“Why are we circling back?” Theasia asked, leaning toward the carriage’s window as it swung to the left through the traffic on Imperial Square.
“Ah,” Lord Shavayad said in a satisfied tone, and sidled along his bench to look outside. “I gave the driver instructions to veer toward Duke Ravaan’s retinue should it still be visible. There is someone I would like you to see, Princess.”
“Oh?” She also shifted closer to the window, but did not bring her face into view of it, simply watching through the curtains. Invisibly sneaking a good vantage was a necessary skill in the Imperial court. The anonymous mode of transport was an asset; she was accustomed to touring the city either in a full procession with her parents, or in her private carriage—a brand-new horseless model which hummed with enchantments, and was accompanied by two ladies-in-waiting (in her case, nurses in disguise), two drivers (a backup in case one were incapacitated), four guards riding atop the vehicle and six mounted soldiers surrounding it at all times. By comparison, the unmarked two-horse carriage Shavayad had provided was virtually invisible in its anonymity. Oddly, in the spymaster’s competent presence, she did not feel particularly vulnerable.
“The tall man alongside him, with the blond hair,” Shavayad murmured, both of them peering through the curtains now.
Ravaan was just emerging from the Palace himself, and seemed in no hurry to step into the carriage emblazoned with House Madouri’s coat of arms, drawn by a truly excessive six white horses. A fop like the young Duke loved nothing more than to strut and pose in the middle of Imperial Square to be gawked at, and now was apparently provided ample excuse by a conversation with the man Shavayad had indicated. Actually, Theasia noted an odd resemblance between this individual and Shavayad himself. Not a physical one; this man was so pale it was almost creepy, with hair a very light gold and sharp features—in fact, now that she looked closely, she suspected he might be a half-elf. It was in his demeanor and style, though. He wore the same kind of old-fashioned black suits, with a rigidly upright posture and superciliously dignified cast to his features.
Then their path brought the Madouri carriage between them and the two men, and both Princess and spymaster leaned back into their own seats as they were carried on through the city.
“Who is he?”
“Casper Scheinrich,” Lord Shavayad said, regarding her with a faint smile which did not quite disguise the hawk-like focus of his eyes. He was studying her, watching for something. “A priest of Vidius and, as of shortly after the late Duke’s passing, Ravaan Madouri’s closest and most highly-placed lieutenant. His ideas do much to shape House Madouri’s actions; Ravaan prizes his counsel above all others. I suspect his hand in the escalation of the bandit attacks on our treasury caravans in Tiraan Province. Mental acumen aside, he is a very dangerous man, a veteran of the Enchanter Wars in which he served as a combat healer with the Madouris militia. He has fought Silver Legions, drow, the Imperial Army, and Horsebutt’s raiders. Handy with sword and wand and extremely skilled with divine shields.”
“So Ravaan’s right-hand man is Stalweiss,” she mused. “How odd.”
“I hope your Highness does not subscribe to that claptrap about the Stalweiss being genetically prone to barbarism.”
“Nonsense, they are a people from a resource-poor region whose recent warlord very predictably took advantage of the Empire’s weakness. We must not ascribe to congenital defect that which is explained by circumstance.” Shavayad nodded approvingly at her recitation of one of her father’s aphorisms. “I meant, pursuant to that, the Stalweiss have been particularly out of favor throughout the Empire since the war. It would be difficult for one to attain such a high rank in this political climate, and expose both him and House Madouri to potential risk.”
“Just so, your Highness. Scheinrich is also capable of playing a long game. After the war, he attached himself to Ravaan as a mentor, passing up multiple opportunities for promotion and personal enrichment. Understand that young Ravaan’s childhood was not unlike your own, Princess. He was barely an infant when his siblings were slain in the war, following on the heels of the entire Mathenon and Veilgrad branches of House Madouri being massacred. The old Duke was extraordinarily protective, treating his last son very much like a delicate greenhouse orchid. Scheinrich endured years of being dismissed as a glorified nursemaid to be the only man who always took Ravaan seriously, and as his reward, now effectively determines Madouri policy on almost everything.”
She narrowed her eyes slightly, but was staring past him in thought. “What do you think is his ultimate goal?”
“Since he was a glorified nursemaid for so many years, I’m afraid Intelligence was lax in studying him until very recently. So far, the man is difficult to read. The reputation of Vidian clerics for byzantine intrigues is somewhat inflated, mostly by themselves; they are not more canny on average than any intelligent, motivated player of the great game. But they are frustratingly hard to predict. The Doctrine of Masks is based upon psychological principles that apply to everyone, but Vidians take it to an extreme such that they effectively have different personalities in different situations. He might be working toward a higher ambition, serving what he believes is a moral cause, or simply playing the game for love of playing it. Or any combination thereof, alternately or even simultaneously. What we know is that his presence lends Duke Ravaan much greater cunning and competence than he natively possesses.”
“Hmm…” Theasia focused her eyes on Shavayad’s own; he was still watching her with that sharp, almost expectant look. “And his relationship with Ravaan is a close one? Irreplaceable?”
“An interesting choice of words,” Shavayad said mildly. “Yes, you could put it that way. May I ask why you inquire, Princess?”
“A pillar of strength becomes a crippling weakness once knocked down. If this Scheinrich is so precious to Ravaan, removing him will leave a vacuum which Ravaan won’t be quick to fill. If he even can.”
The spymaster nodded once, mutely.
“That is the kind of observation my father would chastise me for making,” she said with a sigh, settling back against the carriage bench.
“Your father is a wise and far-sighted man,” Shavayad replied, his expression especially inscrutable. “It has served his rule well to think in terms of connection rather than destruction.”
“Rule demands both.”
“For every task its own tool,” he agreed.
And he had wanted to brief her on this Scheinrich’s importance. Why? The truth hovered between them in the carriage: her father would not have considered eviscerating House Madouri’s ambitions by depriving Ravaan of such an asset. Her father dealt with the Houses by maneuvering them such that their desires aligned with his. Theasia had grown increasingly aware of the risks and flaws in that strategy as she had matured, and it occurred to her now that if anyone in the Imperial government might prefer a more hawkish approach to keeping the nobles in line, it would be the head of Imperial Intelligence.
Exhilarating as it was to finally be treated as a valued equal by someone with real power, she felt keenly aware of her own inexperience. Shavayad was undoubtedly working toward a goal of his own, here. What was he after? What would it mean for her, for her father, and for the Empire?
Social instincts honed by court life told her that he felt that conversation finished and would deflect further queries on this matter, which suited her for now as there was a more pressing topic for them to discuss.
“Now that we have time to talk, Lord Shavayad, perhaps you could explain where we are going, and why?”
“Of course, Princess,” he said with a courteous inclination of his head. “This matter began with an investigation into the embezzlement of Imperial funds. I realize your Highness is rather hands-off with financial matters, so it may come as a shock to learn that it was your own salary being skimmed.”
Uh oh. Theasia kept her expression blank and inquisitive despite the tangible weight of unease which had suddenly manifested in the pit of her stomach. “I see. You found those responsible?”
“Unfortunately a number of accountants would be in a position to have done this, your Highness. At present we are watching all who handle your finances. Sometimes it is better strategy to let a plot unfold, under careful supervision. There are risks, of course, but also the prospect of catching more than the small fish whose maneuvers first drew attention. Strike too quickly and you may snare only a lackey who has nothing of value to offer; too late and a potentially dangerous scheme may reach its ruinous fruition. Finding the right moment is as much art as science.”
“I see,” she murmured. “I will consider that.”
Shavayad nodded politely again. “In this case, what we are still missing is the identity of the person who organized this ploy. I am pleased to say that we have learned its purpose. It is that which we are now going to investigate.”
She had a very bad feeling about this. “Is that wise, Lord Shavayad? I mean, is it customary policy to involve the heir to the Throne in an ambush?”
“I assure you, your Highness, the area is secured and the subjects pacified,” he said smoothly. “I promise I would never expose you to serious danger. But I believe you may have insights to offer, once you have personally inspected the scene and the subjects. As they are drawing funds from your own coffers, it may be that some of this is familiar to you.”
“I see,” she said as offhandedly as she could manage, hoping the racing of her heart was not evident to him. His face revealed nothing, but then…it wouldn’t.
“This is a mistake!” Professor Araani protested for at least the third time since they had entered the room, sitting on a bench against the wall with his arm around a weeping young woman. Two agents of Imperial Intelligence in gray coats with silver gryphon badges stood before him, wands in hand; the weapons were aimed scrupulously at the ground, but the message was clear. “Please, you must believe me! I am no criminal or traitor, I am operating on orders from the Silver Throne itself!” His voice hitched, and he shifted position to put both his arms around the young woman’s shoulders. “I…I thought I was. I was so sure, we were instructed to keep everything in the strictest confidence, but my orders came with the Imperial seal—”
“Professor,” Shavayad finally interjected, apparently tiring of waiting for the man to run out of spark. “I am Lord Tariq Shavayad, director of Imperial Intelligence.”
The girl’s crying grew louder and she buried her face in the Professor’s jacket. Araani glanced at Theasia, who had not been introduced; to someone unfamiliar with her face, she might have been any richly-dressed young woman, which made her presence here understandably curious.
Theasia made a show of scanning the room. The large basement of this townhouse, clearly a converted wine cellar, was set up as an enchantment laboratory, strewn with components, equipment, and projects in various states of completion. Whatever order there was in the layout was apparent only to the Professor himself. This was her first time seeing it in person, otherwise she might have spoken to him about the apparent chaos.
The question which chiefly occupied her mind now was how to get out of this mess without having what little freedom she was allowed permanently eclipsed. At this point, she took it as given that Shavayad knew more than he had told her, perhaps everything. But why do it this way? He could have ratted her out to her parents easily enough…
“Our investigation is ongoing,” Shavayad said to Araani. “Your cooperation will do much to determine the shape it takes from here, Professor. I will tell you that at this time, it is my inclination to regard you as a victim of fraud, rather than a perpetrator.”
The girl lifted her head, eyes wide with apprehension; the Professor drew in a short breath, straightening his back slightly.
“My people will need to interview you in detail, of course,” Shavayad continued, “as well as your daughter. I assure you, Intelligence is not in the habit of extracting information through force; these will be civil conversations. If you will kindly go with these agents, show them any documents you have received alleging to be from the Imperial government and answer any questions they have, I’m confident we can settle this matter with a minimum of further disruption. So long as you have been truthful, you need fear nothing.”
“Yes,” Professor Araani said hoarsely. “Yes, I…I thank you very much, Lord Shavayad. I am a loyal subject of his Majesty. We both are. If we have been misused against his wishes… That is, yes, we will gladly tell you everything we can.”
“The Silver Throne appreciates your cooperation,” Shavayad said with a bland smile. “Umunti, Dazaar, please escort Professor and Miss Araani to a more suitable room and see they are provided with some material comforts. It has been a trying day for them. I’m sure we shall have no further trouble.”
“We shall not, indeed,” Araani agreed, getting slowly to his feet and rubbing his daughter’s back with one hand. “Come, Lacey, it will be all right.”
Shavayad and Theasia both stepped aside to allow the agents and their prisoners to climb the stairs back to the kitchen, Agent Dazaar pausing to shut the door again at the top and enclose the two of them in the now-silent workshop.
“The good Professor was understandably somewhat irascible when we first imposed upon him this morning,” Shavayad commented, idly pacing over to a table upon which were displayed a rack of matching charms, expensive-looking objects each consisting of a rune-etched disc inset with polished gemstones. “Of course, he and the young lady have spent the day under the supervision of my agents while I reported to your parents and then brought you here, your Highness. They were not mishandled, I assure you. I find I get the best results through subtler pressures. Harm someone and they will expect more harm and act out of fear; treat them gently while encouraging their own minds to conjure up all the harm they might do, and they will often become eager to cooperate.”
“Thank you for the lesson in strategy,” she said evenly.
“Of course,” Shavayad went on with his back to her, picking up one of the charms and turning it over in his fingers, “all this began with the document which I am confident Professor Araani will now produce from his safe. Not only does the Imperial seal carry a magical signature which court sorcerers are able to track, but the stationary used for Imperial edicts is watermarked and serialized. When a blank document goes missing, it can be quickly traced. At least, that has always been the theory; this is actually the first such incident since we instituted this system, and I am gratified to learn that it works so well.”
She closed her eyes. Obviously, had she known any of that in advance, things would have been very different.
“Of course, there are very few people who even potentially have access to the Emperor’s seal and stationary. As I was explaining earlier, Princess, it is often wisest to let a plot unfold. I have been watching the Professor’s progress with great interest these last three months. I feel that once we learn who—”
“All right, enough,” she said curtly. “This game is not amusing, Shavayad. Why did you really bring me here?”
He turned to face her, still idly rubbing his thumb across the charm in his hand.
“It’s as I told you, Princess. My job is to curate the information which reaches his Majesty. Right now, I am…determining whether this is something he needs to know.”
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“It was an amateurish effort,” he observed, “but shows some inherent talent. Clearly you were unaware of the ways through which your maneuvers could be tracked, both magical and mundane. There is a science to moving illicit funds, Princess, in which you lack experience. My curiosity was in what you would hire a down-on-his-luck enchanter to design. These efforts appear rather…unfocused.”
“I gave him free rein to experiment,” Theasia said, grimacing. “I wouldn’t know what to ask him to build, and the point was to come up with something, anything, that nobody else had.”
“Within, that is, a certain theme.”
“A certain theme,” she agreed quietly.
Shavayad pinned the charm to his belt and pressed the jewel in its center. The light in the basement shifted as a translucent sphere of blue energy flickered into place around him, accompanied by a faint buzzing noise and the lifting of the fine hairs on her neck at the accompanying static.
“Personal shielding charms,” Shavayad marveled aloud, raising one arm and watching his private bubble shift along with it. “This was supposed to be impossible.”
“As I understand it, energy shields are actually quite simple. The tricky part was modulating it to let air, sound, and light pass through, and clip through the ground to let the subject walk while still protecting them from subterranean attack. The personal shields of a wizard or paladin avoid these shortfalls by being conscious workings.”
“The man is clearly a genius,” Shavayad agreed, pressing the gem again and switching the shield off. “Quite a find, Princess, I compliment you. And that magical-magnetic rail system in the corner. A mode of transportation?”
She glanced at the rack of metal he indicated. “Hardly. That’s a tiny prototype; a full-sized version would accelerate cargo to several times the speed of sound. It would probably be lethal to put people in it. Araani didn’t invent that, it was a theoretical design of Magnan’s that he never got around to experimenting with.”
“And so the lethality becomes the very purpose. Imagine, artillery with a range of miles. Not to mention this little beauty.” He picked up a metal glove, heavily engraved with runes, embedded with gemstones and trailing lengths of gold wire attached to more crystals and filaments. “Oh, what I could do with these, if only the materials weren’t so prohibitively expensive. A matched pair for every agent and we could make so many problems disappear…”
“Their power consumption is heinously inefficient, though,” she demurred. “Each is good for one use, two at the most, and it’s not a question of recharging them; it suffers catastrophic damage in the process.”
“Pity.” Shavayad carefully set the device back on its table and turned to her again. “You understand, Princess, why magical weapons research is practically a taboo in this day and age?”
“I am hardly going to have a nice old man and his daughter build a new Enchanter’s Bane in their basement,” she said acidly.
“There’s the matter what when an heir to a monarchy begins surreptitiously building weapons, an assassination generally follows,” he pointed out.
“Never!” Theasia snapped, clenching her fists and taking a step toward him. “I would die before I allowed harm to come to my father!”
“I believe you,” he said simply. “Though it is my job to, among other things, prevent that outcome. The Empire needs you as well as your father, Highness. And you are correct; what you’ve enabled here is hardly a path back to Magnan’s folly. This is a question of perceptions, though. Of how it would look to the public and to House Tirasian’s enemies to find the Imperial government researching sparkly new ways to kill people. You do understand this, I hope?”
“Of course I do,” she said curtly. “I am inexperienced, Tariq, not an idiot.”
He titled his head slightly. “Then I am curious, Princess, why you juded it worth the risk?”
Theasia turned her head to stare at the wall in front of which the Araanis had sat minutes before. Shavayad waited in silence for her to gather her thoughts.
“I cannot do it the way my father does,” she whispered, finally. “You know of my…condition. He has to spend every moment on his ploys and schemes. You know this, you’re the man who orchestrates half of them. Father is a vigorous man and still the burden of constantly playing the Houses and the Empire and the Punaji and everyone else against each other exhausts him. I don’t have the strength, Shavayad. Simply not the physical strength. And I cannot afford to show the weakness that would be revealed if I drive myself to collapse.”
“So you will strike first,” he said quietly.
“No.” Theasia turned her face back to him, shaking her head once. “Too much aggression begets retaliation, it would lead to the Enchanter Wars all over again. But they must know that I have the ability and the will to strike them. An example must be made of someone, to bring the rest in line. Whoever gives me a reason first. It has not escaped my notice that the only thing in living memory which has forced the Houses, even temporarily, to behave like civilized people was the near collapse of civilization itself. An orcish invasion, a drow invasion, a Stalweiss warlord’s invasion, and in the middle of that a handful of concurrent civil wars. All to furnish proof that their noble blood spills as easily as anyone’s. Then, the moment they felt it was safe, they went right back to their self-serving plots. ‘The bastards will stop when they are stopped, and not before.’”
“Foxpaw,” he said, quirking one eyebrow in the strongest expression of surprise she had ever seen from him. “I never imagined your mother would have allowed you to read the Exploits, your Highness.”
“My mother knows me too well to limit my leisure activities to books and then expect that I will adhere to her curated bibliography.”
“It is perhaps for the best, then, so long as she doesn’t catch you quoting Eserite dogma.” A fleeting smile passed across his features. “And so. You had no specific plans for these devices?”
She shook her head again. “Merely preparedness. The squeamishness after Magnan’s fall doesn’t serve us, Shavayad. Magic is the future, and those who control it will rule. The Sapphire College is diminished but not gone; we may all dismiss Syralon and the Wizards’ Guild as laughingstocks, but they are growing slowly stronger, and will only grow more so. And I don’t believe for a moment that Tellwyrn is dead. A woman like that comes and goes as she likes, and would never have the courtesy to perish conveniently out of sight. I will be Empress, however briefly. I have to be prepared. And… And my parents have not only failed to prepare me, in their good intentions they are trying to prevent me from being ready.” Theasia lifted her arms to gesture helplessly at the laboratory. “I need options.”
Shavayad studied her in silence for a moment, then suddenly stepped toward her. Theasia stiffened, but refused to retreat at his approach. To her surprise, he simply extended his arm to hand her the shielding charm he was still holding.
“My agency has received word of a plot against your Highness’s well-being,” he said abruptly.
Theasia’s eyebrows shot upward. “Mine?”
“Not much of a plot,” he said. “One which has zero realistic prospects of succeeding, and frankly is quite unlikely to get off the ground as the persons behind it I judge far too intelligent to take the risk. Unless…” Tilting his head again, he studied her face thoughtfully, now with a knowing little smile. “They might be encouraged to do so, with the proper incentives.”
She narrowed her eyes slightly, running her own thumb over the charm. It was warm, whether from its magic or his hand. “Incentives which you could provide.”
“Unfortunately not,” he said. “Certain individuals have been making discreet inquiries about an attempted abduction, your Highness. No one who is capable of such a feat would be foolish enough to attempt it, nor would they respond favorably to an overture from me. If approached by a rebellious Princess who quotes Ashner Foxpaw and finances secret weapons labs, however…”
“My father would summarily dismiss you from your position even for suggesting this,” Theasia said softly.
“You have never given your father enough credit for ruthlessness,” the spymaster replied lightly. “He would have me jailed, at the very least.”
Of course she understood what he was doing. Now they each had a secret to hold over the other—and he had had no reason at all to offer her one. This was an offering not only of peace between them, but alliance. Which begged the question…
“Why would you propose this?” she asked.
“Because,” he said, meeting her gaze, “in my professional opinion, Princess, you need this. You need the experience and the guidance. And you need to vanquish an enemy, both for your sake and to make it known that you can.”
Being practiced chiefly at repressing her anger, boredom and frustration, the smile of excitement caught her off guard and crept onto her features before she could successfully stifle it. “What, exactly, did you have in mind, Lord Shavayad?”
He smiled in return, glancing down at the shielding charm in her had. “Well. First of all, I want to introduce you to a jeweler…”