The Émigré Saga Serialisation - Part 2

The Émigré Saga Serialisation - Part 2

The Émigré Saga is a slightly tongue-in-cheek fantasy written by TS Koomar that follows the (mis)adventures of the larger than life pawnbroker Morley as he attempts a daring heist from the Royal Academy Library in order to pay of his fearsome loan sharks.

SFBook is proud to be serialising the novel over the next few months and we are starting with both Part 1 and Part 2 right now!

I: In Which a Proposition is Made

Some months after the three scoundrels who would be my doom saved my hide by liberating the Compendium from the academy library, I was approached by the burglar Spiro. Observant readers of my previous tale will surely remember that Spiro only came to me when he was summoned by a special sign: namely, a pewter candelabra in my pawnshop’s window.

I saw the clandestine witch Veeda every week, and even the gonif, Finn, visited every few months. But of Sipro, I had seen neither hide nor hair since that previous incident, for I had no need to summon him. He disregarded this convention when he skulked into my shop that fateful autumn day.

The wind, which bellows down the streets of my home city, pulled the door from his hand as he entered my shop. When I looked up to the doorbell’s jingle, my heart skipped. This behaviour was so unexpected, I feared something was awry.

His stout shoulder pushed the door closed against the gale whilst my mouth gaped. Sauntering over, he made sure my shop was empty. As usual, ’twas.

“Got somethin’ for ya,” he folded his hands atop the counter behind which I sat.

“You never collect unsolicited,” I squinted sceptically.

He could’ve been captured by the guard, or so I thought. This proposition of his could be some setup meant to bait me into revealing some guilt. I resolved to remain guarded, though that resolve would soon prove weak indeed.

“I’ve nothin’ yet,” he smiled beneath his customary mahogany hood, “I’ve gotta proposition.”

“Then propose me.”

“‘The theft of the century’,” he slowly spread his hands through the air, as if he were painting the words on a wall.

“Of the century?” I leaned back with a smile.

“An’ you can help me plan it,” he nodded.

“I see what you’re getting at,” I sarcastically sighed, “Tired of planning heists yourself. Getting too old for the game?”

“Don’t jilt me, mate,” he laughed, “I’m lettin’ you in on the ground floor here…”

“What’s the mark?” I asked, his jovial demeanour slowly melting my suspicion away.

“Ever heard of the Synergist?”

“Leave,” I told him flatly, with more earnestness than humour.

“Hear me out!” He held up a palm as if to slow me down.

“Seven thieves have died trying to steal that sodding stone in my lifetime,” I tapped the counter for emphasis.

“But they weren’t me,” Spiro’s mouth curled into a crooked smile, “They didn’t have your contacts, and they didn’t have this opportunity.”

“What opportunity?”

“The old wizard’s throwing a ball,” he practically beamed.

“A ball?” I couldn’t contain a scoff, “For what?”

“For his daughter.”

The Synergist, as you may not be familiar, is a stone of incredible alchemical power. It increases the speed and decreases the required energy of alchemical reactions a hundredfold. A millennium ago, the young Orthodox Church divided it into three parts. Two remain in possession of the Church on the mainland. The third piece was, by chance, in my homeland three centuries ago during our Church’s schism with yours.

This piece of the Synergist fell out of the Clergy’s hands during the turmoil, and entered the protection of the Terrelum family. It became synonymous with their name, and its power made them a fortune. The family’s current patriarch is one Thaddeus Terrelum, whose wife died during childbirth with his one and only daughter.

“I don’t believe it,” I crossed my arms, “I hear he holds that girl closer than the stone. I even heard he locks her up in the tower with it.”

“I doubt that’s true,” Spiro shook his head, “But he’s throwing her a ball for her twentieth birthday. Invitations were delivered today.”

“And you know this… how?” I was curious, if not still not interested in the heist.

“A poor courier misplaced one,” he shrugged.

“Even if – I said if,” I stressed to combat the sudden eagerness in his face, “If we made the perfect plan and pulled the heist off without a hitch, I couldn’t sell it.”

“How now?” He was truly aghast, “It’s the most valuable magical artefact in the land.”

“Indeed,” I agreed, “And one of a kind. The buyer could hardly afford to use it. If Terrelum caught wind of it, he’d bring the forces of oblivion to bear to win it back.”

By now, I was fully convinced this was no setup. ’Twould have been the worst possible ruse for any guard to concoct, simply by the nature of its impracticality. I was also increasingly certain I would not be able to resist Spiro’s request. I have a soft spot for helping others, which is probably my greatest weakness.

Spiro furrowed his brows, his eyes dancing back and forth in contemplation, “I… guess I never figured that.”

“It could take me years to move it,” I continued, “I’d have to be careful as a yeoman with a barmaid whilst shopping it around.”

“Then I’ll pay you to sell it,” he nodded.

“You’ll pay me… to sell it?” I cocked an eyebrow.

“I have a… certain sum of coin saved up,” he admitted, “Consider it a deposit until you sell it, then you can pay me my share.”

His mouth was set with the taught frown of determination. His dark eyes seemed to look through me, as though fixed on some distant goal. This wasn’t about money to him. ’Twas a matter of pride.

“Your life simply won’t be complete if you can’t say you’re the greatest thief of all time, will it?” I asked.

“What am I supposed to tell The Uncreated when I get to the afterlife?” He threw up his hands, “‘I was a pretty good thief,’? Where’s the glory in that?”

“If you make it to the eternal gates, I think you should probably avoid the topic of your profession entirely,” I laughed.

“Will you help me?” He plead, ignoring my joke.

“Fine,” I rolled my eyes, “If you’re caught, you’ll be dead long ‘ere you can rat on me.”

“Perfect,” he clasped his hands together, “We’ll need a way into the party.”

“What about safeguards within the tower?” I felt he was putting the cart before the horse.

“Of course I had an idea for how to get a handle on that,” he suppressed a smile.

“I’m all ears,” I replied.

“The way I figure it, we know another lass who’s probably the daughter of some powerful wizard… may-haps she’s gotta connection we could use.”

“Veeda,” I nodded, “She certainly may have some information… Finn was quite certain her benefactor must be highly ranked in The Academy.”

“I’d be surprised if she wasn’t invited,” Spiro knocked upon the wooden counter, “This is going to be the social event of the year.”

“It will be memorable, I’m sure,” I said, unaware of just how true that prediction would be.

***

’Twas but two days later when I next saw Veeda. As I said, she came in to my shop with some regularity in search of arcane wares to purchase with the credit I had granted her.

A rainy mess of an autumn afternoon, the day had proven a busy one for my shop. I sold nothing more than usual, but the pedestrians were quick to hop inside to be spared from the downpour’s wrath. Their muddy, wet shoes left quite the puddle in a depression just inside the door. Veeda gingerly stepped over it, lifting her blue and green robe clear of its murky depths.

“I believe I should have brought a canoe,” she joked, walking to the counter where I sat.

Her familiar demeanour toward me had grown steadily since the unfortunate events surrounding my debt. She spoke her mind, and had little fear I would reveal her witchcraft to the authorities (as she had when we first met). In those first months, I oft wondered if she felt blackmailed into helping me out of that predicament. By this time, though, ’twas clear she had the fondness for me young women oft have for silly old men. I was not old of course, but to her I must have seemed wise beyond my years.

“Next time, you’ll have to remember,” I joked back, “Because I shan’t get that divot fixed anon. I’m surprised you braved the weather.”

“I needed to get away,” she gently wrung the long black braid of her hair to dry it a bit, “Things are… a touch tense at the moment.”

“Just because the floor is damp, doesn’t mean you have to add to it!” I chided, “But I’m sorry to hear that. There’s also something I wanted to ask you, in all earnestness.”

“Of course,” she looked to me, her vigorous brown eyes eager, if a shade tired.

“Perhaps,” I eyed the several dockworkers pretending to examine my wares, “Once these gentlemen choose to make their purchases.”

The men shuffled a moment as if breaking loose from a daze. They exchanged hesitant glances, ‘ere reaching a silent accord. Finally, they plodded out of my shop without protests or excuses.

“Now then,” I folded my hands as the door clanged after the final exit, “Do you know anything of the Terrelums?”

Veeda’s eyes widened a touch, before narrowing unevenly. She examined me as if to deduce my motives. I smiled earnestly to pledge they were pure (in a relative sense, of course).

“I know of them…” she nodded.

“Well, everyone’s heard of them,” I rolled my eyes, “But do you know them?”

“Personally?” She asked.

“Aye.”

“No!” She replied a touch too quickly for me to believe she spoke the truth.

“Why are you lying?” I was bemused, “And how do you know them?”

“Oh…” she frowned, puffing herself up, “Do you believe you are Finn, now? Telling me when I lie and when I speak true…”

“What has gotten into you, lass?” I shook my head at her sudden retraction.

Just then, I noticed a street urchin peering at us through my window. His nose practically touched the glass, his eyes longing for the warmth and shelter within.

“Get the sodding hell out of here!” I shouted, brandishing a finger at him.

Even through the glass, the lousy waif took my meaning and scampered off. Veeda started, and after looking back and forth, cocked an eyebrow.

“You could have let him inside for an hour,” she accused, “It would have been the generous thing to do.”

“And next week I’d be running an orphanage instead of a pawn shop,” I replied, “Finn is right, you certainly aren’t from this part of the city, are you?”

“Finn, Finn, Finn!” She threw up her hands, “He can’t read minds, you know. He only guesses with great luck.”

“If he gets you this emotional, we shan’t discuss him,” I said.

“I didn’t say–” she protested ‘ere I could interrupt her.

“Let’s talk about the Terrelums, and how you know them.”

Sighing, she examined the floor with a nod, “They are acquaintances of my family.”

“Family friends, really?” I asked.

“No,” she looked back up to me, “Thaddeus has no friends. The man is obsessed… but his daughter…”

“You know her?” I could not believe the excellent fortune ‘twould be if she did.

“One could claim we were friends. As children, at least.”

“Excellent,” I could not help but say aloud, “Then you were invited, I presume?”

“To the ball?” Veeda’s look grew sharp, “How do you know about that?”

“Well…” I leaned back with a deep breath, “It’s the social event of the year. Even us common-folk have heard.”

“Of the many things you are, Morley,” she kept her gazed fixed upon me, “Common is not one. Why are you inquiring about all this?”

“Simple curiosity,” I lied, “And what is her name… the young Ms. Terrelum?”

“Annabel,” she nodded.

“Ahh, that’s right. Spiro and I couldn’t remember to save our lives.”

“What!? No. No,” Veeda grew suddenly severe.

“Whatever is the matter?” I asked, still failing to recognize my gaffe.

“Why were you speaking to Spiro about the Terrelums?”

“Oh… ah… you see…” I struggled, though I knew I was made.

“He isn’t considering a heist during the ball, is he?” She asked, to which I shook my head, “Of course he is.”

“We simply need help getting him into the compound. And if you will already be there…”

“I won’t,” she was definitive, “I cannot go.”

“But you were invited?”

“I was, but the fact is moot.”

“Will you at least give me the satisfaction of saying why?”

“No.”

“Will you at least let us use your invitation, if it comes to that?”

“No.”

“Can you at least describe the layout for us?”

“’Twas years ago I was last there,” she folded her arms.

“I thought the two of you were friends.”

“We were,” she blinked rapidly, “But people change. Sometimes, one has to leave others behind when one moves on.”

“That sounds like what you’d say over and over to convince yourself of something that isn’t true,” I shifted on my stool.

“Listen,” Veeda threw her hands up, “I would relish the ability to attend, but I cannot. I was invited out of courtesy alone.”

“You must away,” my heart actually ached to see her pained by this, “You clearly miss this Annabel, and she probably misses you too.”

“Even were I attending, I should not help Spiro do something so foolish,” she lightly stamped a foot.

“You cannot keep a fool from doing something foolish. You can but catch him when he falls.”

“Or scrape his remains off the dungeon floor,” she crossed her arms.

“He will attempt the heist without your help,” I assured her, “At least you could help him by describing the layout of the tower.”

“He’s breaking into the tower?” She was exasperated.

“Worrying won’t stop him,” I shook my head, “But you can help. Call on Annabel. Get a good look around the compound, and let us know what you observe.”

“I have not seen her in half a decade,” she objected, “We were children then.”

“Far as your demeanour goes, you still are,” ’twas my turn to folded my arms, “I don’t understand what happened, but ’tis obviously a regret to you. ’Tis to her as well, I’m sure. You can’t let that regret lie. Else, you’ll get to be my age, and it will fester. It’ll rankle and decay till it eats away a part of your soul.”

Her hurt look grew to one of compassion as my little speech wore on.

“Do you have any regrets, Morley?” She asked.

“Do this for me – and yourself – and I’ll tell you all about them,” I promised.

“I shall hold you to that,” she nodded.

“I expect you will,” I smiled back.

II: In Which We Meet Ms. Terrelum

Annabel was a comely young woman, or so I would be told. She had the sort of crystal blue eyes and coiled golden hair storybook authors give to princesses. Her pretty pinched face featured dimples at the slightest hint of a smile, but one of only two expressions it new. The other, a pitiful pout, was so overused as to have lost its value.

She greeted Veeda with a beaming smile when our heroine called upon her later that week.

“Dear friend, it has been ages, hasn’t it?” She floated down the grand staircase as Veeda took stock of the Terrelum mansion’s grand foyer.

Its arched gilded ceiling seemed infinitely more opulent than Veeda remembered it. Twin staircases wrapped around the edges of the room, and opposite the entry stood a glistening door of obsidian. This great doorway led to the main hall, and looked like the gate to the void. She nearly expected to see a three headed hound guarding the jet black portal.

As a child, this seemed but a room with four walls and a door like any other. But now, she could see what it represented, and she understood its value. ’Twas a statement of power. Even within the walled compound and the mansion itself, you were still not truly inside. You were still barred from the treasures within.

“It has been too long,” Veeda smiled warmly as her childhood friend rushed over to grasp her hands.

“I’ve missed you terribly,” Annabel’s blue eyes shone like diamonds as she examined Veeda’s face, “We’re both so much older now, aren’t we?”

“I suppose we are,” Veeda’s brows twitched, “I apologize for not calling sooner.”

“Don’t be foolish,” Annabel maintained her grip upon Veeda’s hands, “Father wouldn’t have allowed it. When he told me I couldn’t see you any more, I thought I’d die.”

“He never told you why?” Veeda was a touch taken aback.

“He just didn’t want me close to anyone but him. Always jealous, that’s him,” Annabel shook her head.

“I am surprised he is allowing you this ball,” Veeda nodded.

“It’s been years of patience,” Annabel’s eyes grew glassy, “But it all paid off in the end.”

“Perseverance always… perseveres, I suppose,” Veeda’s eyes widened a touch, “But he never told you why? Why we haven’t been allowed to see one another?”

“Was it your father too? I assumed it was but mine… yours always seemed so amicable,” Annabel slowly returned to reality.

“I shall tell you another time, then,” Veeda assured her.

“That’s just like father, not to tell me something important.”

Annabel still clasped Veeda’s hands in her own, which proved rather awkward during the ensuing silence. Veeda bit her lip to think of something else to say, ere she began to sweat abashedly.

She had come to tell Annabel she would not attend the ball. But with her long estranged friend before her, the task now seemed more difficult than she imagined. Annabel was tied to a time of happy memories in Veeda’s mind. The mind always longs to preserve the trappings of those times, as if they can be resurrected by the remaining pieces alone. We always fail to see that which changed most from those times to the current one is ourselves and not the people and things we are surrounded with.

“So, where in the house shall the ball take place?” Veeda finally ventured.

“Oh! Just through here in the main hall,” Annabel pulled her toward the black doors, “You must come see how the preparations are coming along.”

“If you wish,” Veeda dutifully followed as Annabel led her by the hand.

The hall was filled with scurrying servants, hurrying to transform it into a proper ballroom. Some were stringing lanterns and garlands from the chandeliers, whilst a group at the far end of the room was assembling a platform for the musicians. Their bustle seemed a touch unnecessary to Veeda, since the ball was more than two weeks away. “They certainly are busy,” She remarked.

“I wanted this all done yesterday,” Annabel sighed, Veeda’s hand still in her own, “But they didn’t have the garlands in yet.”

“I… hope they shall still be green by the time of the ball,” Veeda struggled for a reply, for she cared about parties like a cobbler cares about baking yeast.

“What I really need time to do,” Annabel ignored her comment, “Is plan the menu. We will set some tables out in the entryway, you see, but I simply cannot decide what kind of cake we should have.”

“That is a quandary,” Veeda marvelled at Annabel’s pettifogger y.

“Well, I did settle on roast duck, so chocolate seems like it might be overbearing.”

“Certainly.”

“But white cake is ever so dreadfully boring. The cook said she acquired some new recipe from the mainland, but I don’t know if I trust her to experiment on my big night.” “Indeed.”

“’Twas intriguing, though. She says it’s made with buttermilk, vanilla, and just a hint of cocoa.”

“Really?”

“That’s not the interesting part!” Annabel finally noticed Veeda’s increasing inattentiveness and boredom.

“It isn’t?” Veeda was barely able to contain a note of sarcasm from her voice.

“No! She says that when the cake is done – you’ll never believe it – ’tis red. Red cake… that would make a statement.”

“You shall be the talk of the town.”

“Am I not already?” Annabel seemed honestly offended at the implication.

“Well…” Veeda did not know what to say.

She longed to be gone, but her mission was not complete. She had come to tell Annabel that she would not attend, but the task seemed even more difficult now that she had offended her host. There was also my request on behalf of Spiro, but that was far from the front of her mind.

“I… you shall never believe what people say about you,” Veeda finally stuttered.

“What?” Annabel beamed, her wispy brows pushed up with exaggerated curiosity.

“They say your father keeps you locked up in the top of the tower,” Veeda tried to laugh.

“So silly,” Annabel chuckled, “He only keeps the Synergist there.”

“They say that as well,” Veeda grew uncomfortable at the mention of Spiro’s quarry.

Annabel must have perceived this, and took it as evidence of interest on Veeda’s part. ’Twas the first time she had seemed intrigued by anything Annabel had to say, so she did not wish to let the opportunity escape. Like so many youths who are concerned with naught but themselves, Annabel likely suffered from a profound and sometimes crippling self-consciousness combined with an overwhelming desire to be loved by everyone she met.

“It’s the safest place in the entire compound,” Annabel replied with a coy smile, “Would you like to see it?!”

“The Synergist?” Veeda was incredulous.

“Aye,” Annabel winked, “I have the key.”

“The key!?” Veeda was not sure she should be hearing this confession.

“Well, the glyph to dispel the protective wards,” Annabel removed a pendant from around her neck and held its faintly glowing inscription up to Veeda’s face.

“Incredible,” Veeda took a step back, finally free of Annabel’s grasp.

“The key to his second most prized possession around the neck of his first,” Annabel smiled, “That’s what father always says.”

“An incredible amount of magic is present in that ward,” Veeda noted aloud.

“I should imagine so. Father is the most powerful wizard in the world.”

Veeda shrugged at the suggestion. Thaddeus Terrelum’s power came from the artefacts he could forge thanks to the Synergist, not his own command of magic. This was surely lost on Annabel, though. She had no knowledge of the arcane.

This was, in fact, the true reason the two were separated. Veeda’s parents decided, at no small peril to themselves, to educate her in the ways of magic. Terrelum would not allow his daughter to be associated with a witch. His power (via the Synergist) placed him above most laws, but he could not bear the notion of his only remaining love being tarnished.

Annabel led the way across the great hall, and Veeda’s unease grew. Terrelum might not even know she was there, which was for the best. If he learned Annabel allowed her near the Synergist, there was no way to guess how he might react.

The two made their way out onto a great terrace adjacent to the hall, where Veeda pled to go anywhere else in the compound. Annabel would hear nothing of it. She was proud of her charge of the ward, and (perhaps more importantly) she did not want her friend to find her boring.

“I wish it were summer,” Annabel noted as they crossed the great lawn between the terrace and the tower, “I wanted to pitch a great tent in the yard here, but ’tis far too soft with all the rain.”

“A shame,” Veeda continued to marvel at Annabel’s total self-interest.

Throughout the entire visit, she had hardly asked a single question of Veeda. She had not even asked how Veeda was, or what she was doing with herself.

“Your father must be quite worried for the Synergist’s safety during the ball,” Veeda noted as they mounted the stairs to the tower’s door.

The lofty structure stood at the edge of the walled compound, and seemed to stretch high enough to pierce the sky. On a clear day, its brass roof would cast amber light all the way to the docks.

Annabel rapped upon the heavy wooden door, and a slat opened. A pair of turbulent eyes examined them.

“Who is that with you?” A gravelly voice rasped from within.

“A friend. Now do open this silly door,” Annabel sighed in exaggerated exasperation.

The slat crashed closed, and several bolts on the other side slid loose. The great door opened, and the two young women were face to face with the tower’s guardian. A hulking bald man with golden skin and an aquiline nose, he looked like a Scionist. He stood half again as tall as Veeda, and her eyes impulsively widened at the sight of his girth.

“Out of our way, Kalid!” Annabel ushered the hulking guardian away from the door, “I want to show her.”

“Does your father know?” He asked cantankerously.

“Certainly, he does. Now… get your fat hide out of the way,” Annabel waved him away once more, “Silly oaf.”

Veeda shrugged with a smile to apologize for Annabel’s behaviour The massive man replied with sigh and a tilted head, as if to say he was more than accustomed to this treatment.

“I’m sorry for him,” Annabel said as they mounted the stairs which wrapped around the edge of the circular tower, “He spends all his time cooped up at the bottom of this tower like a troll, and it seems to be turning him into one.”

“He is never allowed egress?” Veeda asked.

“Not even for the ball, though I beseeched father to allow it,” Annabel said, “‘He is crucial for the Synergist’s protection,’ he said. Which is ridiculous. Father already hired two more guards to stand watch outside the door. Does he really need this ox inside as well?”

“What else is he doing to protect it during the ball?” Veeda suddenly recalled my request.

“Hold!” Annabel stuck out an arm to block Veeda from advancing.

“What?” She asked with bewilderment.

“Kalid!?” Annabel yelled down the centre of the spiralling stairs with sudden sweetness, “Which one of these has the pressure plate?”

The man peered up to them, scarcely a quarter of the way up the tower, ere shouting back, “You’ve got five more!”

“Thank you!” Annabel hollered back to him, ere turning to Veeda, “Some of the steps have pressure plates. If you step on them, a whole bunch of the steps fall away, and Kalid has to catch you.”

“Unless you are a thief. Then, I let you go splat!” Kalid shouted up the stairwell, slapping his hands together for emphasis on the word ‘splat’.

Veeda’s neck throbbed, and her heart hammered hardened steel. Annabel’s frivolous demeanour left her with little confidence.

“Don’t worry,” she smiled, “I remember how many are between each trick stair. It’s just the first one that gives me trouble.”

Veeda nodded vigorously, but wished she had protested more ere they entered the tower. They advanced slowly up the rest of the stairs, with Annabel occasionally pointing out the ones to skip.

Finally, after some time and breathlessness, they were at the summit. The stairs opened up to a room with arched windows around the perimeter. Most of these windows were of stained glass, but four (aligned to the cardinal directions, I would guess) were without.

In the centre, a pedestal in the guise of a human arm clasped the great silver and red stone known as the Synergist. Around it, a circle carved into the floor feebly glowed with the same ethereal light as Annabel’s pendant.

“It’ll take but a moment for the wards,” Annabel said, pulling her necklace off.

Walking to the circle, she knelt and placed the glyphed pendant upon it. The circle’s glow ceased.

“Mind that you don’t kick it off,” she said, standing, “Or you’ll be sucked into some other dimension of existence. Or turned to ash. Or frozen solid. Or struck by a lightning bolt. Or liquefied”

“That ward is exceptionally volatile,” Veeda noted the swirling arcane forces in the area, the way you or I might take note of the wind.

“And this is what it’s all for,” Annabel grasped the Synergist, lifted it from its pedestal, and held it out to Veeda, “Just look at it.”

“Incredible,” Veeda tenuously reached for the legendary artefact with outstretched fingers.

“Here,” Annabel eagerly thrust the stone into Veeda’s palm, “Isn’t it heavy?”

“Certainly,” Veeda lost her gaze to the stone’s mystic depths.

The surface was polished smooth. Within, a faintly luminous opal shimmer pulsed slowly. Threads of deep crimson, like blood swirling though cold water, snaked their way beneath the translucent outer layer.

Its power was palpable and invigorating. Veeda’s heart was darkened by the shadow of avarice as she clutched it with ever tightening fingers. Her face grew hot as the world grew more vibrant, more vigorous, and more alive.

Annabel had walked to one of the windowless archways, but Veeda noticed nothing. Peering down at the city, a breeze caught up Annabel’s flaxen hair. With a hand clutched upon her breast, she sighed at the nearly tangible world beyond her grasp.

“Your father never told you why we couldn’t see one another, did he?” Veeda tried to break free of the artefact’s spell, but her eyes remained lost within its depths.

“Did they ever tell you?” Annabel choked on the words, eyelids fluttering.

“They taught me magic,” Veeda finally broke the hold and looked up, “And your father would have none of it.”

“Ah!” Annabel released a sigh of aching relief, her face still pointed out the window, “Of course. That is why.”

“You should not have brought me here,” Veeda said, still a shade entranced.

“I suppose not,” Annabel looked up as the sun broke through the clouds.

An amber ray of light flooded through the window where she stood. Veeda, the stone still clutched dearly, moved toward her. When she drew close, Annabel turned round, reaching for the Synergist. Veeda did not withdraw, but refused to release it. Moving her fingers across its lustrous surface, Annabel placed her hands atop Veeda’s. Her touch felt hot. Veeda’s cheeks grew a darker shade of red.

“I am sorry,” Veeda finally let go.

“You should not be,” Annabel lowered the stone as it slid from Veeda’s fingers, “There’s nothing for you to apologize for.”

“I came here to tell you I would not attend your ball,” Veeda spoke through the fog surrounding her mind, “But now, I think I shall.”

“That makes me happy,” Annabel smiled back.

III: In Which Plans are Made

“I shall do it,” Veeda said.

She’d huffed her way through my shop door the following day. A certain wild abandon in her eyes, she addressed me with no regard for the patrons perusing my wares. ’Twas the all-consuming fervour of a captain plotting course directly into a squall to set the record time for a trade route, or a general commanding his troops to perform an ill-fated charge for the glory of striking first. I’d seen that look minutes earlier in Spiro’s eyes, and sighed to see it in hers as well. The foolish errand was doomed to occur.

“That’s excellent,” I tilted my head toward the patrons who were decidedly startled by this outburst, “I believe there’s someone in the back room who’d like to hear the good news.”

With an abruptly bashful look toward my customers, she nodded. I chuckled as she bustled behind the counter and made for the door where Spiro waited.

“So,” he was sitting in my chair, his boots on my desk, “A tiny bird told me you’ve decided to help me.”

“Ah, yes,” Veeda quietly closed the door behind her.

“I also heard you have an invitation,” he smiled.

“Indeed,” she took a seat in one of the other chairs, “But there is a complication with that.”

“Complications are the only thing we can be sure of on this job. Well, that and plenty of glory,” he winked at her.

The zest began to return to her eyes as she smoothed her robe with her palm, “True indeed.”

“You were there just yesterday, so what’s the layout?” He asked.

“I… How did you…? I didn’t tell Morley I would be calling on Annabel.”

“I saw you,” Spiro was matter of fact, “I been campin’ out in the trees across from the compound for a week or so. Getting a handle on the comings and goings.”

“And what have you found?” She asked.

“Too many people traipsin’ about making preparations. The best time'l be during the commotion of the ball itself.”

“How shall you enter the compound?” She asked.

“I’s hoping you could help me with that.”

“The main gate is the only way in,” Veeda assured him.

“Now, you say that,” Spiro held up a finger, “But do you know it?

“Why?” Her eyes narrowed.

“I’ve got it on good authority, there’s a secret passage – an escape route of sorts – that leads all the way to the old city wall,” he smiled.

“Did a drunken and disgruntled former servant report this?” She remained sceptical.

“Not so much drunken…” he trailed off.

“And more disgruntled?” she scoffed.

“It’s real, I even found it. Well, the exit that is. Took me weeks of tapping on that old wall to find a hollow spot, it did.”

“And where in the compound is the entrance?”

“It’s a trap door. Out in the garden behind the main house.”

“A trap door in the garden?” Her doubt returned, “That seems as though ‘twould be quite conspicuous.”

“It’s covered in turf,” he rebutted, “And there’s one of those stone pitcher things on top of it. Keeps it real nice and hidden.”

“‘Stone pitcher thing’?” Veeda asked.

“You know… it’s got a base, then a skinny sort of pole, then a wide plate kinda thing. Like a wash basin but shallower.”

“A birdbath?” Veeda rolled her eyes.

“Why would a bird need a bath?”

“That is what you are describing. ’Tis called a birdbath.”

“Rich folk,” Spiro shook his head, “Can’t even have their wildlife gettin’ dirty.”

“Anyway,” Veeda sighed, “It seems you have your mode of entry. What help do you need with that?”

“I can’t push the sodding birdbath off from the trap door’s bottom side.”

“So I need to sneak into the garden and push it off for you,” she finally understood.

“If you think you can. Might just have to tip it over, which shouldn’t be too tough. Sounds like it might be pretty big, but top heavy as a wet-nurse”

“That is no worry,” she was growing impatient to share what she knew, “Wouldn’t you like to know about the tower where the Synergist is kept?”

“You’ve been there?” He was incredulous.

“I’ve held it,” smiled in a taunting way.

“Naw…” his mouth gaped, “What’s it like?”

“’Tis like… nothing I’ve ever seen. ’Tis a touch larger than my fist, and a sort of chaotic white. Red streaks across its surface, and it glows with a power… a power you would not believe…” her eyes grew glassy, as if fixed on some distant indistinct point.

“Amazing,” he pondered her description, “What’re we facing in the tower, then?”

It took Veeda a moment to break free from her daze, “Oh, there shall be two guards stationed in front of the door, which faces the great patio. We need to draw them off and distract anyone who is outside.”

Spiro scratched his chin, with a crooked frown, “I think we know someone who can provide a distraction.”

“Finn?” Veeda asked from beneath a thin layer of eagerness.

“I’d bet I could pull him on board. Are you allowed a guest?”

“Indeed,” Veeda nodded, “But you need to hear about what is within the tower.”

“Beside the Synergist?”

“Yes,” Veeda rolled her eyes, “Things like a giant of a man whose sole purpose is to break thieves spines, a spiral staircase with several dozen traps, and a protective ward at the summit.”

“The traps… are they pressure plates?” He asked.

“Yes.”

“They’re no worry,” he replied, “I’ve dealt with more than my share. I can recognize ‘em from a mile off.”

“They were virtually Invisible to me,” she assured him, “But what of this guard?”

“I can deal with him as well,” Spiro nodded.

“His arm is as long as you are tall,” She cautioned, “And… I… I do not like the idea of having blood on my hands.”

“Neither do I,” he shook his head, “Murder is abhorrent to the Uncreated. A swift blow to the right part of the skull will put this guard out of his senses quick enough.”

Veeda seriously doubted Spiro’s ability to subdue Kalid, and it showed upon her face.

“The real thorn is the the ward,” Spiro promised her, “I know nothing of magical protection. How’s it dispelled?”

“There is a glyph,” Veeda explained, “Annabel wears it as a pendant. We must remove it from her.”

“Well,” Spiro cracked his knuckles, “Want to learn some sleight of hand?”

“Me!?” She was incredulous.

“We got two weeks still. That’s plenty of time,” he promised.

“If I must,” she sighed, “But I do not fancy the idea of you trying to overpower the giant within the tower.”

“Then whip me up some magic,” his eye twinkled with a momentary smile.

Veeda’s brows furrowed as she searched her mind, “I may be able to do just that.”

“Truly?” He laughed in surprise.

“It shall be a worthwhile experiment, regardless,” she nodded with a frown at the corner of her mouth.

“Well, then,” Spiro dropped his feet off the desk, “Shall we have our first ‘necklace lifting’ lesson?”

***

A week later found Veeda, Finn, Spiro and myself in my upstairs apartment during the early hours of the evening. It had evidently taken some measure of prodding, but Spiro had finally convinced Finn.

“What be my duty in all this, exactly?” Finn asked, taking a seat on my sofa.

The rest of us stood about the room. I was pouring some glasses of port, while Veeda practised her sleight of hand on Spiro.

“We need you to draw off the guards stationed in front of the tower,” I replied to his question.

“Almost,” Spiro said to Veeda, “But you looked at the necklace again. You need to keep your eyes on your misdirection too. Else, you’re telling them something’s up.”

“I draw off the guards while Spiro enters, and that is the end of it? Thank you,” he said as I handed him a glass of the wine.

“There may be guests out on the terrace which faces the tower too,” Veeda paused and took a glass as well, “They must also be properly distracted.”

“None for me, mate,” Spiro waved me away, “I but hope the guard inside will open the door when he sees the other two aren’t where they ought-ta be.”

I shrugged at Spiro’s refusal of the wine, and resolved to alternate between the two glasses I still held.

“That’s a large risk,” I observed.

“If we are broaching the topic of the interior guard,” Veeda took a sip of the port and set her glass down, “I believe I have a solution.”

“A ‘solution’?” Finn mused.

“The man is a giant, and I fear Spiro could not overpower him alone,” Veeda removed a handkerchief from her robe.

Spiro responded to this slight with an impish frown.

“I would not place all my money against him,” Finn replied, “He be… ‘scrappy’ as I believe they say.”

“Quite,” Sprio folded his arms with a satisfied grin.

“Well, this shall even the odds,” Veeda unfolded the handkerchief.

Within rested a small blue bottle. I craned to get a better look, but could not understand how this would help Spiro against the giant.

“What’s that?” Spiro grabbed the bottle, popping off its cork.

“Be careful!” Veeda tried to take it back, but was evaded, “I diluted it, but ’tis still rather potent.”

“How’s this gonna help me,” Spiro turned the bottle upside down with his finger over the opening.

“Please, do not do that,” Veeda pled.

He rubbed the liquid, which looked like water, between his fingers before giving them a tentative lick. His eyes screwed up as he rubbed his tongue against his teeth, the way one tries to scrape away the taste of a sour apple.

“It’s sweet, and hot…” he mumbled, handing the bottle back sheepishly.

“Undiluted, this would burn your tongue off,” Veeda shook her head, “But when inhaled, it renders one perfectly unconscious for some time.”

“Really?” Spiro’s eyes widened as Finn and I shared a diffident glance.

“Do you posses a cat or some other domesticated animal for me to demonstrated it upon?” Veeda asked me.

“A cat?!” I tried not to scoff, “Can’t stand the things.”

“On me!” Spiro practically jumped up and down.

“I… it occasionally produces negative side effects,” Veeda moved the bottle away from him to emphasize her point.

“What manner of side effect?” Finn asked, leaning forward.

“It can… stop the heart. If the dosage is too high,” Veeda grimaced a bit.

“And how do you know this?” Finn seemed almost amused by the revelation.

“I have a pack of cavies which I test my alchemical creations upon,” Veeda slowly looked to the ground with crestfallen eyes.

“You feel guilty, using them in that way. Do you not?” Finn asked with his prodding gaze.

’Twas Spiro’s turn for me to share an uncomfortable look with.

“Señor Javier…” Veeda inhaled and held her breath to beat back her emotion, “I administered too much… and he stopped breathing. I held him close, until the twitching finally stopped.”

“At least you can eat them,” Spiro shrugged.

I gave him a sharp look, to which he responded, “What? Cavies… they’re the little buggers that look like chubby rats, right? I heard they’re tasty.”

“I’ve heard they are too,” Veeda suddenly laughed, her composure returning, “At least, that is what my father always told me.”

“Come then, give us a small demonstration,” Spiro put his hands on his hips, “Hit me with a bit of the stuff. Just a touch of it.”

“If you truly want proof of what I say,” Veeda poured some of the liquid into her handkerchief.

“What do you call it?” Finn asked.

“I… have not decided,” Veeda worked the liquid through the rag.

“You discovered it?” I was impressed.

“Not exactly,” she paused, “’Twas a by-product of a rather ineffective process to derive lye from common salt. I read about it and supposed it merited further investigation.”

“Come on!” Spiro was jittery.

“Okay,” Veeda’s eyes widened with frustration, “Now, I’ll place this over your nose. Simply breathe naturally.”

She should have known better. Spiro, impeccable specimen of fitness that he was, was still a man. Thusly (like every man ever born), he treated each new situation as a challenge. Further (like every man ever born), his initial reaction to any new challenge was to overestimate his ability and endurance tenfold.

Grasping her hand in his own, he pulled her arm close. Leaning toward the cloth, he clutched Veeda’s fingers tight. His face now properly buried in the damp handkerchief, he breathed as deeply and long as he could.

After but a moment, his grip loosened. Veeda quickly pulled the handkerchief away, but ’twas too late. His eyebrows twitched slowly and his bottom lip pushed up as his eyelids drooped.

“Hmmgrrr,” his throat gurgled.

“Catch him!” Veeda looked to me as his knees slowly buckled.

I shrugged, indicating my hands with a nod. I still had a glass in each, and I would sooner let Spiro spill upon the floor than half a bottle of six year old port.

Turning to Finn for aid, Veeda grabbed Spiro with her free arm as he lurched forward onto the balls of his feet.

“Hmms smm sttrg stff,” his throat hummed as his slack jaw kept his mouth motionless.

Finn hopped off the sofa, and guided Spiro onto its cushioned surface.

“Sit him upright,” Veeda was on the tips of her toes, “He won’t have the strength to swallow should he vomit.”

Finn did as he was told, as Spiro’s neck rolled back and toward his tall friend.

“Hhnks, mmmt,” he gurgled.

“’Tis no problem at all,” Finn gave him a pat on the leg, “’Twould be best if you relaxed for a spell.”

“Mmm,” Spiro gurgled, his eyes rolling back into his skull.

“Is he still breathing?” Veeda wrung the handkerchief in despair.

“Certainly,” Finn held a finger under Spiro’s nose to check, “I will hold his head upright to grant him a bit of aide, though.”

“Thank you,” she sighed in relief.

“Well,” I took a hefty drink, “That stuff seems to work excellently.”

“Damn you,” Veeda slapped my arm with the damp cloth, “Standing there like a lummox whilst he was about to fall over.”

“I didn’t want to spill my wine,” I told the truth.

“Here!” She grabbed the glasses from my hands and threw them back one after the other, “Now you haven’t to worry about spilling them.”

IV: In Which our Hers and Heroine are Duped

Another week gone, and ’twas the night of the ball. All the preparations had been made, and Veeda met Finn outside the walls of the grand mansion.

“Good evening, m’lady,” he dryly bowed to her, “You are quite fetching tonight. I am sure all eyes will be upon you.”

Though his tone might have seemed insincere, she truly was quite the sight. A flowing orange sash was draped around her embroidered crimson and yellow robe. A diadem made of a slender golden chain rested against the almond skin of her forehead. This dress, coupled with lips stained a brilliant red, made her look like some princess from the Thousand and One Nights.

For his part, Finn had grown out a neatly cropped beard (which was all the rage that year). He wore an embroidered waistcoat over his ruffled linen shirt, and an emerald brooch that set off his verdant eyes was pinned in the centre of his cravat.

“You are a sweet sight as well,” Veeda bowed back, “Once you’ve been properly scrubbed.”

“This may surprise you,” Finn said as he offered her his arm, “But this be not my first ball.”

“Indeed?” Veeda smiled as he joined the queue outside the gate.

“In a past life,” he sighed, “I was a nobleman.”

“You? A gentleman?” Veeda grinned.

“Part of the ‘landed gentry’ in my homeland,” he nodded.

“Well,” Veeda grinned, “This shan’t be your kind of aristocratic affair. This is a wizard’s ball.”

“I am certain I can adapt,” he almost let a smile slip as the queue advanced.

“I hope you constructed a fully-formed plan to distract those guards,” she whispered, “Your mum nature has been disturbing.”

“I have several contingencies. Everything hinges upon the situation,” he assured her, “Simply let me know when you leave to fetch Spiro.”

“I shall,” she replied as they approached the guard at the gate.

“Name?” He demanded politely.

“Delgado,” Veeda spoke before Finn could, “Veeda.”

“Veeda?” The guard examined his parchment with the list of guests.

“’Tis probably spelled V-i-t-a on your list,” she assured him.

“I see,” the guard examined them with a squint, “And this is?”

“My guest,” Veeda’s tone grew harsh with frustration.

“Finnegan O’Shaughnessy,” Finn put a hand on her arm to calm her.

“Err… I just have to note that…” the guard pulled out a pencil and began to scratch upon the list.

“Need you help to spell it?” Finn offered warmly.

“Oh, of course not,” the guard audibly gulped.

“Guard!” A lustrous voice called from the steps to the house, “Let them in, for heaven’s sake!”

“Finally,” Veeda said under her breath.

“Go right in!” The guard’s colour had drained away at the sound of Annabel’s voice.

“Vita Delgado,” Finn turned to her as they passed through the gate and started upon the short path up to the mansion, “I did not realize you were Iberian.”

“My father,” she admitted.

“And you go by ‘Veeda’ because…?”

“’Tis a long story.”

“You shall have to tell me sometime,” Finn said as they mounted the stairs to the mansion, “But first, I must be introduced to this radiant friend of yours!”

Annabel remained atop the stairs. Her golden hair billowed in the damp breeze which swept down from the glistening sky. Her dress, white and covered with pale blue lace the colour of the spring sky, cradled her chest tightly. The lace collar snaked its way all up her neck, but her arms were bare and the skirt was constructed from a series of wide hoops, as was the style in my homeland at the time.

“This is Annabel,” Veeda gestured to her friend as they stood just a step below her.

“A magnificent honour,” Finn released Veeda’s arm and took Annabel’s hand in his own, “For all this is for your, I am led to understand.”

“’Tis,” She smiled as he kissed her fingers gently.

“Then, magnificent as it all is, ’tis still not worthy of you beauty and grace,” he bowed his head as he let go of her hand.

“Veeda!” Annabel’s knees seemed to weaken a bit, “I had no idea you kept such commendable company.”

“Neither did I,” Veeda said from the corner of her mouth, before forcing a smile, “You must show us inside!”

“Aye, come!” Annabel grabbed Veeda and pulled her through the door and into the foyer.

Two series of tables lined the room next to the great staircases. An incredible assortment of food and drink were piled high upon each. The smell of the sweet cakes mingling with the pungent smoked meats sent Veeda’s eyes aflutter, and she coughed a bit.

“You simply must try some of the roasted duck,” Annabel turned and grasped both of Veeda’s hands in her own.

“I… still abstain from meat,” Veeda replied.

“Well,” Annabel’s azure eyes twinkled, “Some of the cake, then.”

“Perhaps…” Veeda found herself dazed by the brilliant eyes staring back at her.

Annabel’s fingers felt warm. They seemed to pulse in Veeda’s hands, who felt her own face grow hot. Something indescribable was happening, and it frightened Veeda just as it enthralled her.

“I shall certainly have some, once I have my fill of dancing,” Finn had wordlessly followed them in, “Is that a band I hear in the next room?”

Indeed, the obsidian doors to the ballroom were opened wide, and the raucous sound of my homeland’s traditional five piece band drifted out. The violins were engaged in a duel, with the lute and banjo struggling to keep up. The helicon player was already red in the face trying to keep them all on a steady beat.

“You. Dance? To this?” Veeda broke free of the state she was in at the notion of sombre Finn frolicking to the lively music.

“That you have never seen me do it, does not mean I cannot,” he grinned, “Will someone be announcing us?”

“Announce?” Annabel giggled, “Like by a doorman? We aren’t silly aristocrats, Sir.”

“All the better,” he gestured for the two young women to follow him into the ballroom, “There is nothing to slow us down from taking the dance floor.”

With a glance at one another, they obliged and followed him in where the other party-goers were moving about the floor. In the centre, near the musicians, several couples danced and twirled about. Finn walked backward toward the dancers, still facing Veeda and Annabel. A smile carved itself across his face as, with a great hop, he began to dance like a fiend.

His heels hit the floor in time to the rapid beat and his legs kicked up and down as he spun in a circle. The snap of his shoes on the polished floor was almost like another instrument. Annabel’s face lighted with joy, and she clutched Veeda’s palm.

“Where do you learn to dance like that?” Annabel was enthralled.

“Somewhere in The Isles,” Veeda said with a gulp, as her heart raced at Annabel’s touch.

The other dancers and party-goers were beginning to take note of Finn when he moved back toward the pair of young women. With outstretched arms, he motioned for Annabel to join. She placed a delicate hand upon her breast to feign surprise. He nodded quick, and she ran to join him. The two began to twirl and spin as Veeda watched anxiously.

Slowly, though, her heart calmed. The jangling tune seemed to slow and swim through thick air. Her gaze grew distant as she watched Finn and Annabel among the dancers. A sort of inner coldness overcame her and the muscles of her cheeks began to tremble.

Anon, the violins were playing too fast for the helicon to keep up. Its player dropped out, wiping the sweat from his face. A minute more, and even the banjo and lute could not maintain a beat. Their players took a step back and began clapping, to keep the beat as the violins continued to thrash.

The dancers slowed and fixed their eyes upon the duelling violins. Finn began to clap with the musicians, and soon all the dancers were following suit. Veeda clapped along limply as she contemplated her unnerving emotions, which seemed to change faster than the winter wind.

Annabel breathlessly stumbled back toward Veeda. She beamed even as she panted from dancing in her heavy dress. As she drew near, Veeda felt the coldness melt away. The world resumed its proper speed when Annabel threw an arm around her.

“He’s quite the showman,” Annabel observed of Finn.

“Surely,” Veeda smiled nervously, “But it’s primarily a façade He is much calmer in private.”

“You’ve been with him ‘in private’?” Annabel asked with wide eyes.

“Heavens no!” Veeda tripped over herself to make the correction, “Our relationship is merely friendly.”

“Good,” Annabel nodded, “I’d hate to have such competition.”

“Competition?” Veeda pondered aloud as the violins, now exhausted finally ended their duel to a thunder of applause.

Already, he had Annabel enchanted, or so Veeda thought. She did not blame her friend, though, for she had been little better when she first met him.

“You should speak with him further, then,” Veeda said to Annabel ‘ere turning away, “I require some fresh air.”

“Oh! Well, hurry back,” Annabel called after Veeda as she crossed the dance-floor.

Walking past Finn, Veeda gave him a tap on the shoulder, but said nothing. She knew he would take her meaning. The energy of the furious music still hung in the air, and she had to push through the transfixed crowed ere finally making it out onto the terrace.

A handful of party-goers were taking in the air as well, and Veeda took note of them as she walked to the balustrade and leaned over it. The chill was returning. She shook her head and took a deep breath of the sharp air to fend it off. Peering across the dark lawn, she could make out two guards at the summit of the stairs to the tower. Making for the steps down to the lawn, she prayed Finn really would have a way to distract them.

Staying near the wall, she began to make her way around the mansion toward the garden in the back. The world continued to slow. Veeda felt lethargic and unfocused, though she was not tired. Pausing, she pinched herself hard to pull herself back to reality. Moving on with care, she began to think it might have been wiser to wear something dark to sneak about in.

Finally around the rear of the great mansion, Veeda paused to take stock of the servants moving in and out of the back door. One left or entered every minute or so. They always turned to the right and went around the far side of the mansion. Whether they were taking out garbage or carrying something in, she could not tell. It didn’t particularly matter, but it was to her benefit.

With hurried steps, she made for the left side of the garden, whilst avoiding the light erupting from the brightly illuminated windows. The garden was the hedged in sort, so once she found a break in the shrubbery, there was no risk of being seen (not from anyone with more right than her to be there, at least).

Moving toward the centre of the whole garden, she strained her eyes looking for the birdbath. ’Twas no good. In the moonless night, she could see little more than a dozen paces. Placing her hands upon her eyes, she worked some sort of magic which helped her gaze pierce the darkness.

Quickly, she identified the birdbath by the far hedge, and made for it with careful footfalls. The thing was made of solid marble and taller than her waist. With outstretched hands she fixed her gaze upon the birdbath. The tips of her fingers quivered like the plucked strings of a harp. The marble sculpture gently rose off the grass, and moved several feet to the side, ‘ere gingerly returning to the ground.

The indentation in the grass where it had stood revealed an iron handle. Kneeling, Veeda grabbed it and gave it a great pull. Nothing. Clenching her teeth, she pulled again. It refused to budge.

“You’re standing on the door!” A dull whisper came from under the ground, “Just move back.”

Jumping back in surprise, Veeda stood clear. With the grinding tear of breaking roots, a square of the sod flipped up and Spiro hopped out. Closing the trapdoor behind him, he looked to Veeda from beneath his hood and under his cowl.

“Good job. You’ll come put this back on after I make my way out?” He pointed to the birdbath.

“Surely,” She nodded.

“How’d you manage to lift it off?” He asked as they made their way to the far end of the garden from whence Veeda had come.

“Something it has taken me months to master,” she smiled.

“The same way you’ll get the glyph up to the top of the tower,” he nodded.

“The glyph!” Veeda stopped in her tracks.

She had entirely forgotten about lifting the magical key from around Annabel’s neck. Veeda grew so nervous and confused whenever she was near Annabel that she found it difficult to think of anything. She didn’t believe she could get the glyph (not safely, at least).

“I… I can’t,” she shook her head.

“What?” Spiro turned around and walked back to her, “What do you mean?”

“I cannot get it,” her breath began to quicken and she quivered, “It is simply impossible. She shall… I shall be found out.”

“Nonsense,” Spiro waved dismissively.

“No!” Veeda began to shout, and had to squelch the sound as it escaped her mouth, “I can’t.”

“Listen,” Spiro placed his hand on her arms, “You were meant to do this. You wouldn’t be here now if you weren’t.”

“You are certain?” Veeda tried to breathe.

“I’m sure as night follows day,” his dark eyes sparked with vibrant fire.

“I shall do it,” Veeda assured herself.

“Of course you will,” Spiro released her, “And I will move along the wall to the tower. Does Finn have the guards away?”

“He had better,” Veeda took a deep breath turned away.

“I’m sure he does,” Spiro made off the other direction.

Veeda retraced her steps back to the terrace, and was both relieved and terrified to see Annabel leaning on the balustrade. Shaking herself for a moment, Veeda mounted the steps and called to Annabel.

“Were you looking for me?” She asked.

“Heavens yes!” Annabel practically jumped, “You won’t believe what happened!”

“Where is Finn, my guest?” Veeda asked suddenly turning to look at the tower, where the guards still stood watch.

“That’s what I am trying to tell you!” Annabel took Veeda’s hand in her own.

The touch was electric, and Veeda felt her face flush once more.

“What?”

“A young man… I’m not even sure who, beseeched me to dance as Finn and I talked,” Annabel began her story.

“And?” Veeda gulped.

“Why, your friend took quite a lot of offence at the offer. He insulted the man’s honour right there on the edge of the dance floor!”

“They broke out their fisticuffs?” Veeda did not understand why Finn would do such a stupid thing.

“Oh, no! This was a gentleman. He challenged your friend to a duel!”

“A duel!?”

“Aye,” Annabel was now almost breathless, “On the morrow. But, your friend said they should have it out right now! The man sent his valet to retrieve a pair of swords from his carriage, and they’re going to fight it out here on the lawn!”

Veeda struggled to repress a smile. Now, she understood.

“What shall your father do?” Veeda asked.

“I don’t know where he is. I haven’t seen him for an hour!”

As Annabel spoke, Finn emerged from the ballroom, clothed in an arrogant and haughty air. Close behind him, a red faced young gentleman steamed after him. Though much shorter than Finn, he had an exceptionally broad physique. ’Tis the sort of frame which seems to make men more (rather than less) sensitive to attacks upon their honour or manhood.

Finn walked over to Veeda, his back to Annabel. The other man turned the other way and stalked down the stairs.

“Fetch the guards once a healthy crowd has formed,” he whispered in her ear, “There be no reason for anyone to get hurt. I shall meet you at Morley’s once they escort me out.”

Veeda nodded in assent as he moved away and down to the yard.

“What will happen?” Annabel asked with equal excitement and fear.

“We shan’t let it get out of hand,” Veeda assured her.

“It already is!” Annabel pointed to the lawn, where the valet was presenting the swords to the two men.

“Duel! Outside!” Someone shouted from within the ballroom.

Quickly, party-goers began to stream out. With a deep sigh, Veeda prepared herself.

“Down there!” She hollered and pointed to the guests.

“What are you doing?” Annabel pled.

“Do not pretend as though you do not appreciate the attention,” Veeda chided.

Annabel frowned, but remained mum. Grabbing her hand, Veeda led the way down the stairs to where the crowed had formed a circle around the two men.

“As per the combatants agreement, this duel of honour shall be decided by the first strike on the torso!” The valet announced aloud, “Are the combatants ready?”

The other man crossed himself, to which Finn replied with a bow. This breach of etiquette incensed him all the more.

“On your guard, fool!” He shouted.

“I am,” Finn smiled, raising his blade.

With that, Veeda turned toward the tower. The two guards were talking. Clearly they had taken note of the crowd, but could not tell what ’twas for. Breaking into a run, Veeda made for them.

“Guards!” She shouted as the ringing clang of a parry sounded over the crowd, “Guards! There are two men duelling over there! With swords! Come quick!”

The poor sods looked to one another with dumb expressions. Finally reaching a silent agreement, they descended the steps. Veeda took off before them, for this was her best opportunity to get the glyph.

Reaching the edge of the crowd, she pushed through the jostling onlookers toward Annabel. Placing a hand on her shoulder, Veeda felt a warm shock through her arm and down to her feet at the touch of Annabel’s pale skin.

“Annabel, look!” Veeda turned her around and pointed to the advancing guards, “All shall be fine.”

With that, Veeda embraced Annabel. She wrapped her in her arms, one hand on the back of her neck, searching for the necklace. Her fingers quickly found it, but just as quickly, Annabel returned the embrace. She squeezed Veeda around the waist, forcing her cheek against the alabaster skin of her bare shoulder.

Veeda’s eyes widened at this, her face sizzling. Perspiration instantly formed on her forehead as her heart pounded in her ears. The guards began to push their way through the crowd, and Veeda pretended to trip from being shoved. Lurching to the side ‘ere tumbling to the ground, she pulled the necklace from around Annabel’s neck in a single motion.

Free of Annabel’s embrace down on the cold and damp ground, Veeda’s world again seemed to slow. The sound of the crowd and the shouting guards felt hollow and distant. Her head throbbed. She tucked the necklace into the folds of her sash, and looked up for Annabel. She was gone.

Pushing herself up to her knees, Veeda clambered to her feet and ambled through the dispersing crowed. Unable to focus on more than the tower itself, she did not notice as the guards disarmed Finn and his opponent. She did not notice as they were thrown out the gate, and she did not notice Thaddeus Terrelum. Standing on the terrace, the old wizard watched the events with furious fire in his coal black eyes.

Leaning against the wall of the tower, Veeda clung to it as she moved to the far side. The spinning stars were slowing as she managed to catch her breath. Removing the glyph from her sash, she clutched it to her chest as the crisp air straightened out her head.

Opening her palm, the necklace slowly lifted from her hand. The chain swayed slowly, as if falling in water, but instead, ’twas rising through the air. Up and up, it slowly soared toward the heavens as Veeda’s nearly closed eyes fluttered. Nearing the top of the tower it glided into one of the open arched windows. Gently, it lowered onto the ledge, where Spiro grabbed it with a silent chuckle.

“This magic is a handy thing,” he said to himself.

***

He had climbed the steps to the tower as soon as the guards left to break up the duel. Crouching beneath the eye-slat in the door, he pounded upon it. In the other hand, he held a rag, dampened with Veeda’s alchemical liquid.

Kalid performed just a Spiro anticipated. Sliding open the slat, he looked about a moment ere calling out.

“Hey! Where’d you louts go?” He shouted to the guards which were no longer there.

Sliding open the bolts, the tower’s guardian opened the door. Spiro was more than ready. The moment the door cracked, he slid through. Crouching, he was but as tall as the massive guardian’s waist. Still, Kalid noticed the intrusion. He reached for our burglar with one arm, while slamming the door with the other. His massive hand seized hold of Spiro’s cloak. Pulling the garment up to his face, he was dismayed to find it no longer attached to its owner.

Spiro had silently circled round. He leapt upon the colossal man’s back, arms about his great neck. Kalid led out a low growl, reaching for Spiro. ’Twas no use. His thick arms flailed about, grasping backward, but finding nothing. Spiro wrapped one arm around the man’s neck, the inside of his elbow around his throat. The damp rag in his free hand, Spiro moved it over Kalid’s face.

With a guttural shout, the guardian began to back-pedal. He slammed Spiro into the wall with a thunderous sound. The wind knocked from his lungs, Spiro fought to breathe.

He could not understand how the guardian was still conscious. He gripped the rag tighter around Kalid’s face, but the man remained awake. Stumbling away from the wall, he prepared to ram Spiro into it once again.

“Shite,” Spiro whimpered aloud.

Lunging backward again, Kalid ploughed into the wall once more. Spiro’s neck snapped back and the crown of his head cracked against the stone. His world flashed white, and his arm loosened from around the giant’s neck. No longer strangled, Kalid took a deep breath, and instantly fell into darkness. Tumbling forward onto his face, the giant’s collapse resounded through the tower.

Spiro lay upon the gigantic man’s back, clutching his head. Though he had struck the rear of his skull, his forehead ached as well. After a moment of catching his breath, he rolled off and onto his knees.

The floor seemed to move, with a nauseating rocking motion. Clambering to his feet, he dusted himself off. Rubbing his throbbing head, he struggled to see straight.

“Come on, mate,” he whispered to himself, “What’s going on here?”

Looking to Kalid, Spiro pondered a moment, for there now appeared two giant men lying on the floor, “ What’s going on with your head, mate? This place must have some sort of enchantment.”

His breath finally caught, he walked over to his cloak, still clutched in Kalid’s hand. Reaching for it, he grabbed only air, for he was seeing double. Two more gropes, and he finally managed to catch hold of his garment. Pulling it free, he again stared down at Kalid’s unconscious form.

“Looks a touch small for you, so I’ll just be taking this back,” he placed it around his shoulders.

Staggering to the spiralling stairs, Spiro was again overtaken with a great dizziness. Leaning against the wall, he fought to keep the contents of his stomach in their proper place.

“By the Uncreated,” he panted, “This place is strange.”

As his queasiness slowly passed, he continued up the steps. His pace was slow, but steady. About a quarter of the way up, he took stock of his progress. Looking down, he sighed at how little headway he had made. A great weight seemed upon his chest, even though his breath had returned.

With his next step, a quiet click slipped from beneath his feet. His mind raced. In an instant, he knew that sound and he knew ’twas unhealthy. The next instant, his body acted without being told. He leapt forward as the stair upon which he stood fell away. A handful more in front and behind him were hinged to the wall and collapsed in the same manner.

Arms outstretched, his fingers managed to grab hold of the next solid step. His heart raced, and he finally felt awake. Pulling himself up with shaking arms, he continued up the stairs, quickly as he could. Carefully, he noted the trick steps. They were cleverly hidden, but he had seen hundreds of the kind in his day. After several minutes of rapid but tenuous steps, he was at the summit.

“Finally,” he whispered to himself.

Stepping toward the Synergist’s arm-shaped pedestal, Spiro noted the feebly glowing circle of the protective ward. A slow movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention. ’Twas the glyphed necklace gradually floating through one of the open windows, and lowering onto the ledge.

“This magic is a handy thing,” he said, picking up the necklace.

Placing it upon the glowing ward as he had been instructed, he held his breath, and stepped within the circle. Nothing happened. He sighed, picking up the Synergist. Then, just as he was about to place the stone in a pouch on his belt, something felt off. His mind began to fog once again, but he was sure that something was not right.

After another moment of pondering, he accepted that he would not remember for the time being. He exited the enchanted circle and took the glyphed necklace with him, tucking it into his pocket. Walking to an open window, he removed a small metal claw from his belt. ’Twas attached to a rope, one he hoped was long enough to see him to the ground safely.

“Who forgot to bring a rope this time?” He muttered to himself.

Hooking the grapple on the windowsill, he let the cord fall toward the earth. ’Twas shy of reaching the ground, but from so high up, he could not tell how far. Resolving to risk this over the front door (where the guards would have likely returned), he slowly lowered himself to the ground. In the end, ’twas but a touch short, and he made it down with no trouble.

Reaching the ground, Spiro was surprised to see Veeda still standing with her back to the wall. She was breathing steady and slow, her eyes tightly shut.

“You okay?” Spiro yawned.

“Hmm?” Veeda turned to him without opening her eyes, “I was feeling a touch off, but I believe I have recovered.”

“You and me both,” he yawned again, “Can’t believe how tired I am.”

“You have the stone?” Veeda’s eyes flew open.

Her heart began to race at the realization of what Sprio’s presence meant. She thirsted to touch the Synergist. She hungered to feel its power. Never had she felt quite as alive as when ’twas in her palm.

“Sure, but something isn’t quite right,” he opened the pouch and handed her the stone.

Her eyes widened as the centre of her brows pulled downward. She bit her upper lip and her jaw muscles spasmed minutely.

“I should say ‘something isn’t right’,” her voice simmered, “This isn’t the Synergist.”

“What?” Spiro was stunned.

“Look!” Veeda held the stone up to his face, “This has bright green streaks across its surface. I told you, the Synergist is blood red.”

Spiro’s expression grew slack with dread, “’Twas the only thing at the top of that sodding tower. The real one must be hidden somewhere else. This whole thing is a bust!”

Veeda’s grip on the sham Synergist tightened. Her knuckles turned white as she stifled the ravenous rage which coursed through her mind. She would never again feel that scintillating power which made the world louder, brighter, and more alive.

Her soul turned dark as she began to mourn the loss. Her grip on the fake stone loosened, and Spiro took it back. Then, like a bolt of lightening, she remembered. Grasping the Synergist was not the only time she felt that sort of vivacious intoxication. She had felt it on several occasions that night.

“No,” Veeda snatched the stone from Spiro, “I shall not leave without it.”

“But we don’t know where it is!” He was dejected.

“I do,” Veeda’s harsh tone curled her lips into a vindictive smile, “And we shall leave no trace. Have you the glyph?”

“Ya, I grabbed it,” Spiro fished it out of his pocket as Veeda grabbed the still dangling rope.

With a tug of her hand, the loose cord grew rigid, “And my potion?”

“Aye. I think there’s but a little left, though, ” he fished out the small bottle as well.

“Good.”

Lifting the now stiff rope, she dislodged the grapple claw. Releasing it, she swiped the glyph and vial from his outstretched hand.

“Watch your head,” she commanded as the now slack rope and the claw tumbled to the ground.

“What are you doing?” He wound the rope and tied it back onto his belt.

“Worry not,” She removed her sash, wrapping it about the false Synergist and other articles, “We shall place you back into the passage, and cover it up. I shall retrieve the Synergist, and meet you at Morley’s.”

“You aren’t gonna tell me more than that, are you?” He remarked.

“No,” she clutched the little bundle to her side, “Now lead the way back to the garden.”

Spiro did as he was told. They made their way through the shadows along the compound’s wall and into the garden. He opened the trap door and re-entered the passage.

“I wish you’d tell me what you’ve planned?” He looked up to her.

Kneeling, she smiled, “Why do you care what I have planned?”

“Well… this is my heist, see?” His head tilted to the side.

“And the glory shall go to you, for all I care.”

“Just be careful,” he said in the abashed way a boy tries to hide his sentiment for one he fancies.

“You had best be careful,” Veeda stood and grabbed the turf covered trap door, “Or I shall begin to think you are growing fond of me.”

Spiro pondered a response, before quickly darting down the hole. Veeda lowered the door after him and placed the birdbath back atop it.

Gathering herself up, she double checked the contents of her small bundle. It seemed inconspicuous enough, she thought. It appeared as though she were simply tired of wearing it, or uncomfortably hot. With one last breath beneath the diamond studded sky, she headed back into the ball.

V: In Which Confessions are Made

Though Veeda had been absent some time and the midnight hour had come and gone, the ball was still lively as could be. The band was playing, and even more dancers (likely emboldened by the evening’s libations) were upon the floor.

Entering from the terrace, she looked about for Annabel. She was not on the dance floor, nor anywhere Veeda could see in the main hall. Moving back toward the entryway she kept her eyes peeled for her quarry. Finally, through the obsidian doorway, she spied her near a table of sweets.

The night had been one of excitement for Annabel. Her skin (and particularly her cheeks) were red from the wine she had drunk, and her hair was tousled from twirling on the dance floor. Veeda approached her with a forced smile.

“Where have you been!?” Annabel shouted upon seeing Veeda, ‘ere placing a hand over her own mouth in embarrassment.

“Looking for you,” Veeda said, drawing near, “After I saw my guest safely out, of course.”

“Terrible that,” Annabel rested an unsteady hand on Veeda’s shoulder and leaned close, “But it will keep everyone talking.”

Just as before, Annabel’s touch sent a sort of swelling warmth drumming through Veeda. This time, she didn’t fight it. She leaned into the heat, and embraced the racing power of Annabel’s ardent touch.

“Indeed,” Veeda put a hand on her old friend’s back to steady her, “But I doubt your father appreciated the attention.”

“Fie on him,” Annabel put her face near Veeda’s ear, “He shan’t let me have another ball anyway.”

Her hot breath sent a shiver down Veeda’s back. Her hair stood on end and the room grew bright.

“Such a shame,” Veeda patronizingly shook her head, for she knew Annabel was too far gone to notice.

“You know what the real shame is?” Annabel’s eyes widened and she leaned back as if to see more of Veeda, “I can’t find my bloody lady’s maid.”

“Why do you need her, dear?” Veeda continued to relish the rush of Annabel’s touch.

“I bet she’s with that new valet!” She ignored Veeda’s query, “I promised not to rat on them – because they would have ever such cute children – but I won’t stand for their gallivanting at my bladder’s expense.”

Veeda nervously contained her joy at the opportunity, “You need help out of your dress, then?”

Annabel’s face went loose as she processed Veeda’s offer. Looking up with an eager light in her eyes, she nodded.

“It’ll be but a minute, and we can be back… if you’re sure you don’t mind.”

“Not in the least,” Veeda smiled, “Which way?”

“Up these stairs to the left,” Annabel pointed to the stairs at their right.

“Your left, or mine,” Veeda joked.

“Err… yours,” Annabel’s speech began to slur, as she led the way to the right.

The young women mounted the stairs and ventured down a series of winding hallways. Veeda struggled to keep track, should she need to find her own way out. Abruptly, Annabel stopped before a door, so that Veeda ran into her great hooped skirt.

“Here ’tis,” she fumbled with the doorknob, “A hand with this, perhaps?”

Veeda snaked around Annabel and opened the door for her. Stumbling through, she tried to sit upon her bed. The great skirt she wore made this practically impossible, and she instead rolled slightly to the side and off the bed. Veeda caught her, and held her on her feet.

“Mayhaps we should get you out of this dress?” Veeda offered.

“That would be lovely,” Annabel turned round and held as steady as she could.

Veeda placed her bundle upon the bed, careful not to let it unravel. Removing the vial, she quickly dumped its contents into a handkerchief, ‘ere stashing it away. Turning back to her friend, Veeda began to unlace the back of her blue dress with her free hand. The pale skin of Annabel’s back quivered at her touch. A small noise escaped her lips.

“I can’t believe…” Annabel slurred indistinctly as she removed her arms from the dress, now that ‘twas somewhat loosened.

“What is that, dear?” Veeda readied the dampened handkerchief in her left hand.

“I’ve but dreamt of… being like this… with you,” Annabel replied.

Veeda’s fingers froze as a frigid shock flew threw her body, “Whatever do you mean?”

“This was all for you,” Annabel’s bare shoulders drooped, as if released by a great sigh.

“This?” Veeda’s stomach began to churn.

“The ball!” Annabel nodded, though her back was still turned (’twas probably easier for her to say this without looking at Veeda, after all), “I’ve thought of you every day for all these years. I shan’t ever forgive father for keeping us apart. I simply had to see you.

I…”

“You…?” Veeda withdrew her stunned hand from the lace of Annabel’s dress.

“I love you, Veeda. I’m in love with you.”

Veeda thought she might retch. She did not even pause to think, but reached around Annabel with her left arm, and pressed the handkerchief against her blushing face. In a breath, Annabel was out cold. Veeda caught her about the waist as she wilted, and lowered her onto the bed.

Veeda couldn’t bear to gaze upon Annabel’s face as she shimmied the dress the rest of the way off. Once the garment was free of the young woman’s legs, Veeda tumbled it onto its side. Reaching into the cavernous skirt, she began to grope about. Finally, she grasped upon it: The Synergist. ’Twas cradled in a small pouch sewn to the back of the skirt. Removing it, Veeda reveled in its soaring, pulsing power. Waking herself from the daze, she clambered to the bed, where she replaced the false Synergist in her bundled sash with the real one. Placing the sham stone into the pouch in Annabel’s dress, Veeda stood. Finally, she dared to look upon Annabel’s unconscious form. She was sprawled across the edge of the bed, slender limbs akimbo. Her sleeveless chemise and bloomers were stained translucent with sweat, sticking to the curves of her body.

Veeda knew she should stay until she awoke. She knew she should help her into the dress and get her back out to the party. She knew this was the best way to avoid suspicion, but she couldn’t do it. Gazing at Annabel made her head light and her stomach heave with nervous energy. She couldn’t stand to be near her a moment longer.

“Filthy creature,” Veeda muttered with one last sidelong glance toward her childhood friend, the doorknob in her hand.

Clutching her bundle close, she ventured back through the halls, and hastened to the foyer. She hurried, with her eyes fixed on the ground. She noticed nothing as she raced from the house, and into the dark streets.

With but a vague sense of direction, she made her way downhill and toward the Longshoreman’s Quarter. Her breath was thick as steam as she hurried past the darkened houses and closing public houses. She kept her head low, with naught but the starlight to illuminate the cobblestones beneath her feet.

She was nearly to my shop when a voice called from a darkened alley before her.

“‘Ello pretty!” A man emerged from the shadows a dozen paces in front of her, “What’re you doing on these streets so late?”

Veeda stopped and stared as the man sauntered toward her. He was rather short, with sharp rat-like features and matted tawny hair. You could almost hear the sound of decaying teeth in his voice.

“You one of them Scionists?” He asked accusatory.

Veeda stayed mum. Her usually warm eyes were steely with resolve. She reached a hand into her bundle, gripping the Synergist.

“Whadda you think Jonny?” The rat-faced man asked, looking over Veeda’s head.

“Naw,” the deep bass voice of a thick armed sailor issued from behind her.

She didn’t flinch at this. She remained motionless as the cold wind billowed down the street, rippling her robes. This ‘Jonny’ had silently emerged from the shadows as well, and was close enough to touch her.

“She ain’t one o’ them… she got nothin’ on her head. Them Scionists always wear something on their heads,” Jonny observed with surprising astuteness for a common thug.

“Well, she certainly don’ look like she belongs ‘round here,” the rat-faced man halted his advance and slowly pulled a knife from his belt, “But a lil’ coin might help us overlook this…uh…uh… transgression.”

“Certainly would,” Jonny nodded.

“So, darlin’, hand o’er whatever you got.”

Veeda kept her eyes fixed on the rat-faced man, her brows tensed in vicious concentration. The two men awaited a reply. When none was forthcoming, they exchanged a perplexed glance. Jonny shrugged as the rat-faced man sighed.

“You understand what we’re sayin’?” He was vexed, “You speak Inglish?”

Nothing.

The rat-faced man rolled his eyes and began to mime along with his demands, “Coin,” he rubbed his fingers together, “Give us,” he pointed to himself, “Your coin,” he pointed to Veeda and again rubbed his fingers together.

Nothing.

“Alright Jonny, take it from her,” the rat-faced man shook his head.

Jonny reached for her, but the moment his hand grazed her shoulder, he soared off his feet. Wheeling backward, he fell upon his head with a crack, and landed on his face. The rat-faced man jumped back in surprise as his knife was ripped from his grasp. It flew to her hand, but she did not keep hold of it for long.

Rushing the rat-faced man, she threw the knife downward. It sunk straight through his foot, wedged between the bones. With that, she was on top of him. She placed a hand over his mouth to stifle his agonized screams. An unwavering fire glowed in her eyes as she stared the petty man down. His screams subsided as he shivered with fright.

“Can you read or write?” Veeda hissed with authority.

The rat-faced man meekly shook his head ‘no’.

“Then you shan’t tell a soul what happened here.”

His head made vigorous, if minute, nods.

“You shall forgive me if I do not trust you,” a smirk peeked at the corners of her lips.

A slow sizzling sound issued from beneath Veeda’s hand. The rat-faced man’s eyes welled in pain and a series of high creaks and cracks emerged from between her fingers.

Pulling her hand away from his face, Veeda assessed her work. A light steam swam around the man’s lower face. His lips and surrounding skin were frozen solid. They were cracked and inky-black, like toes too long exposed to the cold. Tears streamed from his terrified eyes, but turned to ice the moment they touched the frostbitten flesh.

He dropped to the ground as she stepped back. She gazed down at his huddled form,scrutinizing her handiwork. The harsh light of her eyes faded as her brows lifted in disbelief. The determined frown on her face melted to a loose expression of amazed horror. Her hand began to tremble and she looked about the street. Not a soul was stirring.

Her eyes returned to the rat-faced man, dancing about as she struggled to comprehend the act she had just committed. She shook her head in disbelief. More and more vehemently she shook it, slowly stumbling backward. Finally, she could no longer bear the sound of the muted sobs struggling to escape the crumpled man’s throat. Turning toward my shop, she broke off at a run.

***

I’d left the shop door unlocked in anticipation of Veeda’s return. ’Twas a prudent move, as she careened through the door on a beeline for the back room where Finn, Spiro and I awaited her return.

“Latch the thing, would you?” I asked as she was half way to the counter.

With no verbal reply, she complied ‘ere joining the rest of us in the back. Spiro was standing in the corner, drinking a cup of kafe. Finn – slightly roughed up, but looking much better than Spiro – sat across from my desk. He stood up to offer his seat when Veeda entered. A brisk wave was her reply. She dropped her bundle on the desk, and began pacing the room.

“Be this it?” Finn carefully unwrapped the sash.

“Hope so,” Spiro shuffled past Veeda to close the back room’s door.

“Tired?” She asked in an offhand way, taking note of Spiro’s cup of kafe.

“I can’t explain it,” he shook his head, “But I’m quite tuckered. Maybe ’twas all those stairs in the tower.”

Finn finished unswaddling the Synergist and the two of us marvelled at its shimmering depths.

“Well,” Spiro picked the stone up with his free hand, “That’s certainly not what I pulled from the tower.”

“Where was it?” I was eager for the solution to the mystery.

“Annabel… had it the entire time,” Veeda’s eyes stayed fixed upon her feet as she paced, “’Twas sewn in the lining of her skirt.”

“Hell,” Finn shook his head, “We needed but a bit of seduction. I could have removed it from her without all this fuss.”

“Doubtful,” Veeda replied distantly.

“You still doubt me?” He replied.

“I don’t think ’twas that,” I cautioned him, ‘ere addressing Veeda’s demeanour, “What precisely happened?”

“She…” Veeda wrung her hands whilst searching for the words.

“Annabel?” Finn asked, “What about her?”

“She wanted… me,” she finally quit her pacing with a sombre expression.

“I am afraid I do not take your meaning,” Finn replied.

“The whole thing, the entire ball, was all for me. ’Twas an excuse to see me again after we were forbidden to years ago.”

“Hold,” Finn was, for the first time I had ever seen, struggling to believe the subtext he was reading.

“So, you seduced her?” I asked, wishing to avoid the prolonged explanation.

“Not intentionally!” Veeda exploded, “’Twas how she took it. I did not mean it.”

“Who cares?” Spiro shrugged, then brandished the Synergist, “You got us this!”

“Who cares?” Veeda locked her eyes upon his, “Who cares? Even by accident, I led her to believe things which were not true about me. Disgusting things. I touched her. I feel as though I need to bathe. Scrub all this off…”

“In the name of– she took a fancy to you. That’s all. She read the signs wrong, is that a crime?” Spiro dropped the Synergist back onto the table.

“This manner of misunderstanding is decidedly illegal,” Finn commented.

“’Tis unnatural!” Veeda visibly shivered.

“Unnatural?” Spiro drained his cup ‘ere continuing his thought, “The Uncreated wouldn’t have made her so if ’twas against his plan.”

“What are you saying about The Uncreated?”

Veeda seemed angered by Spiro’s rebuttals. I believe she took his contrary comments as insensitivity to her pain. Then again, perhaps he was. ’Twas clear to me, though, that she was confused above all else.

“If she hadn’t been blinded by her feelings for you, we’d’ve never pulled off this remarkable task. I think we’re all being pretty dour, considering what we accomplished tonight,” Spiro rebutted.

“Why don’t you make another cup of kafe for yourself upstairs,” I said, “And you can revel with him, Finn.”

“As you wish,” Finn stood and led the way out.

Spiro closed the door behind himself, but not without one last glare at Veeda. For her part, the lass looked to me pleadingly.

“Don’t you find it repulsive?” She asked.

“’Tis no business of mine whom that young woman, or you, or anyone chooses to love. That she chose you… well, she’s a foolish girl. Youth makes us all foolish, lass.”

Veeda said nothing. She sighed with a frown.

“You weren’t afraid you felt the same, were you?” I finally ventured.

“Certainly not!” She looked up to me with eyes flashing disgust, before collapsing into the chair Finn had vacated.

“Even… simply pretend you had,” I said, “I’d still be your friend.”

Veeda stifled a laugh, “I wouldn’t doubt it. You and Spiro are so mercenary, believing whatever suits you at the moment.”

“Are we so different that you or Finn?” I asked, before deciding to goad her, “Ah, that’s it, isn’t it? You don’t want Finn to think one bad thing about you. He’s still got you beguiled, doesn’t he?”

“Finn!?” Veeda failed to contain this laugh, “He’s my father’s age. I might have been intrigued by his talents, but he’s for too old for me.”

“Many a woman your age has married a man twice her own,” I reminded her.

“Indeed…” she frowned, again growing pensive, “Life in that cage wouldn’t be much different than the one I currently occupy.”

“This is a metaphorical cage, I assume?”

“Yes, Morley, ’tis not a real cage. Though it may be anon.”

“What do you mean, lass?”

“I live with my parents,” she said as though revealing some great secret.

“For an unmarried woman,” I shrugged, “’Tis not so extraordinary.”

“I am a prisoner in their home. They believe they are shielding me from the risk of being revealed as a sorceress. Instead, they are suffocating me. The rare days I am allowed to venture out, I come here.”

“I see,” I was ill prepared to comfort her over this revelation, so I chose the coward’s route of returning the conversation to its previous course, “But, how ever did you know ’twas Annabel who had the Synergist?”

“I could feel it,” she shrugged.

“You ‘felt’ it?”

“Whenever I was near Annabel, I sensed the mystical energies of this stone. ’Twas exhilarating. Intoxicating, even, though I didn’t realize its source.”

“But when Spiro pulled the false stone from the tower…”

“I knew what it truly was. So, I went to Annabel’s chambers, knocked her out with my potion and replaced the real Synergist with the false one.”

“Surely she will know ’twas you?” The hair on my neck began to stiffen.

“Mayhaps – if she remembers anything in the morn. She was quite ‘sauced’, as they say. Regardless, she could never reveal her abhorrent secret to her father by admitting that I was alone with her in her private chambers.”

“And if he already knows?”

“Admitting she succumbed to her foul sin is no better.”

“I’ll have my fingers crossed for the blackout over the blackmail,” I knocked upon the desk, ‘ere pointing to the Synergist, “And if this is something you wish to use, you may do so. Long as you can keep it safe, ’twill take me some time to find a buyer.”

“No!” Veeda nearly jumped out of her seat, “I mean… thank you, but I cannot.”

“Why?” Her sudden shift concerned me (perhaps the stone was dangerous, I thought).

“I simply cannot,” she replied.

“Give me the story, and quickly this time,” I did not wish to draw it out of her again.

“On my way from the ball,” she inhaled to steel herself, “I was jumped by some thugs.”

“What!? Did they harm you?”

“Do I look as though I am hurt?”

“No, but I am.”

“You are…?” She did not take my meaning.

“Hurt. That you didn’t tell me as soon as you arrived. They could have followed you.”

“No, they could not,” she shook her head, as her jaw began to tremble, “I hurt them. One may be dead, I cannot be certain.”

“I’m sorry,” I reached across the table to take her hand, “I’m sure you didn’t mean to.”

“That’s the rub!” She pulled away, “I did. I wanted to hurt them. I had that accursed stone. Its power – Morley, I know you cannot feel it – but ’tis incredible. I had that power, and I wanted to use it.”

“I… I can’t blame you for that.”

“You should!” Her eyes welled, “My whole life, I’ve been told they are wrong. The Academy, the Clergy. They say women are too weak. They say we lack the will to wield magic responsibly. They say it turns us into monsters.”

“They’re wrong,” I asserted.

“What if they aren’t?” A tear rolled down her almond-colored cheek, “I was raised to prove them wrong. ’Twas all my parents wanted for me. My mother raised me as she was raised – with serenity in my soul and peace as my mantra. I’ve never even eaten meat, but tonight, I might have killed a man.”

My heart broke for her. A lump formed in my throat as I searched for the proper words.

“You’re leaving the stone with me?” I finally managed to utter.

“Yes,” she looked to the ground with shame.

“Then you’re stronger than all those men up in their towers. Do you think they’d let this go? Would they refuse this power?”

“Probably not,” she admitted.

“That’s right,” my confidence, shaken by her display of emotion redoubled, “The right to wield power isn’t found in the will to… dominate it into submission. It comes from the strength to walk away when the power becomes too great. You did that tonight. You’re the strongest person I know, lass.”

“Do you know what?” She slowly stood, her eyes filled with sudden light.

“What?”

“You’re a blowhard,” she smiled, “But your rambling always helps.”

“Now there’s the lass I know!” I stood and walked round the table to give her a hug, “You go get some rest, and I’ll see you anon.”

“Oh Morley,” she returned my squeeze, “It shall be some time ‘ere you see me again.”

“How now?”

“My father forbid me to attend the ball,” she gave my shoulder a pat and made for the door, “Like keeping me locked away, ’twas for my own protection. I shan’t be leaving the house any time soon.”

“Wait!” I called to her as she opened the door.

“What is it?” She asked, turning around.

“I promised to tell you my regret,” I pulled my arms behind my back sheepishly, “If you helped. I promised to tell you.”

“That you did,” she grinned through her turbulent emotion, “Let me have it then.”

“I… always dreamed of a family. Children and all that,” I shrugged, “Of course, no woman with a shred of respect would–“

“’Tis lovely that you feel that way,” Veeda walked back to me, “But I regret I must admit… you’re even older than my father.”

“Ha. Ha. Ha,” I laughed bitterly to mask my chagrin (though my red cheeks probably betrayed me).

“You would make a wonderful father, Morley,” she planted a peck on my cheek, “And that is no joke.”

“Thank you,” was all I could say as she turned to go.

And that, gentle sirs and madams, is how I acquired the cursed stone which would lead to my eventual doom.

To Be Continued...

You can read Part 3 of the Émigré Saga next month, or follow the author TS Koomar on Facebook.