“Rude of Karolis not to see me off, don’t you think?”
The one who spoke was Besarion, one of the three High Sorcerers of Etrowyn. Books and papers lay in front of him on the table, as he selected the ones he would need to bring with him on his journey.
“Considering the circumstances, it likely could not be helped,” said his companion standing on the other side of the table. This was Escala, another of the three. The third, Karolis, was likely off doing all he could to find the Sword of Orowyn and catch those responsible for stealing it.
“Yes,” Besarion muttered. “Awful timing, that.”
“Do not let this theft concern you,” Escala told him. “By the time you return, Karolis and I will have set this right, and made an example of the thief. This other matter, however…”
“And you shouldn’t let that concern you,” Besarion said. He turned to her and grinned. “Evindr has done quite well. He’s found the boy from the portrait, and so fast. I’m surprised.”
“Even so…” Escala said. Her hands were clenched in fists on the table in front of her. “This is just the beginning. And I can’t help but feel that this sword theft is a sign of worse things to come.”
“You don’t think they could be connected?” Besarion asked her. “Come now, Escala.”
Her thoughts weren’t calmed that easily. “Karolis saw something that worried him” she said.
Besarion tilted his head. “And what was that?”
“He didn’t tell me.” She said. “But we cannot rule out the possibility at this point.”
“The both of you, you always worry too much,” Besarion said. “In any case, I must get going. It wouldn’t do to have me be late. It might just add to the rumors, as much as if I’d cancelled the trip altogether.”
“True,” she said. She gave him a stern look as he left. “Take care.”
“Of course,” he replied, waving his hand. “And same to you, of course.”
“What we know so far is this,” Escala said, beginning the meeting. “The sword was stolen from the palace vault, in the northwestern portion of the palace grounds, three levels underground, after midnight last night. The sword was discovered to be missing at 10:41 this morning by the guard stationed there, making rounds.”
“Is that all we know?” asked Princess Demetria
“Yes, highness, until Karolis arrives,” said Escala.
“He would bring the rest,” Demetria said. “That’s what troubles me. It is unlike him to be absent at a time like this, particularly when his input is so needed.”
“In any case, if I may,” said another at the table, one of the High Sorcerers’ students, “We shall have to make do with the information we have. We can’t afford to waste time.” The young man who spoke was Niocles – or was it Aris? Julien thought to himself. No, he remembered – Aris was the one next to him, with the blond hair. The dark-haired one with the blue eyes was Niocles, and the red-haired girl was Ianthe. Evindr had told him all of his fellow students’ names and descriptions. It wasn’t that hard to remember, Julien thought – there were only the four of them, including Evindr, plus the High Sorcerers and the princess.
“There is also the concern of reputation,” Escala said.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Demetria said. “If word gets out, we could have chaos on our hands.”
“Hey,” Aris said, sitting up. “That could be the thief’s motive,” He tapped his finger on the table to emphasize his point. “To make a mockery of the security in the palace, I mean.”
“It seems like a rather extreme length to go to for that,” Demetria said.
“But what else would they want with it?” Aris said, sitting back in his chair again, shrugging his arms. “There’s no way they’d be able to use its magic.”
“That, and it’s one of our kingdom’s treasures,” Ianthe said. She also sat back, and her arms were folded. “It’s not like they could sell it. They’d know they’d get caught, it’s too famous.”
“It’s still unlikely,” Niocles said, “But even if that’s not the thief’s motive, we should focus on finding the sword before word gets out.”
“Can we track it magically?”Ianthe asked.
“It wasn’t registered for that,” Escala replied.
“What?” Aris said. “That seems dumb-“
“We cannot devote resources to every even slightly possible scenario.” Escala said. “The layers of security in place have worked for decades, and they have still protected all of the rest of the artifacts in the kingdom’s vaults.” She seemed annoyed by the question. “Keeping those systems functioning and up to date takes priority over adding new layers.”
“From where we stand now,” Demetria said, “Using magical methods to track it if it hasn’t been registered would take too long, correct?”
“I’m afraid so, highness,” Escala replied.
“Then we will consider other methods, though we must still remember to keep the investigation secret.”
“Speaking of secrets,”Ianthe said. She shot a pointed look towards Julien. The attention around the table turned to him.
“Oh,” he started, sitting up. “I’m -“
“Allow me to introduce His Highness, Prince Julien,” Evindr said. Julien fought the urge to shrink down into his seat.
“Wait,” Aris said, “You mean – “
“Yes,” Princess Demetria said. “Forgive me for not mentioning this when we entered. Evindr has located my cousin and brought him back to us.” She smiled at Julien, and he smiled back – or, tried to, and hoped his discomfort wasn’t as clear on his face as it felt.
“No way,”Ianthe said, sitting forward. “That fast?”
“We got lucky,” Evindr replied. “As it turns out, he was not moved very far from Marysos.” Julien wondered if he should say something – but what? “You must forgive His Highness,” Evindr continued. “He isn’t yet used to the palace environment.”
“In any case,” Demetria said, “He is welcome to this discussion. Returning to the topic at hand -Ianthe, you’ve analyzed the lock and how it was broken, correct?”
“Yes, your highness,” she said. “I gave my findings to Karolis, so he would have combined what I found with other information, but since he isn’t here, I’ll tell you what I found. The thief seems to have used a magically changeable metal to mimic the shape of the real key.”
“Which means that they had to know what the real key looks like,” Niocles said.
“In that case,” Escala said, “We should compile the information regarding who has access to a key and when they might have left it unguarded for long enough that someone could have made a copy.”
“The keys all have marks identifying whose they are, correct?” Niocles asked. “Was one of those marks on the copied key that was used?”
“No,”Ianthe replied. “Which means they would have to know about that security feature,”
“Couldn’t they figure that out from just looking at the key?” Aris asked.
“Only if they knew a lot about magical locks and keys,”Ianthe said. “Otherwise, it would be hard to figure out exactly which parts – and how many – mark the key to its owner.”
“We will also try to determine what sorts of cloaking spells were used to get past the earlier security, and attempt to use that to narrow down the list of suspects to those with those specialties,” Escala added.
“Very well,” Demetria said. “We will all assist with the investigation.” She looked around the table. “I remind you all to please keep this as quiet as possible.”
After that rather tense meeting, Julien needed fresh air. He had seen the palace gardens from the window earlier, and he wanted to go there. Evindr had told him, before they split up, not to wander far, and that he’d find him in he gardens in about an hour. The High Sorcerers wanted to speak with Evindr about how his mission had gone – or, at least, the one high sorcerer who was there. Besarion had left after meeting Julien, for something he had to do in another city. Julien wondered why he didn’t just cancel it in light of what had happened, but that must go with what they has said about keeping everything quiet.
“A lot of secrets to go around, in this place,” Julien said to himself. He had begun walking into the gardens and it was then that he noticed that he was quite a distance from the buildings now – he hadn’t realized how far he had walked until he looked back. There were different paths going in several directions from where he stood, in the center of an intersection consisting of some high hedges around a fountain. He thought he’d just sit by the fountain until Evindr came – it was easy to find, and the sound of the water was soothing. He sat listening to the sound of the water, when he heard something else – it sounded like someone playing an instrument. He looked to his left – it seemed to be coming from the path that led that way. He stood, hesitated for a moment, then decided to follow that path.
Soon, he reached a small open area in between the hedges and looked inside. He gasped. Inside, was a young man who appeared to be about Julien’s age, playing a string instrument that Julien couldn’t name, and singing.
Julien had never seen anyone so beautiful in his life.
The first thing he noticed was the singer’s wavy hair, just a shade blonder than pure white, which fell softly over most of his back. His body was slender yet firm and graceful, his brown skin soft and unblemished. His long eyelashes fluttered as his eyes open and closed as he lost himself in his song. Bits of golden jewelry caught the light of the setting sun as he moved, even so slightly. His chest was bare; the silky, ocean blue garment he wore draped low over his hips, held in place by a gold piece around his waist. He sat on a low stone wall around the edge of the clearing.
His voice was like a soft breeze as he sang, quietly, strumming lightly on the instrument, only one or two strings at a time. Julien still stood at the entrance to the clearing, a good ten feet away from him, but the afternoon was quiet enough to still hear him a bit.
He paused, and closed his eyes. He seemed to be finished with the song. Julien hesitated – should he say something, or –
“Did you like the song?”
Julien took a sharp breath. The musician smiled. “Don’t worry, you may approach.”
Julien did so.
Up close, the musician was even more beautiful. His eyes were green, and they sparkled like gems. He leaned towards Julien and took a closer look at him as well, running his long, graceful fingers gently over the side of his blond curls as he did so.
“I haven’t seen you around here before,” he said. His voice was as soft as the breeze.
“Well – I mean, I…” He hadn’t realized he was so nervous.
The musician laughed lightly. “You’ve just arrived here, then?” he asked. Julien nodded.
“It’s nice to meet you, then,” he said. He sat back on the wall, laying his instrument down next to him. “My name is Florin. And yours?”
“Julien,” he said, before thinking. But Florin didn’t react as if he’d heard the name before.
“And what brings you here, Julien?” he asked. “Studying sorcery?”
“N-no…” Julien said.
“Oh?” Florin asked. “I’m surprised. You certainly look like a smart type.”
“Do I?” Julien asked.
“Oh, I hope that didn’t sound rude,” Florin told him. “I meant it as a compliment. The way you carry yourself… though, you do seem rather nervous.”
He was, but… he felt himself beginning to relax there. Florin’s voice was so soft and soothing.
“The truth is…” Julien started. “I don’t feel like I belong here.”
It sat in the air for a moment after he said it. Florin let it, respectfully. After a moment, he responded. “And why is that?” he asked, his voice even softer than it had been, but completely attentive.
The question surprised Julien. “I- I mean…” How could he put it? “Well, I’m not from here.”
Part of him tried to stop. Why was he telling a stranger so much?
“Ah,” Florin said. “Where are you from?”
“Far away from here,” Julien said. “You’ve… probably never heard of it.” He regretted it almost as soon as he said it – he had no idea how well palace musicians were likely to know geography. He realized that he really should stop, but…
But Florin didn’t ask further. “I see,” he said. “Is it very different from here? Is that why you’re having trouble?”
“Yes, exactly,” Julien said. It was a relief to be able to say it. Evindr was kind, and he tried to help Julien, and teach him things, but he wasn’t easy to talk to. Florin, on the other hand, was. Even though they had just met, Julien felt comfortable with him.
“There’s so much here that I’ve just never seen before,” he said. “I mean – the palace. These beautiful buildings. These gardens – not just that, though. There’s magic, everywhere. There’s not, where I’m from – not as much of it, I mean. It’s hard to know what to do.”
Julien continued to pour out his nerves. He left out identifying details – he was relieved that Florin didn’t seem to know who he was supposed to be. Florin listened attentively. Julien felt his soothing gaze, focused entirely on him.
“And even… even now -“
“Highness!” Julien froze. He turned towards the entrance to the clearing. It was Evindr. “There you are, thank goodness,” he said.
Julien turned back to Florin, who smiled, same as before.
Then Julien realized. “You knew,” he said. He suddenly regretted telling everything like that.
As he approached, Evindr noticed Florin sitting there. His eyes lit up, and he smiled. Julien blinked. This was new.
“Lord Evindr,” Florin said, bowing his head slightly.
“Florin,” Evindr said as he approached. He kissed the musician’s hand, and smiled at him. “I see you’ve met His Highness, Prince Julien.”
“We had a nice talk,” Florin said. He turned to Julien. “Don’t worry – I won’t tell. And I apologize for not addressing you as the prince. You didn’t seem to want it, so…”
Julien smiled. He was right.
Julien and Evindr left the garden and began to walk back to the palace of the High Sorcerers. They walked along the outer walls of the palace complex, out of the gardens.
“So,” Julien started, “He called you Lord Evindr?”
“Yes,” Evindr said, “As a student of the High Sorcerers, I am considered… well, it is something of an honored position.” He seemed to avoid meeting Julien’s eyes. Was he uncomfortable with it?
Julien changed the subject. “So who was that, anyway?” he asked. “Florin, I mean. Well, that’s what he told me his name was. He’s…” He sighed.
Evindr smiled a bit – was that a laugh as well? “Yes, he is,” he said. “He is very beautiful, as I see you’ve noticed. He is a musician. Many around the palace like to hire musicians like him for entertainment. For reasons I’m sure you have noticed, he’s one of the more popular ones.”
“Entertainment?” Julien asked.
“Yes,” Evindr said. “Playing instruments, singing, dancing,”
“Dancing?” Julien grinned in spite of himself. He had noticed that not everyone around the palace was as covered up as he was – Evindr wore a toga-like robe that left half of his chest exposed — but Florin had been wearing the most revealing thing he’d seen yet. The thought of him dancing in that…
“Don’t get any ideas,” Evindr said. “He’ll dance for you, but only if he likes you a lot.”
“Do you think he —“
“Don’t,” Evindr said, his voice firm. “I didn’t bring you here so that you could have… misadventures. I hadn’t realized you were so… amorous.”
Julien stopped for a moment at that. “I-I’m not…” he said. “It’s just that, everyone here is so…” And why was Evindr —
He was jerked from his dreamy train of thought by something he noticed from the corner of his eye. Was that — “Hey, Evindr,” he said. Evindr noticed the change in his tone and became alert as well. “That hedge over there,” he said. “I thought I just saw something… shine in it.”
Evindr nodding, understanding what he meant. Something metallic that had caught a ray of sunlight, exposing its hiding place in the hedges. “Stay back,” he told Julien. “I’ll go look.” Julien nodded. His combat experience was absolutely zero, so there’s no way he could be more suited to dealing with this than Evindr.
Evindr pulled a magical tool from his belt — not the large blue staff he’d had before, but a slim gold wand with several crystals at the top — and held it in front of him. Still standing a few feet away, he whispered and incantation and, as if using telepathy, pushed the hedge aside. Julien braced himself for a shock — but no one jumped out of the bushes. He was about the relax when he noticed Evindr reacting to whatever was there, taking a step back in shock.
Julien ran over. “What? What is it?” he asked. He looked into the hedge — and wished he hadn’t.
Inside was a man who looked to be about 40 — but dead. Very dead, judging from the amount of blood Julien noticed before turning away. The sword that lay next to him, however, was clean — for a murder weapon, at least. It was gold, curiously shaped and ornately decorated, with parts of its blade that looked like they were pure crystal. As crazy as it sounded, Julien didn’t even need to ask. He knew what it was. The victim, however…
“It’s Karolis,” Evindr said. “The third High Sorcerer.”
The words hit Julien. “Wha…”
“Get a guard!” Evindr said. “Hurry!”
“Right,” Julien said. He ran in the direction of the nearest building, holding up his robes — this wasn’t the time to worry about whether or not he looked like a prince.