The Conspiracy: Part Four
Jeran did not look as though he had slept very much the previous night, which Lockwood perceived as an excellent indicator that things were not going well.
They were not; in fact matters were still worse than they had been yesterday.
“This is really excellent, Lockwood,” said Jeran, sitting down with a groan and helping himself to a glass of orangeade and the remainders of the Gelert’s breakfast. “How on Neopia do you get the cooks to make this for you? They never can seem to understand that I want anything other than porridge... Anyway,” he continued, becoming quite serious, “I’m afraid I have some very bad news. One of the Meridellian ambassadors has been killed.”
“I imagine there is no chance that it was merely a very sad accident. Accidents never befall ambassadors – they live forever, unless thwarted by some malicious third party.”
Jeran shook his head wearily. “Murder. By another Darigan guard. With a poisoned dagger and in broad daylight with several witnesses.”
“Mm,” said Lockwood half-attentively; he was contriving to amuse himself with a game of Sakhmet Solitaire. “And I suppose you caught him?”
“Not immediately; but of course, just as last time, they identified him easily enough when Darigan assembled the guards. The nobles are hysterical – they are absolutely convinced that they’ll all be killed in their beds any night now. One ambassador has resigned. There’s talk of kicking the Darigans out of the castle – a few extremists are even crying for another war!”
“How very fanatical,” remarked Lockwood.
“Come again?” said Jeran, who could think of a great many more appropriate words for the situation.
“The guards must believe very strongly in their cause if they are collectively willing to die for it. How compelling they must find it! I confess I cannot conceive of any such devotion myself; but then perhaps as I have often suspected I am simply cleverer than most people.”
“The oddest thing of all is that they are a selection of Darigan’s most perfectly trusted lieutenants. Their allegiance has been tested and tested again.” Jeran frowned, and paused to gulp down the last of the orangeade. “I really, truly don’t like the smell of this.”
“Peculiarly enough, I am not very inclined to feel supportive of Darigan’s dear assassins either – but of course I am quite personally biased.”
“Yes,” agreed Jeran with a grimace. “You must be bored out of your mind. Your sister is coming tonight, isn’t she?”
“Well – you will let me know if you need anything, won’t you?”
Lockwood smiled dryly. “You need not fear on that account. It is a very dangerous offer, for naturally I will not scruple to interrupt you at any time, no matter how important your occupation or how trifling my need.”
“In that case I reserve the right to ignore you,” replied Jeran with a grin. In truth he was extremely relieved to have survived the interview unscathed; he had it on good authority that Lockwood was in a foul mood, and Lockwood’s satirical insults were not, by any stretch of the imagination, pleasant.
Around six o’clock that evening Miss Cecilia Lockwood arrived at the castle. She was a young white Ixi in a lovely dress, pretty and sweet-natured; but her temper had been quite sorely tried upon the journey for it seemed that everything with any potential at all for mishap, had gone wrong. Her coachman had been ill; she had mislaid her gloves; the weather had been poor; and owing to the rain the carriage had got stuck in the mud for some time before help came from the nearest village. On top of everything she was really very worried about her brother, of whose condition she had received only the vaguest of reports.
These trying circumstances notwithstanding, Miss Lockwood was prodigiously glad to see Lockwood both alive and relatively well; she ordered her things taken to her room and prepared to sit with him for an hour or so and take her dinner there.
Having progressed from the stage of greetings, Cecilia sat down in exhaustion and said that she hoped he had not been concerned by her lateness. He replied that he had not.
“I have been very well occupied. As you know, I prefer to employ myself in totally unproductive activities, and so this has suited me quite well. However –” he put his book down with a sigh “– I do not think another occasion so very convenient is likely to arise, for me to teach you some magic.”
She had asked for this some time ago and so was excessively joyful to know that the event she had so eagerly anticipated was now nearly here. “I cannot thank you enough, but please do not trouble yourself about it until you feel quite well. I would hate to think of your suffering for my sake!”
“An interesting sentiment, for I am sure you often suffer for mine,” he remarked. “However, I assure you I am perfectly well enough now. There is only one thing it would please me to finish before we begin. Do you think, my dear sister, that you could do me a great favor by finding some books for me tonight?”
Cecilia sighed and agreed that she would like nothing better in the world.
He explained to her what it was that he wished her to find, and sent her off with the highly intriguing word of advice that Darigan had given him.
She returned an hour later staggering under an armful of books, with dust on her dress and, she suspected, her nose. However, Lockwood was in no state of mind to find fault with her appearance; having imposed upon her and gotten precisely what he wished for, he was all gratefulness and good humor.
“I hope they will be of some use to you,” said his sister. “I hope they are what you wanted.”
“Oh! I am certain that they will be. They look extremely old and are therefore likely to be exceedingly helpful.”
“I am very glad to hear it.” Perceiving that Lockwood was quite eager to begin his search, and feeling her own tiredness very much, she added, “Perhaps you will forgive me if I retire early? I do not like to leave you, but the journey was such that –”
“Of course; I implore you not to think of it,” he replied. “I will be perfectly entertained now that you have been so kind as to procure these books for me.”
Cecilia agreed that this was no small consideration and supplied her joy at hearing it, then ventured to her own chambers; and if she were at all inclined to resent the fact that her brother valued her services over her person, her feelings were quite soothed by the promise of his magical instruction.
Lockwood, meanwhile, reached for the nearest book and began to read.
It was a considerable length of time before he discovered anything remotely useful, and when he did it was useful in a peculiarly roundabout way. He had a vaguely uncomfortable feeling that the spell had really been intended for something quite different, and yet the book was old enough and strange enough that he believed it might conceivably be worth a try.
The author – a famous Meridellian sorcerer known as Kelwen Kyle, renowned for his practical approach to magic which had some hundred years later evolved into the Theory of Pragmatism – appeared oddly unwilling to describe the spell in any specific terms. Lockwood perused the passage with some misgivings:
Should you ever be in neede of magical ayde, you may use the spelle detaild belowe on this payge; but I counselle you to use it only when your neede be greatest and most dire, for in the art of sorcerie as in life everie thing that is receivd must one daye be paide for.
“How very ominous,” murmured Lockwood, and continued reading to discover that Kyle himself had never attempted the spell and that he recommended a placid frame of mind before beginning it.
The clock struck one and Lockwood sat, considering, staring at the steadily burning lamp. He was not likely to find himself in a more placid frame of mind; his need could not quite be stretched to the proportions of dire, but he thought it sufficient; and he would simply be extremely careful to ask for nothing without first demanding the price.
Having made his decision, he informed the Acara maid that he would sleep on the sofa and was not to be disturbed till morning.
He could not help wishing that he had a more perfect understanding of the magical script used to outline the spell, for if he had he might better have gauged its nature, but there was no helping that. He could tell only that it was very ancient, very powerful, and profoundly unlike any magic he had encountered before.
Not knowing at all what to expect, he cast the spell, going slowly and carefully so as to avoid making some trifling error that might invalidate the entire undertaking.
Then he waited.
The clock ticked unhurriedly (and he observed, as many of us no doubt have in a time of suspense, that it seemed much louder than usual) – the lamp continued to burn down, and the fire began to die out. With a sigh, he closed the book’s cover, not a little disappointed at his failure.
Suddenly both lamplight and fire flickered once and disappeared. An icy chill spread through the room; shadows distorted almost imperceptibly into shapes Lockwood was certain they were not supposed to have. But worst of all by far was the magic he could feel coursing through the air – cold, dark, intensely powerful magic – and he knew at once that something had gone horribly, catastrophically awry.
To be continued...