“Yes, we’re here assessing possible assassination threats to yourself or others at the conference.”
Earla smiled again. “If you want a list of people who may wish me dead, it will not be a short one. It’s been a long war, and peace isn’t quite as popular as you might think.”
“I would think peace is always welcome,” Anders offered. “Just so long as one benefits from it.”
“Are you looking for those who don’t?”
“I’m a practical man,” Anders agreed. “I find simple motives the most compelling.”
The General frowned, her affected mirth draining away. “That too is a fair list, but I believe I may shorten it quickly enough. I will have my secretary give you a few names before you go.”
“Thank you, it would be appreciated.” Anders replied as Colonel Haman returned with a pair of servants carrying food and drink. “Is there a name I should pay special attention to?”
Earla thought a moment. “Tyla Bonheur is where I would begin.” She offered.
“Then I will start there,” said Anders with a curt nod, and he stood up so fast Courtney had to jump to her feet to keep up with him. “Thank you for your time, General Brightblade.” He placed a hand across his chest and bowed slightly. “I wish you success in your negotiations tomorrow.”
The rebel general mimicked the gesture, wished them well, and then pair made their exit.
Courtney didn’t speak until after they’d retrieved the list from the general’s secretary and left the building. Anders hadn’t said a word, so she thought she too should remain silent. Despite this, she felt as if she was going to burst if she wasn’t able to ask questions, and did so as soon as they were in the private safety of their carriage.
“Do you think she’s involved?” She asked her superior.
“I think everyone’s involved, trainee.” Anders told her with a slight hint of amusement. “Don’t you?”
The younger woman wasn’t sure how to answer this, and hesitated before finally replying- “I think she’s the one we’re after.”
“Why? Let me hear your reasoning.”
“It’s those Orbs of Truth- there’s no way anyone could get close to her without her seeing their intent. She’d also see any delayed spells, so it’d be useless to put ensorcelled people around her unless she already knew about them.”
Anders nodded. “A reasonable assumption. Nothing provable, but reasonable.”
“So what can we do, sir? Put her under surveillance?”
“Even if she is responsible,” Anders said, pulling a small circle of leather from the folds of his longcoat. “She won’t leave any direct connections with whoever is conducting this operation.” Then he undid a small hook and flipped open the leather circle to reveal a tiny scrying mirror the size of an egg.
“Hebris,” he said, using the mirror’s activation codeword. Almost immediately, the bespeckled face of a young male clerk appeared in the mirror.
“Hawkins,” said the clerk.
“Give me a connection to the chief, Hawkins.”
“One moment, please, sir.” Said the man, and in Anders’ mirror Courtney could see the receiving mirror being lined up with another mirror of the same size which had the image of Lord Brigham on it.
“What have you got, Anders?” The Lord asked, when the two mirrors were aligned with each other.
Anders told him what they’d learned so far, including Courtney’s thoughts.
“Spell analysis on the scribe is still ongoing, we’re trying to avoid bringing him in unless we need to, as we don’t want to tip the opposition off.” The lord told them. “I have an appointment with the Minister of the Left in an hour. Black and Ding are currently en-route to Sturm Gallen’s residence. I’m going to have them do the interview with him.”
Anders frowned. “I was going to do that myself, sir. Is there a reason?”
“Jorah and Vulfang have turned up a missing piece of time in the scribe’s itinerary, and I want you to focus on that. It seems a more likely line of investigation.”
The city of Kul-Margat was an ancient trade city which sat on the Western border of the Empire, where the last of the mountains of the South met the vast expanse of the Kahli Desert. Carved, as much as built, from the deep brown stone of a mountain, it was home to thousands, and at any time had thousands more passing through its gates. Trade was the city’s reason for being, and most of its narrow, twisting streets were dedicated to the shops that seemed attached to the first level of every house.
Courtney and Anders met Vulfang and Jorah in an outdoor cafe on one of the lower levels frequented by travelers. Courtney spotted the two men almost immediately, the hulking Vulfang with his scarred face and the more fashionable Jorah with his slicked-back black hair being easy to spot in a tent filled with desert tribesmen. Both were dressed in civilian clothes, as were Courtney and Anders now, their uniforms traded in for pale cloth robes and colorful scarves.
“Yo! Friends!” Vulfang raised a glass of the local brew to them as she and Anders threaded their way through the tables of tea-drinkers. Courtney tried not to look at the other things arrayed on the tables, not wanting to lose her lunch.
“Vulfang. Jorah.” Anders said as they took their seats.
“How’s he treating you, new girl?” Vulfang asked Courtney.
She shrugged. “Well enough.”
Vulfang laughed. “Then you’re getting off luckier than that last recruit…What was his name?”
“Tomkins,” Anders said, clearly not eager to discuss the subject.
But Vulfang ignored him. “Yeah, Tomkins. Anders here had him begging for a transfer after the first week. He must like you.”
“I believe,” Jorah put in. “That it’s because you share a commonality. Like you, Courtney, Anders is an alumni of the Ferring School in the Capitol. Did he tell you that?”
In point of fact, Anders had talked little to Courtney since she’d joined the unit two weeks before, and even today had said almost nothing outside of the topic at hand. She was surprised to find out that he was a Ferring graduate, though. It was a school for the children of high ranking officials, and she’d pegged Anders as a scholar’s son.
“I wasn’t aware.” Courtney said, trying to avoid looking at Anders. “He doesn’t talk much.”
The others laughed. “Enjoy it while you can,” Vulfang finally said. “Once he gets used to you, he won’t shut up!”
“What have you learned?” Anders said, trying to steer the conversation back to the mission at hand. “Anything more about the missing hours?”
Vulfang turned to Jorah, who nodded. “Indeed. We were able to determine from a servant at the governor’s house that he asked directions to a bookstore here on the gate level. It seems someone had told him where he could find a book on medicinal desert flowers, and he went in search of it.”
“Do we know who that someone was?” Anders asked.
Jorah shook his head. “No one knew, but he reappeared several hours later, and it was the next day that he was spotted. He had just come in the day before with the Minister of the Left’s party, so this seems the most likely time.”
“Agreed. We’ll check it out. Let’s go.”
As the four of them left the tent, following Jorah, Courtney leaned in and asked Anders “Sir, what year did you graduate? I don’t remember seeing you there.”
Anders’ jaw tightened. “I didn’t graduate.” He half-growled, keeping his eyes straight ahead.
Courtney decided she’d best do the same, and let the subject lie.
They found the book store wedged in between a flower shop and boarded-up home on a bustling market street- the blue icon of a book barely visible on the sandblasted sign that hung above the front doorway. Courtney and Anders went inside first, with Vulfang and Jorah loitering nearby and pretending interest in a local carpet seller’s wares.
The old bookseller, standing behind a short counter to their right as they entered, smiled at them warmly. “Friends! Welcome to my humble shop.” He said through bad teeth as he looked at them expectantly. “How may I help you?”
The shop was a long and thin room filled to the brim with leather bound books, scrolls and various piles of vellum that filled it with a musty scent that Courtney associated with teacher’s offices and her own father’s study. At the back, a single small staircase twisted up into the dwelling above.
“I was recommended a book by a friend, and told you had a copy.” Anders said casually, giving a brief description of Biddleton the scribe. “He told me I could find a book on medicinal wildflowers here.”
Hearing this, the bookseller frowned. “No. No book on that here.” He said, his face becoming serious. “The man you seek didn’t come here.” He added, and then began to fiddle around behind the counter, agitated.
“Are you sure?” Said Anders, watching him intently.
“Quite sure,” said the seller without looking at them, then he picked up a book from behind the desk and began walking toward the front window to place it with the others on display. “You may look for it here, but you will not find the book you’re looking for.”
Inwardly, Courtney shook her head. This clearly wasn’t going to be much of a lead, and she was about to ask Anders what to do next when suddenly Anders yelled “stop him!” and leapt over the counter.
* * * * * * * * * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!