Aphonion Tales (New posts 6/13, 6/15, 6/19)

The last meeting that they were able to fit in that day was with the Equitable Varance Tuttle, the Minister of Magic. The archmage entered the audience chamber, bowed to Alistair, and waited.

“Thank you for meeting with us,” began Alistair. “We would like to discuss how things stand with your portfolio, and in particular the state of magic education.”

“Well enough, your grace. The limits of our magic school have prevented us from fully realizing our potential, but we still have formidable magical abilities within the Archduchy. But the school proceeds as well as it can.”

“Did you study in the Collegium?” asked Dame Brionna.

“Indeed not. I trained in the Crescent City Alliance, as the personal pupil of the Archduchess Matilda Ashberry,” his voice puffed with a certain measure of pride as he said that. “The Collegium cannot really support the training of the most talented students. The Collegium Magica matches the quality of other non-apprentice schools on the continent, no more, but at least we have a Collegium. Many of the other realms on Drucien maintain no scholastic education for mages, relying purely on apprenticeships. As a result, in addition to the local students, we draw students from Gates, from the Eastern Trade Federation, and as far north as Enclaves.”

“What are their principle areas of study?” inquired Alistair. “Offensive magics, defensive magics, or the non-warlike areas?”

“The Collegium teaches all subjects, your grace, but many of the mages, such as most of the ones from Enclaves, are focused on making money. So they learn to brew potions, make items, and grow herbs. And, of course, we only get the second string of magic students from Enclaves. The best study in academies there, or more likely find apprenticeships.”

“You may have heard of our plan to establish a more substantial school of magic?”

“Indeed, your grace. I must say, we’re terribly excited about the prospect.”

Dame Brionna took a more direct approach. “The magi don’t worry that actively recruiting foreign wizards for the faculty will be threatening?”

“What? Oh, no, quite the opposite. If Canberry becomes more of a center of magical learning, that can only advance our own studies. If his grace intends to recruit actively from the magi and archmagi beyond Canberry, so much the better. And at a more basic level, the magi and archmagi are devotedly loyal to the crown. Their support for the Archduke is absolute, and I have heard nothing except things in his favor. You must understand, we know what his family has done for us, and we will not forget.”
 

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Dame Brionna nodded, pleased with the answer. “We had another question as well, Minister. Are you familiar with the details of the protections that coronation confers on the Archduke?”

“Oh, yes. Well, that is to say I’m very familiar with the arcane protections it confers-- there are also divine, and perhaps psionic, protections as well.”

“Could you describe them to us?”

“Certainly. The arcane wards are triggered at the time of coronation. They are thousands of years old and built into the palace itself to protect the Archduke and people that he designates.”

“People he designates?” asked Alistair. “Are there limits on how many people he can designate?”

“There is no numerical limit on designees, but the Archduke must make each designation personally and must touch and name the designee. In terms of effect, the wards summon guardian golems should any creature teleport in to attack the Archduke or a designee.”

“What about teleporting the Archduke out?” asked Kit.

“Wise that you should ask about that; we lost the Archduke’s eleven great-grandfather to a hostile teleport such as that. The wards were adjusted, and now the Archduke is immovable after coronation. And lastly, we have warded against the Great Curse. That is somewhat less important now than it once was, but best to keep it safe.”

“The Great Curse?” asked Dame Brionna.

“Many years ago, Berta released a Great Curse upon the lands that spread out slowly from the Confederacy of the Southern Kingdoms. The idea was to affect rulers and to encourage their most extreme traits to cause their destruction. I think it is no longer in effect, but we ward against it nonetheless.”

Dame Brionna said another silent curse under her breath at Berta, while everyone thought about how fortunate it was that Alistair would not be exposed to the Great Curse. “And that is the sum of the arcane wards?”

“Indeed. Other than that, all of the remaining wards are divine or natural in nature, and you would be better served consulting experts on those subjects.”

End Session 13

Ladybird will be taking over writing duties for a few posts; I missed the first part of session 14, so she is handling that.
 

Ladybird

First Post
Here begins Session 14! As CP said, he missed the first part of this session, so I'm going to be Story-Houring for the next little bit. Enjoy :)

---

The day dawned far too bright and far too early, with sunshine streaming through the windows of the royal bedchamber. Kit winced away from it, wriggling deeper into the fluffy down comforters and pillows to hide her head away from the light.

But no amount of effort could stop the knocking on the door, and even through the layers of feathers, Kit could still hear the polite, discreet voice of a servant calling, “My – er – lady? Dame Katherine?” With a groan, Kit rolled out of bed.

“Hrrrm?” Alistair mumbled behind her.

“Morning briefing,” Kit sighed, pulling on her dressing gown on as she stumbled towards the door. “It’s for me – don’t worry about it. Get some more sleep.”

Alistair rolled over, with another blurry “Hrrrrm,” and pulled the covers over his head, as Kit herself had done a moment before. She sighed again, and turned back to open the door.

The servant was hovering outside, upright and impassive, as if he had been born wearing livery and as if half-dressed young women came stumbling out of the Archduke’s chambers every morning. Oh, wait, they do, Kit thought, with an inward grumble. Except usually they’re me, these days. She gave her dressing gown a tug to straighten it, and said, “Yes?”

The servant cleared his throat with the same pointed discretion, and said, “Dame Katherine. This message just arrived for you.”

Kit took it, and the servant glided off to wherever servants go. The message read:

To the Mouth from the Little Toe:
Young "friends" of ours tell us that indeed candy has been distributed in the Pottersflat and Stettington sections of the city. We are unsure where they are coming from, but we think that they are probably out of "Endless Stream" tavern. We cannot prove that of course.


Or at least, that’s what was on the paper. Kit got as far as “has been” before she bogged down, her mouth screwing into an intent frown as she struggled to sound out the words. There just wasn’t much time to devote to practicing reading these days, not with the coronation coming up and assassination plots still around every corner. Time to go find the scribe.
 

Ladybird

First Post
Kit’s scribe, inherited from Dame Esmeralda, was a weedy, officious, aging little man. Kit wasn’t sure why he ever needed to write anything down – he seemed to carry most of the Archduchy’s top-secret information around in his balding head. But she was grateful for his presence as a link to Dame Esmeralda, a record of the past activities of the Mouth, and as someone to help her with reading and writing the enormous volume of messages that went through the Mouth’s office.

“Ah! Good morning, Dame Katherine.” The scribe offered a slightly nervous smile. Dame Esmeralda had been nearly his own age, and he still hadn’t gotten used to the new Mouth being so much younger. Or prettier. Or a ‘personal friend’ of the Archduke.

“Good morning,” Kit replied, with a decent attempt at a smile despite her sleepiness. “This came in for me a few minutes ago. Could you…?”

The scribe didn’t even need her to finish; he just took the parchment from her outstretched hand. “Of course, my lady.” After he was finished reading it out loud, he and Kit both sat frowning for a moment – her into space, him at the ill-formed letters of the message. “This is the work of…a child? No, just someone who isn’t very used to writing,” the scribe decided. “Quite strange. Have you received messages from this particular Toe before?”

“I don’t think so,” Kit replied, shaking her head. “That tavern that the Toe mentioned – the Endless Stream? What’s that?”

Oddly, the scribe grew slightly pale. “Oh, my lady, I really shouldn’t say…”

“What?” Kit perked up – something that shouldn’t be said was always promising.

“My lady, it wouldn’t be appropriate,” the scribe hemmed and hawed, his forehead wrinkling in anxious agitation.

Kit sighed. “I’m the Mouth. If there’s something going on at this place that threatens the safety of the Archduke and the city, I need to know about it! What is it?”

And the poor scribe fainted dead away.

Kit rushed to his side, instantly alert and worried. Awkwardly, she patted his face – just short of a slap, she didn’t want to injure the fragile little man – until he came around, his watery eyes fluttering weakly open.

“Oh, my lady, forgive me!” the scribe gasped. “I didn’t mean to – it’s just that – I really really shouldn’t say! Not to someone so young!”

Kit rolled her eyes as she helped the scribe back into his chair, repeating with weary persistence, “I’m the Mouth! I need to know!”

After much more hemming and hawing, the scribe finally managed a choked, wide-eyed whisper: “My lady, there are questionable women there!”

Kit was very proud of herself for keeping a straight face. “Really?” she asked, with matching wide eyes. He deals with murders, spies, demons, and all of the secret threats to the Archduchy, and it’s a brothel that makes him faint?

“Oh, my lady, please don’t go to such a scandalous place!”

It was getting harder and harder to keep a straight face. “It’s all right,” Kit said aloud. “I’ll send some of my people to check it out.”

The fretful little scribe finally began to calm down. “Oh, good!”

“Are there any other reports?” Kit asked, changing the subject with what she hoped was merciful speed.

“No, that’s all,” the scribe replied, seizing on the new topic eagerly. “In fact, the level of violent crime has been sharply decreasing in the last few days.”

Kit was finally able to let her smile come out. “Really?”

“Yes, Dame Katherine. There were no serious crimes at all in Canberry City last night. No murders, no break-ins – nothing.”

Kit’s smile widened into a grin. “Thank you.” It’s nice to be in charge, sometimes, she thought, as she went off to find Brionna.
 

Ladybird

First Post
The morning’s military briefing was well underway by the time Kit got there, with Dame Brionna and one of the military attachés bent over a table, on which a huge map of the continent was spread. Small figures were arrayed across it, with tiny flags marking each figure as representing one section of the army of the Brightspan heir.

“They’re heading south,” the attaché was explaining. “These towns here have been nearly depleted of their supplies, because the army is buying them in such great quantities.”

“Is there any way we can forestall that?” Brionna asked. “Send people to buy up supplies ahead of the army, so there won’t be anything left by the time they get there?” Dame Brionna’s armor and tabard were as spotlessly clean as always, and her posture rigidly upright, but Kit could see the weariness around the other woman’s eyes. Brionna was hardly sleeping at all these days – up before dawn for prayers, and lucky if she got to sleep less than two hours after midnight. There will be time to sleep after the coronation, Brionna had taken to saying.

Kit and Brionna exchanged brief, tight smiles as Kit circled around to take up a position on the other side of the table and frowned down at the map. “Is there any other way we can slow them down?” Brionna was asking, running a finger across the smooth terrain of the map ahead of the army. “Put obstacles in their way?”

Kit looked up at the two military people, the beginnings of a mischievous grin coming to her face. “Well, we do have the services of a lot of air elementals, thanks to Stythus. Could we send ‘em some bad weather?”

Brionna actually gave a real smile in response to that. “Of course! We can send them wind! And rain!”

“Mud!” Kit agreed gleefully.

“Floods!” Brionna cried – and then looked back down at the map with sudden inspiration. “Wait – they must have to cross a river at some point. Where’s the most likely spot?”

“Here,” the attaché said after a few moments’ thought, pointing to a spot on the map. “Just east of the border of Haven. They’ll have to ford the river there, actually.”

“Perfect,” Brionna declared. “We’ll flood that out.”

“It would just be a delaying measure,” the attaché warned.

“But the longer we delay them, the better it is.” Brionna smiled again, as she finished, “And if we delay them long enough, we succeed.”
 


Ladybird

First Post
A servant knocked on the door to Brionna’s office, interrupting the discussion of military matters with a pair of invitations, presented with elaborate politeness to Brionna and Kit. The invitations were on heavy cream-colored parchment, sealed with a crest that Kit had never seen before (not that that was unusual, in these days when faraway nobles were flooding the city): a dragon rampant, carrying a dead horse in its talons.

“That’s the Barony of Augurt,” Brionna said, thoughtfully turning her invitation over in her hands while Kit grimaced at the gruesome heraldry. “Don’t be misled by the name, though – Augurt started out as a barony, but now it’s as large as many kingdoms, and as powerful. Most nations on Drucien agree that they are a kingdom, even if they’ve never changed the name.”

Kit, meanwhile, had already opened her invitation, and while the flowery swirls of the handwriting meant that its content eluded her, there were a few aspects of the invitation that were perfectly clear. “Is that gold and platinum ink?” she gasped.

“Hm,” Brionna said, in a more measured tone. “Lord Terence of Augurt invites us both to the Wyvern’s Wing for dinner.”

Kit looked up at Brionna over the edge of the invitation with eyebrows raised in a questioning expression.

“Lord Terence is the younger brother of the Baron of Augurt,” Brionna explained. “He’s young, brilliant, and pushing his brother to expand the size of their army. The Baron, however, prefers to put his trust in Paranswarm to defend the realm, rather than in a strong military.” Brionna’s mouth twisted disdainfully. “The current baron is fairly weak in general – heavily influenced by his court, and with little mind of his own. Either Terence or their younger sister would have made a better ruler.”

“Has Lord Terence ever made a move to become the ruler himself?” Kit asked, the wheels in her mind already beginning to turn, churning out plots of younger brothers’ rebellions and secret armies.

“No,” Brionna replied, to Kit’s relief and disappointment both. “He appears to be perfectly content in his current position. It would have been better if Terence were the ruler in other ways, too, though. He is rumored to be apostate from the Church of Paranswarm. That isn’t the case, from what I’ve heard; he’s merely a devout and slightly unorthodox follower of the Weeping Woman. But even that is better than his brother’s strict adherence to Paranswarmian principles.”

“Weeping Woman?” Kit repeated, with a grin. “We can work with that.”
 

Ladybird

First Post
“My lord Chamberlain?”

“Yes, Dame Brionna?”

Brionna held out the invitation from Lord Terence. “Dame Katherine and I each received one of these. Has anyone else gotten one?”

The Chamberlain took the invitation from Brionna, turning it over in his hands with a thoughtful, assessing gaze. “No, my lady. Not that I know of. It’s a bit odd that Lord Terence did not go through my office,” the Chamberlain added, with a slight frown, “but then again, he is known to be…eccentrically direct in such matters. He hardly has any staff of his own, you know. Just one bodyguard, very few other attendants – and he actually gives charity with his own hands! His brother is one of the most pretentious rulers on Drucien – I have no idea how Lord Terence turned out the way he did.”

Brionna returned to Kit with the information and, when she was done, a new theory. “I think this may be a trap to get hostages.”

Kit drew back, startled. “Ugh. I didn’t think of that.”

“That’s all right. It’s my job to think of things like that,” Brionna replied grimly.

“But from what you said, it doesn’t sound like Lord Terence’s style – all that skullduggery and subterfuge? According to the Chamberlain, he’s almost too direct for his own good.”

“Oh, I hope it isn’t. But we have to be prepared for anything.” Brionna stood up again. “I’m going to go to the Treasury to get rings of teleportation for us. We’re going to go into this well-prepared.”

“All right,” Kit agreed. “And I’m going to talk to some of my people to see what else I can find out about Lord Terence.”
 

Ladybird

First Post
A very happy birthday to our principal writer, Cerebral Paladin! Wishing you cake, happiness, and natural 20s :)

--

The Archducal Treasury resided deep below the palace, protected by multiple layers of heavy metal doors, locks, and shimmering magical wards. There were probably dozens, if not hundreds, of other security measures, but those were the only ones Brionna could see as she wound her way down the flights of steep stairs towards the outer room that housed the Keeper of the Vaults, and all of the Treasury’s records.

“I’d like to requisition two rings of teleportation, please – one for myself and one for Dame Katherine.”

The Keeper had become used to not asking ‘why’ when senior members of the Archducal staff made requests. “Very good, Dame Brionna. Simply fill out these forms in triplicate, and I will have them ready for you right away.”

With a sigh, Brionna set about filling out the exhaustively detailed forms. “Oh, by the way? I’d also like to see the records for the most recent items that Lady Brenda Brightspan took from the treasury.”

“Very good, Dame Brionna,” the Keeper said again, and went off to rummage through his records. “Ah, here we are. Lady Brenda requested the Tiara of Flame, and…oh my, that’s interesting. Strongbox 378.”

“What’s that? Or rather, what was in it?”

“I’m not sure,” the Keeper replied, frowning slightly. “It was put into the treasury by Archduchess Amelia’s father. I don’t know what was in it. I doubt the box itself had any particular value, since nothing is written down about its properties, but there are no records of what was in it.”

“Can you tell me when Lady Brenda asked for these items?”

“Just before her trip to Tarsh – approximately ten months ago.”

“Ah.” Brionna gave a satisfied nod. It all came back to the expedition to Tarsh. “What about the tiara, then? What does that do?”

“Oh, now that I can tell you all about.” Back on secure ground, the Keeper brightened. “The Tiara of Flame is one of the six artifacts of the Archducal Crown Jewels. When it is worn by a psionic person, it links that person to everyone within a certain distance, allowing the wearer to sense the presence of evil thoughts or intentions.”

“That’s very useful,” said Brionna thoughtfully. “But how was Lady Brenda able to get such an important item?”

“The late Archduchess had a list of people who were allowed to requisition freely. Lady Brenda was among them.”

“Do you still have the list?” Brionna asked, suddenly cautious. “Have any of them asked for items recently?” With all of the treachery among the palace staff, she thought, that’s a very dangerous list.

The Keeper blinked at Brionna’s reaction, but said only, “Of course, my lady. Here it is.”

Brionna ran a quick glance down the list – to her great relief, even though several of the traitors had been on it, they hadn’t requisitioned anything recently, and at any rate were now imprisoned or dead. Most of the other names on the list likewise belonged to people who had died, considering the recent rush of suicides following the Archduchess’s death.

It made Brionna considerably less relieved, however, to see that the only person on the list who was still alive and free was Lady Constance. Unfortunately, there was nothing she could do about the diabolist’s presence on either the list or the staff.

Back to investigating Lord Terence, Brionna thought, as she climbed back up to the main part of the palace. But I need to ask Kit about sending a psionic expert down here to check on that tiara. We can’t afford to take the chance that someone has tampered with it.
 

Ladybird

First Post
The Mouth’s official scribe was much happier to talk to Kit about Lord Terence than about the Endless Stream Tavern. “He is the power behind the throne in Augurt, my lady, in every real way. But your other sources are correct in that he has never made a move to take over. The brothers adore each other. First, they were left on their own at a relatively young age, when their parents were killed in a voller accident. That is how the current Baron came to the throne. Also, Terence was a sickly little boy, and the current Baron always took care of him and felt protective towards him. Terence returned the devotion in kind: when one of the other nobles suggested that perhaps Terence should take the throne, Terence ran him through on the spot!”

Kit stared, morbid interest lighting her eyes. “Yeah, that’s devotion, I’d say. And it also fits what I’ve heard of Terence before – straightforward, direct, very clear about his feelings and intentions. Makes our job easier, doesn’t it?” she added, with a grin at the scribe.

“Quite so, my lady,” he replied, his smile well-mannered and subdued in return.

“Wait, Lord Terence can’t really be that sickly, can he, if he’s running around stabbing rebellious nobles?”

“He has exercised considerable discipline to hone what physical talents he has, but his principle training was as a mage. And in truth, he is still somewhat fragile – even more so after the assassination attempt.”

“Assassination attempt?” Kit repeated, her ears pricking up again.

“Ah, yes.” The scribe gave Kit a thin smile. “When Lord Terence was just sixteen, he went to the eastern Trade Federation as an ambassador for his brother. There, he was poisoned by a would-be assassin. The culprit was caught, but Terence’s life was in serious danger, considering his frailty. He was only healed through the great skill and talent of a priest of Gunnora.” The scribe leaned forwards, his smile growing wider. “And our sources say that Terence himself adopted that faith, in gratitude to the priest who healed him.”

“So he is an apostate!” Kit gasped. “Not just a follower of the Weeping Woman, but of a different deity entirely!”

“Indeed. And although this is not exactly hidden knowledge in Augurt, Terence has never been formally charged. There would be a terrible outcry if he were – he is quite the favorite of the common people.”

“No wonder he keeps to himself,” Kit breathed.

“Indeed. He keeps a very small staff, in contrast to the horde of attendants who wait on his brother the Baron. Lord Terence’s advisor rarely gets the chance to advise, and while there is a secretary, Lord Terence insists that he can do his own writing. And he has never been known to have had a lover, either male or female.”

“He can’t risk anyone getting close enough to find out what religion he really follows…” Kit mused. An unpleasant thought struck her, and she shifted in her seat. “The penalty for apostasy, according to the Paranswarmians. It’s death, isn’t it?”

“Occasionally by ritual sacrifice,” the scribe confirmed, with a prim nod.

Kit shuddered, then pushed the thought away. “What about the brother, the Baron. What do we know about him?”

“Besides the fact that he is a weak ruler, controlled by his court? Well, his marriage is strictly political. His wife is the daughter of the Lord of Debenai. They have three children, but they keep separate rooms, and only visit each other’s chambers when it is time to produce another heir. The Baron keeps a number of mistresses, and the Baroness keeps a number of guard captains. The frontiers of Augurt are patrolled by extremely handsome men, sent off after the Baroness tired of them.”

“All right. So Lord Terence is definitely the one in charge here. Any clue about what he might want with me and Brionna?”

“No, my lady. He keeps his counsel to himself. I doubt that even his brother knows what his goals are in Canberry.”
 

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