The Solar was rising slowly over the dusty streets of D6. Levs were already hovering busily around the city, early young workers strolled along at their ease, PIs in, oblivious to the world and their waiting jobs, too busy watching their holoscreens to care.
But the outside world knew nothing of the commencement of the massive game that was happening around them, above them, and beneath their feet - as if the events were hidden like ants in an anthill.
The Monarchy had taken a subtle step. The news reported another CTO missing. Having heard the news that the CTO in question was one of his spies, King Tyraanus had paid handsomely to withhold that information from the media, so the general citizen only knew that "another unprovoked and vicious magical attack on our people has no doubt happened today". A GPS device had been concealed on his person but unfortunately had stopped working a few days ago. Either he had been ambushed on a subroute (as the GPS didn't work underground) or he had been killed and the device found and destroyed. Tyraanus had no idea that both of these were true - except that Hero had not been on a subroute, and the GPS had been cloaked by magic.
Unbeknown to the people of Dartoc-6, CCTV images were now being monitored closely. Permanent polywave scanning fixtures had been activated, secretly searching for magical activity.
But the underworlders had already clocked this, and rarely ventured surfaceside anymore. Instead they had retreated to their secret tunnels and underpasses. Some of the more powerful magicians were planning protective measures at all entrances to their sanctuary.
And still Oakstaff refused to join the fray. Ceridwen had been to speak to him twice since Hero's death and he had remained obstinate.
"You're not sucking me into your harebrained schemes," he croaked defiantly, folding his arms. "I've already agreed to train the boy."
He jerked his head in Lorden's direction, who scowled.
Lorden was still, informally, Ceridwen's assistant. She would make him follow her, so she could teach him the layout of the makeshift tunnels and stinking sewers used by the underworlders, and how to travel by subroute undetected. She would boss him around, send him on errands, and treat him with little more respect than a toddler.
He hated it.
"Why'd you even rescue me if I'm just gonna follow you round like some naughty boy?" he said mutinously, a few days after Hero's death.
"Shut up, squirt. Believe me, I'm fed up of you as well. But you'll be starting training with Oakstaff soon, and not long after that, so will the little Princess."
"No way," said Lorden. "That's what Dagger meant?"
"Oh yeah," she replied shortly. "We're not taking her hostage for nothing. She'll be a great money spinner and she'll be an asset."
Lorden looked up in quiet incredulity.
"You have any idea how other people's minds work?" he said coldly. "Cos that's the biggest roll of spam I've ever heard, and I grew up with a lunatic."
"You got a problem?"
"Yeah! You think once you kidnap the princess she's going to co-operate with you? The only reason I gave in was because -"
"- there was no way out except my way," Ceridwen said smugly.
"- because you'd helped to save my life. Yeah, alright, I admit it," he added reluctantly, as she raised her raven eyebrows. "If she finds out you kidnapped her to take advantage of her, she's not gonna do anything, least attack her own parents!"
"You wait, little boy, you wait," said Ceridwen, in a patronising baby voice.
"Yeah, alright. How much do you wanna bet?"
"You don't have credits to bet with!"
But Lorden pulled out the ID card that had been sitting in his pocket for over two weeks.
"Bet you didn't know I had this, did you?" smirked Lorden, waving the piece of plastic under her nose. "My aunt's rich. And I know the trapcode."
Ceridwen's eyes flashed.
"How many credits are in that account?" she said, suddenly quiet.
"Five hundred thousand," said Lorden, grinning gleefully. "She's inherited half that from her parents, and earned the other half from all the credits the Authorities gave her for looking after me. I never saw a penny."
Lorden would've liked to have thought he saw a glimpse of pity in Ceridwen's eyes, but then she blinked and the emotion was concealed at once by her usual inscrutable face.
"I assume you want to get revenge then?"
"Yeah boy! I'm taking all that money! Just haven't had the chance to get a withdrawal yet."
"But you don't realise how useful ID cards are, do you?" said Ceridwen, still in that unusually quiet voice.
"I know maggots aren't allowed them," said Lorden curtly, "or under-eighteens."
"Exactly. We've tried to forge a few but we haven't managed it. And CTOs don't carry ID cards when they're working, and they're our main targets. But we have quite a brainy techy who might be able to format that one so you look legal."
"I thought you said I wasn't allowed surfaceside? My powers would be detected too quickly."
"Not at the moment, you're not. But that should be one of the things on Oakstaff's agenda ... then you'll be indispensible."
"Wow, I feel so special," said Lorden derisively.
"You should," snapped Ceridwen, with an abrupt return to her terse demeanour. She paused. "Your first session's tomorrow." She stood up, having finished repairing her shoe with a strange pointy object called a needle. "Try not to blow up his house."