Brand is on a mission to find out the cause of the silence issuing from the Territories. He is hindered from accomplishing his task with any sort of grace and decorum by his magical familiars and ...
Circumstance—and to large degree, preference—dictated his choice when deciding which technique he would use whenever the need for such covert actions arose (and they arose not quite so frequently as one would imagine in the queen’s court). But in the end, it did not really matter much which he chose. They all three had the benefit of stealth in their executions.
Certainly, they were less conspicuous than being hauled bodily through the large double doors and across the great hall to be tossed rather unceremoniously as little more than a sack before Baron Ransford Mori.
He had not intended to enter in such a fashion. Had he his way about it—and had Bander been keeping a proper lookout—he would have come inside the walls with no one being the wiser. But, it did get him where he wanted to be, so Brand supposed he could not complain too much. Bander would still be getting an earful about it, however.
They had gotten held up just outside the gate; Brand was curious to know why such a strong and potent seal had been placed there. It was hardly unusual for the barons in the Territories to place seals around their castles and borders to prevent bandits and sneaks from getting in and stealing off their lands, to keep from being caught unawares by the rogues, but Brand had never known them to place seals that prevented the tenants from leaving.
That kept the baron himself captive in his keep.
Something was amiss. Although, they had already guessed that much. That was why Brand was out this far at all, as this was not a region the queen normally interfered in. Barons in the Territories were understood to be an independent entity. Well-known for being able to take care of themselves. Many of their lands sat upon the borders of the Outer Marker and Black Fathom Mountains, popular nesting grounds for the rogues and militiamen who could pose a true threat to the kingdom should they gain entry.
The barons kept them back and prevented their passing any farther than the Territories—if even they could manage that far. Rumors, wild and outrageous, abounded about their methods on the field and their treatment of prisoners. Most of the rumors were assumed true—these were the Territories, after all—but rulers of past and present were incline to over-look them. The Territories were harsh country, and the barons perfumed a great service for their kingdom. A little roughness was to be expected.
Baron Ransford Albrecht Mori was an especially powerful figurehead in the Territories. His lands were bordered on two sides by the Outer Marker with a decent stretch of his western border giving way to the Fathoms, a position that made him of particular interest to the queen and the militiamen both. The ability of the Mori lines to hold—and sometimes expand—their lands had earned them unofficial status as leaders of the Territories. When the other barons had a problem, it was Baron Mori they went to.
Until recently. According to the others, Baron Mori had been silent for some time, unresponsive to missives and calls for aid. He had also ceased contact with the queen, with whom he could normally be counted on to send a status report every couple moons. It was hardly a requirement to do so, and so the queen had not thought much of it, marking it to the inclination of the Territories to maintain their privacy.
But when the other barons began to voice their concerns—as well as a need for aid and reinforcement—the queen recognized they had a problem on their hands. One that stood to become larger if whatever the cause for Baron Mori’s absence caused him to lose his control against the Outer Marker. So she had sent one of her mages to scout the problem and determine the best course of.
The reason for this decision was two fold: the fewer people who knew a problem existed, the better, and she knew Brand could handle himself in any situation. If the cause were a magical one—as they had come to suspect through their brainstorming—he was more than equipped to take care of it; if it turned out to be something else, either Bander or Snatch could return to the castle in a flash to gather the troops.
His brief sojourn at the gate was enough to convince him the problem was magical. Somewhere, somehow a rogue mage had broken through Baron Mori’s seal and gotten inside. And by the looks of it, he had gotten through a lot longer ago than they had thought.
The rogue must have only recently gained a handle on the magics dictating the seal, however, as it did not appear that anyone else had crossed through, as Mori’s own seal was still very much intake. Brand would have been able to sense their presence if they were there. Snatch was running a search of the entire perimeter now, just to be sure; then Brand could know for certain.
Bander would be hovering about somewhere in the room, well-hidden and sealed, so as not to be detected either visually or magically. Watching and waiting in case anything went wrong. Brand has cast a dampening spell over himself the moment the guards had spotted him. While the spell did not exactly prevent his using magic, it did increase the effort and time it took to perform larger ones so as to decrease the chance of detection.
The casting spell was simple in design so that it could be performed quickly; the dispel was made significantly harder by circumstance. If things went sour, Brand would need whatever time Bander could garner him to cast the dispel and reclaim full magic mobility.
Brand was hoping things would not go sour. There was every possibility whatever mage who was now controlling this keep would see through his disguise, but the cage seal (hardly weak, but by no means the strongest Brand had come across) combined with the continued presence of Mori’s hem seal gave Brand cause to suspect he could get away with it.
“Found him skulking about outside the gates, milord.” One of the guards who had carried him in said as they all but threw him to the floor. That hurt. The floor was bare, devoid even of rushes, leaving him only cold, hard stone to land upon. He could feel the bruises forming on his knees and elbows; the palms of his hands stung where they had smacked the travel-worn surface.
Sorry, Boss. Brand did not have to see Bander to know the wincing expression he wore.
Don’t worry about. We’ll make it work. Despite his unplanned entry into the mess, he felt the situation could actually work to his benefit. Queen always says the best way to hide is in plain sight. He paused as he carefully levered himself up, rising to a kneeling position before the baron, carefully keep his head down so as to appear deferent. Just make sure you and Snatch—
You insult me.
You failed me. Brand could envision Bander’s ears drooping the slightest bit, tiny nose scrunching up as his mouth turned down. Don’t worry about it now. Keep your attention on what’s down here.
The baron shifted in his seat, leaned forward. “You. Look at me.”
Brand obeyed, tilting his up just the slightest to regard him. His eyes were a dark, muddy brown, his face ashen, skin appearing sunken and hollow. There were dark circles around his eyes, his lips were chapped and cracked, his fingernails yellowed and cracked. He was unshaven, his hair matted and oily, the clothing he wore was rumpled and emitted a foul stench.
He’s poisoned. And the guards.
Yes, Brand confirmed Bander’s hissed revelation. It appears they all are. At least, everyone within his range appeared to be. Quite sloppily, too.
Reserve your judgment until the situation is fully assessed.
Mori cut off any further conversation Brand might have made—mentally or otherwise—with an abrupt cutting motion of his head. He stood, lurching and ungainly and more than a little unsteady. Stepping close, bent down until he was practically at eye level with Brand. So close, the stench of heavily concentrated magic was pungent. Brand fought furiously against the need to gag. It had been a long time since he had had to suffer such that putrid aroma. Somehow, he had managed to forget how truly awful fouled magic smelled.
“So tell me,” Mori reached out with one clammy hand to grasp Brand’s chin, pull him forward so their faces were even closer together. So that the smell of the foul magic mingled with that of soiled clothing and flesh. “Tell me what a lonely little mage such as yourself is doing trespassing on my lands?”
I’ve made my assessment, Boss. That’s some bad magic. He could feel Bander twitching, itching to strike now it Can I hit him with a fireball?
Hush. And no. Just give it a little time. Bander harrumphed, but otherwise quieted down. Brand bit his lip, face carefully blank as he considered his answer. He had not exactly been trying to hide he was a mage; those kinds of spells tended to be too limiting. And in the end, inconvenient, as inevitably the mage would find himself forced to break the glamour to perform a spell to accomplish some mundane task. It was tedious. Though, it still would have made things easier had he not been identified quite so soon.
“Getting lost.” He said at last, slowly, sighing just the slightest bit to appear as though that were the last thing he would have liked to admit.
The baron narrowed his eyes, mouth drawing into a deep frown. “How comes a mage to be lost? On my lands?”
That’s a good question, Boss.
You’re not helping. Brand glowered in Bander’s general direction, grateful that one of the side-effects of severe magic poisoning was near-blindness.
I offered. You said no fireballs.
Refusing to offer Bander any further encouragement—he was sulking, and when he got sulky he turned bratty—Brand resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He cleared his throat and focused his full attention once again on the baron. “I uh… it was a uh… trav—traveling spell, milord.”
You’re a terrible actor.
“A traveling spell you say?” Mori chuckled, as though amused. “That would have to make you a very pitiful mage, indeed,” he sneered. Brand could not be certain if that meant Mori had bought the lie, or if it were simply the attempt at such a lie he found amusing. “So tell me, dear mage, where you were traveling to?” His eyebrows raised in challenge, his voice thick with triumph. Not a believer, then.
Ten seconds, Boss. Fireball will fix all our problems. Though he tried to hide it, Brand could tell Bander was truly concerned for his safety.
Before Brand could formulate a suitable reply to either, a loud crash resounded from the back of the room. Mori’s head jerked up, eyes once again narrowing into a hard glare, fingers tightening around Brand’s chin. They pinched his skin, seemed almost to be crushing his jaw. Brand winced, but otherwise admitted no response.
Held as he was, Brand was unable to see who the baron spoke to. But he could hear him. Whoever it was sounded tired, out of breath, as though he had run a great distance in a very short amount of time.
“Lieutenant Tabor, what cause have you to be away from your post? You were ordered to sit the Western Wall until—“
“There you are!” The voice was a mixture relief, excitement, and absolute pleasure. “You should have sent word you had arrived; I would have escorted you through the gates myself.”
He’s talking to you, Boss. Looks damned happy to see you, too.
Really? Brand frowned as he thought quickly to formulate a suitable reply. I don’t recognize the voice… Which was also helping to complicate the matter. The chances were very very low that Brand would recognize anyone in the Territories, but if the voice knew him, that put him at a very distinct advantage over Brand and Bander. They could be walking into even bigger trouble.
But Bander had said the voice—this Lieutenant Tabor—appeared happy to see him. “I uh…” Brand could only be grateful now that the baron’s hold on him was so tight. The inability to do much more than choke out a breath granted some time at least to work matters out—to a degree, anyway.
I don’t know. He looks… sort of— Bander’s voice abruptly broke off, and Brand had the sudden image of him screeching to a halt mid-air. He braced himself, preparing for an attack. Woah, that’s quite the charm he’s got on.
That was unexpected. What kind?
Protection. Doing a fair job at blocking the poison, too.
Still more interesting. Not our rogue, then.
Definitely not. Though he is at least friends with high levels of power.
“I…” Brand swallowed—or at least tried to swallow—around the hand squeezing his face. The baron must have gotten the gist of the hint, because he hold slacked just the slightest bit, allowing Brand to speak a bit more easily. It was either that or Mori was very interested in hearing what he had to say. “I ran into a… bit of trouble,” he said after he had taken a healthy gulp of air. Brand winced. His voice sounded scratchy and raw, made speaking the words difficult still. He gestured vaguely with one hand and attempted a half-hearted chuckle, “Traveling spells.”
What are you doing? Brand could swear he heard Bander’s tale whip and slash the air in annoyance.
To what game?
A loud, booming laugh filled the room. Rich and warm and conspicuously out of place in the room. “Still haven’t got the hang of them, have you? I recall from your letters you mentioned they can be quite… exacting.” Brand managed a half-hearted smiled at least, but beyond that, he was still mostly restricted by the baron. He could only be glad conversing with Bander did not require the same effort, else they would be in more serious trouble.
Mori did not seem at all amused by their amusement, and immediately tightened his grip again. He glared darkly at something—more likely someone—behind Brand. “Tabor.” The baron practically growled, voice soaked in authority and a hint of warning. “You will cease at once and explain yourself.”
The laughter abruptly stopped, and Brand got the sense that the lieutenant drew himself to stand at attention. “My apologies, Sire, I should have offered you more forewarning. He is only a friend of mine—a student from the Institute—come for a short holiday by my invitation.”
I don’t think he believes it, either.
Brand glared in the direction he thought Bander might be in, but as he currently had no real way of knowing where his Affect was, it was largely a wasted effort. The lieutenant spoke up with a suitable response to the baron’s obvious skepticism before Brand could. “Yessir. At the Grand Institute in Farmor.”
Which actually only seemed to make the baron angrier. If not also more suspicious. “He’s from the capital?”
“Naturally,” Brand gasped around the ever-tightening fingers—he was in seriously peril of having his jaw crushed beneath that grip. “What good mage doesn’t study a the Institute?”
Only all of them. Bander snorted. You’re both terrible liars. A fireball would have been much quicker…
“Why would a mage from the Institute come all the way out here for holiday?” This was really starting to hurt now. Dampened as he was, it would take Brand a week just to diminish the obvious signs of bruising. If the brute really had succeeded in cracking his bone—and it felt to Brand such could be possible—it would take even longer. And be a lot more painful.
Another good question, Boss.
If you’re not going to help, just be quiet. Bander gave a short, disgusted ‘harrumph’ but otherwise said nothing. Brand imagined him standing with his arms crossed, ears laid back, and tail swishing in quick, precise strokes as he glowered at Brand. He was certainly in for an earful when all this was over.
“To… see him.” Brand gestured in judged to be Lieutenant Tabor’s position.
“For what reason?” Grace upon the Queen, he prayed that sound was not that of his bones cracking.
“Uhh… Baron, Sire, could you remove your hand please? He hasn’t taken his exams yet, and it’s imperative he be able to recite the spells properly when he does.” Footsteps rang across the floor behind him, growing steadily louder until they were almost upon him. Then they stopped, and a large hand settled upon his shoulder. “Milord, if you please. Your hand?”
The baron delivered one last heart-felt glare, then slowly, reluctantly released his hold on Brand’s face. At once it was replaced by a gentler, warmer pair; they brushed softly over the sore, tender areas, caressing and stroking until they framed his face fully. There was a rustle of cloth and the chink of metal, and Baron Mori no longer filled his vision as the lieutenant knelt before him.
“I have missed you.” Lieutenant Tabor smiled. One of patience and familiarity, one hand leaving Brand’s face to push a stray tendril of hair back, long fingers combing and tangling in his hair, titling his head back. Shockingly blue eyes—eyes the color of a perfectly articulated frost bolt—stared into his even as they drew ever closer. Brand had little time to consider an appropriate course of action before the space separating them disappeared entirely and firm, moist lips pressed against his own.
Reflex made him want to pull away, but Tabor hold was a lot more firm than had first seemed, forcing him in place, to stay still, as the lieutenant continued the gentle assault on his mouth. All the scenarios he had planned in his mind, this was not even one he had considered. This did not even come close to how he had envisioned things working out.
Brand put his hands to Tabor’s shoulders, intent on pushing him away, but was thwarted when Tabor used the hand not engaged with Brand’s hair to guide first one and then the other to wrap around his neck—which Brand thought was quite the show of trust under the circumstances, but then all thought disappeared entirely when a soft, wet tongue slipped between his lips.
Just as suddenly as it had happened, the space separated them again. Though rather than appearing just please, Tabor now looked smugly pleased, smile replaced by a too wide grin, frost blue eyes sparkly with mirth and… something else. Brand was annoyed to note, however, that the lieutenant seemed otherwise wholly unfased.
Which was entirely unfair. His heart was beating a frantic, erratic beat, he was flushed—he could feel the heat burning through his cheeks—panting and out of breath, rendered completely immobile—for crying out loud he was still clinging to the man. And to top it off, he had Bander’s hysterical laughter drilling through his head. You were right, Boss. That was much better than a fireball.