The ballroom looked more majestic than Adrian had ever seen it. Rich burgundy red drapes with golden trestles had been brought out for the first time after spring's New Year celebration, decorating the tall windows and balcony doors. The chandeliers were sporting magical candles burning bright and sparkling. Tables were laid heavily all along the three walls. The dishes looked and smelled mouthwatering. There was an exotic bird in the middle of every table, a different one for each. He saw large plates of Curdbreads and Twicheese. Mountains of sweet Nutbeads and Honeyplates. Spirits of all flavors had been brought out from Narsireq's usually secret stores. Musicians had been invited to play the best songs from all of Ayrede.
Narsireq himself looked immaculate, wearing white robes with rich gold embroidery. He was fussing about, making sure everything looked perfect. There was no sign of the special guests yet. Adrian was sure they'd be the last to make their entrance.
The sky had darkened already, he could see snowflakes floating down, glittering in the golden light of the ballroom. April was at the far end, focused on her own reflection in the tall glass door leading to the balcony, seemingly oblivious to the surroundings. She looked quite exquisite and more feminine than she usually did. The neat folds of her dress fell heavily down to the floor, a Ge'enian embroidered sash thrown sideways. Hair elegantly swept to the side and thrown over her shoulder and adorned with tiny jewels that twinkled playfully when the light hit them at the right angle as she moved. She looked royal. The look was unusual for her, but then again, he was quite the same. He'd dressed in his best robes, dark green, trailing the floor. Chaotic swirls ran along the edges, wrought in gold and ember. His hair looked as neat as he could make it, just as instructed. He headed to April. She was checking her hair, but Adrian didn't fail to notice how she stole glances towards Thalya a few times. The latter had dressed to impress, as always. Her dress was gleaming silver, her black hair in an elaborate updo, thick springy curls falling down her back. She was all smiles and elegance as she went from one arriving guest to the other, laughing and gossiping eagerly. He knew it was only a matter of time until she casually strolled up to him and April, and started her usual mind probes for information that didn't concern her.
"Sizing up the enemy?" Adrian whispered to April when he got near. She turned to give him an appraising look, considering his best attire and perfectly combed hair.
"I did that a long time ago", she said, "are you ready to suck up to aristocracy?"
Adrian snorted, "I'm afraid I don't have much of a choice. Whichever sort of sucking is required, I shall have to do my best", he said in the most suggestive manner he could muster. But April only rolled her eyes. She knew and understood better than anyone else (including even Adrian himself) why he exploited intimate sensibilities of conversers this way. She wasn't likely to fall for such an obvious bait anymore and he knew that. It was one of the reasons he appreciated having her in his life. It was still fun to tease her sometimes though.
The crowd was gathering, people kept pouring inside and excitement grew. Adrian knew it was time when Narsireq beckoned the two of them. "I'm going to fetch them now,", he said, wringing his hands in excitement, "you two remember everything we've talked about and be on your best behavior. Don't embarrass yourselves, or me." He gave them each a warning look.
"We shall be courteous and charming," Adrian said, bowing lightly.
"And we'll present our work with great dignity," April added with a slight exaggeration of his manners and made a curtsy. Narsireq dashed away without a word.
"I wonder what they're like," Adrian murmured thoughtfully, trying to picture these people.
"Very aristocratic, I guess," she answered matter of factly.
"Do you think the rumors about their bloodline are true?"
She laughed. "Which ones exactly? I've heard all sorts of things in the past few weeks." And so had he. Ever since Narsireq dropped the news of the 'exotic' noble family planning a visit and possibly taking Word under their wing, everyone in the library talked about little else. Their history, their politics, the legends about their origins and their peculiar habits had been the topics of every single day. There was a lot of conflicting information going around for him to take anyone by their word. But all the buzz made him curious. He'd made an offhanded attempt to research their origins himself, but had found little of interest. Their name sounded unusual to him and he couldn't divine its linguistic or geographic origin. Perhaps he might have, had he had more free time on his hands.
"That they came from the royal bloodline that ruled the entirety of the world before the Divide", he specified.
"Was there a royal bloodline that ruled the whole world before the Divide?" she inquired.
"Who knows… should we ask them?" he grinned with mock enthusiasm.
"You know perfectly well that Narsireq will fire us, then probably send assassins for our heads."
"Come on", Adrian laughed, "he wouldn't do any of that, he needs our… exclusive expertise."
"Then he'll torture us first until we spill everything we know, then have us assassinated."
He thought about it. "Yes," he agreed, "he probably will."
Their mirth died soon, as Thalya chose that moment to approach them, taking advantage of Narsireq's absence. "The power couple all ready and prepped?" she asked, smiling pleasantly. "You both look so lovely this evening."
"Thank you, Thalya, so do you". Adrian returned the compliment.
"I hear you've already started working on a new project, April", the woman chatted on, "care to share what it's about?"
"No, I really don't", April answered stiffly. Her approach to dealing with their shared nemesis was ever so straightforward.
"You're mean", Thalya pouted.
"Yes", April retorted with the same air.
The woman laughed, a beautiful ringing laughter. "Well, since that's how it is, I'll just have to find out myself."
The nerve of her, Adrian thought, but unlike his companion, he restrained himself. "If I catch you in my room again," April said darkly, "I'll kill you."
"Ooooh! Big words," Thalya mocked, not losing that sweet smile. "I'm sorry to say you don't look capable of anything of the sort."
Here April's face broke into a learnt, artificial smile. "Can't be sure until I've tried, now can I?" Adrian refrained from openly expressing his frustration at her antics, he'd had ample amount of time to learn how pointless his attempt would've been. Thalya possibly had a comeback ready, but a sudden arrival put an end to their banter. Narsireq marched graciously into the ballroom, gesturing welcomingly to a group of people that, without any doubt, were the famous Eshinirs. It was remarkable how everyone present – authors, illustrators, scribes, crafters and guests - stopped doing whatever they were doing at the same time, heads turned to the arched entrance.
"Attention please!" Narsireq announced in his most celebratory voice, "I have the honor to present our very special guests. We're humbled by your presence, lords and ladies." He bowed. Some people around them repeated the gesture. A few women curtsied. Nobody took their eyes off them. Adrian thought they didn't look all that remarkable. Some people at the event had done a better job dressing up for the occasion. The great and mysterious Eshinirs appeared quite ordinary to the eye. There were five of them, three men, two women, all young, all dressed in the same blood red attires. The garments were shiny silk and velvet, and expertly sewn, there was no question about it, but they didn't stand out from the crowd as much as Adrian had expected them to. They had rubies painting swirls on their chests. Intricate designs were concocted with gems of all sizes. The patterns were unique to each, but otherwise they looked like they wore uniforms. They did have aristocratic manners though, he noted as much when they took an interested, yet impervious glance at the assembled guests, and when one of them turned to dismiss a somewhat timid looking handmaiden. The young woman seemed reluctant to leave, but nodded and scurried away on their order. No need for her here, Adrian thought, there are plenty of people who will jump at the opportunity to weight on them. My boss would probably be the first.
As Narsireq expertly edged closer to him and April, introducing this or that person on his way, he got a better look at their faces. One thing that stood out to him was that there was hardly any family resemblance between any of them. They didn't even appear all to belong to the same ethnicity or race. One of them was, in fact, a Dolmari. Related only by marriage, he thought, each one unique as if selected this way on purpose.
"Ah, and there they are!" Narsireq exclaimed, gesturing towards the two of them, as if he'd actually been wondering about their whereabouts. "My dear guests, let me introduce you, our freshest and very valuable… acquisitions." He gestured grandly at them both. "I have told you of their hard work and exceptional talent. And you've had the chance to try the fruit of their labor yourselves. Here's Adrian, the author of Stark: Past, Present and Future, volume one…"
"It's an honor to meet you," Adrian was the first to show the necessary courtesy, bowing in the most gentlemanly manner.
"And April", the man moved on, "our.. most imaginative illustrator."
"It's a pleasure." April curtsied, sneaking a look at Narsireq, who tried his best to keep his face in a perfect smile, while simultaneously communicating to them both that he'd kill them if they messed up.
"The pleasure is ours", said the man who looked like the oldest of them, inclining his head slightly, which counted for a bow on his part. The rest repeated his motion. "We have been acquainted with your work and we are quite impressed."
"We were presented with your book only a year ago. A generous gif from our honored host", said the Dolmari female, "I believe we're unanimous in admiration of both of your works."
"Indeed", said the eldest Eshinir again, "when I saw the title, I was not very heartened, I must confess. I thought it to be just another series of tales from some clueless youth, who cannot quell the urge to indulge in ridiculous fantasies about Stark. But the illustration on the cover got my eye. It looked nothing like any others I had seen."
"Ah, yes, that would be the prime quality of work of our Ms. Ryan," Narsireq pronounced proudly. "She's an invaluable asset to our wonderful personnel. She has brought something truly refreshing to this field of work." Adrian tried his best to keep the shock off his face. From the covert quizzical look he got from April she was just as surprised. This was probably the first time Narsireq openly praised either one of them, and so generously at that.
"That she has," the man agreed respectfully, "when I skip through your drawings and sketches, Ms. Ryan, that world just comes to life. Many have tried to establish canonic visuals of Stark around here, you know, and I find them all distasteful and uninspired. You are an artist of a very different breed."
"Thank you." April seemed taken aback by the undiluted admiration she was receiving.
"And," the man went on, turning to Adrian, "rarely have I read stories about Stark's history that made me feel as if the author were recounting events witnessed first hand."
Adrian made a pause, but recovered quickly enough to cover up his shock, "did it truly sound like that?" he said hastily, "I'm flattered."
"Oh this is a much deserved praise." The man smiled at him most sincerely. For some reason Adrian felt uneasy. He enjoyed being properly appreciated for once, quite immensely, but a quiet suspicion started creeping its way into his thoughts. Did these people know something they were not supposed to know?
They spent the feast talking about nothing in particular, which turned out to be a surprisingly lengthy topic. He remembered such encounters in his pre Guardian years in Stark, when, on occasion they would happen on a few nobles conversing between themselves and thought strange travelers like him worthy of their attention. The Eshinirs were given the seat of honor at the head of the table. Adrian and April were seated right next to them. They chatted on along with all the munching and toasting. Adrian, now made cautious by the seemingly offhanded remark from before, waited for more hints to be dropped that would leave no doubt that these people had cracked his and April's little secret, or at least one of their secrets. Perhaps that's what they're really interested in, Adrian thought, not our literary and artistic abilities, but our other talents. He itched to share his thoughts with April, but he wouldn't dare make an attempt while they, and even more so, Narsireq could overhear. So he simply smiled at them, made polite comments and played the perfect gentleman. She would figure it out on her own, he decided. there was nothing for him to do but busy himself eating, drinking and chatting amiably with the youngest lady Eshinir – Gven, her name was - who was expressing her interest in his future accounts of Stark in Stark: Past, Present and Future, volume two.
They were well into the night when Adrian felt it. His senses came awake in an instant. Some power he didn't know the source of was present in the vicinity of his senses. In his mind it took form of a multitude of snakes that slithered in, gliding between the chairs and tables, dancing feet, sweeping robes and dresses. They spread all across the dance floor. A magical web woven by invisible hands, filling the ballroom. Instinctively, his own powers flared to life. He couldn't fully concentrate while pretending to be listening to the woman. He was nodding absentmindedly as she told him how the part in his book, where a character was fleeing the murder scene and met the prince of Tao, had seemed like a good material for a standalone story and was wondering whether he considered turning it into one. "I haven't thought about it", Adrian answered, still busy exploring this bold use of power. Aren't they concerned at all that someone might detect them? he wondered.
"I think you should give it a try," Lady Gven said. He pried his attention out of the clutches of this mysterious force and tried his best to seem attentive. Just in time too. Had he not done that, he might've missed a faint frown of her forehead and a slight pursing of her lips, a display of concern or even a touch of anger, enough to set him on guard. She immediately changed her face back to that of an interested party engaged in a pleasant conversation, but he had no doubt of what he'd seen. He grew more apprehensive by the second. She knows what I'm doing, he realized then, she has felt it too and she knows what I'm looking for. He eyed the rest of the Eshinirs engaged in conversation, or their plates. They took no notice of any goings on. Only April was giving him a covert questioning look. She had noticed a change in his behaviour of course and probably felt his alarm. Then Lady Gven turned her attention to her plate and goblet and any hint of anything being amiss disappeared.
Adrian collected himself, giving up on his attempt to trace the brazen magic to its source. He exchanged a look with April that said he was very much set off by whatever it was he detected. She looked concerned, then frowned at her plate. She's trying to find it too, he thought. Normally he found it a little amusing. His talent was a very specific, very rare one. He'd explained it to her, but time and again she would try and capture the magical essence she had no power to feel. He didn't discourage her from trying though, even if he knew it wasn't up her alley. April had her own talents, if she chose to practice them. If this could inspire her to do so, if it could prompt her to seek proper training, he wouldn't want to deter her. In a couple minutes she slowly sunk back in her chair, looking lost. She'd failed again, as expected. He could still feel it though.
The dinner was almost done, soon after the desserts were served there would be dancing. Adrian resolved to find the source of this unapologetic intrusion then.
It was no easy task. Both he and April were pulled off their chairs almost immediately, asked for a dance by Eshinirs and they knew better than to refuse. Narsireq watched them like a hawk the whole time. The mysterious power slowly receded by this time, to his great disappointment. He looked around as he and his partner spun around the dance floor, trying to see if anyone had been affected by it. It was hard to tell with only a sweeping glance and no idea what that magic was supposed to accomplish, but everyone seemed in proper order. Couples twirled around the ballroom, filling it with laughter and the sound of dancing feet. He spotted Thalya a couple times, sweeping past him and Lady Gven. The only thing that caused him become a little more disconcerted was that he lost sight of April.
"I assume nobody here knows the true extent of your talents." His partner said all of a sudden, almost whispering, so he wasn't completely sure he'd heard it right. It took him a moment to collect himself.
"I'm not sure what you mean," he said carefully.
"Of course," Gven smiled at him, eyes twinkling, "that's the case most of the time."
Adrian didn't know how to respond to that, so he just concentrated on keeping up with the steps. "How long have you two been here?" she asked.
"I've worked here for over a year, April has joined us for the last two or three months, though she did some commissioned work for The Word before."
"That's not what I asked, and you know that." she smiled again. But this time her smile was different. Her grey eyes were serious, warning… almost threatening?
He paused, thoughtfully counting the months after his arrival. "A year and a half, approximately", he said in the end and watched her smile grow bigger and more benevolent.
"There we go", she nodded in an approving sort of way, "how are you liking it here?"
"I have no reason to complain."
"Are you staying for good? Is this a long term commitment?"
"Why do you ask?" Adrian inquired, guarded.
Gven stopped and her eyes skirted around the ballroom. Adrian did the same. Just in time to see Thalya with her partner rushing past them a touch too close. "Let's have a few more private words, shall we?" His lady gestured to the door with her head. From the corner of his eye he could see Narsireq at the tables, visibly straining to see them better.
"Why not." He offered her his arm and they took their exit out of the main doorway. They didn't go as far as expected. In fact Gven stopped just a few feet outside.
"Now, let's talk a bit more openly, shall we?" She started, all business like, and Adrian braced himself for the questioning. "You're both Shifters."
It was a statement, not a question. "Yes."
"And you're the Twelfth Guardian of the Balance", she added, lowering her voice to almost a whisper once more.
He felt blood surging to his face and his heartbeat making a leap. He reigned himself in, trying to hide the shock. When he opened his mouth, he meant to decry the ridiculousness of this statement, but the soft smile on the lady's face was oh so knowing. It all but told him that he'd been caught out and that denying the truth would be futile. "How can you possibly know that?" he asked hoarsely.
Her smile widened in delight and she held her chin high, "I'm sure your employer has already rumbled on about how we're not some random, ordinary family. Correct?"
"He certainly did," Adrian conceded, "but that doesn't explain how you know…"
"We're influential, knowledgeable and very observant," Gven stated matter of factly, "that's all you need to know for now."
He hesitated, wondering what the right course of conversation would be. Anything other than straightforward honesty seemed against reason at this point. They've caught me, I might as well try and get on their good side. "Right you are, I'm the Guardian," he said, then quickly amended, "the former Guardian. So what now?"
"Nothing," she shrugged slightly, looking happier, "I just wanted your honesty. I'm glad you've decided to accede."
Adrian paused, appraising her anew. "You're… not really here for making any deals with Narsireq, are you?" he asked tentatively.
She seemed amused. "Oh, there will be a deal or two," she chuckled, "I hope."
He nodded, "just not the one Narsireq's striving for. He was hoping for your patronage for Sage's Word."
"Was he now?" she grinned. No doubt she and her family all knew that, but it seemed to be of little concern to them.
"What do you want then?" Even as he asked he felt uneasy. Whatever intrigues were playing out among the nobles of this land or any other, he didn't have the least bit of desire to take part in any of it. Nothing good had ever come out of it in Stark, not for him at least. He didn't know why it should be any different here.
"For starters, useful connections and good friendships." Gven looked back at the door beyond which lay the brightly lit hall, filled with sounds of merrymaking. "We will be enjoying our stay here for a few more days until we head to Marcuria. I do hope we'll have a chance to talk more. Right now, I'm afraid I need to return to my family. Please, do excuse me." She rushed back inside with naught but a mischievous smile.
While Lady Gven headed to the tables, Adrian remained standing where he was, thinking. Slowly, very slowly he backed away from the grand entrance and let his senses come alive again. It was easier to do out here, no people with magic around, he wasn't stumbling on anyone's insignia, nor being distracted by loud noises and people constantly trying to strike up a conversation with him. He stood there and searched with his mind. He couldn't find the same powerful emanation as before. That had been something grand, the initial burst of energy. And yet somewhere, somewhere not too far, something was pulsing. Like a heartbeat. In his early years of training, when he was still getting over the first shock from discovering the fact that he had magic, he had been taught that magical power was like a sword, like most weapons. You could unsheath it, and hold it prepared for a strike or parry, passive, yet ready when the moment came. In fact, that was much more difficult than actively using it. And right then, someone somewhere within the building stood with their magic prepared for something. He couldn't judge the distance, but he'd never had a problem with directions.
Adrian concentrated on it, trying not to give himself away while he was at it. The pulsing was constant, perfectly controlled, not a pith of amplification or decline. He couldn't help but admire it as he took the first few steps towards it, the ballroom and its proceedings completely forgotten. His steps echoed in empty halls and passages, torchlights throwing quivering shadows around him. It wasn't so hard to find his way, his chief concern was not to be heard or seen. His instincts took him through a long passage stretching from this tower to the next and then the next one. He was sure that was where his search would end. The third tower had windows and arrow loops facing the large balconies of the ballroom directly, a perfect vantage point for a potential spy.
Halfway through the passage Adrian felt another source of magic and halted. Someone somewhere had cast what felt much like a shielding spell. It was powerful but much further away. What it was meant to shield them from, he couldn't know. But in order to find it, he'd need to go back where he'd come from. He couldn't do that. The shield was quite close to ordinary, although it too gave away an Artisan's presence. For a moment he even wondered if it might be April casting it. Perhaps she felt the spy after all, but he quickly set the notion aside. She'd always been unsuccessful when trying to use magic intentionally. Full of talent, she didn't have skill enough to shield herself from anything. No, he reluctantly corrected himself, as an Artisan, she could've easily done it without meaning to… but her curiosity wouldn't allow it. She's more likely to get in her own way and welcome magical interference all unwitting, rather than hide from it.
Adrian started on his previous course again, whoever cast the shield back in the ballroom – or at least he was sure it had been done in the ballroom - their magic wasn't as unique as the one ahead. He had to keep going. The mysterious spy wasn't in much of a hurry to go anywhere though. Their pulsing magic was still there, and if he felt it amplify, it was growing proportionally to reduction of the distance between his target and himself. He tried to lower the intensity of his own magic accordingly. And soon he almost abandoned it completely. Very close now. Just a few steps and he'd reach a turn, from which he should have a good view of whoever it was.
He came to an abrupt halt before turning the corner. Yet another unexpected thing happened. It was quite a day for secret magic users in Sage's Word. In the back of his head he felt a concentrated beam of this strange power shot rapidly, from where it had been on a steady low burn all this time. Inexplicably, fear and foreboding washed over him and in that moment he didn't want anything more than to turn and run from it. Whoever it was aimed at must've felt awful. But Adrian forced himself to remain where he was and then started inching forward, one step at a time, trembling. What's wrong with me? he thought angrily and despite his better judgement, cast his own shield over himself. Almost immediately the beam vanished. Adrian heard a pair of feet thudding away in a great hurry. He ran, but wasn't quick enough. He reached the turn and swooped through the narrower passage leading into the tower. The mysterious person was no longer there. The footsteps died too quickly and no magic could be felt anymore. The narrow tower was silent, empty and dark. Too dark - the torches had been put out. He went to the arched window staring right at the first tower, just in time to see one of the balcony doors closing and skirts of a sky blue dress sweeping the floor as the person reentered the warm light of the ballroom.
It was probably too late to go after the spy, but he had a strong suspicion as to whom they might be working for. His mood all dark and sour, he retraced his route from the ballroom door. Upon entering he saw April in her seat, looking thoroughly confused and a touch out of breath. He headed towards her, but even as he did, he saw there would be no way to talk to her openly just yet. Narsireq was returning to the tables, which eliminated their chances to sneak off and speak privately, and the Eshinirs were still there, exchanging jokes with other attendees that had finally plucked up enough courage to approach them.
"Where have you been?" April asked as he rejoined them, her voice a little more high pitched than usual. She seemed tense.
"Just out for some fresh air," he said airily, "It's a bit stuffy in here."
He prayed she'd understood from a meaningful look alone and she did. She only nodded and said nothing else. She remained distant for the rest of the evening, ignoring even Narsireq. Adrian tried to make up for it and act cheerful for both of them, waiting for the event to end, but in truth he was too shaken.
The next hour or so seemed to stretch for eternity, but Narsireq finally got up to offer parting words and toast once more. The Eshinirs raised their glasses in thanks. Adrian, playing his part to the hilt, followed the suit. April simply sipped from hers without waiting for them. When the guests started slowly departing, she made her excuses to head out among the first. As much as he yearned to, Adrian couldn't follow her just yet. Narsireq caught him before he could leave.
"Well? How's it going?" He asked frantically, glancing sideways at the Eshinirs all busy with a lively conversation.
Adrian was tempted to end this charade then and there, but restrained himself. "Fine, I think," he said instead.
"What did you talk about with lady Gven? Did she mention their intentions regarding our… possible partnership?"
"No," Adrian lied, "we just chatted."
Narsireq was obviously rather disappointed. "You could've brought it up," he barked, "let's hope April's better at negotiations."
Adrian sighed. "I don't think they're up for business related discussions, Narsireq…" his employer threw him an alarmed look, and he quickly added, "right now. They're just enjoying a party."
His boss rolled his eyes. "That's a pose, my good man, just a pose", he assured him, "they didn't travel all the way from Lerna for a little ball. They could have plenty of that where they came from."
The moment he left to sweep over to his precious guests and engage in socializing once more before everyone left, Adrian almost bolted. He didn't head straight to his room, setting out instead to search for April. He couldn't wait to tell her all that had occurred, not to mention hear her side of the story. He wasn't at all confident as to what that last mysterious spell had been, or why it had been directed at her. It had unmistakably been her standing at the balcony when it was cast.
To his utmost frustration she was nowhere to be found. He was sure she'd want to discuss their mysterious guests with him and her absence now made little sense. He searched the whole castle in vain. There weren't many people to ask if they'd seen her, all gone to their chambers or departed to their homes. Only a few unfortunate members of the cleaning personnel remained, busy tidying up after the feast. When his feet started to hurt he finally gave up the search.
That night he could hardly sleep. He tossed and turned in his bed, thinking over the events of the evening again and again. And whenever he slipped into uneasy slumber, he dreamed of an endless search through dark passages, not quite knowing whether he was pursuing the mysterious Artisans, or running from them.