Unlike most Svalans, Lord Sennary of Castle Whiting was tall.
His height was due to his mother, an expatriate Davian Countess, and
although it had often proved its value in the course of his work,
occasionally he did find it awkward.
Right now was such a time: he was stooping his way down the narrow, low-beamed corridors of the Academy of Magical Sciences' main building, his sun-ashed hair periodically stroking the wizened spans. He'd checked his sword in on arrival, but it hardly mattered - there wasn't even the room to draw it, let alone use it. Besides, as the receptionist had pointed out, "Nobody's going to bother anyone with muscles like those..."
He reached a wider space, an atrium, half-lit through gloomy glass framed high in a vaulted ceiling; another legacy from the days when the entire block had comprised a monastery. He unhunched his shoulders, strolled across to Ansle's shadowy door; he knocked, opened it immediately, entered.
The chancellor was sitting at his desk, writing. Sennary approached, tsking as his scelero-quilted sleeve brushed against the elderly blackboard, picked up a blush of chalk.
"Ah, Lord Sennary," Ansle rushed, looking up, his eyes briefly flicking to the closed door. "I trust your journey was not tiresome?" The last word was louder than the rest.
"No, not tiresome," he dusted his arm, "merely unnecessary. Summoning me all this way... It'll be hard catching up with Conley again."
"Not impossible, though..." He smiled, falsely. "I'm sorry that I had to ask you to return, all the same, but I find it necessary that we discuss your new instructions privately."
"Comspheres are secure if you call direct, why not use Chewt's? It's sufficed up to now." He pulled up a chair, seated himself to face Ansle.
"Secure?" A studied pause. "Recently, as an experiment, I arranged by mail for a certain Northic logging company - a director of which had need of gold - to contact a former colleague of mine now a consultant for East/Trad. Using my supplied script, they discussed at length over comspheres the drawing up of a substantial contract for grain enhancers - a bogus one, but persuasive enough for eavesdroppers. A week later, a representative of Porett Technologies' agricultural division sent a communication to the Northic loggers offering terms that significantly undercut those of East/Trad. Porett Technologies, I need hardly point out, manufactures comspheres."
Sennary reached into his pocket, shook his head. "More likely a listening plate hidden in East/Trad's sales office..." He produced his own comsphere-2, tapped it against Ansle's. "Call me on that next time you want to talk - if, of course, you've beaten your paranoia by then."
Ansle waved his hand, dismissive. "If I am cautious, Sennary, it's a trait I assuredly share with you. For instance, there can be few soldiers of fortune other than yourself who have taken out life insurance! The very idea is ridiculous - little wonder the premiums are so outrageous!"
A sigh. "I merely wish to ensure that my farm will have a solid future, whatever might happen to me personally. Where's the nonsense in that?" He put away the com-2.
"Are you really concerned that your brothers would be unable to run it at a profit if you died? They seem to manage it well enough on their own at present..."
Sennary lowered his head, looked at him askance. "If I were to die, the farm would lose business."
Ansle smirked. "Of course, now I understand! You're the one with all the earning power, aren't you? Courtesy of your father's archaic title - it's passed through the eldest child only, I presume?" He laughed. "Yes... Such a shame he couldn't leave you any money, though; still, that's what comes of backing the wrong side in a civil war."
Sennary glared. "Assuming that you didn't invite me here simply to bait me with your spies' knowledge of my family history, might I suggest we start the debriefing?"
"It was your digression, Sennary..." He leaned back in his chair. "So, when you arrived at the inn, did you discover my daughter's ring?"
The glare left, reformed as a frown. "No, no I didn't, although I did have my men search. I don't believe she mislaid it anyway, and I doubt anyone could have stolen it; from what I saw, that's not why we lost the tag..."
Ansle flinched. "And what exactly did you see?"
He shrugged. "These old inns, they have primitive mechanical pumps which get to stiffen up. Takes a very strong arm to pull them. Didn't worry this innkeeper, though, not when he had a double-strength prosthetic..."
"Anything else?" voice steady.
"A shift-leader, been on wakers for the previous five days, handling some kind of flooding emergency. They say the sleep catches up with you when the wakers wear off."
He slumped a little. "Well, I suppose I must thank you for not mentioning any of this to Chewt; am I to infer that you kept it to yourself because you expected somehow to gain from it?"
Sennary groaned. "Ansle, when someone damn-near bleaches a wayside tavern clean of magic, you don't go telling people about it when she might still be in the vicinity. Who knows what else she's capable of?" He smiled, picked at some dead skin on the heel of his hand. "I had wondered why you hired me for this one..."
"I use tools appropriate for the job, that's all." He felt a scowl, relaxed it a little. "Well then, what do you think it is the girl uses? A device of some kind? A spell?"
"You say `girl', and yet she can't be more than half a dozen years my junior - if that. Why - "
"She's a girl to someone my age..." He waited. "So? Spell or artefact?"
Sennary clacked his front teeth, thought. "The sensible assumption is that it's a spell; the locals say they saw her making a focus just before it happened. Conley may have been gesturing too, her back was to them."
"Good: I too think it's a spell. This is all very interesting. Have you told anyone else?"
He grinned, wagged a finger. "Something I'm always conscious of in this line of work is the need for personal security. Sometimes, you see, I stumble across things that other people don't want anyone to know, and if they thought that by killing me they could reassure secrecy..."
"Your thoroughness is admirable. Well from here onwards, your mission will require that you travel alone; you may find yourself well away from anyone with whom you might feel inclined to burden your discoveries, and if my suspicions concerning comspheres are correct then you ought not to risk that medium either." He leaned back again, clasped his hands behind his head. "Would such conditions bother you?"
Sennary raised a shoulder, drooped it. "Not particularly, no. My men need a holiday in any case; they'll welcome their being left behind in Cala for a while. Of course, were they to learn that anything questionable had suddenly befallen me, they might not remain quite so considerate..."
"You do have a yen for insurance..." A smile, brief. "Well, I guarantee that your men will have no worries."
"Then neither will you..." He moved to rest his hand on his sword, had to pocket it instead. "So, what's this all about?"
Ansle sat up straight, paused, strummed on the desk. "Very well. What I am about to disclose to you is not to be repeated. You must tell no-one without my authority, understand?"
"Unless it's information I would have found out anyway."
"It isn't." He considered, looked at his fingernails. "You've indicated already that you do know precisely who it was my daughter met..."
Sennary nodded. "I recognised the injuries: one of the men I took to the library that night wore a proxy leg; another had an augmented pizzle; virtually everyone had dental fixes for broken teeth."
"Then it's as I expected: you know her identity. But what you don't know is why my daughter was hunting her."
He tapped his chin. "She found out about the spell?"
Ansle smiled. "In part. Conley is a very insecure young woman, Lord Sennary. She has always felt the need to substantiate her reputation - to me, yes, but more importantly to herself."
"Well she's surely succeeded there, hasn't she?" His brow was trenched in puzzlement. "Her work on proving - it was the greatest breakthrough in spell technology of the past twenty years. There can be no doubt in anyone's mind, let alone hers, that she's a phenomenally gifted mage."
"One would think so, indeed, but she believes that she needs to build on her success, in order to demonstrate that she's not a one-idea wonder. To that end, she fixed upon seeking out Roween Sage; undoubtedly, she thinks she can use antimagic as a basis for new research."
"And Roween will willingly show her the gestures?"
"My plans rather hinge on the assumption that you can reach them both before that happens: I want you to bring Roween back here as soon as is workably possible."
Ansle wafted with his hand, the movement shimmying his gown. "Conley can do what she pleases. Now that she's found Roween, the important thing to ensure is that the girl and her spell are contained."
Sennary looked down at him, darkly. "You're telling me that the whole point of my trailing Conley was in order to locate Roween?"
"I should have thought that was obvious," disdainful.
"Only if you couldn't have found her yourself. Yet you have spies, you have contacts, whereas Conley..."
He shuffled in his chair, glanced away from Sennary's eyes. "Roween apparently went abroad. She must have recently returned, and my daughter - "
"No, I think she let herself be found - as, in fact, you foresaw she would. She wanted Conley to make contact! Now why would that be?"
"You're becoming irritating, Sennary," snapped. "The reasons are no concern of yours: all you need to know is that I want the girl Sage back here before she tells a soul anything of worth."
"Back here? So she's been here before, then?"
"It's just a phrase..." Annoyance.
"A phrase you've used twice in the past five minutes. There's too much about this you're not telling me..."
"Make a focus."
"A focus, so I can put a classify on you."
"I know what you said! Listen, let's get this open right now: I don't make a focus for anyone, least of all a conniver like you. If you want to talk trust, you take the risk!"
"Perhaps I will, Lord Sennary." He dropped his hand below the desk. "However, you'll need to furnish me with more cause than you have up until now if - arhh!"
Sennary had sprung forward, grabbed the chancellor's forearm, brought it crashing upwards onto the wood. "What was that going to be? Some kind of air-spoiler? You wearing nasal filts?"
"I, I don't know what - let go of my arm! It was only a tag!"
"`A tag'," Sennary mimicked, "be real!" His face was total contempt. "Do you think maybe a pulped hand is an appropriate response?" He bashed it hard on the underside of the desk. "No more magicking until it's sawn off and prossed back?" He slipped his grip to Ansle's wrist, squeezed tight.
"For love, you'll crack the bones!"
"That's right, I will."
"There's a binder on the door, you won't ... get ... out." He was trying to prise open Sennary's fingers with his other hand, failing.
"You think I can't kick my way through paltry oak planking?" He graunched the carpals together. "Look, I really don't like having to do this, but if my mere suspecting that you're hiding something is enough to warrant my death, I do rather think I'm justified..."
"Alright, I'll tell you! Just - "
Sennary loosened the hold, enough to stay the pain. "Well then? What else is it about Roween?"
He wavered, glanced at the powerful hand still entombing his wrist, swallowed. "She did all the work on spell proving, not Conley."
For a heartbeat, nothing.
Sennary's gaze was resolute, puncturing. He flickered it a little, then dropped it, opened his grip.
Ansle slipped back his hand with a yelp, rubbed it, held it to his chest. "You ape!" The words were trembled, dismay overriding anger.
"Your daughter knew of this?"
"I'll have your skin!" His wrist white, began flooding red.
"We both know you won't, so why the pretence? Now are you going to tell me the rest or not?"
"I'll," teeth tight together, "I'll have to reconstruct my plans. Come back this time tomorrow - no, the day after." He flexed his fist, his wrist, as he nursed it, spoke the word to unbind the door.
Sennary stepped back, straightened his tunic. "I don't understand you, Ansle. I told you what would happen if you did away with me, that my men would come after you, and yet you still tried. Sometimes, I wonder how you ever got to be head of this place..."
"All you need worry about is that I did. Now go."
Sennary nodded, pointed to Ansle's hand. "Call a medic if it still hurts in ten minutes." He turned, ambled out.
21st January 1999: isif5.htm