The city had no walls, probably one of the most interesting traits of the palace town. Its utter lack of fortification made it seem like it belonged to a different time. From the wooden forts of the north, to the bulky rock towers of Rochetour, down to the well-manned long stone walls in the west, places of power were encased in fortifications. The palace town on the other hand could have been raided by a small party of horsemen – and the secrecy of its location was not a good enough protection.
Toikem knew something else guarded this place, be it magical or technical. Though impressive, the small army gathered in the barracks didn’t suffice.
His mind returned to more essential things. He had to find who cursed the Duchess’ chamber. He had so much to learn about this place and its inhabitants before he could even formulate a conjecture. He didn’t even know who had been targeted so far, he just knew what the Seneschal had told him: curses had only recently started occurring inside the palace. It had been witnessed in town before, but the fate of commoners hadn’t concerned the nobles too much. Three courtiers had died before their arrival, people who were low on the political spectrum. The Duchess of Fermont was surely a step up as she ruled over a large region, had a good dozen direct vassals and sat on more ore than any other duchy could hope to mine.
Training was the most reasonable explanation. It probably meant that the perpetrator didn’t travel – otherwise it would have been more sensible to attack somewhere else, so the nobles would be caught by surprise once they were attacked.
Guards knew steel. Apothecaries knew poison. Mages knew spells. The Old Art, on the other hand, dwelled in the past, in obscure minds, amongst superstitious beliefs and ancient tales. Toikem considered it to be both the reason why it had been used and the most prominent counter-argument against the hypothesis that commoners had been used for target practice. No tome had been written about imprecations. No study had been pursued. Toikem had never heard of apprenticeship dedicated to the Old Art. The little people he had known to actually use it had been taught during childhood, under the pretense of tradition.
Why draw so much attention before attacking the nobles, then, if it weren’t for training? Perhaps the perpetrator wanted them to dread what he would do to them. Maybe it was a statement: no matter if you are highborn or lowborn, you will die.
Could all victims be related?
Toikem sighed. So far, they had mainly found the people responsible out of luck. Sometimes, the villagers thought they knew the culprit because of prejudice, rumors or mere spite. Innocents had been killed because they spit in the wrong direction or spoke a different language. The ritualistic nature of the Old Art had sired many common superstitions.
It could take them weeks before they even had a lead, but spending more time pondering on clueless hypotheses would not make anything happen faster.
Toikem asked a domestic to show him to the laboratory. The mages worked behind the palace, in a building made of brown bricks and tiling. The engravings on the metal door probably warded the place against all kinds of undesirable effects. These walls probably could endure any wars, Toikem thought as magic nipped at his hands. The servant girl that had brought him there left without a bow. Proper manners vanished quickly in the absence of the reeve or any nobles, especially with magic involved.
The young man assumed someone was awake beyond the brick walls and aware of his presence, but he knocked nonetheless. Common courtesy dictated that people didn’t act like they were watched at all times. He simply knew better. He would have scrutinized every stranger’s movements if he had been in a courtier; moreover if he were a mage in the presence of people associated with the Old Art. Scholars dismissed the ancient rites like battle-hardened warriors ignored a peasant’s offense: just because the adversary was not disciplined and strong enough for a fair fight did not mean they could not stab you in the back.
The door opened on a short man with white hair and beard, sad blue eyes looking up to match Toikem’s. “Milord?” The old man blinked several times. “Kern?” he added the barbarians’ endonym – the barbarian people’s self-given name, not the Rean one – when he saw the armor. His blue gaze rose back to Toikem’s face and he smiled. “Gent,” he finally declared.
Toikem confirmed with a nod, surprised at the man’s deductive capabilities. “My name is Toikem. Headmage Aubevent invited me.”