled down at him. “I’m not angry. You’ve always had a fascination with our family’s work, especially that of the investigators.”
Damien had wanted to be a detective since he was six years old. He knew that, as a member of one of the thirteen Crown Families, and merely the second in succession for the head of their Family, he would never be allowed to hold such a mundane job. At best, he would supervise the coppers and take a special interest in important investigations, like his brother did now. Maybe he would even take control of the city’s army when his brother became the head of the house. Still, learning how to do the job of a copper was important. If he didn’t understand what his Family’s underlings did, how could he lead them?
Titus turned to the desk where the evidence box had sat. “This is indeed an interesting case, and an important one. The First Family and the University are both anxious for a resolution. The High Crown has personally instructed me on the urgency of the situation.”
Damien’s eyes widened. “I thought it was simply a stolen book. Rare and expensive, to be sure, and the method of the theft was bold and flashy enough to fan sensationalist rumors. I mean, taking it right under the nose of one of the professors, from within the University, with no attempt at stealth…” He stopped himself from rambling. “I understand why the University’s desperate to apprehend her and regain their honor, but why is the High Crown personally interested?”
Titus kept staring at the desk. “I don’t know.” His brother’s Will, strong enough even when he was Damien’s age to channel a bolt of lightning, sometimes became almost tangible, like a weight in the air itself. Damien always knew to tread lightly when that happened, for all that Titus would never harm him.
“You will catch her though, right? You already have her father. It cannot be much longer.”
Titus sat at his desk and leaned back in his chair, one hand unconsciously ruffling his perfect hair again. “It’s been made difficult because of the number of people who come to Gilbratha this time of year for the University entrance exams. Over ten thousand people take the written exams each year. Many of those have traveled to do so, bringing family members and servants. She’s just one among many outsiders. If she was smart, she would’ve already left the city, taken asylum in another country. That would have made things much harder. But she’s still here, and bold enough to send an illegal messenger into the high security wing of Harrow Hill. Sooner or later, Damien, everyone makes a mistake.” Titus gave Damien a small smile. “When she does, I will have her.”
The pressure in the air lightened, and Damien smiled in return, moving forward to sit on the edge of one of the other desks. “So how did she do it? Stealing from the University shouldn’t be so easy, but all the stories I’ve heard are either outrageous or contradictory. And what is a Lino-Wharton blood messenger?”
“Unsurprisingly, it seems the whole commotion was less dramatic than the rumors would have you believe. You know how the commoners love a good drama. The theft was accomplished with brazen insouciance. There was substantial surveillance on the relics, but a perfectly—and unfortunately—timed series of security breaches took away oversight on the book at just the right moment. As far as we can tell, however, it really was coincidental.”
Damien raised his eyebrows in disbelief.
Titus nodded. “Yes. Both father and daughter accessed the University under the pretense of meeting with Professor Munchworth, who teaches Titanic History and Lore, and who was receiving several of the relics the University’s expedition had uncovered. The girl stayed in the room with him while the father put on a show of anger and stormed out to intercept the incoming relics. Ennis Naught grabbed the book right under the University’s nose, and then the two of them simply ran. Sometime during the flight—though I’m not sure if they planned it—he gave the book to her for better safekeeping, and they split up. He isn’t even a thaumaturge. Not even a magician.” Magicians did not have to be thaumaturges at all, only use an artifact or alchemical concoction to create a magical effect. Even Nulls, who by some anomaly of genetics could not cast magic at all, could still be classified as magicians if they could afford the real work to be done by someone else. Historically, magicians were often charlatans trying to scam a few coin out of someone before the ruse was discovered, or thugs hired to do the bidding of a powerful thaumaturge.
Damien’s eyes wandered around the room as he considered his brother’s story. “But she is a thaumaturge. Is the Lino-Wharton blood messenger a difficult spell?”
“Very. It’s also restricted, and is generally both short range and short term, so she must be within Gilbratha still. The power requirement multiplies exponentially at greater distances, with the spell starting out at over five thousand thaums on the Henrik-Thompson for even the most basic version. It would be far too costly to cast from outside the city.” He paused. “Of course, Ennis Naught claims he stole the book on a whim.”
Damien’s eyebrows rose, but then he snorted. “A whim? Did the prognos not divine a lie?”
Titus shook his head. “No. Which throws more than I would like into question. Naught says they were there to ask Professor Munchworth to sponsor his daughter through the University, and thought he would be interested because of the Naught bloodline on her mother’s side. Ennis was a wealthy commoner from the northern islands who married into the clan and took their name. He says the girl is an untaught sorceress, and he has no idea how she performed the messenger spell.” Titus paused here, looking thoughtfully at his desk. “If she is really untaught, however, how could she have managed to escape with the text past the squads both we and the University sent out to find her? It seems unlikely to be pure luck, especially since she has followed her unlikely escape up with this stunt. It’s almost as if she means to mock us.”
“But if he’s lying about that, or has had some sort of geas put on him to make him believe what he’s saying, something strong enough to block a prognos diviner, then he could be lying about everything.” Damien couldn’t help the spark of excitement in his voice. This case was quickly becoming one of the most interesting he’d ever heard of, on par with something out of one of his fiction periodicals.
“Exactly.” His brother rubbed his temples, a rare show of weakness, then looked up at Damien suddenly. “The University entrance examination is in only a few days. Shouldn’t you be studying?”
Damien flushed a little, but tried to wave it off. “The examination allows even commoners to enter. I’ve been preparing for this my entire life. I won’t fail due to a lack of last-minute studying.”
Titus raised an eyebrow, settling back in his chair like a king on his throne. “The examination is ranked. You will get back to your books and practice, and take one of the top three hundred spots, or when I get the news, we will spar.”
Damien paled, immediately hopping off the desk and hurrying out of the room. “If I place in the top three hundred, you have to teach me how you knew I was eavesdropping.” He closed the door behind him before his brother could object, then slumped off to the room where his tutor was waiting for him, no doubt wondering why it had taken him so long to go to the bathroom.
If only Damien could help in the investigation, rather than being stuck studying or in school. It wasn’t fair, but that was the way of things in the Crown Families. Freedom was exclusively for the supremely powerful, and sometimes not even then.
Author Note: As you guys may or may not know, I post illustrated excerpts from Siobhan’s Grimoire on Patreon. I just uploaded “Basic Elements of a Spell.”
If you’d like to check out what these grimoire excerpts are like, the “Spark Shooting Spell” excerpt is free to everyone. In it, Siobhan teaches, with rather good illustrations, how to cast a spell that shoots sparks, for the purpose of lighting a fire, scaring off an animal, or signaling your location under duress.
You can download that one free here: https://www.patreon.com/azaleaellis