“This is what you’ve been doing the whole winter break?” Iris asked in awe, slowly pacing around the construct. “This is amazing! I mean, it’s huge, Maureen! Well, maybe not huge, but considering you put it together all by yourself in a week…”
“Mayhap I oughtta stop ye there,” Maureen said, grinning and straightening up from the bolts she had been tightening. “Aye, she’s a substantial chunk o’ hardware, all right, but pretty much just so much metal at the moment. An’ she ain’t just my project. Me an’ Teal ‘ave been at this. Well, me, Teal, an’ ‘er other half.”
“Shaeine helped you with this?” Szith asked, raising an eyebrow.
Maureen cleared her throat. “Oh, uh… That’s not what I meant by… Um, her other other half. Vadrieny. Plus, Scorn likes to ‘ang around with ‘er, so, y’know, between an archdemon an’ a towerin’ great Rhaazke, I didn’t exactly lack fer muscle t’lift the ‘eavy parts.”
“Oh.” Iris’s expression shifted to a rueful grin. “Well, that makes a great deal more sense, then.”
“Quite,” Ravana said brightly. “It would appear to be right up Teal’s proverbial alley, in any case. Am I correct in guessing this is some type of vehicle, Maureen?”
She paused to sip her cordial while raising her eyebrows expectantly. She had had them brought in by the case from Calderaas starting at the end of last semester, after discovering that while the fruity bottled drinks did (barely) contain alcohol, it wasn’t enough to trigger whatever effect Tellwyrn had laid on the campus that rendered it undrinkable. Thus, Ravana had seldom been without a bottle in the last week, despite the fact that she claimed they tasted like mouthwash and the carbonation was purely irritating. According to her, it was a matter of principle. As always, she was generous with her bounty, though most of her roommates were sufficiently put off by her descriptions of the cordials to decline, with the exception of Szith, who actually liked them.
The shed Maureen and Teal had appropriated for their project was theoretically designated as storage for the Well, their dorm, but Afritia had told Maureen to make herself at home. The dorm had only this year been re-opened and had nothing stored, so for the time being at least, it was available and at least this way, someone got some use out of it. The space was not much larger than a somewhat generous stable stall, and had been quite dim and dingy before Maureen had strung up a few fairy lamps, then keyed them all to a single runic switch so that one touch could turn on the lights—a standard arrangement, but Iris had nonetheless been impressed that the gnome had done the enchanting herself.
Taking up the bulk of the space was Maureen’s project, which at the moment mostly resembled a large, confused wheelbarrow: the smoothly rounded copper shell bristled with pipes and wires where various gadgets were to be attached, its rounded side up, and the wheel affixed to its flatter underside. The wheel itself was hugely broad, coated in a springy black material and carved in odd patterns. Extending from the rear of the copper shell was a tail-like structure, currently propped up on two sawhorses, and Maureen was in the process of bolting an enchanted apparatus to its underside.
“What’s all this?” Iris asked, bending to gently run her fingers along the wheel. “It feels…odd.”
“Aye, that’s synthetic rubber,” Maureen explained.
Ravana straightened, frowning. “Rubber? I’ve never seen it that color. And there appears to be quite a lot.”
“Well, sure, it’s alchemical, yeah? We don’t actually ‘ave rubber trees on this continent, as I reckon you know, an’ anyhow the real stuff’s a mite soft for our purposes.” Stepping back from the other end of her invention, she trundled around to join Iris by the wheel. “This ‘ere’s the newest thing outta Falconer Industries! See, y’know how carriages require big enchantments on the wheels to make ’em run smooth an’ hold to the road?”
“Uh, sure,” Iris said, shrugging. “If you say so.”
“Aye, well, that’s cos at the speed they move they tend t’bounce. Carriages still owe a lot o’ their design to the old kind that was pulled by horses. Teal’s parents are workin’ on this: they’re called tires! Rubber coatings on the wheels, see? They’re softer, which absorbs impacts, an’ textured to give ’em traction. That way they can take some o’ the power outta the traction an’ smoothing charms, which leaves more power for the motive charms on the wheels, thus faster carriages.”
“Ingenious,” Ravana marveled, studying Maureen’s device with new interest.
“Aye, it’s all pretty experimental. Teal says they’re findin’ it works better to make a kinda thin shell of the rubber an’ inflate ’em with pressurized air.”
“Inflated wheels?” Szith said incredulously. “That sounds like a disastrous idea.”
“Many innovations do, at first,” said Ravana. “The Falconers know what they are about.”
“According to Teal,” Maureen continued excitedly, “they’re lookin’ at buffin’ ’em up from inside, usin’ springs an’ possibly a kind of gel they can make from petroleum instead of air. More stable that way, an’ less fragile.”
Iris frowned. “What’s petroleum?”
“A kind of mineral oil,” Ravana explained. “It has some industrial and alchemical applications, but it’s not as useful as organic oils for most things. Also, it’s found in deposits underground, like ore, which makes it hugely difficult to extract. If F.I. can make something worthwhile out of it, more power to them. Is the wheel that wide for balance, Maureen?”
“Aye, it ‘elps with that,” Maureen said, grinning. “But the wheel’s that wide because this is the leftover piece from an F.I. experiment that Teal could get fer me, so the rest o’ the thing’s designed around it. Beggars, choosers, an’ all that. All right, ladies, moment o’ truth!”
“I mean the greatest of respect, please do not think otherwise,” Szith said carefully as Maureen stepped back to the other end of the vehicle, “but…how much danger are we in, here?”
“Uh…” The gnome paused in double-checking the runes on the gadget, straightening to frown at her project. “None at all, I shouldn’t think. Provided ye stay on this side. Just physics bein’ what it is, if there’s any trouble it’ll be up front.”
“Righto!” Iris said quickly, scurrying around behind Maureen.
“And now,” the gnome said, pausing to rub her hands together and grinning in delight. “Moment o’ truth, fer real!”
She pressed a rune.
Immediately, the crystal plate she had attached to the underside of the vehicle blazed to life, putting off a brilliant torrent of azure light and a powerful hum of magic at work.
It also shot toward the ceiling, taking the back end of the vehicle with it. The whole thing flipped forward on its wheel, its newly-enchanted tail slamming against the wall above the front door hard enough to shake the whole shed. Still putting out levitative force and with nowhere else to go, the upside-down vehicle began creeping toward them on its sole wheel, which remained firmly affixed to the ground.
Iris shrieked and mashed herself against the back wall; Ravana leaped up adroitly to make her own retreat, Szith stepping between her and the runaway invention.
Maureen, though, yelped and scurried forward, heedless of the erratic motion of her large, metal creation, and threw herself bodily atop it. After a moment’s frantic scrabbling, she found the rune again.
In the next instant, it went dark and silent.
“Okay,” Iris said tremulously from the back. “Needs a little work.”
“Needs a lot o’ work,” Maureen grumbled, scowling at her invention as if feeling betrayed. “That’s a lot more force than it’s s’pposed to put out… Where’d I go wrong? I was sure o’ me figures…” She shook her head, then suddenly looked up. “Oh! Everybody all right?”
“Quite,” Ravana said with a smile, “though perhaps someone should go let Afritia know that no one is being murdered up here.”
“I doubt she could even hear that, from down in the Well,” said Szith.
“I’ll go,” Iris offered, edging around Maureen’s vehicle toward the door. “She may not have heard it, but I bet Addiwyn could. The last thing we need is her stirring up trouble.”
“I think Addiwyn has been making great progress,” Ravana said placidly. “You’ll note the complete lack of vicious pranks since we stuffed her in an entling, and a general lessening of her attitude starting around that time. Whatever issues she was grappling with, she appears to be developing some maturity. Really, Iris, I believe we could make progress with her if everyone would refrain from picking at her.”
“Everyone meaning me?” Iris said sardonically. “I don’t even disagree, Ravana, but some people I just don’t care to get to know. She buttered her bed good and proper.”
“As you like,” Ravana said equably. “Just for the sake of peace in the dorm, then, I merely ask that you not be provocative.”
“I guess I can do that much,” Iris muttered, carefully opening the door and squeezing out through the gap; it was still partially blocked by Maureen’s invention.
No sooner had she stepped outside than she shrieked again and tumbled to the ground.
“Iris!” Szith smoothly strode to the door. “Are you—”
Leaning her head out, she broke off. Iris was gathering herself up, and now both of them stared at what she had tripped over.
Their fifth roommate lay sprawled outside the shed, her legs stretched across the doorway.
“You addle-pated blonde bundle of sticks!” Iris shouted. “What the hell do you think you’re doing out here?”
“Shall I assume that wasn’t directed at me?” Ravana asked, her face appearing in the gap. Szith had already slipped smoothly out and knelt beside Addiwyn.
“Iris,” the drow said flatly, “she’s asleep.”
Iris broke off in the process of drawing breath for more invective, her expression suddenly horrified. “I—what? No, it’s not like—she’s just being a pain, like always. Oy, cut it out!” Scrambling to her feet, she prodded Addiwyn’s hip with her foot, none too gently.
Szith, with more care, rolled the elf onto her back. She looked rather peaceful, if anything, her eyes closed and expression quite relaxed.
“Breath and heartbeat even,” Szith reported. “Slow, as if in natural sleep.” She lightly slapped Addiwyn’s cheek, to no avail.
“Ohhh, no,” Maureen whispered, poking her head through the door below Ravana’s.
“No, this is crazy,” Iris said nervously. “This is just one of her jokes. Come on, first Chase and now her?”
“And Natchua,” Szith said quietly.
“Exactly! You notice it’s only the jerks and assholes? She’s faking. Get up!”
Ravana cleared her throat loudly as Iris drew back her foot for what looked like a more earnest kick. “Rather than do that, Iris, I suggest someone fetch Miss Sunrunner. If this is Addiwyn’s idea of a prank, on her head be it, then. If not, you’ll feel terrible later if you start kicking her.”
“I’ll go,” Maureen volunteered, wriggling out around her. She took off down the path, quickly vanishing around the corner. Despite her short legs, she could move with amazing speed when motivated.
“I will get Afritia,” Szith said, standing up and turning toward the door of the Well, which was a few yards away around a hedge. “She should be informed of this immediately, also.”
“Good idea,” Ravana said approvingly. Szith gave her a nod and strode off.
“Why,” Iris asked weakly, staring down at the sleeping Addiwyn, “is it always us?”
“Based on the stories I hear,” Ravana said with more equanimity, “I wonder if perhaps it is not just the freshman class each year. And honestly, if half the things I’ve been told are true, we shall have to do a lot better than this if we hope to compete.”
The atrium of the building in which she waited had a lovely modern style of architecture, with an entire wall which arched inward two stories up to become a skylight which would have admitted the reddish glow of late afternoon, had there been any. Tiraas lay under a fresh glaze of ice, the heaps of snow having been mostly cleared away, and its sky was a typical gloomy gray. Still, at least the room was pretty.
Tellwyrn paced slowly up and down the atrium, peering now and then out the windows, studying the furnishings, and glancing occasionally at the government functionaries stationed at desks along the rear wall, all of whom were stealing glances at her whenever possible, only to lower their eyes to their paperwork when she happened to meet their gaze.
This place was fairly opulent, though it wasn’t part of the Imperial Palace itself. Several entire blocks behind the Palace were given over to the offices from which the Empire was administered, and the Empire required vast amounts of administration. All of these were designed to be beautiful when observed from without, though many were drab and purely functional on the inside, as befit a good bureaucracy. Quite a few interior spaces, though, were meant to receive important persons who felt they deserved to be entertained in style.
It amused her slightly that she made the list.
Tellwyrn glanced up again, finding a reedy young man peering at her from the corner of his eye. At her gaze, he instantly ducked his head, scribbling so furiously on the paper in front of him that he couldn’t possibly have been producing anything but meaningless scrawl.
She stood still, suddenly, just staring at him.
He held out well for such an apparent milquetoast. It was more than two full minutes before he finally glanced up at her again.
The sharp pop of her passage was almost inaudible amid all the pen-scratching. One moment she stood by the door, the next she was inches from him.
He actually screamed and fell out of his chair.
“Don’t try that yourselves,” she advised the room full of shocked clerks, backing away and grinning. “You have to be very old before you can get away with being juvenile.”
They were spared more of her boredom by the opening of the door through which her escort had vanished half an hour ago.
“Thank you for your patience, Professor,” the Hand of the Emperor said in his customary clipped tone, striding toward her. This time, Lord Quentin Vex was with him, regarding her with an expression of mingled boredom and idle curiosity. Her face-to-face interactions with Vex had been fairly limited, all things considered, but she knew very well not to be fooled by his sleepy demeanor.
“Not at all, I’m quite confident you know better than to waste my time deliberately. Considering the bureaucratic levers you were apparently back there pulling, I’m impressed this has all gone so quickly. Joining us, then, Quentin?”
“The personnel being requisitioned for this project do answer directly to me,” Vex said, nodding to her. “Always a pleasure, Professor.”
“So formal,” Tellwyrn chided, “after all we’ve meant to each other. I thought you outranked basically everyone,” she added to the Hand. “You need his permission to bring talent on board?”
“This may be a challenging concept for you, Professor, but because one has the power to do something does not mean one ought to. Lord Vex’s work has always been imminently satisfactory, and his Majesty prefers not to needlessly disrupt the functions of his agencies. If you would come this way, please, we shall meet the individual you’ve come to see in a more secure location within.”
She followed wordlessly at his gesture, and the two men led her back into the hall. The décor remained simple but expensive, with glossy wood paneling and a thick carpet, but the only decorations as such were simple Tiraan banners hung along the walls at intervals like tapestries. They turned left twice and then right, passing doors which her guides ignored, and a few yards later the hall terminated against a set of vertical brass bars.
The Hand grasped a handle on these and pushed the whole thing aside into the wall, gesturing her forward into what appeared to be a small room lined with velvet-padded benches and no doors save the one covered by the bars.
“Rest assured, we are not putting you in a cell,” he said with a thin smile. “This is called an elevator. It will—”
“I dearly hope you don’t think you invented elevators,” she snorted, striding past him and taking a seat. “They’ve been used in the dwarven kingdoms for decades.”
“Yes, but this one runs on magic,” Vex said mildly, lounging against the wall a few feet away while the Hand pulled the bars shut behind them and touched runes on a control panel nearby. “No cables, pulleys, gears or anything else which is likely to up and break.”
“Spells break just as easily as anything,” she replied. “One just has to know how.”
“It’s so good to find you in such a cheerful mood,” he said. Tellwyrn grinned at him.
They descended for nearly ten minutes. None of them spoke. If any found the silence awkward, they made no sign.
When the elevator finally came to a stop, Tellwyrn surged impatiently to her feet, barely giving the Hand a chance to pry the bars open again before pushing past him into the space revealed. There, she planted her hands on her hips and looked around.
This had to have been deep underground, but rather than the customary fairy lamps, the rotunda was lined with tall panels of glass which glowed a pale white, approximating windows. They even had curtains to heighten the illusion. The floor was glossy marble, the walls gilt-trimmed, the domed ceiling a mural depicting important scenes from Tiraan history. Two curved staircases swept up to a balcony ringing the second floor, from which doorways led into dark halls.
Dominating the center of the room was an obelisk of gleaming white metal, etched with geometric patterns which glowed a subtle green. On two sides, small arms extended from it, holding up transparent panels in which maps were projected, one of the city, one of the continent. Directly above and centered on the obelisk’s tip was a translucent globe of light depicting the planet, its continents and countries clearly labeled in glowing text, the whole thing so massive it nearly filled the space, rotating slowly. The moon, unattached and similarly translucent, swung around it on its elliptical orbit, almost grazing the balcony in places.
“A very useful gadget,” Vex said idly, giving the globe a disinterested look. “Lets us keep track of our agents. You may have seen similar things here and there.”
“Artifacts of the Elder Gods should be left buried,” she said disapprovingly. “A good number of them thought weaving deadly booby traps into mundane objects was the height of comedy. Those things have been known to go off after centuries, prompted by nothing.”
“Your advice is appreciated,” the Hand said curtly. “What you see here is, in a sense, the direct descendant of the old Ministry of Mysteries.”
“His Majesty wouldn’t let me revive the name,” Vex said with a languid smile. “Shame. I really wanted to make my people carry badges that said MOM.”
The Hand gave him a sour glance, but continued. “The original Ministry’s mandate was to respond to and potentially make use of unexplained phenomena, which is an inherently foolish and romantic notion. The Imperial government’s current policy is that anything unexplained has been insufficiently investigated, and we will not indulge in mysticism. Nonetheless, there are assets we may choose to leverage which are difficult to fit into the normal order of government or society. Those of them who answer to Imperial Intelligence do so via this division.”
“What, exactly, did you bring me here to see?” Tellwyrn asked, slowly studying the room.
“A specialist,” said the Hand. “Someone gifted, trained, and experienced in complex criminal investigation; in fact, the very author of the Empire’s ongoing reforms in police work. For a long time, catching criminals has been an extremely slapdash affair. Our man here has developed methods of gathering and analyzing evidence which have both exonerated many falsely accused subjects and led to the capture of countless guilty parties who might otherwise have escaped justice. I contacted Lord Vex from Last Rock and ordered that he be briefed.” He turned to raise an eyebrow at the spymaster. “I thought you said he was coming?”
“I told him to come,” Vex replied. “And then, since I knew he’d be late, I sent Ashley to fetch him. Should be along any moment—ah.”
“Ah, indeed!” said the new arrival, bounding out of a second-floor hallway and landing with his rump on the marble banister of one of the staircases. He slid all the way down, his trench coat fluttering in passing, and hit the bottom in an elaborate bow. “So this is the great and terrible Professor Tellwyrn! I had honestly hoped never to be in a room with you, but clearly nobody cares what I want.”
He was a rather diminutive man, not even as tall as she, and correspondingly slim. Though quite handsome, he was also markedly scruffy, in need of a shave and haircut, and wearing a slightly shabby coat and hat even indoors.
Tellwyrn gave him a long, baleful look, then pushed her spectacles up her nose to stare through the lenses, then turned to the other two men.
“Are you aware—”
“Of course we are,” the Hand said irritably. “This is why I began by explaining the mandate of this agency. Inspector Fedora is the best detective in the Tiraan Empire, and possibly beyond it, and has been briefed on your problem to the extent that he can be.”
“Murgatroyd to my friends,” the Inspector said, giving her a smile which did not disguise the hostility in his eyes. “Which doesn’t and won’t include you, but I understand you enjoy being presumptuous.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Murgatroyd Fedora? You were going for maximum possible absurdity, then?”
“Well, I think if one’s going to choose a name, it ought to be pleasing to its owner,” he replied, grinning impudently. “Of course, some people prefer names that are laden with heavy-handed meaning. But then, look who I’m telling, Miss Spider-Priestess Yells-At-Dragons.”
“That’s Professor,” she said flatly.
Vex cleared his throat. “Did you manage to lose Ashley again?”
“Nah,” said a voice from above. “He just wanted to make an entrance. Don’t worry, I’m not about to leave him unattended in company.”
A young woman was leaning over the balcony above, giving them a sunny smile. She had a pixiesh face, with brown hair cut boyishly short, and seemed to be dressed in a man’s suit, or at least had on a jacket and tie.
Tellwyrn craned her head back to stare at the latest arrival through her glasses for a moment, then turned again to Vex and the Hand.
“Do you realize—”
“Yes,” they chorused.
“Inspector,” the Hand continued, “kindly tell us what you have so far.”
“What I have so far is virtually nothing,” Fedora stated, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his coat and slouching. “All I’ve been able to do is consider the overview of the situation and pull a few files on known personalities at the University. That’s nothing. If you want any actual, useful answers, I will need to be on site and given a significant amount of access. And anyway, while this case does look like it could shape up to be something fascinating, I rather think there’s just not enough yet to begin closing in on a perpetrator, even if I could see firsthand whatever little there is.”
“This,” Tellwyrn stated, pointing at the Inspector and addressing herself to the Hand, “will not be visiting my campus.”
“Well, then, I’m just a pretty face here,” Fedora said, shrugging. “If she won’t let me do my work, that’s that.”
“Troy,” Ashley said reprovingly from above, “be nice.”
“Everyone, please,” Vex said soothingly. “Professor, I realize this is a troubling suggestion and we’re asking a lot, but for the record, you came to the Empire for help; the Empire doesn’t have a direct stake in your problem. We are doing a favor—with the expectation of favors in return, let us not dissemble, but still. I think it would be appropriate for us all to extend some tolerance toward each other.”
She snorted and folded her arms. “Fine, then. Impress me, detective.”
“Can’t do it, probably,” Fedora said glibly. “But what I’ve got so far is a short list of suspects. Now, let me begin with the disclaimer that to call criminal profiling an inexact science is giving it way too much credit, but just on an overview, my instinct is to approach this as a serial attacker. Two victims thus far isn’t a pattern, but striking people down at apparent random fits that profile. Much will depend on what develops—how many more victims appear, how frequently, how they are connected.”
“I’m sure you have something,” said Vex.
“I’ve got a few names who have files that are suggestive,” the Inspector replied, turning his sharp gaze back to Tellwyrn. “First, of course, your first victim, Chase Masterson. He left an impressively consistent record of incidents at the Shaathist lodge which had the misfortune to have raised him. No close friendships, charming demeanor, a general pattern of rulebreaking and manipulative behavior to get his way. Textbook social pathology. Literally, I’ve got a fantastic book from the Svenheim Polytheoric Institute on this, which I just flipped through for reference.”
“Aside from being the first victim,” Tellwyrn said, narrowing her eyes, “Chase was unconscious when the second was attacked.”
“And that may or may not be significant,” Fedora replied, shrugging. “We know nothing about how these attacks are carried out, yes? It’s clearly magical, which opens up a whole world of possibilities. However, that is significant, and it’s for that reason that I don’t particularly like Masterson for the crime. I list him just on the strength of his nature—a boy like that doesn’t need a motive, he just does things, and that’s what argues against him doing this. Striking down himself and then arranging the next victim to happen while he was out would be, if he did it, a mastermind’s ploy. The action of someone who thinks multiple steps ahead. That isn’t Masterson’s pattern; he’s a dog chasing carriages. Anth’auwa aren’t all cut from the same cloth, and the profile he left behind at the lodge was of the ‘harmless pain in the ass’ variety. Unless you’ve seen something in his two and a half years under your tutelage which contradicts that?”
“No,” she said slowly, “no, I tend to agree. Chase is not a planner. He’s impulsive and lacks both restraint and remorse, but he just doesn’t care enough about the future to think ahead.”
Fedora nodded. “I’ve got two others I consider more likely. Lord Jerome Conover has been disinherited thanks to his antics while on your campus and even by the standards of young noblemen he’s established enough of a pattern as a grudge-holder that Intelligence had a file on him before he set off for your University. I consider it extremely noteworthy that his primary contention was with Trissiny Avelea, who is far too powerful for him to threaten, and whose sudden absence from your campus immediately preceded the start of these attacks.”
“Hum.” Tellwyrn frowned deeply, but offered no further comment.
“My personal favorite,” Fedora continued with a grim smile, “isn’t a student. What you’ve got happening at your school, Professor, is exactly the established mode of attack of Morvana the Poisoner.”
“Afritia has my complete trust,” Tellwyrn snapped.
He shrugged again. “Well, clearly, someone who has your trust has betrayed it. That does nothing at all to narrow down our suspects, now does it?”
“Troy,” Ashley said, coming down the stairs behind him, “ease up. There’s no need to make this any worse for her than it is.”
“I will say,” he acknowledged, “that this clashes with her established motive. The Poisoner went after much higher-profile targets, most Wreath-affiliated. Unless you’ve got some truly skeevy shit going on at your school, this isn’t that. However, if this curse proves to be transmitted through an alchemical vector, I’d have to call her suspect number one.”
“And that’s all you have,” Tellwyrn said scathingly.
“Yes!” he exclaimed, throwing his arms wide in a melodramatic shrug. “That is all I have! This looks like it might be an interesting puzzle and I’d love to have a crack at it, but let’s be honest: standing here, with nothing to go on but your descriptions and Imperial records? I’m as useless as a beat cop in Ninkabi.” He turned to give Vex an expressive stare. “So what’s it gonna be? Am I on the case, or are we all wasting each other’s time, here?”
Vex looked at the Hand, who cleared his throat and nodded to Tellwyrn.
“You’re right to have reservations, Professor. But…this could be a start.”
She was staring at Fedora, who grinned right back. Finally, she heaved a short sigh and let it out through her nose.
“I guess…we shall see.”
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