Author's Note: I give my thanks to my first two reviewers!
K. Remmington F: More is revealed about Lathall's powers and Clarice's true personality in this chapter, so read on. We're heading into the main part of the story now.
Ever Twinwood: Glad to know you enjoyed the read. As you may have noticed, I agreed with and adopted most of your proposed changes. However, I'm not quite sure what you mean about the over-usage of 'was'. Could you give some examples?
And now, on with the main story.
The Court Magician
Dear Master, what would you do if you were in this situation?
Unfortunately, I had no way to reach my mentor. Well, he would probably just clasp my shoulder and say,
"Just do it, Lathall."
At least these pointless thoughts helped to defuse some of my anxiety. I spoke carefully, averting my eyes from the female before me.
"I wasn't insisting, Your Highness. I simply made a recommendation," I replied coolly.
"Hmm," the devilish princess tapped a slim finger on her chin and tilted her head, chasing after my fleeing eyes. Damn, it probably wasn't fooling her. Why weren't there any servants passing by?!
"How sharp of you," she stated, her breath still caressing my ear. It felt like she was even closer than before. "That was quite the accurate reading. I have to say I'm rather shocked by how bold you were," she added, despite not looking surprised at all.
"It seemed like you weren't that convinced of my capabilities. That was one reason," I said, managing to shrug slightly. Any further movement would probably have been fatal for me.
"And the other?"
"Well, I thought it might be more pleasant for you if you could speak naturally, Your Highness."
It might just have been my imagination, but I saw a flicker of gratitude in the princess' eyes. "Why, thank you. I have one request then, since you're so accommodating."
She placed her finger on my lips.
"Call me Clarice. I'd rather not be formal with you."
"Sure, absolutely. No problem at all," I replied rapidly. Did this woman have no inhibitions?!
She smiled and took a step backwards.
I heaved a sigh of relief as I was once again allowed some personal space, and shifted my weight off the curtains.
"What's with that reaction?" she asked. The gratitude in her eyes was now replaced by a flash of annoyance.
I decided to go with the truth.
"I was feeling uncomfortable."
Sometimes, I forget that silence is golden.
"Well, in any case, shall we discuss the current situation?" I said hastily, trying to change the topic. The princess was still smiling, but it was now the kind of smile that made me feel like pulling the curtains back and jumping out of the window.
''I suppose we should," she said. She settled down in a nearby wooden chair.
''As you probably already know, there are a number of mercenary guilds based in the city. They are mainly hired by nobles or even by us, the royal family, to do certain dangerous tasks. The most common type of request is for protection, usually when the nobles need to travel to foreign lands. Of course, they are paid well in exchange for rendering their services. They are therefore an important contributor to the city's economy," the princess explained.
I nodded my head in affirmation. I was already aware of that. My master had once been a guild member in his youth, and he had devoted quite some time to explaining the guild system over the course of my education. Guilds were simply legalized organizations that had been approved by the kingdom they were in. Some of them could be quite powerful and had considerable authority, even extending across borders. For example, the banking guild known as Fafnir had a permanent presence in most major kingdoms, including Cassiopeia.
Of course, my master hadn't belonged to such a peaceful group, although experienced and talented mages were highly sought after by many different types of guilds. He had belonged to a mercenary guild as well, one that was uniquely comprised of a small number of mages. They called themselves The Arcane Abstracts, and were extremely well-known even now, although mostly as a group of powerful mavericks. It was hardly surprising that my master used to be a member, come to think of it.
As for Cassiopeia's guilds, I had done some research in the eighteen days between my appointment as the Court Magician of the kingdom and my arrival in Cassiopeia. If I remembered right, the two major guilds in the city were Shadow Heart and Magni.
"Unfortunately, some complications have arisen. A string of attacks have been carried out against members of these mercenary guilds recently. The guilds have been able to cover up this information, and the general public remains unaware, but news will spread eventually. And if that happens, confidence in the guilds will drop and our economy will definitely be affected," the princess continued.
"I see. So I suppose my task is to stop these attacks, and also discover the perpetrator?"
"Well, what else do we know? The attacks had to have taken place either at night or in deserted areas. It wouldn't have been possible to hide them from the public otherwise. Did none of the victims see their assailant?"
The princess shook her head. "No. We don't know much. As you deduced, the attacks all took place at night, and the victims claimed that their assailant somehow managed to disappear before they could even get a glimpse of him or her."
"Ah, I see now. That explains why there hasn't been any real investigation yet," I said, nodding appreciatively.
"You suspect a magician, don't you?"
"Exactly. We decided it'd be wiser to wait until you were present."
I drew a card from my tarot deck. "Is there a map of the city in this castle, Clarice?" The word felt strange rolling off my tongue for the first time. I probably need some time to get used to this.
"Yes, there is. Just hold on for a moment," she got up and stepped out of the room, calling out to a passing servant who returned shortly after with a paper scroll. The princess unfurled the map and placed it on the table before me.
"You were wondering how I'd solve the problem earlier, right? It's true that my readings are too unclear to be help me catch the assailant, but that isn't the only form of augury that I'm well-versed in," I said, placing the card on the top left of the map.
The princess eyed the card with interest. It depicted a robed man who was raising his right hand and clutching a object that resembled a baton while his left hung by his side. Each of the four corners of the image was adorned by an object - a coin, a wand, a cup, and a sword.
It was the First Major Arcana - The Magician. The white lines that made up the image glowed with a soft light of the same color against the azure background.
Four points of blue light appeared on the map. One was located in the castle. The other three were in the city.
"That's useful, alright," Clarice breathed.
"So, we have three suspects, assuming the perpetrator is indeed a magician, of course." We were now heading towards Magni's guildhouse, where a magician had been detected earlier. I was talking to Clarice as we advanced along a street in the city, Nereus. The city's name was derived from Nereus' River, which ran through the entire city and was itself named after an old sea god. As for the city itself, it was built like a ripple, with the castle at the center. Important buildings such as hospitals and forges were located closer to the center, while residential areas were usually situated at the outer rim.
"By the way," I continued, "Do you mind if I ask you something? It's pretty sensitive."
"Sure. Ask me anything. Anything at all."
"Are you going to put your facade back on again when we talk to the guild members later?"
She looked at me blankly. "What do you mean?"
So you do mind!
"Well, jokes aside, I will do that, yes." She shrugged her shoulders. "As a princess of the royal family, there are certain things that are expected of my behavior. Of course, I'd like to be myself all the time if I could. I probably wouldn't have developed this mask if I wasn't the only child, but there isn't anyone I can push my responsibilities to." Her forlorn smile was an expression that I had never seen her make before.
"...That's definitely a burden that I know nothing about."
Honestly, it was unnatural for her to have revealed her secret so quickly to me. The normal course of action would have been to keep her facade up. She was probably so weighed down that she would have gladly accepted any kind of support.
"I'm used to it. Besides, there's someone who I can share my burden with now, after all."
"That's quite the heavy responsibility," I said evenly.
"But of course. Being the Court Magician of this kingdom is no easy job," she said proudly.
That was the end of the conversation and it only took us a few more minutes to arrive at the guildhouse.
Magni's guildhouse seemed unimpressive when compared to the surrounding buildings. It was smaller than most of them, being two storeys in height, and was built out of brick. The coating of red paint and the shield which featured the guild emblem - a fist with a hammer clenched in its hand - were the only concessions to aesthetic values. And yet I was well aware that no other mercenary guild had larger premises. After all, all they really required was a reception area to take and put up requests, as well as a small room to do paperwork.
The princess and I headed through the door, where we were greeted by a young male with an efficient air. I examined the area and saw a canteen to my left. To my right was a closed door, but I could make out the rhythmic clashing of metal against metal behind it. A forge, perhaps? The receptionist's eyes paused on me for a fraction of a second before he turned to the princess and bowed deeply. "Good afternoon, Your Highness. How may I help you?"
"Good afternoon. We'd like to speak with Master Garm, if at all possible," she answered gently. I was prepared for it, but even then her change in demeanour was fairly impressive.
"Master Garm is currently at the forge. He's maintaining Winterblade," a female voice explained. Garm was quite the famous warrior. He was not a mage himself, but it was said that one of his magician companions had forged an enchanted broadsword out of ice for him during his youth. He had gone on to create Magni, and was still the current guild master.
Wait a minute.
I spun around and turned to face the owner of the voice.
The voice belonged to a young female with short, dark blonde hair. Her brown eyes twinkled as she looked at me, and her mouth was set in a mischievous grin. There was a bit of dark substance around her lips, which I assumed originated from the bar of chocolate that she was holding in her hand. She wore a sleeveless rust-colored vest over a plain white shirt with a brown skirt and boots. A black belt hung loosely off her hips, with a metal object jutting out of a pouch attached to it. She was considerably shorter than Clarice and stood about a head and half shorter than myself.
"Why, hello there, Lathall."
"Oh, it's you, Anne," I replied nonchalantly in spite of my actual surprise. "I wasn't aware that you were in Cassiopeia as well."
Clarice's eyes swivelled between Anne and myself. "And who might this be, Lathall?"
"Allow me to introduce the two of you, if I may. Anne - Her Highness, Princess Clarice. Your Highness - Anne Clover Hood." Anne curtseyed as daintily as she could, which was not very. The candy bar was not a particularly dignifying item, either.
"Very pleased to meet you, Your Highness. I do hope that my vulgar mannerisms will not offend you."
"Oh no, not at all," Clarice replied, smiling sweetly.
"Anne was one of my classmates at the Collegium Arcana," I added, exchanging glances with Clarice.
"She graduated as the top student in our year."