Two weeks had gone by and she was no closer to finding any clues to where Lacet might be. Nor had there been any progress with the Crown Prince. How had her master made it look so easy? Read, review and present. At the time, it didn't seem as if teaching magic would have been hard at all. And while she understood that not everyone had her intuitive grasp for the subject, this was all material that Dendron should have already known if he had paid any attention during his lectures.
Idana slumped down onto her chair and glanced towards the great horned owl that was sleeping in the far corner of the parlour. Soon, Min would take wing for her nightly hunt. It was tempting to join her. After all, she had found a spell on flight in one of the musty scrolls the Crown Prince had been prescribed for next semester. It would be the perfect chance to try it out, particularly without Lacet's overbearing presence.
But to do so would be a selfish use of magic. Besides, if she wanted to maintain her tenure in the palace as the Crown Prince's tutor, she needed to familiarise herself with the rest of the material – a collection of stuffy professors that professed they understood the entirety of magic and could shape it to their whims.
Once more, Idana picked up the notes she had tossed on the side table. Yet try as she might, the words would not sink in. The harder she tried to concentrate on her cramped writing style, the more they seemed to blur into nonsense. In fact, she could barely keep her eyes open. Yawning, Idana settled further into the comfortable armchair before slipping into a deep sleep.
The dream she found herself in was a strange one. In it, Idana found herself chained to a wall. Looking around, she saw indistinct shapes and colours. As if someone has smeared grease all over a painting. Far away came the sound of water dripping on stone in a maddening staccato. An all-encompassing sound that niggled at a part of her brain. If she could only shut it out, she felt it would help unravel the mystery. Yet try as she might, Idana could not find its source.
In the cell next to her was a dishevelled man. At least, she thought it was a man. He was seated with his back to the wall. Above him was a small slit where soft moonlight filtered through the bars. The fine clothes he had worn before his imprisonment were now rags. What little hair he had was thinning at a rapid pace and his beard was shot through with white. The face looked gaunt and there were dark circles under his eyes.
There was something about him, though, that urged Idana to peer closer. But when she leaned forwards, she was stopped by the chains that bound her wrists.
He glanced up at the sound of metal clicking on metal, and Idana had to suppress a gasp as she recognised him.
Lacet was all skin and bones. There was no gleam of intelligence in those dark eyes. Instead, they were the dull dusky hue of grim acceptance.
"If you don't want another beating, it's best not to draw their attention. Those guards will find any excuse," he said in a low raspy voice. Licking his lips to moisten them, he continued. "Rest a while. You'll need your energy for the morrow."
"What about you? Aren't you scared?" responded Idana, the words slipping from her mouth. But they were not hers. It was as if her body was being controlled by an outside force. Someone else had taken charge and she was merely the passenger.
Her master laughed softly, though there was little humour in it. "Me? If they could, they'd have me rotting here for a century and a day. They don't believe in killing, you know. And yet every night I hear the screams. Every night, I battle against the demons that whisper I'll be next, tormented by the visions they send me. Still they keep me here. Like a prized pet. Until I come crawling to them for relief."
"What do they want?"
"To break me," answered Lacet simply. "You're simply the latest victim in their quest to have me aid them in their crusade. For that, I apologise."
"What do you mean?"
He gave no reply. Instead, his gaze turned aside and pulled his knees up close – seeming to shrink. His thoughts turned inward.
It was heartbreaking to see him like this. He had never been one to smile or laugh. But this? This was wrong. It looked and sounded as if he had given up. Lost all vestiges of hope. For how long had he been locked away? Didn't he know that she was coming for him?
All Idana wanted to do was reach out and reveal herself. To curl up in her master's warm embrace like they did when she was younger. Amoleth above, she was just a mere five feet away!
Once more, she tried to move. For a split second, she thought that a finger had twitched. All her muscles felt as if they were strained to their limit. Yet she could not make him aware that she was here with him. Why? Was she to be tortured with the knowledge that she had come so close but was still so powerless to affect change?
Furious, Idana pulled at her invisible restraints and screamed out his name. All she wanted to do was tell Lacet that she was all right. That she would find him. No matter where he might be.
As she struggled to make her voice heard, the scene began to shift. Darkness seeped through the edges of her vision. The dream cared not that she had caught her first glimpse of her master after several weeks. Nor did it give her a chance to speak.
Only when the blackness had swallowed her did Idana find her voice. With the last of her strength, she called out his name.
When she opened her eyes again, everything had changed. In one corner of the stately room was a portly man wearing, what she thought, was an extravagant set of robes. How could she not when gold filigree had been finely stitched along the collar? The flamboyant colours contrasted well with his light brown skin and dark hair that was pulled back into a neat ponytail.
He appeared lost in his own world and seemed to be muttering something under his breath. Nervously, Idana cleared her throat and approached.
The man whirled around. For a brief moment, she thought she caught a glimpse of surprise and what seemed to be a hint of guilt before it was replaced with a stern expression that would have even put Lacet to shame. It had Idana almost quailing. So powerful was the look that she felt almost compelled to spill out her worst misdeeds. "Did I not expressly order that I was only to be disturbed only in a dire emergency?"
"A situation has arisen, sir, that needs your utmost attention."
"What is it this time? Has the Crown Prince failed yet another test? I have provided strict instructions with regards to his ongoing attendance at the School of Magic. Lest you forget, I am supposed to be enjoying several weeks of sabbatical," said the man.
Idana fidgeted. Or, at least the person she was inhabiting did so. "The message did not come from the Academy, sir. Rather, a telegram was received earlier this afternoon. It was unsigned but it bore the insignia of Everrun."
She watched as the man turned as white as the moon. "Did anyone read it?"
"No, sir. Once I realised what it was, I took charge of the situation and knew to bring it you with all haste."
"Give it here."
From her jerkin, she pulled out an envelope and handed it to the man. He accepted it with trembling hands. Without another word, he broke the seal and took out the missive. Idana tried to read the telegram but before she could find a good angle, the man had finished.
"By the forgotten hells, Dular, what are you still doing here? You are dismissed!" roared the man. "If I catch you trying to stick your nose into my private affairs again, I will strip you of all your privileges and you can try your hand at surviving out on the street."
"I only wish to help, sir. You know that I'm capable. I could be your eyes and—"
The man sighed heavily as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "Out, Dular. Now. I will not tolerate any backtalk. Not today."
Idana bit back the retort that was on the tip of her tongue. The frustration emanating from Dular seemed like an extension of her own. She knew it well. Had encountered it often when Lacet treated her like a child and refused to tell her anything. The way he would say that it was none of her business had always rubbed her the wrong way.
Trapped in a body that was not her own, she could only follow along. Obediently, she turned on her heel and marched out. As she did so, the dream faded and Idana woke. Night had finally fallen and outside the floor to ceiling windows of the parlour, the sky was pitch black. Though she did not recall turning on the table lamp, it shed a warm glow for her to see by. Min, too, was gone. Slowly, Idana sat up. As she did so, the blanket that covered her fell into her lap.
Qina, she deduced with a fond grin. It could have only been her as ever since their first meeting, they had become fast friends. Qina was also the only one that had a spare key to the rooms.
It seemed a shame, though, that Qina had been the only friend she had made in the last two weeks. Over the last fourteen days, she had not had time to venture out beyond her room except to the classroom where she taught the Crown Prince and to the library to research some obscure piece of magic use. Trying to teach the Crown Prince had sapped her of much of her energy and absorbed most of her waking moments.
Despite her best efforts, she could not reach the aloof prince. The moment she walked into the classroom his eyes would glaze over. It hurt to see how little he thought of her role and the myriad attempts she had tried to have him engage. Did he enjoy it – having the prospect of failure looming over her? Did he want her to quit when she was still empty-handed? It had been difficult to find a moment to spare and build her connections up in court or with the staff.
There was no sense trying to chase down something with no answer. And she still needed to review the rest of the lectures that Dendron had unceremoniously dropped onto her desk when the lesson had ended.
Thoroughly demoralised, Idana picked up her notes and headed to the bedroom. There were still a few more hours until dawn.
The door opened and Qina stepped in with a tray topped with an assortment of dishes fresh from the kitchen. Almost immediately, Idana began to salivate at the tantalising scents. There was toast, crispy bacon and a whole host of delicious things that she could not wait to devour. If there was one advantage to living in the palace, it was ready access to the masterful cooks.
Qina placed the tray on the corner of the desk. "Did you sleep well yesterday, Lady Idana?" she asked, handing over a plate with a scone sitting on top. "I didn't see you in the mess hall so I came to visit you after my shift. Then I saw you fast asleep in the chair and the owl was eager to spread her wings. I hope I didn't do something I wasn't supposed to."
"Min has always been a bit prickly right after she wakes," said Idana, slathering a thick coating of jam over the scone. "You should have seen her this morning. Brought in this huge rabbit."
"I'm glad to hear it, Lady Idana. And what of your plans today? It is a day of rest for many of the palace staff. Which means, no lessons either. The Crown Prince departed at dawn for a hunting trip with his friends, you know. And I thought the two of us could head into the markets."
It was the first Idana had heard anything of the sort. If she had known, she would not have spent the last three hours poring over two thoroughly dense textbooks to aid Dendron in mastering the art of spell amplification for his next practical exam.
Still, perhaps a break was what she needed to recharge. Or perhaps turn her energies towards finding Lacet instead of teaching the pompous princeling the basics of magic.
Over the last few days, she had turned into a meek little girl from the country. Her confidence eroded to almost nothing.
Yes. A breath of fresh air away from the stuffy palace sounded like an excellent idea. And she could try once again to ascertain whether or not Marus Windrider had returned from his sabbatical. Better still, she could devote some time to unravelling the meaning behind her strange dream.
"To be honest, a day out in Wyndhaven sounds a lot better than what I initially had in mind," said Idana. "Do you think it might be possible to visit the Academy briefly?"
The young maid shrugged. She reached out for a sausage and managed to slice it in half before adding it to her makeshift sandwich. "It would be nice to visit my younger siblings. And it is on the way," said Qina. "Now that I think on it, this will be brilliant, Lady Idana. Oh, they'll be so pleased and surprised. Before we go, though, I'll need to pick up a few sweets from the kitchen. A special treat for all the hard work they've done."
"They're lucky. To have you looking out for them."
"I wouldn't have it any other way," answered Qina as she took a large bite of her sandwich. "It's my hope that they become better than me, Lady Idana. With all that education, I want them to have the whole world at their feet. To have any number of options available to them."
"A lofty dream but I'd drink to that if you were ever inclined to bring up a bottle, Qina."
Finishing off their breakfast, it did not take long for them to exit through one of the side entrances of the palace and out into the sprawling streets of the capital. It was still fairly early and for the first time in two weeks, Idana breathed in the air of the city.
Wyndhaven, she found, smelled like industry and innovation. Even at this hour, the factories were belching out black smoke and a hazy smog had descended upon the lower parts of the great city. Up near the palace the air was a cleaner, though it still did not hold a torch to Lastrune.
Following Qina's lead, Idana had slipped on a blue skirt with a thin button-down shirt. But whereas Qina had decided to don a tight-fighting corset, Idana had chosen to forgo the restrictive undergarment. With summer just around the corner and the city becoming unbearably warm, it seemed the wiser option. Both of them wore sensible boots and as they strolled down the hill towards the centre of the city, neither one of them able to temper the excitement brewing inside. Grinning, they walked arm-in-arm.
Their first stop was the Academy. As the cathedral's bell tolled the hour, they emerged from the tunnel-like entranceway and stepped out into the warm sun as it bathed the entire quadrangle courtyard in light. Unlike the first time she had visited, Idana could clearly see students running past, bags and textbooks in hand as they hurried to lectures for summer school.
It was a little surreal to see so many people when previously it had been all but deserted. She wondered, briefly, if Windrider had returned. None of his administration staff had been able to provide an exact date but considering that classes had already resumed, there was every chance he could be holed up in his office. In any case, there would be no harm in asking, thought Idana as Qina took the lead.
"If I'm not wrong, they should be here, Lady Idana."
"What is this place?"
Qina allowed a small knowing smile to steal across her face. "I believe it's the library."
Two massive towers took up the entire northern façade and made the entire building seem huge and imposing. It looked like a veritable warren of knowledge. There was little doubt in Idana's mind that there were excellent nooks and crannies for the students to read if one cared to look. The library itself was of an older style than much of the other buildings she had seen in Wyndhaven, with a mass of supporting arches and flying buttresses. Almost as if it were a medieval church.
"They usually send me their schedules for each week," said Qina as they entered through the pointed archways. "And if they're not busy with lessons, my siblings can be found right here. Come on. No doubt they'll be perusing the applied science section or somewhere close to it."
Idana, though, found herself unable to move as her breath had been taken away by the bookshelves that were stacked up to the arched ceiling. Though she had never been as astute a reader as her master, even she had to admit that she was impressed by the grandeur of the library. From its architecture to the long ladders that could be moved along a sliding mechanism, allowing students and staff could retrieve the precious resources that might be just out of arm's reach, it was the very embodiment of institutional learning.
A tug on her arm reminded Idana of the purpose for coming to the Academy. Sheepishly, she trailed after Qina through the labyrinth of books until they found a small quiet study area that had desks lined up against the stained-glass windows.
Qina approached one that was covered in stacks of books and parchment and scrolls. Two heads popped out as the maid called out a greeting. Twin smiles broke out on the faces of the boy and the girl as they spied who it was. They ran up to Qina and pulled her into a tight hug.
"You should have sent word! If you had, I might have had time to wash my hair."
"Did you bring any of those really tasty sweets Qina? You know the ones. They taste like apples," gibbered the girl.
Watching them, Idana felt her lips curl upwards. Qina's siblings reminded her so much of the young children she had encountered in Lastrune as well as all the other towns and villages that she and Lacet had briefly called home. They were bursting with curiosity and always wishing to learn more.
For the first time in a long while, Idana wondered how the people she had met over the years might be faring. There had been one boy, in particular, that she had grown close to before she had ruined all her chances with a poorly conceived sleeping spell and they had to leave the town.
"I thought it would be a surprise Aleus. Besides, your hair is fine. Well, it does look a tad oily but then again I've seen you when you were still swaddled up and barely able to make it two minutes without screaming your head off," said Qina, slowly relinquishing her hold on her younger siblings. They parted with great reluctance. "And yes, I brought as much as I could safely smuggle out of the palace Gabri."
A resounding cheer came from the girl. "Thank you, thank you, thank you Qina. You're the best sister anyone could have. Will you be staying long? Aleus has been trying to help me with these exercises but he won't explain why the formula works. Only that it does."
"Oh, come on. It's simple. Don't listen to her Qina. I've told her time and again how to recognise the equations and how to solve them. She just chooses not to learn," protested Aleus. "Besides, we all know that Qina has things to do, even on her days off. Right?"
"Unfortunately, Gabri, Aleus is right. I'm only here for a short while," said Qina as diplomatically as possible. "But I've brought a friend. This is Lady Idana. She's been helping tutor the Crown Prince."
Idana gave them a friendly wave. As one, both Aleus and Gabri turned towards her, finally noticing their sister's companion. It was a little disconcerting to find herself under such intense scrutiny. She fidgeted uncomfortably as the seconds ticked by.
"Oh?" said Aleus. "What subject? Doesn't appear to be any of the hard sciences, I'd wager. Maybe history or art?"
"Couldn't be," observed Gabri. "I've never seen her around campus."
"Watch and see," said Idana. Summoning the energy around them, she focused it into a tiny ball and set about slowing down the particles all around them and cooling the air. Concentrating just a little bit more, Idana was able to seal them all into a tiny little barrier as a tiny little snow storm formed around them.
Gabri squealed in glee. "You didn't say she could do magic!"
Aleus was less impressed. "That's an interesting application but in the grand scheme of things, are there any long-term benefits? Do you know what ramifications this might cause to the local environment?"
Overwhelmed by the barrage of questions, Idana found herself at a loss for words. Qina, however, came to the rescue by deftly steering the conversation towards safer avenues of discussions.
Before long, they were out in the bright summer sun again. Gabri and Aleus served as their escorts. The two siblings proved to be excellent guides and for a brief moment, Idana found herself swept up in their enthusiasm as they toured the grounds of the Academy.
For two hours, Idana was able to enjoy the best of what life could offer instead of worrying about how she might go about looking for Lacet or how best to force Dendron to listen. It was as if she could take all the fears that had hounded her since venturing from Lastrune and place them as far away as possible.
Life, it seemed, had been so much simpler back then.
Yet when the bell atop the cathedral's spire struck noon, Idana was shunted back into reality. Half a day was gone and she was no closer to uncovering anything that might serve as a hint or a clue.
"Just one more hour. Please Qina?" pleaded Gabri, pausing in her efforts to help fold the blanket that had served them well for their impromptu picnic.
The maid looked at her sister and gently shook her head. "You know I can't do that. Lady Idana and I have some business to attend to. Besides, every fourth day, I have my nights off. If I can, I'll sneak over to see you. How does that sound?"
For a couple of minutes, Gabri hemmed and hawed. She tried pouting and expressing her displeasure through more obvious means, but Qina was firm. It was Aleus, pulling his sister aside and giving her a stern talking to, that finally allowed her to accept the compromise. Though she did so reluctantly.
"You know, Qina, if you want to stay a bit longer, that's fine by me," said Idana as they walked back towards the dormitory. "There's something I just remembered I needed to check out. You know, to help out with the Crown Prince."
"No, no. It's quite all right. Gabri can be a little overbearing, though she means well. In any case, I do have errands to run and while I dearly wish I had the time to give them my full attention, it's simply not possible."
"Well, how about this: you head off to the markets and I'll catch up. It shouldn't take me too long. By then, you should be mostly finished and we can find a nice place for afternoon tea. My treat. As a tutor, I do actually receive a decent wage though Dendron hasn't proved to be the most apt pupil."
Qina nervously chewed on her bottom lip. "Well, you did mention wanting to visit the Academy this morning," she said. "I got so caught up with Gabri and Aleus, the matter was all but wiped clean from my mind. Go. Lady Idana. I shall wait for you in the fountain plaza. There's quite a nice coffeehouse near the corner that I'll be delighted to take you."
Her excuse set in place, Idana bid a fond farewell to Qina's young siblings and headed towards the cliff overlook where the School of Magic called its home. She only prayed that the Dean was there. Otherwise, she would need to put more efforts in sniffing around the palace and making friends with courtiers. Someone had to know the whereabouts of her master. She just wasn't looking hard enough.
Though she did not put it into words, Idana could not quite shake that she was running out of time and that everything she had done had been for naught.