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The Black Pearl (Volume 1)

By JennInk All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 12: Day 4

The repetitive drumming of her fingers against the stained stone altar soothed Sorceress Serena’s frazzled nerves. The Malum were less organized than she had expected, but they made up for it with their general ruthlessness. Their disarray would make things easier for her in the long run. Wolves running smoothly in a pack were much harder to manage than wolves running around disjointedly, each serving his own self-interest. Whatever the case, if the wolves were going to finish the job they started twenty years ago to take control of the kingdoms, she was going to be on the winning side.

The gray, wet sameness of the Malum village, combined with her nervous tension over having nothing to do when everything needed to be done had thrown Serena into an anxious, pensive mood. Her thoughts meandered between her past and her future. Her life was made up of a string of cataclysmic changes, it seemed, and she was ready to take control of her life instead of being tossed about by the tempest.

A helpless child during the Great Wars, Serena had been forced to stand by and watch as her people were slaughtered in a foolish attempt to stop the genocide of the Naxturae. In their short-sightedness, the Naxturae refused to allow the Terra access to all the magic they needed to protect themselves against a foe willing to do anything. “There are lines that can never be un-crossed,” Athena always harped. The Naxturae had been dead for years, and the former High Sorceress Athena was still choking on their rhetoric like a mindless minion. Serena traced the outline of a blood smear on the cold stone of the altar. Better to become the Malum than to be crushed by them.

Those same wars left Serena an orphan. She recognized her fortune at being taken in by the residents of Crystal Palace and in becoming its shining star, but she always felt her position was tenuous and fleeting. Athena had never fully trusted her, and Serena was left to her own devices to master any worthwhile applications of Naxturaen magic. Powerful magic was the only magic of any real consequence. She craved a better outlet for her talents than healing broken chipmunks’ legs.

The black pearl sat in the middle of the stone altar. Since Shrilynda had let the orb slip out of her grasp and no one trusted anyone to look after a thing of such value, here it rested, unguarded, but watched by everyone. Serena’s fingers stole forward to touch it, and she could feel the power under its surface, tugging at her, pulling her closer. She lowered her glossy lips inches away from its dark, seductive surface.

“Are you still in there?” she whispered.

If Rin had any idea what she briefly held in her hands, she might have worked harder to keep it.

When the Malum sent the Demon after Kalilya fourteen years ago, Serena had been just old enough to have a small grasp of what was happening. Foolish and short-sighted, just like the rest of her dead people, at least Kalilya was powerful. Even the icy Serena respected the High Queen, until something more powerful came along, of course. Kalilya had only postponed the inevitable by sacrificing herself to trap the Demon in the pearl. In that instant, Serena had known she wanted that kind of power for herself—power limited only by imagination, drive, and cunning.

From the first, she realized the Malum must have had help. How else could they have found the hidden meadow where Kalilya was ambushed? A little digging and logical deduction led her straight to an entire hidden underworld, a tangled web of informants and dark magic that sprang up in the absence of the stifling Naxturae. Athena was nothing compared to her powerful co-conspirators.

Serena looked back at the miserable collection of huts making up the Malum village. She had a hard time envisioning this sorry collection of sullen people as having come so close to bringing all of civilization to its knees, yet they thought themselves above her. They pretended to exercise the authority to make her wait until they deigned to speak to her. She amused herself by picturing the entire town razed to the ground to make way for her black marble palace, its lofty spires twisting skyward. Living like a refugee in a war-torn hovel of a village was neither a goal nor an option for her.

Her eyes drifted toward the creak of a door. Namon stomped toward her. Finally.

As far as she could determine, the Malum had expected roles: Shrilynda was entrusted with the planning of the release of the Demon, Zaref pretended to be in charge of everyone, and Namon was loosely in charge of the foot soldiers and the haphazard effort to recover Rin and Prince Alexander. Lesser groups were doing lesser things, but they were of little concern to Serena. Most importantly, somebody had control over the doling out of magical resources; finding out who topped Serena’s “to do” list.

To her frustration, Serena had been unable to identify a real leader among them. It was no wonder the Malum took so long to accomplish anything. Since she had arrived, the excitement over recovering the pearl had been consumed by constant bickering over the next course of action. Serena stayed as inconspicuous as she could, but little good it did her. For example, instead of formulating a productive plan of action, she was about to be responding to Namon’s most recent accusations.

“What are you doing out here?” he snapped in greeting.

“Soaking in the lovely gray clouds,” she replied cheerily. “This locale is delightful.”

“Head back to your castle anytime, Sorceress,” he groused.

As if that was an option.

“Now, now, Namon.” She smiled. “You know you need me.”

He grunted. Honestly grunted, like a pig.

“Let’s not forget I am handing you the resources of an entire protectorate without a drop of blood spilled,” she sighed, annoyance cracking through her mask. “And if the idea of mass bloodshed sends a tickle up your spine, there will be plenty of opportunity for carnage after you’ve regained power.”

This all-important point seemed to be set aside by the Malum too easily for her taste, a fact that Namon proved with his reply.

“And yet, oddly, we are supposed to forget you let the girl and the Prince slip through your fingers.”

Serena was impressed she had finally impassioned the taciturn man to string more than a few words together, but she was tired of the stale accusation. Who could have guessed those two were resourceful enough to cross Bellican territory and a mountain range on their own? Obviously, the Malum’s confused, misguided, and very powerful little puppy should have been kept on a shorter leash.

“While we’re on the subject of you expecting me to do all your work for you,” she replied, tempering her annoyance with a sweet, sing-song tone, “you know as well as I do that if Rin makes it inside the walls of Crystal Palace—”

Namon tensed.

“Oh,” she laughed in realization. “She’s already there. You’re not here to lecture me. You need me.”

His only response was to look like he had mild indigestion. Finally, she had some bargaining chips.

“Friend Namon,” she said sweetly, “all you had to do was ask. Now who do I talk to about getting what I need to do my work?”

+++++

The sunlight was just beginning to shine weakly through the windows in Rin’s small room, but the curtains were already drawn. The staff’s propensity toward snooping meant at least five of them had already been through long before sunrise, drawing curtains, starting fires, dropping off food, straightening objects, and fluffing things. The object of their curiosity lay on the bed indifferent to her visitors, and Athena now stood alone in the small guest room, watching her with decided interest.

Despite all the poking and prodding the girl had inevitably received at the hands of her inquisitive maids, she was looking better for it. The palace staff appeared to be as taken with the beautiful Rin as the Prince was. If Alexander had been a normal young man, Athena would have understood what he saw in her instantly. This girl had all the appeal of tangy wild strawberries freshly picked, especially now that her worn black clothes had been swapped for a lacy, rose-colored dressing gown. A thick mane of dark hair framed her delicate rosy features as she rested in a state of dreamy anticipation. However, Athena had watched the Prince pass on beauty before, and she would need to see this one in action to ascertain what sort of power the Malum girl wielded over her Alexander. This alone would have been reason enough to revive her, but uncovering what she knew about the Malum could also be invaluable.

Remembering why she had come in this room, Athena pulled open the drawstring of the small pouch she carried and poured the dusty contents into her hand. The purpose of the powder was simple enough, but it had taken longer than expected to prepare. It had been years since the Sorceress had cause to suspect foul play by means of Malum magic. She tossed the handful of dull, gray powder onto the dozing dark-haired maiden. It flared around her in a brilliant blue cocoon and tossed off some red sparks before its brief power was spent.

Her suspicions were correct. This girl was afflicted by two Malum curses: one quite powerful and one suffering the effects of age. The old spell was the crumbling mask of Rin’s magic. Athena was tempted to lift that one to benefit herself, but not while there was a tiny chance the spell might be making it harder for the Malum to track Rin. The still-potent curse was even more of a mystery. To take such lengths to incapacitate one of their own without killing her was unheard of for the Malum. Perhaps Alexander could explain why they needed this particular girl alive so badly.

She did not have to wait long for him to check on the mysterious girl. The Prince had followed her instructions and was looking more like himself, washed and alert. A few hours separation had not erased the worry from his eyes, however, and his disappointment was tangible as he caught sight of Rin, still fast asleep.

He recovered a calm composure for Athena’s benefit and pushed the door closed behind him. “I wondered why the guards were both outside. I should have expected to find you here.”

Not for the first time since their untimely demise, she wished for the return of the Naxturae and the added power their presence had given her. Her eyes stole to the sleeping girl, a strong natural power source. Since Athena had already decided not to succumb to that temptation, she would have to rely on old-fashioned intuition to determine if the Prince had also been affected by dark magic.

“Your disappearance caused quite a stir,” Athena began calmly. “The royal families will be arriving soon to discuss what to do about it.”

“All of them?”

Athena smiled at his surprise. “That is certainly my plan.”

“Well, don’t I feel important,” he quipped. “Or more like a political pawn. I’m impressed Aunt Athena.”

“I had the feeling you might be.”

“Trust me,” Alexander assured her. “They’ll have more important things to discuss once they arrive.”

His eyes wandered back to his travel companion, and he ventured further into the room to perch on the edge of her bed. Alexander’s rational self may have returned, but the fact had not diminished his concern.

“Are you ready to tell me where you’ve been for the past week?” she asked him.

“Hopefully you’ve cleared the morning for this,” he chuckled before relating to Athena the little he knew about his untimely kidnapping and his rescue by the daughter of the enemy. She took some small comfort in the fact that nothing her staff was inventing right now could be half as far-fetched as what Alexander was relating to her.

A dark shadow clouded her features when Alexander came to the meeting with Serena. “She and I have never seen eye to eye, but to turn to the Malum...”

Alexander remained silent. The revelation must have been of little surprise to him; he had always been transparent about his distrust for the fledgling Sorceress.

“Ah, well,” she sighed, “One problem at a time. I suppose the issue of your sleeping heroine is more imminent right now.”

She waved for him to resume his tale, and he continued to relate their strange journey. He glossed over the account of the Bellicus, but she was amused by his conquest of a Bellican soldier nonetheless. She stopped him at his description of their dramatic escape.

“She was surprised at her own magic?”

“Terrified,” he nodded.

“Did you see how she caused the fire dragon?”

“No, but you could fit what I know about magic into a Bellican’s brain, anyway. Chester might have seen what happened. At the time, I was relieved the brutes were distracted enough for us to escape. I only realized Rin caused the ruckus when she admitted it to me later.”

Athena continued to absorb the information, unsure how it all fit together. The crumbling masking magic seemed to be hiding Rin’s power from Rin herself. That made no sense.

“Speaking of magic and the Bellicus, Chester gave Rin a Naxturaen spell book,” Alexander remembered.

“What was he doing with such a book?”

He shrugged. “I was hoping you would know. The book is in Rin’s satchel, in my room somewhere.”

“Bring it to my study later. How did you cross the mountains?”

His eyes lit up. “We flew. The trip was equal parts amazing and terrifying. Did you know there were pegasus up in the Ascleons?”

“I’ve heard of them,” she replied, “but I’ve never seen them myself. I know they are reclusive animals with no love for the Malum.”

“Well, they love Rin. They carried us to the river, where our long day ended in yet another catastrophe. I could tell something was wrong before she made it all the way across.” He scooped up Rin’s limp hand forlornly. “I shouldn’t have let her try.”

“It doesn’t sound like you could have stopped her if you wanted to.”

“True enough,” he agreed, distracted.

Athena had lost the Prince’s attention. He clasped the sleeping girl’s hand in his own and watched her, lost for a moment in his own thoughts.

“Do you know what’s happened to her,” he questioned finally, his brow furrowed with concern.

“I have some idea,” she answered carefully.

She did, but she was no closer to understanding why such a curse had been cast on the sleeping girl. The Malum had not been training her or using her power. Instead, they had hidden her from any who might seek her. An additional enchantment meant to incapacitate was only an affirmation that the Malum were well aware she had the means and desire to escape their custody, but its consequences amounted to no more than a magical slap on the wrist.

Athena debated how much to tell the Prince. His point of view still seemed oddly biased, but he had the benefit of observing the Malum girl in action. He met Athena’s contemplative gray eyes with his own, waiting for her to present a solution. She had none at this juncture, but she could offer him honesty.

“Two curses are at work, one masking her magic and a trickier one I can’t identify quite yet.”

“Masking her magic?” Alexander asked, wrinkling his nose in confused contemplation. “How much stronger would—”

“Hiding, not affecting,” she clarified.

“That probably benefited us, then,” he pointed out.

“Which is why I haven’t broken the spell,” she acknowledged.

“And she’s not awake because…”

“Because you can’t order this one fixed, spoiled Prince,” she chided him with a teasing tone. “Until I know what kind of curse I’m dealing with, trying to break it is more dangerous than inaction. An evening of researching the Malum has led me to realize I am as guilty of wishing the Malum away as the protectorates have been. I haven’t studied Malum curses in years, and counteracting their foul magic is a precise science. Luckily, this curse was designed to be lifted. They obviously need her unharmed.”

“Could the Malum follow her here?” he asked.

Athena had already dismissed the idea. “They know where she is, to be sure, but they would have fetched her by now if they could do so. The Malum are reticent to come near Crystal Palace or the Glade. Their dark magic is useless here. We are mostly safe from any threats.”

She paused. “Any outside threats.”

Alexander heard the veiled warning against Rin. Instead of taking offense, he smiled.

“Am I behaving that oddly?” he chuckled.

“This girl has gained your trust both quickly and completely, Alexander. You’ll forgive my doubts.”

“She has, and I do,” he conceded easily. “You’ll see for yourself.”

“I look forward to meeting her,” Athena responded honestly. “Is there anything else I should know about her?”

“Yes,” he replied. “She has a large, black cat. I’d never seen anything like it, nor have I heard stories about the Malum having them.”

“A large, black cat?”

“Cat is an understatement. This animal was half the size of this bed, and fiercely loyal to her.”

This piece of information meant more to Athena than she chose to reveal.

“Does that mean something to you?” The Prince was hard to fool.

“It might. What do you know about your other companion?” Athena continued.

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I don’t actually know much about Chester,” he admitted. “More accurately, I don’t know anything about Chester.”

“You seem to have encountered him under suspicious circumstances.”

“Yes…” he dragged out.

“But?” Athena prodded.

“He seems to be anti-Malum. He certainly hasn’t been helpful, but he did come with us for a reason. I think he’s curious to see if you can help him. I won’t vouch for him, but my instincts tell me he means us no harm.”

She had a mysterious invisible man on one side, an incongruous unconscious Malum girl on the other, a kidnapped Prince in front of her, and the royalty from four protectorates set to arrive to discuss a threat she had only become aware of minutes ago. She hardly knew on which dilemma to focus her energy.

“You realize your sister was the Kianne heir with the propensity to collect stray animals.”

“Same blood, I guess,” he mused.

Athena shook her head and rubbed her temples with her fingertips. “One problem at a time,” she murmured.

“Is there anything I can do?”

She wished she had a task to offer him. Clearly, he was going to worry over the Malum girl until she was awake.

“Bring the spell book to my study later, and be early to dinner. You get to explain your presence to our esteemed guests.”

“Since I didn’t have the decency to stay kidnapped, you need me to be my charming self?” he teased.

“Something like that.” She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “You are one of a kind, dear boy. I am immensely glad you have returned.”

“Believe me, I am as well. I wouldn’t be here if not for her,” he said. “At least not in one piece.”

He was lost again. Athena watched him intently and without comment as he brushed a tendril of hair back from Rin’s forehead.

“Try to rest, Alexander. I will do what I can,” she insisted before she left him.

Her curiosity was piqued, and the Prince had done little to satisfy it. She chose to continue her detective work before busying herself in the library.

“Let Alexander come and go as he pleases,” she addressed the guards outside Rin’s door, who replied with a sharp nod.

Alexander enjoyed staying in this part of the palace because no one could wander here by accident. As far as Athena was concerned, the combination of hallways and stairways required to reach this section also rendered it an ideal place to keep her surprise visitors until she was ready to explain them to her impending guests. She crossed the section of curved hallway to a door on the other side. She knocked and waited, aware her other dubiously welcome guest was still in his room. Eventually, the door opened and she entered the room, which remained bathed in shadow. Her servants must have developed their own theories on what lay within this room and had decided to stay clear of it. She reminded herself to question Dmitri on what they thought they knew.

“I hope I didn’t wake you,” Athena began politely to the figure near the door.

“No. Time all seems to run together after a while, anyway.”

“Who are you?” she questioned directly.

He let out a sardonic grunt and sat at the small, cushioned window seat in front of his undrawn windows. “Perhaps it would behoove you to start with an easier question, like ‘Why am I, the benevolent leader sworn to protect a group of squabbling kingdoms, harboring a member of the Malum?’ I am no threat to you.”

She fought back a smile. His tone was somehow neither hostile nor disrespectful, just amusingly cynical. She imagined this was what Dmitri was thinking behind his stoic glares.

“What can you tell me about the Malum girl?” she asked.

“I think you really want to know if your Prince is crazy.”

“Perhaps.”

“I think a few of his pieces are missing, but they were never in the box to begin with. His faith in his co-conspirator does not seem misplaced, as well as faith in anyone tends to work out, I suppose.”

“Alexander mentioned she used magic—”

“Honestly, I can’t tell you what happened either,” he interrupted sharply. “She made a huge dragon appear. It wreaked havoc. She wasn’t particularly happy about it.”

“She just made it appear?”

“Yes, Madame Sorceress. She has inherent magical abilities the Malum have not made use of. Figure that one out.”

“Magic, magic everywhere, and none of it makes sense,” she mumbled. “And what can I do for you?”

“You can’t help me,” Chester replied sullenly.

“Then why did you come?”

He fell silent.

“Thank you,” she released him, not satisfied with the information she had gathered, but unwilling to expend the effort necessary to make the taciturn phantom talk. “You are welcome to stay in Crystal Palace, but I advise you to avoid my imminent guests.”

“Not a problem. I’m not feeling particularly social.”

“That I gathered,” she agreed, mostly to herself, as she left the surly being to himself.

Fear crossed the hallway guard’s features as she emerged.

She sighed internally and reminded herself to summon Dmitri to chat about the state of the palace while she returned to her library to make good on her promise to Alexander. Most of her remaining questions could only be answered by the incongruous Malum girl, and the sooner she was awake, the sooner Athena could get the information she needed.

+++++

While Athena plunged through the volumes of curses, spells, and the history of such in her extensive library, Alexander paced uneasily in Rin’s room. He took a break from worrying to bring Athena the little Naxturaen book as requested, but she was distracted by her detective work and not very forthcoming about her discoveries. After he helped her move a Bellican-sized stack of books from her library to her more functional study, he left her to her research to pester Chester for a short while. The invisible curmudgeon was a mild distraction, but his sullen nature was growing more dismal by the second, and he made a gloomy companion.

Crystal Palace was abuzz with activity. If Alexander stood anywhere in the palace for any length of time, he ran the risk of being in the way of at least five different people as the staff was busy cleaning, moving furniture and clothes, airing out rooms, and generally preparing to cater to the whims of four separate royal families. By all rights, he should be the one to greet each of these prominent leaders to explain why he was not, in fact, being tortured at the hands of the Malum, but he could not stomach the thought of facing the inevitable questions and false concern for his well-being. Even in her non-conversational state, Rin was a superior companion in a much quieter part of the castle, and Alexander presently found himself back at her side.

Her room was one of the many oddities of the Naxturaen palace. As a necessity of war, the trees surrounding the palace needed to be cleared for visibility, but the Naxturae could not bear the thought of killing so many ancient trees that were as dear as friends. A compromise was needed; the trees were moved to safety inside the palace. The grand old ones were the sentries in sprawling rooms where they could stretch from floor to ceiling: the great hall, the courtyard, and the ballrooms. The smaller ones were treated more like guests and given their own rooms to watch over. The tree in this room—some sort of willow—hugged the wall. Roots stretched from one corner to the doorway, branches spread out over the ceiling, and leaves cascaded like a canopy. How a tree could continue to grow with no water or soil was a mystery to Alexander, but as he had never received a satisfactory explanation, he eventually accepted the magic of the palace was beyond him.

Rin’s natural glow had returned to her pale features, and her breathing was calm and steady. He brought his fingers to her neck and felt the slow, strong rhythm of her pulse. She was giving every indication of being asleep, peaceful and still, lovely as always in this new backdrop. Since he was still in no mood to humor the overblown personalities of some of his least favorite royalty, he settled himself in a chair next to her bed.

“Feel free to wake up at any time and give me a hand, Princess. This foreboding news about the Malum and all of these pretentious kings and queens in one spot is a little like starting a bonfire in the middle of a dry grass field. There’s no telling which direction the fire will run or who is about to get burned.”

He watched her for the slightest hint of change. Nothing.

“Athena’s gotten herself into an interesting situation,” he explained. “These people don’t play nicely with each other. They barely tolerate each other at great distances, so putting them all in the same room just seems like tempting fate.”

Rin was as attentive and lovely an audience as usual, but disappointingly less interactive.

“If you were participating in this conversation, you might ask, ‘Who is coming?’ and I would tell you King Rubias and Queen Gwendolyn of Taragon Castle have certainly arrived by now. I think they’re distant cousins of mine. They’re not exactly my favorite relatives. You know those awkwardly nice people you just can’t like because they’re so nice, they have to be either completely fake or borderline moronic?”

He stopped, realizing her life was devoid of niceness, fake or otherwise.

“Never mind,” he apologized. “They’re a little like hollow chocolate. Why bother? No one at Bayselle does, certainly. As soon as they get here, Queen Abigail will begin complaining about how dry the air is, and King Dromund will have found the only rock on the road through the Glade to the palace. Those two have taken cooperative whining to an art form. I’ve always suspected they pretend their troubles so no one realizes they live in an ocean paradise.”

He put one of Rin’s small hands on top of his own and stared at it for a moment before shaking himself back into his monologue.

“And then there’s Curi. They’re the nearest kingdom to Kianne, but they might as well be on a different plane of existence. Horribly strange, self-involved people. They’d like to pretend none of us exist.”

He paused when the door opened, but no one entered. No one he could see, he corrected himself.

“Chester?” he asked.

“How is she?” the phantom voice replied.

“I’m surprised you care,” Alexander replied suspiciously.

“I care a little,” he admitted. “I mainly came to steal her food. I think servants have come six times this morning, hoping to get a peek at her.”

“Seven,” Alexander corrected. “And that’s only while I’ve been awake. Try the raspberry tarts.”

A sharp rapping on the door interrupted him. He waited, but the visitor did not enter, and Alexander realized a servant must have been sent to look for him.

“Come in,” he offered eventually.

A young servant did enter presently and bowed to the Prince before sneaking a glance at the sleeping damsel.

“Her Highness has requested your attendance at an early dinner,” he announced, turning his attention back to the Prince. “Clothes have been set out in your room.”

He wrinkled his nose. “Who’s here?”

“The King and Queen from Taragon and the King and Queen of Bayselle both arrived previously this afternoon. They’ve asked for you—”

“Of course they have,” Alexander muttered.

“But Her Highness explained you would greet them at the banquet this evening.”

“Very well,” he nodded, accepting his fate with resignation.

The boy bowed again and left to assist with final dinner preparations. Alexander was left once again to himself, possibly. He noticed the plate of tarts had vanished.

“Chester?” he asked aloud, feeling silly.

Receiving no response, he spared half a thought to wonder about the invisible man and his unrevealed purpose for traveling with them to Crystal Palace. He would have preferred to consult the sleeping damsel in front of him on this continued mystery, but instead he reluctantly left her side to dress for dinner.

+++++

“I heard the Prince went to join the Malum, and now he’s come back to make an offer to Athena: join or we’ll all be destroyed.”

“Ridiculous, Anak.”

“I think that sweet thing was a prisoner and the Prince went on a quest to rescue her. He’s been by her side since he woke up this morning.”

“You read too many fairy tales, Chandra.”

“Chester” briefly listened in to the conversation of a guard and two maids gossiping freely in the hallway. They were amusing, but useless. Even he had more accurate information than they did.

They stopped their idle chatter an instant before Dmitri swept down the hallway. Chester had to hop aside to avoid being flattened by the imposing soldier.

“Silna, Chandra, Anak,” he barked at them, “go do something useful. Our royal visitors are already in the Great Hall.”

They exchanged smiles and an eye roll behind Dmitri’s back, but all three bustled off in separate directions without delay.

Chester relaxed. If the royalty were already gathering for dinner, the Sorceress would have her hands full for a while. After he tossed the last bite of raspberry tart into his mouth, the plate he was carrying popped into sight on the banister of the nearest stairway. He decided to start in her study.

Luckily, few rooms in the palace were locked. Unluckily, that meant what he needed would probably be hidden. No problem; from the snatches of conversation he caught from the pompous dinner guests, he would have several hours at least. He slipped into Athena’s study, which was a homey square room with comfortable chairs set around a plain square table in the middle of the room. A smaller table serving as a desk sat at the far end of the room in front of a giant picture window flanked by a flowering vine-like plant of some sort. If he was a botanist, he might find the ubiquitous trees and shrubs that seemed to spring from walls and ceilings interesting, but they were of no interest to his current mission.

The side walls were both flanked by bookshelves filled to capacity, again of no interest to him. He scanned the bookshelves systematically; the titles were unintelligible, but he was looking for something out of the ordinary.

A faint beeping caused him to pause. The beeping stopped. Strange. After thinking this through, he knelt down, and the beeping intensified. He flipped off the sensor in his pocket and it went silent. The servants were high strung enough without strange sounds to gossip about.

All he knew was the area behind this shelf was hollow. He examined the lower shelves, hoping for an architectural entry into the space behind the shelves. If the door was magical, he was out of luck. He did briefly consider asking the Sorceress for what he needed before abandoning that crazy line of thought. He ran his hand along the books, looking for something out of the ordinary and found it. The bottom rows of books were not made up of books at all, but rows of wooden boxes carved and painted to look like books.

Clever, he thought. Sometimes the Naxturae could be surprising. Or were surprising, anyway, before they had all died horribly.

This contraption was quite old, and he had no trouble identifying which book-carvings had been smoothed away by repeated manipulation. He pressed the first book firmly, and it gave way with a click. Two more, and the entire shelf unit swung forward, revealing a small entryway and stairs leading underneath the study. As soon as he ducked through the short entry, a narrow spiral stairway of stone wound its way down to a dark room.

By the faint light of the study above, he saw the end of a long table stretching off into the shadows. He put the lantern he had carried from his room onto the table, and it flashed into view as soon as it was out of his hands. Light sprang into the room, illuminating bottles and jars filled with powders and liquids. He had uncovered the Sorceress’ laboratory. She had been here recently, concocting something; he saw a few jars and boxes set out on the long worktable.

Where should he begin? The Sorceress’ supplies were meticulous and well-ordered, but her organization meant nothing to him. He uncorked a large bottle and sniffed the contents. Lavender oil—not particularly rare or useful. He smelled a reddish liquid next, and his nostrils were immediately assaulted with the strong odor of cow manure. He choked and regretted the decision. He needed to expand his search, so he grabbed the lantern, and it disappeared, plunging him into darkness. He cursed his stupidity and fished a glove from his pocket before he attempted again. This time, the bobbing lantern seemed to hover on its own as it slid past the rows of carefully-organized jars. One jar appeared clear, but as the light from the lantern shone through the glass, the lantern dimmed, and the water shimmered. He brought down the jar, hoped for the best, and smelled. To say he smelled nothing was true, but not descriptive enough. This enchanted liquid seemed to be sucking sights and smells into itself.

There was one sure way to test. He uncorked the foul red liquid and poured some into a cup.

Egad, he groused to himself while holding his breath. What purpose could this horrible stuff possibly have?

He tipped a few drops of the clear liquid into the cup and bent toward it warily. The red tinge vanished, and the noxious smell was swallowed up as well. This was what he was searching for.

Withdrawing a bag from the pocket of his coat, he shook out the contents onto a wooden slab. A few dozen small, yellow flowers tumbled out into a pile. He grabbed the Sorceress’ wooden pestle and crushed the petals into a paste before pulling out a metal flask and scraping the paste into it. Last, he poured the mysterious liquid into the flask and hoped for the best, capping and shaking the contents violently to mix them together. He replaced everything he had moved and left the magical workshop the way he had entered, pleased with his progress.

As soon as the Sorceress was through with her sure-to-be-eventful dinner, he would test his concoction.

+++++

“I’m telling you, Your Highness, if you don’t insist on excellence, your servants grow lax. It’s a good thing my driver is so observant, or I might still be trapped on the road with a lame horse and an overturned coach.”

King Dromund’s voice assaulted Alexander all the way down the hallway leading to the nook where the guests had gathered before dinner. The Prince nearly turned around, but he reminded himself Athena had specifically ordered him to come.

“It’s lucky we weren’t both killed,” Dromund’s wife, Abigail, added emphatically.

“Nature has a pesky way of inserting itself in the most controlled of environments,” Queen Gwendolyn tried to help.

“It’s easy to be so glib about nature when you’re so near your customary climate. Servant!” Queen Abigail’s voice demanded. “I need more water!”

“It’s so hard being so right all the time,” Alexander mumbled to himself before forcing his feet through the doorway into the Great Hall.

The Prince had a moment to take in the scene before him before he was noticed. Athena was poised serenely on a chair, overseeing her guests. She was younger than most of the other rulers in attendance, but age was not an indicator of wisdom in this crowd, or taste for that matter. At a glance, the four monarchs had remembered to pack their best clothes and crown jewels, not to be outdone by each other. Athena was well dressed in deference to her important visitors, but the jewels representing her office of High Queen were conspicuously absent. She would serve as Queen out of necessity, but she refused to replace the Naxturae and the memory of Kalilya. She absently twisted one of the pair of bracelets encircling her wrists that represented her more comfortable position of High Sorceress.

The King and Queen of Taragon, Rubias and Gwendolyn, sat on one side of the cozy gathering space, smiling cheerfully at nothing in particular. Alexander briefly wondered what it would be like to attend a funeral with them. Queen Abigail of Bayselle sat near her husband, King Dromund, at the other end of the parlor, drinking water and fanning herself as if she might die of inconvenience at any moment. The King of Bayselle was still attempting to impress upon Athena the importance of good management.

“Prince Alex, we are relieved to see you are well,” King Rubias greeted him with a broad grin. “Gwen could barely sleep with worry.”

Alexander bit back the retorts threatening to escape his securely shut mouth and smiled at the sentiments instead. The concern was given with as much sincerity as the King could muster, and Alexander was sure the effusively kind people were in fact glad on some level for his return, but there was no great love between Kianne and Taragon. For many reasons, it would have better served their purposes if he had never returned, a tragic loss to the dangerous Malum, proving their fears correct and sparking the protectorates into unified retaliation.

Athena rescued him temporarily from the looming inquisition he could only avoid for so long. “I believe dinner is waiting for us. Please be seated.”

The Great Hall reflected successful reign of the Naxturae due to their skills as peacemakers and diplomats. This was a gathering place meant to dazzle and pacify, encourage unity, celebrate unique talents, and invoke pride. The floors and walls were inset with giant precious stones from the Taragon mines. The sweeping chandelier was a product of the skilled Kianne metal workers, and the lush curtains were fashioned from intricate fabrics spun and woven by the renowned textile makers of Curi. The sun was just beginning to drop toward the horizon, and its reddening rays lit up the polished glass wall rising to a vaulted ceiling also fitted with huge pieces of etched glass specially made by Bayselle glass makers. If the Naxturae had to be indoors to humor their special guests, they had preferred to do so in full view of the beauty outside.

For a small group, a dining area had been set against the glass backdrop at the far end of the room. Stairs led up to a raised platform boasting a table heaped with tempting food familiar to their diverse guests.

The magnificence of the room was not lost on Alexander, but he found himself wishing he had pressed Chester harder to find out how he had managed to become invisible. Now would be an opportune time to drop out of sight. A server emerged from nearby double doors with more wine. If he could make it out those doors before anyone could catch him, he could escape down the passageway leading straight to the kitchen. The cooks would understand.

“How are you feeling, Prince Alexander?” Athena interrupted his thoughts.

The question was pointedly directed to stop his plans, which were likely etched across his face.

“I’m feeling much…more rested, thank you.” He threw her an unfriendly look, and grumpily accepted the wine poured for him instead.

“I’m so very glad you could join us this evening.”

He could hear a touch of amusement in her voice. Of course she was glad he was there to serve as a distraction for the circling sharks at the table. She had kept them away from him all day, he conceded, and he probably did owe her a few hours of polite support to stroke the conglomeration of egos that had descended upon the palace. The impending nefarious plans of the Malum were more important than his overwhelming desire for a hole to open in the floor and swallow him up.

“It’s a shame the members of the other protectorates could not be here with us,” Athena added.

“A shame,” he echoed.

“Obviously they’re too far away to make the journey this quickly,” King Dromund of Bayselle verbally elbowed his way into their conversation. “Gail and I barely slept to make it here in time.”

“Traveled all night,” the Queen agreed.

Queen Gwendolyn of Taragon eagerly leaped into the conversation. “Alex, it’s certainly a miracle you made it this far. How did you ever escape?”

He began, “Well, Rin—”

“You tricked that Malum girl into sneaking you north to Crystal Palace—just what I would have done,” Dromund nodded knowingly.

Alexander tried to object, “Well, no, she—”

“We hear she’s unconscious now. How did you accomplish that?” Abigail interrupted.

He tried to explain weakly, “The Malum warned her against crossing the river. It seems they cast some sort of spell—”

“It was very smart of you to trick her into going across the river.” Rubias nodded his approval with his omnipresent grin.

Alexander paled. “Of course I didn’t—”

“At first I thought having a Malum anywhere in the kingdom would be disastrous, but she seems quite helpless, doesn’t she?” Abigail interrupted again.

“I’ve always said having a hostage could be just the edge we need against the Malum,” Dromund agreed.

“What good luck you managed to bring her here, Alex,” Gwendolyn chimed in blithely.

“I didn’t bring her anywhere,” he tried to protest. “She saved my life.”

“The smart thing to do would be to use her as bait and wipe her and the rest of the Malum out in one fell swoop.” Dromund’s fist slammed on the table emphatically.

“We will wait to develop a course of action until we have all of the information,” Athena admonished firmly.

A shift to polite chatter about sons and daughters and marriages and the accomplishments of their phenomenal royal offspring offered a reprieve from the attack on Rin’s character, but shifted to the inevitable, “Shame about Duchess Celia, Alex.”

Shame for whom, exactly?

Had he said that out loud? He stared back at Gwendolyn, who was still waiting for a response. His retort must have stayed in his head.

He recovered by throwing out the first weak platitude that sprang to mind: “Sometimes things just aren’t meant to be.”

“You do seem to have the worst of luck,” Rubias added.

“Ah, to be young,” Abigail sighed.

Alexander had no idea what conversation she was taking part in.

“We were all looking forward to the possibility of Curi reopening free trade.”

Dromund’s contribution to the topic was Alexander’s life in summary—a commodity. At least he was a valuable one.

By the time conversation shifted to the most successful harvests since the wars, the Prince was exhausted by the effort of appearing interested and unoffended. After two bites of a frothy Taragonian custard, Alexander decided he had served his purpose. He rose and bowed with all the diplomatic politeness he could still muster and escaped the room while the monarchs were otherwise distracted with fancy desserts.

He stopped when he heard Athena call to him quietly.

“If you make me go back in there, you’ll have to tie me to my chair, Aunt Athena,” he hissed quietly.

“That can be arranged,” she teased lightly, but she put a comforting hand on his arm.

“It’s like talking to a tree. You can sit there and explain circles around it why it’s blocking the view of the mountains that should be out your window, but all it does is grow taller and taller as if it’s mocking you with its thick leafy branches.”

“Have you noticed how metaphorical you become when you’re upset,” she smiled.

“I’ve been told.” He leaned against the wall.

“Come with me to the library, Alexander,” she beckoned, taking pity on him.

He could hardly refuse a library, so he went with her, leaving the monarchs to squabble amongst themselves.

“I have a few ideas about what this particular Malum spell might be doing to Rin, but in my searching, I’ve also come across these,” she explained, picking up one of a stack of thin, well-used volumes of varying ages and wear.

Alexander took another from the stack and skimmed the first page of smooth, careful script.

“These are diaries,” he pointed out in confusion.

“More or less,” Athena agreed. “These were the histories kept by the Sorceresses. They each have their own way of explaining Naxturaen magic, and there is a marginal amount of information about the Malum in them as well, depending on how much contact that Sorceress may have had with them.”

“Are you just trying to keep me busy?”

She regarded him seriously. “You have a way of looking at things that no one else does. It’s a gift. Use it.”

He took the books from her without further argument and retreated from the bustle of crotchety guests and intrusive questions. Eventually, he was back in front of Rin’s room. He asked her bored guard to hunt for more candles to read by.

As Alexander entered, he was again disappointed to find the lovely object of his concern still unconscious. He tossed a few of the volumes onto the bed, deposited the rest on a side table, draped a wooden chair with a warm blanket to make it more comfortable, and settled himself in. After the guard finished his task and left Alexander with double the number of candles blazing, the Prince propped his feet on Rin’s bed and flipped open the first book.

“This Sorceress was only fifteen when she took her vows to protect the High Queen, Princess,” he told her as he scanned the pages. “When I was fifteen, I couldn’t even protect myself.”

“Who am I kidding?” he laughed. “I still can’t protect myself.”

He tossed the diary aside and picked up another.

“Not to be a pessimist,” he sighed, “but this is going to go badly. It looks like you’re the lucky one at the moment, Princess. They’re not going to listen to either one of us.”

“Ugh.” He threw the book aside in frustration. “There is nothing here. These Sorceresses didn’t understand the Malum at all.”

He reached to pick up another book and flipped through the pages. If Athena planned to distract him from his fretting, her strategy was working. No matter how flippantly or seriously these Sorceresses took themselves, each of these girls had lived through a chunk of history and had a unique view on events he had studied since childhood. His love for history was matched only by a few gray-haired historians, and despite his anxiety, he eventually lost himself in another Sorceress’ day-to-day dilemmas and successes.

“This one wasn’t even a High Sorceress,” he complained aloud. “She was the Sorceress in charge of keeping the Curi protectorate. She had a terrible time learning Naxturaen, apparently. All she’s doing is whining about how Naxturaen words aren’t specific, so attempts to translate Naxturaen into Terran and convey their original meaning usually fail. Apparently the Naxturae don’t have a real word for royalty, because they use the same word for ‘chosen.’ She spent half of an ambassadorial council wondering why they were crowning candles for an upcoming ball, but they just meant the candles the High Queen had chosen to use. She said the High Sorceress finally had to explain her mistake. How considerate of her.”

He yawned sleepily and rubbed his tired eyes, taking only tertiary notice of the fact that the sky outside had gone black.

“I know what she means, though. Back when I was looking at old Naxturaen language books, I kept running across words that could mean things like ‘friend’ or ‘the goat of my friend.’ Apparently the Naxturae didn’t see much of a difference.”

Something caused him to go back over the Sorceresses’ words. The mangled word for royalty was sticking in his rapidly declining mind, as if he had seen it before. It could have nothing to do with Rin’s predicament or the Malum, so he wondered at the strange insistence of his brain. It made no rational sense. He threw the information on the pile of disjointed oddities that sat patiently in his mind and hoped they would filter themselves out by morning.

Without meaning to, he closed his eyes, which was the point of no return. The words of the Sorceresses across the ages lulled him to sleep away from his worries and the royal guests infesting Crystal Palace.

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