Month 1, Day 21, Thursday 8:15 a.m.
Titus’s eyebrows rose at Thaddeus’s sudden request for access to the Raven Queen’s father, but he waved his hand magnanimously. “Of course. We have gone through every method possible to find the holes in his story but have been unsuccessful thus far. Have you been inspired with a new angle we might try?”
“I need to see all the records on his questioning and the examination reports, from the beginning,” Thaddeus said instead of answering.
“I am to report to the High Crown later today. Please let me know if you find anything of interest, Thaddeus. I would like to be able to give him at least some positive news.”
Thaddeus agreed, and Titus assigned Kuchen to accompany him to the records room. Two hours later, Thaddeus had pored through every report in the Raven Queen’s investigation file, which held little that he did not already know, or at least suspect. Ennis Naught was telling the truth, even if they didn’t want to accept that.
The coppers had made no obvious mistakes or oversights, but some piece of the puzzle had to be missing. If Ennis Naught was telling the truth about his daughter, then she could not be the Raven Queen. They had searched for signs that the man’s memory had been tampered with and found none, though that sort of thing could be subtle. Naught believed, and it seemed to be true, that he had a daughter, and that daughter was the same person who came to Gilbratha with him. He believed he had stolen the book on a whim, out of anger.
And yet, they had first-hand reports of the Raven Queen’s exploits. Multiple acquaintances they had tracked down from her childhood confirmed that she matched Siobhan Naught’s appearance. Except, of course, for the new reports of her growing red and black feathers and the Nightmare Pack’s resident prognos insistence that she was an inhuman being.
From that, Thaddeus would normally assume that Siobhan Naught’s identity had been stolen, and the real girl’s bones were being picked bare by insects somewhere. To test this, the coppers had gotten permission to do a lineage test using some of Ennis Naught’s hair, attempting to see if he had any living descendants. The divination spell, which took weeks to produce results, had shown several, though the results could be quite unreliable. Apparently, the man had impregnated multiple women across the country during his lifetime, though Siobhan was the only legitimate offspring, and the only one the elder Naught was aware of. The spell only suggested the existence of others bearing his bloodline; it did not allow the coppers to track down any of his children without clearer knowledge of who they were. A separate spell had been used on the drop of recovered blood to confirm that the Raven Queen was one of them.
While that would normally have been conclusive evidence, in this case Thaddeus still withheld judgment. Something felt off about the whole thing. Some pieces of evidence fit together using some theories, but with no theory did all the pieces fit together.
That the Raven Queen had contacted Ennis Naught twice since the theft and his subsequent incarceration only increased the ambiguity. Though the reasons Naught had reported for the visits were suspect, they hinted that the Raven Queen, whether or not she had ever truly been Siobhan Naught, felt some sort of connection to him. Thaddeus considered the possibility that her attempts to contact the man were more purposefully laid clues—or red herrings meant to send the investigators chasing their own tails—but was also conscious of the ever-present risk of over-attributing canniness and purpose to the Raven Queen, a bias too many had already proven susceptible to.
No, there was something they were missing. Thaddeus read the investigation note about Ennis Naught apparently having given an heirloom celerium ring to one of the Gervin Family’s branch lines, as a bond for his daughter’s…marriage into the Family—as long as she brought the stolen book along with her, of course.
Thaddeus almost laughed aloud at the Gervin Family’s audacity. The Gervins had acted quickly, before the full extent of what they were dealing with had become clear, and, luckily for them, had not had a chance to follow through on the agreement. Even if the Raven Queen herself did not cow them, the High Crown might not look kindly upon what could be seen as subversion of a criminal investigation, or even a direct attempt to weaken his authority.
Still, Thaddeus made a note to tell Titus to keep an eye on them. Even if they were not planning to reach above their station, they might be a future target for the Raven Queen if she truly had an interest in that Conduit. Hells, she could have already stolen it without them realizing, if the rumors about her skills were even partially true.
He noted that the coppers who had been attacked by her shadow-creature companion were showing no lingering side effects except for the occasional nightmare, which could just as well have been caused by stress. The warehouse workers who had given her drops of their blood seemed healthy as of the last time they had been called to Harrow Hill for a follow-up.
Thaddeus also noted her amicable connections to both the Verdant Stag and the Nightmare Pack. The leader of the Verdant Stag was a metaphorical ghost, only ever appearing in a mask and leaving most of the operations to his underlings, but Lynwood of the Nightmare Pack was accessible. However, the reports stated that he simply refused to testify to the coppers, even when they brought him in to stay the night in a cell. The Nightmare Pack prognos had mentioned that the Raven Queen gave them a boon. What had she given, and what had she gotten in return? Was this the same method by which the Verdant Stag had become allied with her?
Having gleaned all he could from the reports, Thaddeus retrieved Kuchen, who was to give him access to Ennis Naught’s cell. Thaddeus would rather have spoken to the prisoner alone, but he did not have the clearance, and records had to be kept.
Thaddeus wrinkled his nose as he stepped into the cell. Naught’s chamber pot had not been emptied, and the cell smelled of acrid urine, feces, and a rancid buildup of sweat and grime from the unwashed man himself.
Naught huddled in a corner atop the thin cot, wrapped in his blanket. He looked nothing like his daughter. She was supposedly ochre-skinned with long dark hair, evidence of her heritage from the People, northern nomads who still practiced some of their old, esoteric magics. That was to say nothing of sprouting feathers or missing irises.
Thaddeus’s eyes narrowed as they trailed over the man’s pale skin, red hair and unkempt beard. Pale, watery eyes gave away the soft mind behind them. Thaddeus felt an idea stirring in the back of his mind, too immature to grasp yet.
“I’m not talking any more without food,” Naught announced with hoarse petulance. “And none o’ that porridge. I want meat, fresh bread, and cheese.”
Thaddeus debated the effort it would require to threaten the man into compliance, but another waft of the unwashed stench coming off him made Thaddeus decide on the easier route. He turned to Kuchen, who was holding his handkerchief over his face, but not coughing into it for once.
Kuchen nodded to one of the guards, who headed off toward the cafeteria.
“And an apple!” Naught called after him excitedly.
Thaddeus eyed the room’s only chair with distaste. Pulling out his Conduit and one of the beast cores he always kept on his person, he cast a quick scouring spell on it. The wood splintered a little under the force, but the magic left it clean enough to sit on. He gestured toward the ceiling, and a small, bright ball of light appeared there, illuminating the room.
Naught squinted against the sudden brightness. “I suppose you’re ‘ere to ask more questions about that ungrateful girl?”
“Siobhan. Your daughter,” Thaddeus corrected immediately, with an unexpected surge of irritation.
Naught merely squinted at him silently.
“She had some training as a sorcerer, yes? From her grandfather?” Thaddeus asked.
“The girl was apprenticed to ‘im when she turned eleven. Taught ‘er a few useful tricks before ‘e died a couple years later. I came back for ‘er—took me a while to find her—and then she lived with me for six years, on the road, making ‘erself useful with ‘er thaumaturgy before I brought ‘er to Gilbratha so she could attend the University and become a real sorcerer like she always wanted. I’ve told you all this so many times. She wasn’t acting strange, she was just excited, nervous. She didn’t make me take that book, though I dearly wish she ‘ad so you would just let me go. I don’t know anything about this Raven Queen, but more’n likely the girl’s just playing tricks on you, smoke and mirrors and the like. Maybe she made some powerful friends. She was on the road with me and picked up the bad with the good, you see.”
“Her grandfather, did he have any connections to anyone suspicious?”
“Who knows? The man kept to ‘imself, out in the woods near a small village. Didn’t talk about ‘is past. I didn’t spend much time with ‘im. We didn’t get on, truth be told. Old Kal didn’t much like me marrying ‘is daughter—thought I wasn’t good enough, not being a sorcerer. Made me take Miakoda’s last name, marry into the People instead of ‘er marrying out.”
“Miakoda—your wife. What was this Kal’s full name?” Thaddeus asked quickly.
“Raz Kalvidasan. Mean old piece o’ jerky.”
Thaddeus frowned, the name sparking a connection that he couldn’t quite remember. He repeated it aloud. “Raz Kalvidasan,” then again, with a slight accent. “Raaz Kalvidasan. He was a foreigner? Not one of the People?”
Ennis’s eyebrows rose. “Yeah. ‘e adopted my wife when she was young. ‘ow did you know?”
Thaddeus turned to Kuchen. “The grandfather’s name literally means ‘secretive learned one,’ or something like that. I was never fluent, and it has been years. You will want someone to look into him.” It was interesting that a foreigner had held the bloodline of the People in such high regard. He turned back to Naught. “Tell me about the circumstances of this Raaz Kalvidasan’s death.”
“Oh, it was bad. Everyone in the village died. The Red Guard came in, I ‘eard. Of course, I wasn’t there at the time. I only got word of it later, and that’s when I came back for Siobhan. The village was gone. Couldn’t find the girl for weeks, maybe months.”
Well, that was rather interesting.
Kuchen flipped through the papers on his clipboard. “You didn’t tell us this! We have it that a plague wiped out the village where she lived as a child.”
“I didna’ say it was a plague. I said everyone died, and your interrogator didna’ seem so interested,” the man said, his brogue growing stronger with spite.
“You should have realized we would be interested in this! It could be valuable information.” Kuchen’s voice broke under the strain of his outrage, and he was reduced to yet another fit of wet coughing.
Did the coppers not pay the man enough to see a healer? Thaddeus dropped the light spell long enough to cast a cleansing spell through the air. He did not want to catch whatever the investigator had, being confined in a small area with all his germs.
Naught seemed temporarily cowed by the flicker of the light and the feel of sterilization magic rushing past him, but recovered quickly. “I’ve told you plenty I didn’t ‘ave to, and look where all that cooperation’s gotten me.” Naught turned his head and spat on the floor.
Kuchen was coughing too hard to retort, but he sent his best glare over the top of his handkerchief.
“Continue with what you were saying,” Thaddeus said, motioning impatiently at Naught.
“Hmph. Well, I finally picked Siobhan up in a village a couple days over. She was in the local gaol for stealing and beating the baker’s son. Almost tied a knot in my tongue talking ‘er out of that little fix. She was…different, for a long while. A real burden, truth be told, but she was too young to marry off, and who would ‘ave a girl like that, even if she was pretty? Wouldna’ talk, wouldna’ practice magic, couldna’ sleep.”
Thaddeus leaned forward with interest.
Naught continued, his gaze going soft and vacant with memory. “I’m no monster, to just abandon my own daughter, so I took ‘er around, looking for someone who could fix ‘er. Took maybe two years. Drove me to poverty. She didn’t start acting normal again until she learned there was a spell that could ward off nightmares. And just like that, she was back talking and running around, practicing all those little magic tricks until I had to beg ‘er to stop. After that, though, she made ‘erself useful wherever we went. Saved my bacon a couple times, truth be told. The girl never talks about those times, and I kinda got in the ‘abit of avoiding those memories, too. But I’ll tell you right now, the Raven Queen didna’ replace my daughter when she was thirteen. I lived with the girl for six years after that. I watched ‘er grow up. I would’ve noticed.”
Thaddeus leaned forward with fascination. “Do you know any more about the reason the Red Guard was called in at that time? Was it an Aberrant?”
“No idea. The whole thing was cleared by the time I arrived. Village was empty. Only ‘eard rumors from the surrounding villages, and of course the Red Guard was no ‘elp. Told me my daughter was probably dead and burned. But I wouldna’ believe them. And I was right. Took me a while, but I found ‘er. Little scrapper, she was,” Naught said with sudden fondness.
“We will request their records,” Kuchen assured Thaddeus.
Thaddeus nodded absently, still staring at Naught. “What about the girl’s mother? Your wife?”
Naught’s face went slack with nostalgia. “Miakoda was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. Tall, shapely”—his hands drew an hourglass shape in the air—“and a tongue like a barbed whip. She was a witch with a demon familiar.”
“A demon? A humanoid, sapient being from the Plane of Fire?” Thaddeus clarified. People often used the word incorrectly to refer to any creature from the Plane of Fire, and sometimes even the other Elemental Planes.
Naught nodded. “Yes. Named Paimon. Just a little guy, most of the time.” He held his hand about a foot above the ground. “Powerful, though, and the funniest little tyke you ever saw. The creature was always getting into trouble or offending someone by making rude gestures or blowing smoke in their face. Liked to eat his food raw—cooked it in ‘is mouth. ‘E slept in the fireplace.”
“Miakoda sounds like a powerful witch. She died when Siobhan was young, you said?”
Naught deflated, the humor fading from his face. “Yes. That’s when Kal took little Siobhan in.”
“How did it happen?”
“We were with a caravan, traveling down to Paneth for a show, and to pick up some supplies for Kal. There was a storm, a bad one, and we were looking for shelter.” Naught swallowed heavily, going silent.
Kuchen looked up from his notes. “It was a roc, correct?”
Naught blew out a slow, rancid breath and nodded. “Blown our way by the storm. An angry, mean bastard, so big its wings blocked out the sky when it swooped down on us, like the sails of a death-ship. It picked up one of the wagons first, then flew up and dropped it on us. Killed a couple people and spooked the horses something ‘orrible. That’s when Miakoda and Paimon went to fight it. I tried to stop ‘em. They couldn’t stand up to the roc and the storm both. She was flinging the flames about, with Paimon as big as a giant. Little guy died protecting Miakoda and the rest of us…and she went crazy.”
Naught’s voice was low, haunted and compelling. “She screamed so loud, ‘er voice all filled with magic, it blew the roc into the ground. Then she struck it with lightning. The light of it blinded me. When I could see again, she was walking away calm as you please, and the roc was smoking on the ground behind her, dead. She told me we ‘ad to go back right away, that the trip was off. I thought she was just distraught at the loss of little Paimon, but something was wrong.” Naught tapped his temple. “Wrong in here. She broke something. We got back to the village, and she went straight to Kal, but even ‘e couldn’t save ‘er.”
“Will-strain leading to death,” Kuchen said, nodding. “Most likely an aneurism.”
“No,” Naught shook his head. “It was the magic. She killed herself with casting magic.”
“That is how Will-strain occurs,” Kuchen said slowly, as if talking to a child.
Thaddeus stood, tingles of electric excitement flushing through his fingertips. “Explain.”
“It’s why Kal didn’t want her marrying me, isn’t it?” Naught said with a shrug. “The pure Naught bloodline was too good for me, supposedly. But all it did was keep ‘er alive a little longer after she lost Paimon. It couldn’t save her from the sickness in her head. She just kept casting, even when she didn’t need to, even when she knew what it would do to her, just for the pleasure of it. She didn’t care about me or little Siobhan anymore, only the magic. I didn’t see ‘er when she died. Kal said it was a mercy. I wouldna’ recognize ‘er corpse, and…” Naught shuddered and fell silent. “Well. I left Siobhan with Kal, after that. But my girl knows better than to cast without her Conduit. I—I shouldn’t ‘ave given the ring to those Gervin Family people. She needs it, now, and what if something happens to ‘er, like with Miakoda, because she doesn’t ‘ave it?” Naught buried his face in his knees, pulling the ratty blanket tighter around his shoulders.
Thaddeus was too busy with his own elation to pay attention to the man. Siobhan Naught. Naught. Perhaps a variant on “Null?” He had heard rumors, of course, about those who were born with the traits of a Null, yet still able to cast magic. How they could resist the madness that came with casting through their own flesh and blood. It was clear enough that they were more than children’s tales, but he had thought all those with that particular mutation gone hundreds, if not thousands, of years before. Resistance was not complete negation, after all, and they were a powerful potential threat to enemy and ally alike.
Perhaps the Naughts had managed to slip through the cracks, the secrecy of the People keeping them out of modern records, maintaining their abilities through careful breeding, or even inbreeding.
Or, perhaps the Blood Emperor’s experiments had not been so fruitless, after all.
This changed everything.