2. Eavesdropping Rather Than Spying
Deep in the heart of the realm that made up the ancient Empire of Searledon, in the House of Direction, the huge labyrinthine government building in the capital city of Espondre, Mal Respler was not a happy man. Proud though he was of his important position in the government of the city and indeed the empire, he knew that the ruling class, the nobles, saw him as a lower class of human; he knew that they regarded everyone outside their aristocratic bloodlines as lesser people, whether they be valuable like Respler, or just a nuisance like the general masses.
A pale and unassuming man, Respler was in his early middle age with cropped light brown hair. Though he sometimes projected world-weary cynicism he actually saw himself as positive, optimistic and cheerful. That indeed was the Respler of ten years ago but his self-image had not kept up with the changing reality of the person he was growing into. He was responding to his young assistant, Trel Vanib, who had asked him why he was so unhappy, as they walked the twisting old corridors. “I don’t like being looked down on by people who aren’t as clever as I am and who don’t work as hard as I do, is that surprising to you?”
“Yes Master it is. I am sorry to disagree with you but you are an important government official and everyone seems to treat you very well indeed.”
“Ah Vanib, my dear, humble assistant, good servants are treated reasonably by nobles of course, like you would treat a good horse kindly if you wanted it to bear you well, but am I no more than an animal to the nobles? Look more closely at how they deal with me, politely but dismissively, it certainly feels like if I broke a leg they would just put me down.”
Vanib as usual was irrepressible in his bright and optimistic approach to everything. A man of only twenty-four years, average height and slender build, what made him exceptional was his sharp mind and this was why Respler, as a relentless believer in the hopeless cause – within the Empire at least – of promoting according to merit, had taken Vanib on and educated him. He was pleased with how much the boy had learnt and how hard he worked, considerably easing Respler’s burdens and gaining him credit for much he was now achieving. He had of course told Vanib not to be so formal – always calling him ‘Master’ – but Vanib had wisely concluded that this was a half-hearted instruction that was not to be taken too seriously.
“But Master,” continued Vanib, “surely this should not be an issue to you after all these years? Forgive me but I only seek to understand and learn.”
“Well, it wasn’t an issue for a long time, you see for many of those years I enjoyed the success of my career and my elevated status relative to my family and indeed everyone I know. Compared to most people of common birth I have enjoyed a life of luxury and privilege, better than some minor nobles in fact. Yes, I did enjoy this, revelled in it even, but now it just doesn’t give the satisfaction that it used to.”
“How is that so Master?”
“Perhaps age, or time to reflect, or I’m just less selfish and so see the injustice heaped on others.”
“Oh come on Vanib, you see how the common people are treated and how well the nobles live just because of their parentage or name, they have power and wealth as of right, simply because of the luck of their birth. Neither they nor the ungodly hierarchy of priests care a whit for us, they compete with each other, fighting for power as they feed off the mass population.”
What rankled perhaps even more was that he had always been so apparently appreciative of the stupid lazy people who so generously allowed him to work for them, rather like a pig adoring the man who will soon slaughter it for food. He felt he played the sycophantic functionary too well and it galled him that he did nothing about it. But this was a little too much to share with Vanib, and he thought it was time to change the subject before he became treasonous.
Just then they reached the stately office of the bane of Respler’s life and the main cause of his current state of mind, even though all the man had done recently was to offhandedly summon him rather than politely request a meeting. Duke Multure of Espin was one of the ruling dukes, one from each of the five duchies that had once been kingdoms before the Empire was formed just over two thousand years ago at the end of the kingdom wars. Multure had inherited a position as one of five people who were second only to the Emperor. The power of the Emperor and the equal status between the five dukes had eroded over the years and the current force behind that change was Duke Multure who quietly extended his power incrementally but relentlessly.
Respler thought of the Duke as the Vulture, although obviously he would never dare say this out loud. Multure did indeed slightly resemble his avian near-namesake in that he was old, thin and bony, perpetually stooping and generally wearing black. It was so obvious that Respler wondered if anyone else thought it, maybe even Multure himself? Naturally, once Respler made this mental association he was stuck with it even though he wanted to block all such thoughts in case he ever said it out loud. He just couldn’t shake the image or the feeling that Multure was always perching on high, gazing down morbidly waiting for Respler to fail in something so he could swoop down and peck through the corpse of his career. The contradictory facet of the Vulture’s character was his strangely cheery demeanour, but Respler knew it for what it was – a politician’s façade.
They were expected and so were admitted almost immediately to the Duke’s grand office with its expansive windows presenting wide views of the sprawling city and brightly lighting the room with warm sunlight.
“Ah, good morning my friend, how are you and your fine assistant today?”
“Good morning Your Grace, I am well thank you.” As usual he didn’t even mention Vanib who was instructed never to speak in the presence of the Duke unless expressly invited to.
“I have some exciting news,” the Duke said, “the excellent Felk is back with the latest mad wildmind from the south, so we have a public burning to arrange! Make sure your staff are quick to get things moving for the burning, we can’t let a commoner get away with wild uncontrolled magic!”
I am a commoner, thought Respler, would you burn me so quickly? And why as a duke with a team of humble minions at your beck and call would you have Felk come to you first? I am supposed to be directing the odious man. And when did he become ‘excellent’? But he knew he was expected to be as excited as the Vulture was and so he acted it a little, but really he found the burnings to be sad affairs and bitterly hated that they were part of his duties to arrange. Partly it was because of the cruel killing of course, but partly it was the discrimination, only commoners displaying wildmind tendencies were burned, nobles just disappeared. This was also something which never used to worry him overmuch, he used to think he was better than the commoners due to working so closely with the nobility – almost an honorary noble – and that seemed to be how Multure often treated him. But that was pure foolishness, he had overheard Multure explaining to lesser nobles how important it was to be polite and friendly to functionaries in order to get the best out of them. Like horses.
“Ah, excuse me Your Grace,” said Respler, inwardly wincing at his own obsequious timidity, “I heard there was a messenger from the north east talking of invasion and there is a nasty rumour that the invaders are barbarians openly using wildminds, can this be true?”
Multure’s face became grim as he said, “Where did you hear such a thing? And what concern would it be of yours anyway, such rumours should not be spread you know.”
“Of course Duke Multure, and I hope you know that I would not gossip, but I do head your staff dealing with the suppression of wildminds so I hope you will understand that it is of some interest to me?”
“Well yes, I suppose so. The official line is that there is no invasion, and that there are certainly no wildminds among them either. Anyway, be sure to hurry with the arrangements for the burning, your staff can be so slow when they are not directed well. And let’s have a little more fuss and celebration, eh? Last time the crowds weren’t big enough. Let’s put some energy into it and do it properly, mmm?”
Respler would normally have been quietly outraged at such condescending criticism being delivered so casually and with that false cheery smile. But he was distracted because it had not escaped him that the Duke’s careless choice of words seemed to confirm rather than deny the rumours of both invasion and wildminds despite perhaps intending otherwise. This left him a little shocked and perplexed as he had not until now believed it possible. He had been looking for reassurance and was not expecting confirmation. Being a product of this civilisation was enough to make you hate the wild magicians and considering Respler’s duties this had almost become loathing early in his career. But later, seeing so much first hand, he had started to see through some of the lies and had wondered why they worked so hard to declaim all things magic. He had also seen more and more comings and goings of high church officials in recent years and felt that there was growing conflict between the church and the topmost layers of the imperial hierarchy. The priests were of course fanatical in decrying many things where it suited their purposes. He had learned of the claims of wildmind invaders by overhearing a meeting where a priest was demanding action and now wondered where he could find out more if the Vulture was not to be forthcoming.
He was framing another question when Duke Multure waved a nonchalant dismissal, compelling them to trudge meekly back through the maze that was the House of Direction, the Duke’s small empire within the much larger one.
As they walked the gloomy corridors, Vanib was worried about his master and puzzled by the latter part of the conversation which had tickled his curiosity. “Master, I don’t mean any disrespect, but Duke Multure’s answers didn’t seem to convince you that we are not being invaded by people openly practicing wildmind magic?”
“Oh dear! Did you hear that? I’d forgotten you were there! Put it from your mind my boy!” Respler followed with a glare that meant do not say another word. But then it occurred to him that he had just treated Vanib a little like the Vulture’s treatment of himself, so he smiled at Vanib to soften the rebuke and then worried that he had baffled the boy.
Respler also despised Felk of course. It troubled him that he reviled more people than he praised or admired but it didn’t stop him doing it. He summoned the wildmind hunter to his office and waited impatiently until the man arrived, late as usual. Why did no one respect him? Felk was a commoner of some import to the nobles just like himself, but was so coarse and unkempt it was completely unacceptable, although somehow Respler never managed to tell the man to improve. It was Felk’s job under Respler’s direction to catch wildminds so that they could be burned in public, both a control and deterrent to others.
Respler knew that Felk was generally friendly with soldiers and common people but resentful and rude with any commoner who had authority over him, such as Respler. When it came to interacting with nobles the man was a perfectly obsequious sycophant, his grovelling enough to make you cringe. But if you watched him very closely – and of course few ever did – you might catch a glimpse or a hint of the personality behind the mask he wore, snarling to get out but ruthlessly controlled. A glimpse that suggested for every moment of servile humility towards a noble, his soul stored away some malevolence for later, some hatred that would come out as pain, torture or death as soon as he could arrange it. Perhaps that partly explained why he was so effective at his role. His hatred gave him the passion and drive that made him the best at hunting, capturing and in the process causing pain to any commoners daring to associate themselves in even the slightest way with magic. The short, wiry man with his face marked by a red birthmark on his left cheek was usually dressed in worn leather travelling clothes. Respler thought he would be inconspicuous in a crowd in the street but would stand out like a pile of night-soil if he stood near any noble.
“You wanted me?” was Felk’s conversation opener as he slunk into the room, sniffing.
“Good day to you also Felk, have you not had time to freshen up since returning?” said Respler.
“Freshen up? Ha! I’m not hanging on to the nobles coat tails hoping to pass as one of them. I have a real job out in the real world saving the likes o’ you from nasty rogue mages. No time for prettying up. What did you want?”
Respler reached new levels of seething anger at such rudeness, he knew the man had been back for hours and assumed he had found plenty of time for ale and women, but clearly none to address his deplorable appearance and stench. Nevertheless, years of working with the nobles enabled him to mask his outrage and he stared flatly as he said,
“Your report is what I want.”
“Well, should’ve said. I got reports of strange stuff happening down in Tralochin and went there, y’know the place?”
“Of course, please continue.”
“Took us a while to get there. Spread my men out and sent a few to ask about, heard lotsa talk of some guy called Tosk who was a servant and advisor for the local baron. Rumour was he could always get anyone to do anything for this guy, Baron Whemmon, till recently when the noble seems to have gone all quiet, not been seen like, and this Tosk is giving all the orders. I sent spies in and sure enough Tosk is running the place himself, living the real high life he was, surrounded by tasty looking women who’d do anything he wanted. Anything. I saw.” Respler stared at him. “Anyway, I went to see him, taking a few precautions of course.”
“Precautions?” queried Respler.
“Yeah, got one o’ my men to pretend to be me while I snuck in secretly, in disguise, under cover like. He’d heard of me, naturally, and was very nice to the pretend me, too nice, and afterwards my man said he felt weird, like he was wrong to waste this good gent’s time, he was absolutely certain that Whemmon was fine and he should stop being a fool, wasting everyone’s time like and just go away. Utterly convinced of this he was and went to leave straight away. Funny thing was this Tosk seemed to have to concentrate during this time, so next time he was doing this sort of thing, that’s when I got close enough to shoot him with a drugged dart.”
“What happened then?”
“Everyone was a bit shocked and confused, I got my men in quick and we took control of the place, flashed around my letter of authority from the Duke, questioned everyone, found the Baron in a cell, pretty well looked after, considering, and he told us how Tosk had just been taking over gradually but at one point he had been confronted and then he started really making everyone do what he wanted, no more pretence like. We brought him back knocked out with drugs all the way. That’s it,” he concluded, looking bored.
“Mmm, thank you Felk, it does seem like a clear cut case of a wildmind using the dark arts to control the minds of others. I shall presume you checked thoroughly that he hadn’t infected any others before you left, knowing your, um, fervour regarding such matters. Vanib will write this up and I’ll present it to Duke Multure.”
Felk slouched out without another word. Not for the first time Respler wondered if the odious man had some magic talent himself, he was clearly brainless but was so consistently successful in sniffing out and dealing with people practicing magic. Because of this he was well rewarded and now travelled the empire with what seemed like a small army, allegedly necessary to overpower wildminds. Respler thought this was rather over the top, considering that emerging wildminds rarely had any serious level of ability or power. He also couldn’t fathom why no one else concluded that Felk must be a wildmind himself, probably most were too stupid to figure it out, or those that did were afraid to mention it, or it was quietly tolerated by those in power as it served them well.
The general public actually believed that nobles never displayed any magical talent, this had been a myth for so long that wildminds had come to be thought of as common and uncouth people who sought to elevate their status by despicable means. The case of Tosk would be well publicised to further support this of course. Respler knew the truth that some few nobles from time to time discovered a little ability in themselves and denied it not just to the world but even to themselves, suppressing it out of fear. The one or two more rash young nobles caught showing any signs were quietly spirited away, often to obscurity in a distant monastery where strict religious behaviour was enforced, or occasionally to experience a surprising and fatal accident. This was also the responsibility of Multure, which meant that occasionally Respler had to find just such a solution and ensure it was well organised. For now though, he forced his thoughts back to more immediate matters and began arranging another meeting in order to get his staff working on the burning ceremony.
Vanib wore a thoughtful expression, pondering as he sat at his small desk in their shared office, a room with ceilings so high the cobwebs were rarely swept away. Writing Felk’s report for Mr Respler, he couldn’t shake the earlier conversation from his mind. Of course he had the highest respect for his master and for the frighteningly important Duke Multure, he was deeply honoured to be serving them. He was immensely grateful to have been selected for this position and for the education and experience that came with it. He had therefore resolved to always do his best for these significant people, not hoping for any reward other than the honour of being able to serve. But he also knew that his talents were not being used to their full potential as generally he merely followed Respler around, taking notes for him, writing up reports, or delivering messages. Somehow he had to find a way to be more useful, to make a more meaningful contribution.
Whilst Respler was good at being an obsequious officer, largely ignored by most nobles, at the same time he was one of the senior staff and so had a great deal of freedom to wander the government buildings. Of course that made his lowly assistant practically invisible whilst enjoying almost unlimited access on his master’s business. He had also been slipping into the habit of using his bright mind to squeeze extra time out of his work and assignments, and in turn making use of this time to increase his knowledge of the Government of the Empire. He already knew much of the layout of the House of Direction and the people who frequented it, Respler only being one of many officers running functions or departments for the Duke.
Consequently Vanib had started putting his spare time and relative invisibility to a different use, that of creeping around listening in on conversations. Unfortunately, it did not turn out to be as fruitful as hoped for because everything he managed to hear was remarkably boring and entirely unrelated to what he wished to learn about.
Late one afternoon he pretended to work at his desk but was really pondering deeply once again. As he wondered how to listen in on meetings he was not allowed access to, he remembered with a start two different facts that he had never connected before. One was an old rumour that the ancient House of Direction was said to contain many secret passages, mapped in a plan that was long lost and all unknown to the current occupants. The second was that he had a suspicion about the location of an locked vault where such plans might be kept. Respler and Duke Multure had carelessly talked in front of him about a curious antique key kept in a locked cabinet. The Duke had explained brusquely that it was for an unused vault with some dusty and crumbling papers in, then apparently realised he shouldn’t have said anything and ordered Respler to forget it. Neither of them had even noticed that Vanib was there. At the time it had seemed trivial, but now he could barely contain his excitement at the prospect of investigating such a mystery, such a possibility.
As soon as possible he found some free time, then he made certain that the Duke and his immediate staff were not around before slipping into his grand office. Whilst the House of Direction was always guarded and only authorised people were admitted, once within, the security was rather lax, a fact which Vanib was particularly enjoying at that moment. He knew that any security was only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. The vault may be secure, but its unique key was kept in a cabinet that contained other, more unexceptional keys. As a general rule, ordinary keys were used for mundane tasks and the Duke didn’t do mundane, so he had long ago given Respler a key to the cabinet and this was the weakest link, it merely being kept under some papers in a drawer in Respler’s desk.
Using the ‘borrowed’ key from his Master’s desk, Vanib opened the cabinet and took out the large ornate key, assuming and hoping it was the one to the old vault. He felt wicked doing something so clandestine but knew absolutely that he was only working in the interest of the Empire and his good employers. He went straight to a locksmith in the town who quickly made a copy without any questions and Vanib paid him out of his own wages. Back in the largely deserted House of Direction he furtively returned the original key to its place in the Duke’s locked cabinet and quietly replaced Respler’s key in his desk. He went home exhausted from the stress.
It was two days later before another opportunity presented itself for sneaking around. With the Duke being out of town, Respler would be going home early, so Vanib told his master that he would stay a little later to complete the filing away of the day’s papers, a task he had deliberately left incomplete. He quietly sat in the office trying to look busy as the building gradually emptied of staff and became still and quiet.
Vanib in his admiration of Respler tended to emulate him in as many ways as possible, although he ignored his master’s timidity, assuming he simply did not want to disappoint Duke Multure rather than fearing his reprisals. But he noted how Respler was meticulous and went out of his way to do everything precisely and correctly without ever breaking a single rule or procedure. It was one of the reasons he had succeeded in the rigid, bureaucratic and turgid government of the Empire. Now as he crept into Duke Multure’s office, Vanib realised just what he was doing and imagined Multure returning to catch him. He calmly reflected just how strong Respler’s disapproval would be, but he balanced this with how delighted his master may be to learn more about the developments regarding the invasion and possible use of wildminds. There was clearly something going on which his master of all people should know about, but they were keeping it from him, keeping it from the right hand of the Duke himself!
He searched in the vicinity of the main filing and storage offices where he came across a dark corridor that he had never seen anyone enter in all the time he had filed papers. Carrying a lantern he eventually located a vault where he hoped to find the secret plans of the building that may in turn help him to discover hidden passages. Using his copied key he slipped inside the small vault, quietly closing the door behind him and barely containing his excitement.
There were piles and piles of papers on shelves and Vanib reasoned that he was looking for a very old and untouched piece of parchment. Ignoring boxes and chests on the floor he looked through numerous piles of documents, taking great care to leave everything exactly as he found it. Before long he started to become concerned about the amount of time he had been here but decided he had to keep going. He saw some old sheets of parchment covered in cobwebs in a corner and thought he may skip those because he was not sure how to look at them without disturbing the cobwebs and dust, when he realised that may be exactly the type of thing he was looking for. Carefully he slipped sheets out from under the top one, soon finding a large sealed envelope at the bottom, helpfully labelled ‘confidential’. Despite the risk, he had to know and so unsealed the envelope, gently removing its contents. It was indeed a thick old parchment map showing the layout of the House of Direction although very little of it looked right to him. Nevertheless he took the map and with a last check that he left no trace he swiftly departed and headed home, not daring to think that he may have what he hoped for but too worried to stay any longer.
Back at home, the shaking of Vanib’s hands surprised him as he settled down by candlelight to start examining the map. Despite the quality of the parchment, its age meant it was dusty and crumbling, the writing was spidery thin and the drawings of rooms faint and confusing. It had clearly been forgotten about and left unused for very many years. It took him several hours of study to figure out the relationship between the current layout and naming of the rooms in the building to that shown on the old map. In the process he created a copy using materials brought from his place of work. Eventually it became a little clearer to him and with mounting excitement he identified three secret doorways which he thought he would be able to locate.
The next afternoon Vanib found he had some time to himself after helping Respler to chase up his staff on the burning arrangements. He didn’t know where Duke Multure was, but they were not planning to meet, so carrying some papers in order to look purposeful he went in search of door number one, as he thought of it. He soon found the place where the map indicated it was, but this was not helpful, being located in a busy corridor with a heavily robust and ornate table placed directly in front of it. The second door appeared to be in a side room that was currently unused, investigating he saw dim light from a dirty window falling on dust and cobwebs, making the small room grey and dismal. The location seemed right according to the map, but of course a secret door was by definition not visible and how to open it perplexed him for several minutes. All the while his nervousness was growing – how could he possibly explain his presence if someone came in? He thought back over his studies of the map and paperwork that came with it and remembered the drawings of squares and rectangles that made no sense at the time, but now seemed to match, proportionately, the wood panelling on the wall. In the top right-hand corner, just beyond normal reach was a panel that the drawing seemed to indicate somewhat obliquely. He stood on a chair and tentatively touched and prodded it, and soon found that it was possible to press it in and slide it to the side. He almost fell off the chair when a narrow section of panelling swung back to reveal a dark passageway full of cobwebs. There was an old a lantern in the room which still had oil in it and he quickly blew off the dust, lit it and set off into the dark passageway allowing the doorway to slowly and quietly close behind him.
For an hour, as fear and excitement vied for dominance in his mind like two snakes coiling around one another, he explored dark and dusty passageways that had evidently not been used for very many years. This was a great relief, suggesting that the current masters of the House of Direction – including Duke Multure – really were unaware of their existence. Vanib repeated his explorations on two more days, occasionally sitting cramped in the passageways scribbling short notes on the map. He didn’t find anything startling at first but was beginning to understand the layout. The first door didn’t seem critical, certainly not as useful as the second and he quickly located the third and then a fourth, noting them and testing both as alternative routes should the small room be in use. More study revealed small notations indicating spy holes in the passageways, where sliding back a cover allowed sight and sound of various rooms from cleverly hidden vantage points. Mostly the rooms were empty so he started working to identify the current purpose of each, and to determine for what, and at what times they would be used, so as to time his eavesdropping to better effect. He characterised it as eavesdropping rather than spying, reasoning that he wouldn’t use it against the Empire as an enemy would. Also, as his master was a key person within the government he should be better informed and indeed would be if it weren’t for the prejudice of the nobles.
On the second occasion that he actually used the spy holes to listen in, he realised with a start that he still had his lantern lit which may be visible in the room. In a panic he fumbled an attempt to cover it, in the process making a slight noise. His heart jumped in his chest and he quickly looked back into the room, freezing when he saw the occupant apparently staring into his eyes as he said, “What was that?”
“Rats probably,” said a second voice and the two resumed their mundane conversation, moaning about someone he didn’t know. Vanib’s heart had at first seemed to have stopped, but now was hammering loudly enough in his chest that they would surely hear it in the room in front of him. Gradually it calmed and he quietly crept out and home, unsure if he could find the courage to try again.
Unfortunately for Vanib, his invisibility was not as complete as he hoped and imagined as Respler received a report from a friendly colleague that his assistant had been seen creeping about the House of Direction late at night. Respler was intrigued and worried rather than angry – although he was condescending towards his young apprentice he viewed him kindly on the whole and was pleased with his obedience, loyalty and hard work. So he determined to watch him quietly rather than confront him. It was when Vanib was leaving the building late after completing one of his initial exploratory expeditions that he had been noticed, and consequently it was not long before Respler followed him on his way to a subsequent trip to the secret passages. He watched Vanib enter the small room and after a short while spent wondering what he was doing he slowly opened the door and peered in, only to be completely mystified to find an empty room. After waiting for a few minutes he went home assuming that he had followed too far behind and had mistaken the room.
Two nights later when the Vulture was apparently not around, Respler went back to the office after leaving, to see if Vanib was up to his creeping about tricks any more. He glimpsed his assistant disappearing around a corner and followed silently, noting that he once more went into the small room. This time Respler entered the room more quickly and was stunned to see it empty again, certain as he was that he had the right room this time. How could Vanib have disappeared? Then he noticed the crack of the hidden door slowly closing, and he quickly put his fingers in the slight gap before it disappeared. Opening it wider, he could see a faint light glowing from around the corner of a dark and narrow passage. Silently he crept after Vanib in a bewildering mess of emotions, including surprise, betrayal, a little anger and increasingly, fear. Almost immediately he tripped in the dark and fell with a small cry that he didn’t quite manage to stifle. He looked up to see a shocked Vanib peering at him from around the corner with wide and frightened eyes, making shushing and placatory gestures. Back in the small store room Vanib was first to speak as Respler struggled to find any words appropriate for the occasion and his peculiar mix of emotions.
“Master please, please, forgive me! I was only trying to find more information for you, to help you in your important role with the Empire.”
“That may be Vanib, but you are not supposed to be here, you are not following my instructions and you will get the both of us into trouble! And to think I trusted you! I am of a mind to end your apprenticeship.”
“Please Master,” said a desperate Vanib, “before you decide how to punish me, just come and see what I have found, it is truly exciting and should be very helpful to you. It will take only minutes and no one will know other than us I swear.” Respler’s timidity was warring with his curiosity, and timidity was winning. He opened his mouth to say no, when Vanib started to disappear into the passageway.
“Thank you Master,” he called back in a loud whisper, “this way and please, we must be very quiet!” An indignant Respler stomped after him, then realised what he was doing when his footsteps echoed down the passageway and so he tip-toed as angrily as he could instead.
Vanib had thought this evening’s trip through carefully the previous night and had planned to eavesdrop on a round meeting room deep in the Halls Of Direction that he had not previously been aware of, and clearly did not have access to, even on Respler’s business. Perhaps it was used only by the high ranking nobles for discussing things without anyone else around. A room that even Respler was unaware of had to be worth listening in to. The map and his exploring had enabled him to figure out the way there and he soon had quietly led Respler to where there were two sets of spy holes. He gestured again for silence, covered his lamp and calmed his breathing, then opened the holes slowly. At first there was no one there and he thought he may have wasted his time and angered his Master needlessly, but Respler was transfixed, amazed to be looking in on a room he had never seen before. Then an old man was led in by none other than Duke Multure of Espin himself.
Respler had never seen this man, he was tall, grey haired with a beard, and although his clothes were plain and functional, the signs of wealthy nobility were visible in the quality and the detail. The Vulture apparently knew him well enough.
“Well my dear Baron Intleson, I am delighted but surprised by your visit. I hope this place meets your stated aspiration for secrecy?” The Vulture spoke calmly but seemed to be irritated. Behind the walls Vanib was trembling with excitement whilst Respler was trembling with abject fear. Neither of them moved a muscle beyond the trembling and both hardly breathed.
“Thank you Your Grace, I am grateful for your time, this place is fine if you are sure of its secrecy, and that we won’t be interrupted?” asked the visitor.
“Indeed, it is my favourite room for this type of meeting, can I pour you some wine?”
The circular room had no windows and only the one door, it was richly furnished and panelled in dark wood with shelves of old books lining some of the walls. Lit by candles and lamps it seemed warm without any fire. Food and drink had been left and clearly servants were not expected to be present to serve. Respler was thrilled that they thought the room secure while he was stood right there seeing and hearing clearly. Yet at the same time he was so completely terrified that he may cough, sneeze or hiccough that he had to concentrate on his breathing to avoid either extreme of panting loudly or passing out from lack of air.
“How is the Emperor?” asked Baron Intleson.
“He is well, of course, although I haven’t seem him recently.”
“You have by now been appraised of the situation in the northeast? Not just the invasion but also the use of primitive wildminds?”
“You seem to know a lot,” was all the Vulture replied, clearly not wanting to give too much away, but he was the highest nobility and clearly knew everything that was to be known in Espondre.
“I’ll not drag this out Your Grace,” said Intleson, “and you know I warned about this years ago. I fear the Dukes are too inward-looking and have missed all the warning signs concerning this hostile force until they overtly attacked. Obviously the Dogmen clans have finally ceased their fighting and have unified, much like us I suppose, though centuries later. Now they have decided to come and extend their empire by taking some or all of ours. I have heard disturbing tales of someone they call the Wolf Lord and I am certain they are greatly encouraged by the knowledge of our long hatred of, and therefore absence of, wildminds. Tell me, do you, as I previously advised, have a secret cadre of powerful mages ready to spring to our defence or do you still vigorously cleanse the Empire of magic, in which case I rather suspect we are all going to die?”
“Gods, Intleson, you haven’t changed, still melodramatic in the extreme. You have it out of proportion, Hurriden stands and the pass is secure. The latest pigeon message told of refuted claims of two or three basic wildminds, apparently controlling dogs, by the Gods, and at least one of those was possibly killed. Duke Kinsonay is confident.”
“I’ll wager his guard commander is not,” responded Intleson.
“Listen to me Baron, you know we used to keep a list of nobles with some magic affinity, all of them warned of the severe penalties of any one finding out and all of them shipped to minor posts in outlying parts of the Empire. But The Emperor subsequently made it known that even that level of tolerance was too much, I believe there may have been some pressure from the Church. Commoners of course are still burned in public and the masses enjoy the spectacle. Personally I think the Empire would not be what it is today if we hadn’t maintained the ban on wildminds. So no, we have no secret cadre of hidden mages but we will prevail through might of arms and wise leadership. These Dogmen are no threat with or without wildminds.”
“No threat?” said Intleson. “Your Grace, I know you as an intelligent man so I do not understand this naivety of yours. The Dogmen will breach Hurriden and establish a foothold in the Empire. They are numerous and they have bred hordes of huge and vicious wolfhounds which their wildminds control and direct. Although it is more difficult to control people, I suspect that they also have this ability to a limited degree. You must find and train our own Empire mages to counter this very real threat, it is imperative.”
“I will do no such thing.” The Vulture was glaring at Baron Intleson fiercely, his politician’s mask discarded. “And if I learn that you support wildminds or, Gods forbid, practice magic of any sort yourself then I will see to it that you burn, good family or not. This meeting is over.” With that he drank his wine and glared sulkily at the Baron not bothering to voice the words ‘you can go now.’ Intleson wore an air of calm disappointment as he stood up, paused for a moment, looked around the room and then quietly left. The two sets of eyes in the walls blinked at last and Respler pulled back and looked at Vanib, only to notice him gesturing frantically at the room containing the Vulture. Looking back in Respler was stunned to see a different man standing facing the Duke, where had he come from? He had only looked away for a moment. Then he saw the birthmark on the newcomer’s face and realised it was Felk!
“Very worrying my lord,” said Felk.
“Indeed,” said the Vulture, “I used to like Intleson, that is why he is still alive despite his um, rather positive feelings about the dark arts. That may have to change now.”
“Shall I talk to Respler my lord?”
“No need,” said the Duke, “he doesn’t need to know about this, recently he seems to get a bit squeamish at times I fear. Just arrange for Intleson to disappear quietly. And permanently. And soon. Oh and be careful, he is no fool.”
“Yes my lord,” said Felk as he left the room.
Respler was now in something of a state and anyone seeing him would not be sure if he was about to panic and run about screaming or simply pass out with only a whimper. Neither happened, mostly because he could not bear to do either in front of Vanib who had seemed to be calmly watching and soaking it all in. Respler was terrified to hear such secrets whilst also being furious to hear himself spoken of so disrespectfully. He desperately wanted to exclude Vanib, but realised that it was far too late for that, the boy had played a desperate game and Respler grudgingly thought he had now earned more respectful treatment. In something of a daze, he gestured to Vanib and they both crept back along the passageway and into the small room, then back to Respler’s office. He stared at Vanib, unsure what to do or say.
“It’s late,” he eventually said to a pensive looking Vanib, “lets get some rest and we’ll talk abut this in the morning, but tell no one about this, no one at all, do you understand?”
“Of course Master, I will see you in the morning,” said Vanib and he left quietly.
Shortly afterwards, a pale and shaken Respler left his office when, to his horror, he bumped into the Vulture leaving, the very last person in the world he wanted to see right now. On seeing Respler, the Vulture managed to turn his perpetual frown into his automatic politician’s smile of greeting, before it went straight back to a frown as he scrutinised his official’s demeanour. “By the Gods man you don’t look well at all, has someone died?”
“Um, no Your Grace, sorry… um, just not feeling well really….”
“Best get home then, bit late for you isn’t it?” said the Vulture, always managing to find something to criticise. All Respler could manage was a nod as he slowly fled the House of Direction feeling excruciatingly self conscious.
Copyright © Clive Anthony 2014
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