Author's Note: I was rather displeased with how this story arc developed and spent most of the last two months wondering if I should continue it or simply scrap the whole thing. Eventually, I figured that it was better to finish it. No mystery should be left unfinished. There are still one or two more chapters after this one to conclude 'The Tower', but I hope to do better in the third story arc!
The Court Magician
The Tower V
Various thoughts ran through my head as I took in this new piece of information, but none of them were really constructive or helpful. What could I do or say at this point in time? It had already been fifteen years, and I had no part in the incident whatsoever. It was not my place to say anything on behalf on my master, either. Besides, I was sure that my master was not in the least remorseful for what he had done. That was the kind of man he was.
"You were rivals, then?" I asked, striving to keep my tone light and casual.
Albert Bismarck shook his head once more. "We barely knew each other. Our temperaments disagreed, however. I lost my legs as a result of my battle with him."
Again, I had no problems envisioning my master doing such a thing. It was entirely characteristic of the man known as the 'Seven-Sinned Magician'. Nor was this the first time that such an incident had occurred. The student inevitably carries the burden of the master's deeds, be they good or bad. I had run into more than my fair share of trouble simply due to my status as his student.
" 'Wrath', huh," I muttered under my breath. Anne heard me, and we exchanged meaningful glances across the table. She, too, was well-acquainted with my master, and knew what I was referring to.
An apology would have no real meaning, but nonetheless social norms dictated that I must make one, and I was not one to go against such practices. "And this animosity against me arises from that fact? I sincerely apologize, Lord Bismarck. I will solve this crime as soon as I can and remove myself from this place."
The crippled man rested his chin on his fist, watching me.
"Do not take it to heart. This reaction of mine is nothing more than something born of base instinct. I had tried to conceal it as best as I could, but it seems that it was impossible, after all. I certainly have no grudge against you personally, Court Magician. My only concern is your investigation regarding the death of my father."
"As much as it pains me to admit it, I am not making much progress," I replied, lowering my head. I was quite happy to change the topic, even if it was to one that highlighted my ineptitude.
"That is quite understandable," he said plainly.
"For now, I intend to inspect the late Lord's room once more. Hopefully, my efforts will yield some results this time."
"Certainly. Feel free to do as you like."
"And now we're back here again," Anne observed with a twinkle in her eye.
"Yes, we are," I said without bothering to conceal my annoyance. Lord Oliver Bismarck's room was just as we had left it. Truth to be told, I had suspected either Alice Bismarck and Roy Harding, even though I had not much to go on. They were outside of the Manor at the time of murder, and even though I had yet to discover the method used, I had felt that it would have been easier for them to carry out the trick to enter this room from outside rather than within the Manor. However, my questioning proved the both of them to have clear alibis, and I therefore chose to re-evaluate the situation.
The trick, I decided, must therefore originate or have some trace within the room itself. I needed to examine the room more closely. Only then would I be able to unravel the mystery before me.
"What do you plan to do now, Lathall? Seems like you're all out of ideas," Anne said, looking at me and tapping her chin with one finger thoughtfully.
I struggled to keep my face from expressing the feelings of self-contempt that I was currently experiencing.
"Well, what I'm about to suggest is one of the most ridiculous ideas that I've ever entertained, but it's the only thing I've got left. It's definitely impossible for the culprit to come through the door and we've established that the window is not a likely entrance either. It can't be a time-related trick either, because Lord Bismarck was confirmed to be alive by Franklin when he entered the room the first time. Therefore, there can only be one option," I answered, taking some time to lay out my reasoning.
"And what might that be?"
"There might be a secret passage somewhere here," I muttered lamely.
I couldn't read Anne's reaction, because I had immediately averted my gaze away from her face. It posed no difficulty at all for me to imagine the self-satisfied smirk that Anne must be wearing on her face right now. What I had said was actually no different from admitting defeat to the problem that I was facing. I was completely baffled and grasping at straws.
My eyes strayed across the room and eventually settled on a large wooden chest near the door as I sought to distract myself from the situation. It was made out of oak, just like most of the other pieces of furniture in the room, and there was nothing particularly noteworthy about it. I had considered it briefly when I first entered the room, but quickly came to the conclusion that that an adult couldn't possibly fit inside it.
"Really now? A secret passage? Quite a romantic notion for someone as logical as yourself, Lathall." Anne's voice drifted into my left ear, but I took no note of it despite the obvious mocking tone she had adopted. My attention was now fully focused upon the aforementioned oak chest.
It was, I thought, a rather strange position to place such an object.
There were several pockets of space around the room that would be better-suited to accommodate such a bulky piece of furniture. At the very least, it would have been more convenient if it was placed closer to the study table where the late Lord Bismarck had sat. Instead, it was situated at the opposite side of the room. Of course, there could have been any number of minor reasons for this, but it was something worth considering.
"What's wrong, Lathall?" Anne had stepped closer to me and was peering at me.
"Ah. I need to think," I replied automatically. I walked towards the chest and stared at it as though viewing it for the first time. And in some ways, that was truly the case.
I dropped to one knee and lifted the lid.
There was nothing inside, as I had expected. The interior was quite spacious and otherwise entirely typical of a wooden chest.
"Are you really looking for some kind of secret passageway? Any hidden mechanism would be concealed behind the chest if that's the case, not inside it," Anne said, rolling her eyes.
I stared at Anne, blinking.
"Well, that is right," I was forced to admit.
I replaced the lid in its original position and slipped my hands under the bottom of the chest. I grunted and lifted it up, placing it behind Anne and I.
"My. I'm surprised that you could lift that, Lathall," Anne said. Her derisive attitude had vanished without a trace; the gunslinger sounded genuinely astonished.
"Oh, shove it," I shot back, frowning. I neglected to mention that the chest was much lighter than expected, despite its size.
The portion of wall that was now revealed by the removal of the chest looked much the same as the rest of the wall.
"Well, if there is a hidden mechanism here, you'd find it much more easily than I would, I think," I said. Most magicians were unconcerned with less exalted fields such as metalworking and engineering, but Anne was an exception to this rule. The mini-cannon was powered by magic, but much of its construction was mechanical and entirely mundane. I was quite prepared to admit that I had to defer to Anne in this area of expertise. Anne nodded and knelt on the floor, running her hands over the wall. I decided to take the opportunity to recollect and organize my thoughts.
"Found it," Anne announced with a hint of satisfaction as a small square gave way and sunk inwards. I was so focused that it felt to me like almost no time had passed, but I surmised that it had probably taken Anne quite awhile to discover the hidden mechanism.
A grinding sound could be heard as the entire section of the wall before us gradually shifted to the left, revealing the passageway that I had so desperately suggested earlier. Much of it was shrouded in darkness, but I could see that it took the form of a staircase with large, wooden steps. The floor was covered with dust, but there were footprints heading down the passageway.
Anne whistled, grinning. "Remind me to think twice about making fun of you next time, Lathall."
"Seriously?" I groaned, ignoring her gentle jibe.
"Why do you sound so shocked? You were the one who thought of this in the first place!" Anne asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I didn't actually mean it at all," I sighed.
"Well, it's here, whether you like it or not. Shouldn't you be glad to finally discover how the murderer got in?"
"You're right. Surely the butler or the servants should have known of this hidden passageway, though? They would have discovered it while cleaning the room," I pointed out.
Anne shook her head. "The switch itself is small enough that you'd have to be specifically looking for it to discover it, so it's definitely possible that the servants know nothing about this."
I nodded appreciatively and said, "That does explain matters."
I raised my left hand and formed a card out of shimmering blue light, before it split into two separate small globes of black and white. The pair of spheres sank to the ground, and I stepped atop them, slightly resembling a circus clown in the middle of a balancing act. I floated steadily into the passageway atop this unique form of transportation.
"I didn't know The Chariot could do that," Anne said.
"It's mostly useless. I can't fly or anything. But it's great for moving over surfaces like this without disturbing footprints or similar marks," I explained as I descended into the darkness. I snapped my fingers and conjured a bright yellow flame within the palm of my hand to illuminate the way.
Eventually, I reached the end of the passageway. Whoever had constructed it made no attempt to conceal the switch this time, probably reasoning that whoever was inside the passageway already knew of its existence. I pushed the block of wood that was jutting out of the wall and watched the wall slide open in the same way as the other section of wall had earlier.
The entrance smoothly opened and revealed the absolutely astonished face of Sarah West behind it.