"How may we serve you Headmistress?" Bujilli stood next to Leeja, both of them eager to get going.
"You can either bring your friend Idvard to me within the hour, or you can go to see Morquin in the Athenaeum and request his presence in the Chamber of Consultation, also within the hour."
Bujilli looked to Leeja. His partner kept her head bowed, not in any demure gesture of respect, but rather a calculating, devious pose. He'd seen this before. His blood went cold in dread.
"We will be happy to assist you, Headmistress, and we do realize that time is fleeting and your need pressing, however we do have one or two personal matters we must attend to immediately."
"What do you have to do that is more important than what I've asked you to do for me?" The Headmistress drew herself up as though preparing to pitch a major fit. Gnosiomandus bowed his own head, more to hide his lop-sided grin than anything. He had been wondering when this was going to take place, ever since he first met Leeja.
"Like I said; a couple of things. Very important. Very personal." Leeja was using her sing-song voice. Bujilli's hair bristled. All of it. Everywhere. It itched.
Headmistress Shael glared at Leeja. Neither woman appeared willing to budge.
"You could, of course, command us to go run your errand immediately..." Leeja let her voice trail off. Implications and hints of repercussions abounded, unsaid, but thick in their midst.
"But doing so would be a mistake. Is that what you are implying girl? Are you making some sort of veiled threat?" Headmistress Shael scowled at Bujilli. As though this were somehow all his fault.
"I wouldn't dream of Threatening the Headmistress of the Academy Herself. Nor would I be so arrogant as to proffer my unasked-for Counsel, seeing as we neither one have any reason to trust the other, being Unknown and Unrecognized...and never properly re-introduced..."
Bujilli fidgeted. He was so caught-up in listening to Leeja that he almost didn't take the hint in her message. He closed his eyes and quietly communed with his Counsel. It had already scanned Headmistress Shael previously. Now he knew what Leeja was up to...he just hoped it wouldn't hurt.
"What are you getting at girl? Time is of the essence and you babble nonsense--"
"Hardly nonsense, Aunt."
Headmistress Shael bowed her head this time. Her shoulders bunched up. Her hair slashing about her like a halo of angry cats' tails. In perfect synchronization with Leeja's own hair.
"How long? How long have you known?"
"I suspected something of the sort the very first time I saw you, but had no way to prove it." Leeja nodded. As far as she was concerned her kinship to Shael was now confirmed.
"And now you have found some sort of proof?"
"No. I took a chance. Our mutual resemblance is too close to be any fluke or coincidence. Since the Purges there are less than a dozen of our family left alive--"
"More like six. I do not consider the undead any sort of relation I care to claim kinship with, personally."
"We are kin. That much is clear to me, was from the first moment we met. But we are not merely cousins or some such. Are we? My mother had violet eyes..."
"But you do not."
"I take after my father. As you well know."
"We don't really have time for this."
"I know. I'll spare you the obvious awkward questions. I think it is interesting that you did not automatically deny our kinship just now. Of course you also never bothered to recognize it when I first arrived here and enrolled at the Academy."
"It would have been pointless to deny the obvious truth. As to the other...you were Unsanctioned...they...terminated your mother...my sister...because of you..."
"They were killing us long before I was conceived. And are you really going to stand there and blame me for my own birth? Really?" Leeja arched her eyebrow, cocked her head to the side, her voice taking on a sarcastically incredulous tone.
"Perhaps not." Shael sighed deeply. Her shoulders shook. Her hands were numb.
"So do you now admit that you and I share blood kinship?"
"Yes. But I fail to see--"
"Oh it is quite relevant. Entirely germane to our current situation. I assure you. Did you know that Niobe and I recently crossed paths again?" Leeja's voice carried along with it the sensation of twisting a knife in a wound. But whose wound?
"Your sister has been here?" Shael nearly choked in outrage.
"Not exactly here, but close. Very close." Leeja taunted; "She somehow weaseled her way into someone's good graces, possibly after killing our father, and was in command of a mutinous unit of troops on some sort of punishment detail. They hated taking orders from her. But they managed to take over Idvard's Keep, if only for a brief while. Before Bujilli and I were able to derail her efforts and ruin her now former master's plans."
"So it was you," Shael glared at Bujilli, "who scattered those Pallid soldiers about the place. I should have guessed. Your friend Idvard occupies one of the ancient Morlock Keeps set to watch and ward the Borderlands and the Adjacent Worlds, the Dead Worlds linked to Wermspittle..."
"...Connected to this place by Weak Points. Yes. We know. We've both been there. We've gone through the Weak Point that Idvard has secured for himself." Leeja crossed her arms before her chest and stared innocently at her Aunt.
"Have both Morquin and your friend Idvard here within two hours. If that's not enough time to attend to your oh so important personal matters, then deal with them when you return. I need to go now. But you and I are far from finished child. We have a few things to get straightened out between us. When you get back from running my errand."
"Two hours should be plenty. Thank you. Aunt Shael."
Headmistress Shael looked at Bujilli. At Gnosiomandus. Turned and left.
Bujilli felt like he was going to throw up. Gnosiomandus laughed softly to himself.
"Nice to see that someone is amused." Leeja snapped her claws.
"You really are her niece. Counsel confirms it. She's no simulacrum..."
"No. She isn't." Leeja looked meaningfully at Gnosiomandus; "Who are these 'friends' of yours that you're supposed to go talk to?"
"Mrs. Cave for the Book Trade, Urmigan for the Building Trades, Doktor Hesselius, and a few others, some of whom I am uncomfortable mentioning before first consulting with them. This is a dangerous thing that the Headmistress is setting out to do...dangerous...unprecedented...potentially disastrous..."
"Not the Corruption Trade?"
"No." He shook his head solemnly. All trace of good humor completely gone.
"I see. So now we know their connection into this place." Leeja closed he eyes. For a moment Bujilli thought she would either scream or start crying. Instead she snapped her eyes wide open, focused on him and smiled broadly; "You go on ahead then, old man. Bujilli and I will take care of things here, then go retrieve Morquin and Idvard."
"You're not going to need any help from me to get past Idvard's guard-drones. But you could use the amulet Hedrard gave you to find and gain access to the Athenaeum, or I can give you one of my own to use if you like..."
"I would appreciate that." Bujilli held out his hand. His right hand. The hair still wasn't growing back. The familair old violet fractals were gone now, but they had left lingering scar-like traces seared deep into his flesh, his very soul. He had carried that spell imprisoned within his hand for a long, long time. Just thinking about it brought the thing closer. He could cast it right now--
"Whoa there." Gnosiomandus shook Bujilli by the shoulder; "You've got a hellacious bit of unpleasantness entangled with your right hand there, but no need to unleash it here and now."
"Sorry. I thought it was gone. But it isn't, is it?"
Gnosiomandus casually examined Bujilli's outstretched hand. Grunted. Dropped the amulet into his palm.
"I'm tempted to make a bad pun about that coming in real handy, but I'll spare you. You must have carried that spell for a very long time--it is integrated into you body and soul. I've never seen anyone learn a spell in that fashion before. Talk about going about it the hard way."
"So it's really still there? It isn't all in my head?"
"It's in your hand. It's definitely in your hand. The only real concern is whether or not you can come to terms with it. The thing has a bit of a mind of its own. You'll need to work things out between you, or it might become something of a nuisance. I'm sure you'll get it all sorted out just fine." The old man winked. Turned. Walked off through the foyer.
They were left alone. In the middle of thousands of sharp mirror-shards and other debris left in the wake of Sharisse and Gudrun's battle with the Mirrorborn.
"I thought they'd never leave." Gudrun shoved half of an armoire door away from a partly singed ebony frame. Sharisse helped wrestle the heavy, make-shift barrier out of the way and they both jumped down from the mirror on the wall. Sharisse quickly slammed the shutters back into place. Gudrun latched them. They both propped the armoire door into place to reinforce the shutters.
"Where have you two been?" Leeja and Sharisse spoke simultaneously.
"Are you both--"
"We're fine. Now. There were a lot more of those things here than we had expected." Sharisse smiled at Bujilli. Looked at Leeja who nodded slightly. Gave Bujilli a hug.
"We managed to get all but one of them." Gudrun kicked at some mirror shards.
"One escaped?" Leeja asked.
"No. It was taken." Gudrun hissed in anger.
"How? What do you mean?" Bujilli looked to the doorway. He hated discussing all these things here in Sprague's place. He knew how to make walls talk, and was ready to bet that Sprague had his own way to do pretty much the same thing.
"A man in a blackscale and bear-hide cloak cast a spell on it. Took it away with him." Sharisse stretched out her limbs. Hiding in the mirror had been a bit cramped.
"Who was it?" Leeja demanded.
"We're not sure. Big guy. Heavy-set. With a bushy beard. He had an Oak Staff, so we both assumed he was one of the Regents or someone else in authority. We stayed out of sight until after he'd left. Then one of the Mirrorborn things nearly slashed my throat--"
"It had been hiding right next to us. We chased it into this mirror. Ended it. We've been hiding out there ever since. Seemed like a good spot. Nice acoustics in this place. We heard everything."
"Good. I'm--We're both--glad that you two are safe and sound. Before any of us say another word, let's get out of here. We've given Sprague plenty to mull over as it is--"
"You mean he's here?" Gudrun had a scalpel in her hand.
"No. But he will be and he'll more than likely be able to use some spell to hear all of our conversations later. I know that I can, and I'm not any sort of Master Oneirist. Let's go back to my room. I think we can talk there."
"Ambitious, ain't he?" Sharisse laughed.
Leeja scowled at her until she stopped grinning. At least while Leeja could still see her.
They left Sprague's mightily trashed and mostly abandoned reception hall. A brisk walk through the hallways and they were back under the slowly spreading branches of the strange little forest that was now growing in the corridor just outside Bujilli's room. They still had not determined who had sent the Mandrakes after him. He had a suspicion that it was connected to the people who had been pulling the Impostor Not-Sprague's metaphorical strings.
There wasn't time to deal with everything. Not on his own. But he wasn't alone. Not anymore.
Once the door was closed and latched, Bujilli cast Thought Wall.
"Now. We can talk. Leeja and I have been charged with bringing Idvard and this Morquin from the Athenaeum to the Headmistress. But we also should track down a certain arrow..."
"The demon-arrow?" Leeja 's eyes lit up with anticipation.
"Yes. You and I will track down that arrow and see who was on the receiving end. What I would like for you two to do, if you're willing, is to go to Urmigan and have him get word to Idvard that the Headmistress of the Academy has requested him to meet with her and that both Leeja and I vouch for the authenticity of the summons." He grabbed his beat-up old bag from the floor and started rummaging around for some loose coins he had left on the bottom from his earlier travels. Six coins. All different denominations. He handed them over to Gudrun.
"Sounds like a simple enough chore. Why not just have us go directly to Idvard? Or just go yourselves?"
"I'm not inclined to do anything anyone else might be expecting or counting on, and certainly not in any way that they might be planning on. You'll need to watch out for Gnosiomandus, as he's also going to go meet with Urmigan, but if you leave right away, you ought to beat him there. I have a feeling that he's going to visit Gudrun's parents before he goes to Idvard's place. Mrs. Cave, your mother, is one of the people he's planning on dragging into this summit the Headmistress is setting up." Even as he spoke the words Bujilli began to feel a looming sense of dread. He still wasn't sure if the Headmistress could be trusted or not. Or if this summit she was planning was a good idea.
"Of course. She practically runs the Book Trade. Has for decades." Gudrun nodded. Pocketed the coins. Turned to Sharisse; "What about it? You up for a quick run across the rooftops?"
"Always. Maybe we can swing in to your parents' shop afterwards. I'd like to see if they have a decent hand-axe like Bujilli uses..."
And the two young women were out the door, laughing as they went on their errand.
"Ready?" Bujilli looked around his room. He felt strange not having his tulwar any more. He adjusted his belt and bandolier. Touched the handle of the pistol he'd been given by Mistress Eberhard. The one carved like a manticore. It would make an excellent war-club, in addition to giving him some much-needed firepower. He didn't have a lot of experience with fire-arms. He'd need to make some time to go practice. Soon. There were three knives in his belt. And a wand. A black and gnarled, old thing. Iron and wood. It held violence like a battery. He'd not yet tried the thing out. He expected that he would soon enough.
They left the room. Locked the door. Bujilli held forth the amulet he'd been given by Gnosiomandus, a three-tined skeleton key made of dense black stuff that wasn't iron. It dangled on a light chain of silver. It started to point the way to the Athenaeum. He caught it back up into his hand, slid it into his belt pouch.
"Follow me." He set off at a loping gait, the hunter's trot he had learned in the mountains as a child. Which was appropriate. He was hunting.
Counsel showed him the way. It showed him a map of the surrounding area. All the different approaches and corridors. He knew they'd found the room they wanted when he slipped on a pool of blood.
Smiling fiercely, Bujilli pulled out his hand-axe and kicked the door as hard as he could. It wasn't latched. It flew back on the hinges with a crash. He lunged into the room.
Nothing else moved.
There was a body on the floor. The black arrow jutted up from between the shoulder blades. Just to one side. Directly through the heart. A good shot.
Baggy, shapeless clothes. Braided auburn hair. A mask of some kind, crudely carved ivory. Hmmm. They seemed familiar. Bujilli felt like he'd seen this person before.
He turned the body over. It was a young girl. He recognized the mask. She had been one of the three assailants he had driven off at the beast pens. He still had the image before him; counsel had recorded it at the time. She had been one of the people who had attacked him just after he had first met Leeja. Back when Gudrun was convinced he was responsible for her brother's death and was carrying out a vendetta against him. This had been one of her co-conspirators.
Leeja touched his forearm. He looked up. She gestured silently to the door.
Someone was approaching.