The days chained into weeks and before Idana knew it, another month had passed. Summer was at its height and the capital sweltered under the heat. None of that truly mattered to her, though, considering her talents with magic. And every day she would renew the spell on both Anais and Qina to keep them cool. It was not the best use of her abilities but what else could she do? Her search for Lacet had come to a grinding halt.
Her only lead had been Marus Windrider and his boast that he knew where her master was. But what had he truly said? That her master was safe. Yet there was every chance it was all a lie.
Nor had there been any luck in tracking down those that were responsible for the Crown Prince's condition.
Despite having the best physicians of the Kingdom attending to him, none had been able to explain why he had not yet regained consciousness. Idana blamed herself for the fact that Dendron was, even now, still trapped in a coma. Her actions that day had been risky. At the time, she had thought it necessary. But now, facing the consequences of what she had done, Idana could not be certain if she had truly acted in his best interest.
It did not help that the King had not spoken to her since. And though she received daily reports through Qina about the progress the King's men were making in their search for her master, it did not alleviate the heavy lump lodged in her chest. The Duchess of Everrun had proved incredibly surprisingly elusive, despite her brother's entreaties.
She had thought it a simple matter to make amends. Yet, at every turn, she was thwarted.
Moodily, Idana stared down at the page before her. For almost an hour, she had been reading and rereading the exact same passage about the properties of Aetarnis Sollum and its usage in remedies. She rubbed her eyes and using the brief break afforded her, glanced out the window overlooking the gardens. The sky had darkened. It would be time for dinner soon. No doubt Min was already out hunting.
Back in Lastrune, dinner would have been a simple matter. Some potatoes, a little beef and steamed vegetables that had been sent as gifts. In the walls of palace, every meal was different, extravagant and rich in flavour. Idana salivated at the thought. She wondered what masterpieces the cook would churn out tonight. Strange, how quickly she could adapt.
But while the food was a step above her usual meals, Idana could not help but miss the friendly atmosphere of the village and the people there. Things had been simple and straight forward. Always, she knew what was expected of her and how to go about completing it.
"There you are, Lady Idana! I should have known that you'd be squirreled up in here. Lady Anais said you might have visited the library. Perhaps I should have known she would use my scepticism against me."
Idana startled, caught unaware, lost as she was in her musings, and turned towards Qina with a sheepish grin on her face. "I'm sorry Qina. Really, I am. Just let me finish this paragraph."
The maid pursed her lips together. "You know that I can't allow that, Lady Idana. You missed both breakfast and lunch today. And if Lady Anais hadn't sent me on a wild goose chase, I would have been able to find you much sooner."
"Didn't you say that she—"
"Yes, I know," interjected Qina, peering over her shoulder at the page Idana was perusing. "More fool me for letting her play on my doubts. Now, come along Lady Idana. I don't doubt reading about Aetarnis Sollum is riveting, but if I don't do something, you're liable to keel over. Magic or no magic."
"Five more minutes, please Qina. I swear I'm on the verge of a breakthrough!" protested Idana. "Please, please, please."
Qina arched an eyebrow. "Oh, are you now? This must be the fiftieth breakthrough in under two weeks," she said, sarcasm lacing each word. "I'm afraid, Lady Idana, that I must insist. If it's any consolation, I'll pack this up so that you can read it in the dining hall."
At that moment, her stomach chose to grumble. Hunger, that she had suppressed for most of the day, had decided to rear its head right when she was on the cusp of uncovering something important and make itself known. There was no way around it. Idana reluctantly conceded the argument, knowing that any further objections would be thoroughly quashed. Sulkily, she watched as Qina packed up the books and notes that lay scattered across two desks.
Qina placed them in neat piles, picking up only the book Idana had been reading. "Now come along, Lady Idana."
Under Qina's watchful gaze, they headed to the great hall. Anais was there to greet them with a cheerful smile and a twinkle in her eye.
"Didn't trust me, did you?" she asked the maid.
Wisely, Qina chose not to answer. Instead, she handed over the book she had been carrying and gave strict orders that they were not to be given to Idana until after dinner was over.
"I'll be taking my meal in the servant quarters. There's still so much I need to attend to and I've used most of the day to look for Lady Idana," said Qina. "I do hope, however, Lady Anais that you will see to it that she eats. We wouldn't want a repeat of what happened two days ago."
"On Amoleth's name, I swear," replied Anais, amusement tinging her voice. "You can trust in me, you know, Qina."
The maid sniffed. "I would hope so, milady," she said haughtily. "Now, Lady Idana, once you've finished filling up your belly, there was a missive addressed to you. It came through just after lunch. I've left it on the table in your private rooms. The messenger, Emeret, I believe his name was, said it was to be handed directly to you."
"Was it from the Academy?"
"I couldn't say," said Qina. "My station does not permit me to open up private correspondence, Lady Idana, and there was no identifiable seal on the letter."
Deflated, Idana gave a swift nod. She had hoped that after a month of silence, Windrider would have finally seen fit to extend an invitation to her. She was owed that much, at least. "Thank you, Qina. I'll take a look at it when I return."
"Just so, milady."
Idana watched as Qina rounded the corner and disappeared from view before she was bodily dragged into the dining hall by Anais. Though she would have preferred a quiet corner to continue her readings, Anais had different ideas. It was not until eight before Idana was able to make it back to her rooms – exhausted and a little flushed, with the book tucked securely under her arm.
She almost forgot what Qina had told her that a message had arrived for her until her gaze landed on the writing desk just outside her bed chambers. Usually it would be covered in notes and slips of parchment with her mad scrawls. It was a mess of possibilities and potential leads. None of them, however, had proved fruitful. But it had been important to jot her thoughts down. There was no telling whether or not a clue or a lead to where Lacet might be held was buried somewhere in them. Nor could she discount the fact that she might have stumbled upon a facet of the assassin behind the Crown Prince's poisoning.
Deep in her bones, Idana knew that the answer was staring her in the face. She simply had to find it and connect the dots.
Qina, of course, had seen fit to tidy even these notes. It would take an age to find everything again, bemoaned Idana in her thoughts as she picked up the letter. The missive was rather unassuming. Her name was printed in large block letters on the front in a hand she did not recognise. Qina had been right when she said that there was no indication it from the Academy or anywhere else. Once again, Idana felt the bottom of her stomach fall. Nervously, she flipped the envelope around and broke the seal. If it was not Windrider, who else would try to reach out to her?
Steeling herself for what came next, she pulled out the parchment and unfolded it. It was much shorter than she had expected. As she began to read, Idana immediately recognised the Dean's handwriting as well as his laconic style of phrasing. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled as she reached the end.
After rereading it twice more, Idana set it aside. She needed another drink. Lacet, on the other hand, would have told her that she needed a clear head before making any rash decisions. It would be better if she slept on the matter and look at it with fresh eyes in the morning.
Though she did not like it, Idana decided it was probably better to listen to the imaginary Lacet in her head. She tucked the letter away in one of the many drawers of the desk and headed to her rooms. The promise of a good long soak in the bath proving incredibly alluring after a tedious day that had brought her no closer to the answers she sought.
Idana stood outside the School of Magic and studied the nondescript building. In her hands, she held the invitation that Windrider had sent her the day before. Perched on her shoulder was Min. Despite having hunted all night, the familiar had been eager to accompany her when she had showed the bird the letter. Min had let out a string of hoots before she had been able to say anything, and that had been the end of the argument.
But while Idana was desperate for answers, she was also filled with a sense of trepidation. Though it had been a month since, Idana could still feel the cold metal around her neck. She never wanted to be so powerless ever again. The very idea that all the magic in the world could be snatched away from her was terrifying.
Yet when Anais offered to accompany her, Idana had declined. This was something she needed to see through. Although she had grudgingly accepted the knife that the noble had handed her. It wasn't a weapon, truly. How much harm could she do with so small a thing? A nick or two on the finger, perhaps, but little else. She had used plenty to dice up ingredients. But to fight? That was another matter entirely.
And Idana would have been the first to admit that she knew not a thing about actual combat.
Still, she felt better with it on her person. Coupled with Min on her shoulder, she felt almost unstoppable as she approached the door and gave it a tentative knock.
The same woman from a month ago greeted her. Tall and imposing, she peered down at Idana. Her hair was a steel mesh. Adjusting her glasses, the clerk studied her with a critical eye. Under her piercing gaze, Idana felt small and insignificant.
"I didn't hear anything about you bringing in a familiar. She seems tame enough but if I see any droppings inside these corridors, I'll be speaking with the Dean." Having finished her assessment, the woman allowed Idana through. "Please follow me. I will not have you wandering the halls of the esteemed School of Magic unaccompanied. Particularly after the incident last time. Or do you wish to be collared again?"
Idana bristled at the comment. Admittedly, she had been a little too impetuous in her last encounter. But could she really be blamed? For several weeks she had been trapped in the palace trying to teach the Crown Prince all that she knew about magic. Her initial forays into learning more about her master had only presented her with disappointment.
Had Windrider not dangled the bait, she might have been better at holding her tongue.
It had been a misstep. One she hoped never to repeat, decided Idana as she took a deep calming breath. Forcing a smile to her lips, she followed the woman down the flight of stairs that burrowed deep into the bowels of the earth.
Within minutes, they were standing outside the Dean's office. As they approached, Min let out a low growl. When the door finally opened and Windrider met them with a beatific smile, the great horned owl swooped forward, talons outstretched. He was smart enough to sidestep away, tutting all the while. "Now, now Minerva. Is that how you treat old friends?"
Min gave a haughty bark as she fluttered to a stop right above the many bookshelves that lined the far wall of the small cramped office.
"If I had any doubts that you were Lacet's apprentice, well, consider them properly assuaged." Marus turned towards her as he chuckled under his breath. "I must say that the last time we met, you caught me by surprise. At the time, I was preoccupied by other matters so I must apologise for my less than stellar behaviour. But please, come on in. I don't bite. As I'm sure Gerta will attest to, isn't that right?"
He flashed a smile to both women, trying his best to be disarming. Idana, however, was not fooled. It might have worked before, when she was still naïve to the machinations of the capital, but those days were done and dusted. If anything, his pretty speech only served to highlight the fact that she needed to be wary. And if Min's reaction to the man was any indication, it meant she had to keep her guard up. She could not rely on the empty promises he had written on the invitation, whether he knew where Lacet was or not. The risk was simply too high.
When the silence had stretched on for an uncomfortable period of time, Windrider ushered her into his office before sending Gerta to fetch some 'tea and biscuits.' The clerk did not take kindly being treated like an office aide, but did eventually acquiesce to the Dean's request.
Once they were finally alone, Marus settled behind his desk and pressed the tips of his fingers together. "Gerta's been with us for many years. It is why she believes her position is far more important than it truly is," he explained. "It shouldn't be long before she returns, so I think this would be a great opportunity to discuss why I invited you back onto Academy grounds.
"Now, I've some good news for you Idana. I can take you to see Lacet. Of course, with a few conditions attached. The world we live in is not a charity. Just imagine: a moving reunion between master and apprentice that will be sung about for years to come. Wouldn't you like that? And it would barely cost you much of anything."
"Unfortunately, my dear, I'm not talking about coin," said Marus. "In truth, I want a favour. You do something for me and I'll see what I can do. What do you say?"
She was tempted to take it. Any information the Dean might have about the whereabouts of her master would be worth whatever price he named. But it was clear that the Dean's vague terms would not be so simple a transaction. She would have to be missing half her brains if she was going to accept his offer now. All the time she had spent with Qina and Anais had taught her to sift through the words people said and look for the hidden meaning.
In fact, now that she thought more on it, it would be better if she could get Marus to slip up and tell her what she wanted to know. Then there would be no toll to pay. Although, Idana knew, such a feat would be of the utmost difficulty. She had never had a good poker face.
So, when he had finished and looked eagerly at her, Idana said nothing. She was waiting for the other shoe to drop. To hear more of his proposition. Much like haggling in the markets of Wyndhaven, sometimes it was best to wait and see, instead of jumping in with an offer.
Windrider shifted uneasily in his seat and the smile he forced to his lips began to falter as the seconds stretched into minutes. Any moment now, Gerta might return.
"I'll be frank with you, Idana. This is no small favour I ask. But if I simply take you to Lacet, it would not be a fair exchange," he said. "This is a business transaction, after all."
She quashed the urge to ask him about her master for fear that it would undo all her hard work. After all, Marus could be lying through his teeth. But the thought of seeing her master again was enough to stoke the smouldering ember of hope in her breast back to life. Besides, he could not afford to spin tales. Not when he seemed so desperate for her to agree unconditionally to his terms.
No. Better to tease out exactly what he wanted, Idana decided. Then she could act accordingly.
"If I agree to this, what guarantees do I have that you will keep your end of the bargain?"
A smile returned to grace Windrider's face. "My word as the esteemed Dean of the School of Magic. If that's not enough, I can have a contract drawn up. Gerta can see to it when she returns with a fresh pot of tea."
She mulled over his offer. There were still too many unknowns. Besides, what was a contract but a piece of paper? He could say that it was legally binding and in the next breath have it ripped up by inserting clauses to void his promises. She might have lived most of her life in small villages and towns, but that did not mean she was not so gullible as to trust in a man with so silver a tongue.
"And what would you have me do? Someone with your connections and talent with magic wouldn't need a magic tutor or even an apprentice healer," Idana pointed out. "Why me?"
His jaw clenched. It was barely perceptible, but for a moment, she saw his mask crumble before he set it up again.
"This is not easy to admit, Idana, but I find myself in a difficult situation," said Windrider. "Your master, though he never excelled in our lessons here at the Academy, had a natural talent with golems. There's a reason why he was given the moniker 'Toymaker,' you know. Even when we were in the orphanage, he always liked to tinker with the contraptions he found at market stalls. Had it not been for our excursion to the ruins of the Illia Empire, though, his talents might have gone unrecognised for many more years.
"As such, I have need of someone with those select skills. An apprentice, perhaps, that might have studied at his side." He paused briefly and lifted his eyebrows as if what he had said was of great importance. Although Idana had never been to the theatre, she instantly recognised the technique Marus was attempting to employ. When she did not shower him with applause or widen her eyes in awe, he continued – albeit a little more stilted. "Hence I thought of you. You've essentially been raised by Lacet. I'm almost positive that he would have shown you some intricate golem work, particularly at your age and considering your mastery of essential spell work."
It started off as a little giggle. Then she snorted and the ridiculousness of the Dean's proposal had her clutching her sides with laughter. Within seconds, tears had collected at the corner of her eyes. In all her years, she had never laughed so hard. Despite everything he had hinted at, Marus Windrider knew as little about her master as anyone else. Golem work? And that Lacet would trust her to try her hand at it. He had to be joking.
Seated opposite her, Windrider seemed less than amused. Before he could make his dissatisfaction known, the door opened and Gerta entered with a pot of lukewarm tea and some stale biscuits on a tray. She pushed aside a stack of important looking paperwork and placed the tray on the desk.
"Will that be all, sir?"
"Yes. Thank you, Gerta."
Gerta flashed them both a chilly smile before retreating back upstairs to her post at the entrance of the School. As the door clicked shut, Idana sensed a wave of magic fall across the room. Almost immediately, she recognised it for what it was. Perhaps it was the very fact that he held such an important position with the Academy that Marus was so cautious. And if her time with Qina had taught her anything, it was that the greatest threat to secrets being disseminated were servants. Windrider was wise to erect such a barrier. Even if it also served to underscore that he feared being overheard.
"Is that why you brought me here to discuss? You want to build a golem and thought that I would know how?" asked Idana innocently enough after she had taken two calming deep breaths.
"That information, unfortunately, is classified. I will not ask this again, Idana: will you help me?"
Try as she might, she could not keep her face as still a mask as she hoped. Her lips twitched at the absurdity of the request. Qina had often chided the fact that she would make a poor diplomat at court during the weeks she had been trapped in the dining hall, hoping to make friends among the gentry. At least, that was what Idana assumed had given her secret away when Marus lunged forward suddenly as his visage paled to marble. "You can do it, can't you?"
"No," she answered. "Master Lacet never saw it necessary to train me in golem work. In fact, he was always reluctant to be called 'Toymaker' in any of the places we visited. Lacet always said that we were apothecaries, and that it was our sworn duty to help those in need. If you actually have my master in your clutches, and he has refused to assist you, then Mister Windrider, I'd encourage you to look for someone else."
There, that was the truth of the matter. It didn't seem to hurt to tell him that much, at least. She looked up at the Dean, waiting for his response. "You lie!" he spat. "Otherwise, you mustn't care very much if Lacet lives or dies."
"The only golems I ever saw were replications of the human body," she added as a means to placate the man, a mixture of pity and fear coalescing in her chest. "Please. Just tell me where my master is. I need to know!"
Windrider rose to his feet, an oath on his lips. And as he glowered at her, spittle trailing down his jaw, Idana could not help but dispassionately draw comparisons with an enraged bull that was preparing to charge. She should have been terrified but a false sense of tranquillity had settled over her. Instead of rounding on her again, he began to pace – murmuring something indecipherable under his breath. Behind him, perched atop a bookshelf, Min gave a distressed hoot.
For the first time, Idana wondered if it would be a good time to start dismantling the sound barrier he had erected over the office. She did not like how this was going. And if she even had a drop of self-preservation, it made sense to be prepared. Marus seemed ready to explode at any moment.
When she had finally worked out the complicated layering patterns he had used, Windrider sat back down in his seat, looking much calmer than he had been mere moments ago. Whatever he had been internally debating seemed to have been resolved. In a strained voice, he enquired whether or not she wanted another cup of tea. To his credit, he did not try to brush over his brief episode with a smile.
"This is not something someone of my standing can openly acknowledge, but it appears that I have grossly miscalculated your usefulness," he finally said in a quiet voice as he stirred his cup of tea. "Death is knocking on my door. Though I have struggled against it, fate seems to have other plans. I had hoped that you would have been able to help. If not for me, then for your master. Goddess knows what they will do to him without me there to guard him from their worst impulses."
A chill went down Idana's spine. "What do you mean?"
"Everything I do is monitored. Every word I say, every breath I take," he said. "Hells, I couldn't even stop them from slipping poison to the Prince. And the one option I thought open before me was naught but a mirage!" Marus snarled the last word, frustration coating his voice, as he violently knocked aside the plate of biscuits.
For the first time since Windrider had invited her back on Academy grounds, she wondered if everything she had seen was still just an act. Rather than parading around as he had during their initial meeting, he now looked like a man on the edge of a dark and terrifying abyss. There had been hints of a desperate man in search of salvation in his words.
But Idana also knew that she could not give him what he wanted. She had spoken the truth with regards to golemetry. Lacet had never taught her and she, ignorant and naïve, had just discovered something new about the man who had raised her since she was but a babe.
As the silence grew heavier, Idana found herself turning over Windrider's last few words. There had been something the Dean had said that niggled at her. Wait. Had Marus implied that the men he was involved with had been responsible for Dendron's current state? If she had heard right, it meant that the ones who kept a tight hold on Windrider's leash had also attempted to target the crown. If she found the people responsible for Dendron, it was possible that she could rescue Lacet as well in one fell swoop.
Oh, sweet Goddess Amoleth, she hoped that she had heard correctly.
"Maybe there is a way I can help you," said Idana, leaning forward.
"How?" managed the Dean, his breathing harsh.
"You said that this mysterious they were responsible for the Crown Prince. Surely, there must be some kind of evidence. Now, I don't entirely know who you might be referring to, but if we can prove that they brought harm to the royal family they'll be removed from the board. Both you and my master would be free men."
Windrider scoffed. "Did you really think it could be that easy, Idana? No. I'm afraid that this might be the end. Our business here is concluded. I apologise for asking you to come on false pretences." He rose once again to his feet. "You will not see me again, Idana. I cannot say it was a pleasure to have gotten to know you, but it has been an experience."
He walked her to the door, silencing any objections she threw his way. With a spell Idana did not recognise, he eased her out through the entranceway, Min following right after.
As the door slammed shut, Idana felt on the verge of tears. Ignoring the guards that had been summoned to escort her, she banged futilely on the door. Neither her demands nor her attempts to use magic bore her any fruit. So distraught was she, Idana didn't even notice when they clicked shut one of those damned collars around her neck. Again. By then it didn't matter if her connection with the world was snuffed out.
It was only when they had seen her beyond the wards surrounding the Academy and released her from her bonds that Idana noticed the slip of paper that had been tied around Min's foot. With clammy hands, she unfurled it, revealing a name.