Trace (5)

The morning found him rested, his hands pain free, and his stomach rumbling as he washed up and set out his clothes for the day.

He’d be talking to the royal brats today.

When they said they were leaving, Trace put a spell across their room doors so that once they closed them, they couldn’t be open.

He also wanted to talk to Arrick; the boy had kept looking past his shoulder at Lydia, as if surprised to see her. He would have chalked it up to curiosity if Arrick hadn’t suddenly turned pale.

Lydia had to have given him a dirty look.

To his credit, the boy quickly took up the slack, but not before Trace noticed, and he figured if he noticed, then so did Lydia.

He wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, especially, if he were to be honest, after she ‘helped’ him, so he hadn’t let on that anything was amiss, but she knew something.

He thought about confronting her, but it would be best to lure her in, so he decided to stick with his plans of questioning the heirs.

No doubt they’d be angry, but he’d make them see they almost made a big mistake, one that might have cost them their lives too.

*****************

The captain of the guard, with two others flanking him, was waiting for Trace.

“Good morning, Captain.”

“It won’t be for you, taint, if I have my way.”

Trace stopped walking.

“And why would that be, Captain.”

“If you’ve harmed them…”

“The only way they’d be harmed right now is if they did it themselves. I locked the doors, nothing else. I needed, and still do need, to ask them some questions, and they were going to leave.”

The captain’s brows arched in surprise.

He didn’t know, but he’ll want answers too. Good. I need all the allies I can get.

The captain turned to his guards. “Stand aside, then.”

They did, but they didn’t like it.

Of course, their jobs are at stake now, just like Lydia’s.

    The sense of menace in their stare was almost palpable, but he would ignore them, so long as they made no move toward him.

The doors to the children’s rooms opened, and they came storming out, furious, a million commands spewing from their lips to arrest, behead, flog, draw and quarter, flay, whip, beat, and hang him.

“Your highnesses, please!” He put his hands up, pleading for them to be quiet a moment. “He only seeks the murderer of your parents. The kingdom belongs to you now, whether you want it to or not.”

“Leaving would have put you under suspicion,” Trace said. “And the captain, as much as it would have pained him, would have hunted you down as fugitives. Better if you answer my questions now, in his presence, so there’s no mistaking what’s being asked and answered.”

He looked at the captain.

“Fair enough.”

He turned to the heirs. “He’s right; I would’ve come after you.”

“Well,” Kiharu said, taking a breath, “I’m hungry. I was unable to have anything  brought in to me for a snack.”

He gave Trace a meaningful look, but there was a hint of amusement in his eyes.

He likes toughness.

“Are we feeding him too?” Anjallay asked.

“He’s our guest.”

“I’ll take my breakfast in my room then.”

“You will not. You will sit with us like a proper queen, and you will answer the mage’s questions, as will I.”

He is tough.

Trace felt the faintest hint of a smile on his lips.

*******************

The servants had laid the breakfast out, still hot, or at least, warm enough.

Trace glanced around to see if Lydia would come find him, but he stopped, realizing, Kihari was observant, and would pick up on it.

Trace gave him some attention, looked him over.

He was tall, but not large. His face was all angles, his brows thick, as well as his hair, which was well groomed, if a little long.

For now, he was clean-shaven, but custom here dictated that if he ascended the throne, he would have to grow a beard.

Trace guessed his age around late teens, with intelligence in his eyes beyond his years.

If he took the crown, he would be reckoning force.

The girl was another story: she was beautiful, and she knew it, and gave off an air of haughtiness just looking at Trace. If she wasn’t careful, it could be annoying and lead her down some paths that didn’t need traveling.

Civil enough for now, having listened to Kihari about sitting at the table, Trace had no doubt that she would find a way to make him pay.

Her eyes were a pale hazel, and her black hair framed her ivory face, hanging in rich, inky ringlets frosted by the morning sun across her shoulders.

He reached for the pitcher of pear juice the same time he did, and he pulled back.

“Ladies, first.”

He tried a smile, but she gave him one of her haughty looks as she poured the juice into her cup.

Power was crackling around her.

Trace’s eyes widened, surprised as the connection between them was established.

She has power.

Yes, and we can read your thoughts as well.

“All right, then. Let’s stop the formalities and pleasantries,” Trace said out loud. “It’s clear you don’t care for your parents, I got that, but don’t you at least want to find out who killed them?

“Have you considered, even once, that you might be, could be, next?

“That’s why we were leaving,” Anjallay said. “That is, until you interfered.”

“And Trace,” said Kiharu, “who called you here to investigate? We certainly didn’t.”

“Your doctor. He’d heard of me, and sent for me.”

“How did he know you were here?”

“He didn’t, and I wasn’t. I traveled.”

“How?”

“Magic. I’m a mage.”

He let a little edge creep in; they were stalling, and he saw right through it, but he couldn’t figure out why. Still there was no harm in answering, but he learned that with royals, you had to bully them, sometimes at the risk of your own head, to get to the desired result, so he asked his next question.

“The night I met you, you were on your way out; where were you going?”

They didn’t answer.

“Did you have a place to go? Palace living tends toward softness, and your sister  doesn’t seem like the woodsy type,” he smiled at her, and she gave him back a sarcastic one, but he thought she almost actually smiled, “So I’ll ask you again, where were you going?”

“We’d rather not say,” she said.

“I didn’t ask if you’d rather say. You were both prepared to leave; there was no surprise, no outcry other than the doctor calling me and controlling the panic. If you had a place that go, that means you were complicit in waiting for the murder to be carried out so you could leave.

“You do see how that looks suspicious, don’t you?”

The captain had gotten comfortable, sitting back with his arms folded, his eyes never leaving Kahiri, who was giving it some thought, but decided to evade the question.

“What would you have done if we left before you imprisoned us?”

“Like I said before: track you, find you, and do what we’re doing now, except I’d be a lot more forceful, a lot less nice. This is your chance to clear yourselves. You won’t get another.

“You need our help?”

“I’d like it. I have a lead, and I’d like your help in tracking it down. It will take longer if I don’t, but the result will be the same.”

She leaned forward, getting caught up in it, her curiosity piqued.

“You always get your quarry?”

“Most of the time, but not always.”

“What makes you think you can get this one?”

“I don’t know if I’ll catch them until I start pursuing them. There’ve been some close calls, but this is not the time for an interview. The longer we stay here, the further away they get.”

“You’re that confident you can find them?”

“If they’re not dead.”

“Tell us what you have,” Kihari said.

Since they revealed they had powers of their own, and the princess used hers to link them to Trace, things could go either way, but for now, it was a matter of expediency

“I’ll do better than that.”

Trace shared the vision, and for all that they said they hated their parents, their expressions grew tense with anger as they saw the murderer’s hands, almost lost in the folds of a bell-sleeved robe.

In them was a flask of something with a clear liquid which they poured into the wine cups, stirring it with a wooden spoon, the passing their right hand over it in an a pattern.

That’s new. I didn’t see that in the first vision, Trace thought.

***************

A low light pulsed in the dark wine, flashing like lightning, brightening the burgundy to bright red, like blood fresh from the vein. As it darkened and blended into the wine, they could all see the tendrils fanning out slowly, twisting and curling like smoke, dying out, and the wine looking like wine once more.

I didn’t get this the first time.

Trace felt a surge of alarm, a suspicion forming, and the face beneath the hood looked up.

Before Trace could see it, her eyes flashed and blinded them all.

They all cried out as they reacted, pushing back chairs and stumbling from the table.

The sudden cries and movement caught the captain off guard, jumping quickly to his feet and scanning the room, but he saw nothing.

Their vision began to return.

“Find them,” Kihari rasped, looking at the captain.

“She’s not here,” Trace said. “This happened days ago; she just added the details to what she wanted me to see. She must have felt the link somehow, and entered it. She manipulated it.”

Damn! I’ve got a Light witch to fight.

Without hesitation, he flung himself back through the collapsing link, risking dissolution himself.

She was in the forest, far from human eyes.

She’d teased him into it, letting him almost see her, but she didn’t expect him to risk traveling the sub-link; it was collapsing too fast though, so she saw him begin to disappear out of it, still looking at her.

As she began to see through him, she did finally look up, and smile, her small fangs gleaming, her large eyes the blue of a late summer sky, her hair a dull gold in the fading sunlight that came through her window.

Lydia.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.  2015

Trace (4)

4)

Lydia managed to secure Trace a room in the castle after all, but in the servants’ quarters, where no one would bother him.

In fact, she’d given him Walcroft’s room; the man was long gone, and would not be back.

No one would look for him, but Trace kept him in the back of his mind. Given what he’d said about magic, and him being a member of the court, even though a minor one, he might start trouble for Trace with those who’d want to curry favor with the new ruler, whoever that was.

Walcroft’s room was befitting his station; comfortable, but not opulent.

Used to sleeping in strange places on strange beds, he anticipated no problem falling asleep.

Trace had already incanted to make sure nothing was already inside it that would harm him, then did another incant to seal the room so that nothing could get in.

Trace sat on the edge of the bed, bounced the mattress a few times.

It would do for the night.

He rubbed at his temples, took a deep breath, and poured some water from the pitcher on the nightstand.

His hands shook slightly; it wasn’t the first time it happened, but he felt a fresh stab of alarm every time it did, and it was beginning to happen more often.

He had the night servants draw a bath for him, and he sank deep, letting the steam take him away for a time, letting it take away Lydia’s lingering scent from his body.

He smiled at the memory of her boldness, was caught off-guard by the ferocity of his pent-up need; he had not been gentle, and she, taking his cue, had responded in kind.

Their release on and into each other was so strong it was almost painful.

Where her fingers scratched, his bruised; she took the pain like a warrior, and their mouths and tongues locked in a heated side battle for long moments after.

When she finally broke away and opened those large blue eyes, they were glistening, and her smile was one of affectionate triumph.

Trace, it’s all over you. You need someone.

He got out of the tub, dried himself, unpacked and donned his nightclothes, and tried unsuccessfully to remember the last time he’d had a woman before tonight , much less with the intensity he’d taken Lydia.

He felt a twinge of receding sorcery; the pain in his hands from casting remained long after the scars receded.

Summoning, conjuring, incanting, all of it combined was beginning to take its toll on him physically.

The danger he was constantly in, the near misses of sharpened weaponry, of hot and cold bolts of magic, the narrow escapes, the beatings, both given and received, had their own psychic costs.

Constantly staying cool-headed when he wanted to scream and let the fear overtake him instead of pushing it aside, having to stand and face horrors tangible and otherwise, to resist the powers of demonic hypnotism and temptation, the seductive whispers for him to give up, give in, surrender and die in unparalleled bliss, or unparalleled pain, while others fled and took cover, abandoning him to his fate, was wearing him down.

Training with weapons, training with magic, the long hours spent in the dark before sunrise and after sunset, the reading, the studying, the conversations with things long departed that sought to teach, use, control or just take him, led him to begin thinking about the day he would no longer be able to continue doing this.

He’d already done it far longer than he wanted to.

Far longer than he should’ve.

He had more money than he’d ever need; royalty paid generously to bury their indiscretions.

Peasantry had offered him children, daughters, wives, livestock, a percentage of their harvests.

His sea travels had netted him casks of rare wines, well-aged whiskeys, flowered and fruited brandies and potent rum.

His coffers and larders were full, and would remain so for the rest of his life.

And he had no one to inherit any of it.

His brain, in spite of his best efforts, began racing with thoughts.

He reviewed what he’d seen of Lydia just this night: she was practical, tough, resourceful, sarcastic, which spoke to an intelligence uncommon in a serving girl.

Most of them just went with the flow, hoping that one day the hands that pushed them down onto their backs, onto mattresses, onto haystacks, into mud, the hands that shoved them up against walls of damp, cold stone and  splintery wooden planks, would one day lift them to their feet and restore their dignity.

Bedraggled, beleaguered princesses-in-waiting, the lot of them.

No, Lydia was not among those at all.

In truth, he was flattered that she wanted to share his life, but he felt it was for the wrong reasons, although wanting to escape a life of harlotry was a legitimate enough excuse.

But he was a mage who walked in dark places; more often than not, blood was spilled, and sometimes it was his.

You need someone.

He heard the words reverberate in his mind as he drifted off to sleep, wanting to conjure a vision of their potential future together, but he was simply too tired to do anymore.

The darkness took him under, into a rare and dreamless peace.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr. 2015