John and Matilde, both of whom Emmeline regarded as friends, were long gone by the time the Wizard’s Guild quaestor, his guards, and entourage appeared. Ricimer was with them, so it was a safe assumption he’d brought them. It was likely that Elemix would go with them to Thalassa to make his report. She didn’t envy him that job, but judged he’d find some way to both put himself on fecal lists of the most powerful wizards there while escaping punishment for anything regarding the release of an Arch-sorcerer.
For her part, she just wanted to stay far from any member of the wizard’s guild. Someone either from Thalassa or from the Derrien enclave had sent a killer to undermine their mission and murder them for some reason that was indiscernible to her.
She suddenly realized that killer was looking right at her. Emmeline took an involuntary step back, her eyes looking to see if Ricimer had a knife in his hand and preparing to cast a spell that would give her a chance of escaping him.
She bumped right into Rosalinde.
After catching herself, she hesitated. In another life she might have felt foolish for overreacting. But people had been trying to kill her for a long time now, and being on guard was just second nature, a survival trait. She stared back at Ricimer with a wary look in her eyes. She was surprised to see something like regret in his eyes. That didn’t seem very much like the cold-hearted killer she’d traveled with and frankly, it worried her a little. Confused, she left with a mumbled apology to Rosalinde for stepping on her foot and went outside alone for air.
After a few minutes in the brisk cold, Emmeline heard a voice say, “You were never meant to be harmed.” It was Ricimer. “Though I am fairly certain you do not have draconic blood.”
Emmeline turned and stared at Ricimer. “The real irony here is that it is exactly the sort of bigotry that had Sidonius lead disenfranchised people away from the old empire and found Thalassa in the first place! Who’s the treacherous worm that hired you?”
Without batting an eye he replied, “It is not bigotry. Just facts.” He paused and then continued after drawing a cold breath, “I can tell you the following: I was sent to prevent the evil from being released, in particular Tuderic Draask, but the larger evil as well. It is known that he was a particularly potent sorcerer and we could not allow him to return. If you had had draconic blood, the poison would have been doubly effective and likely would have killed you. Despite Jon’s statement to the contrary, Draask is known to be the mastermind of the destruction of Azenkuul, the razing of the Danaean cities in punishment of their rebellion, and one of the instigators – with his followers – of a hundred year Crisis that weakened the Eterian Empire, led to the Third Sorcerer’s War, and eventually the Great Burn.”
He paused again to let that sink in and then said, “And I was not hired per se. I was assigned. One of several sent to Adera. Do not blame the Adera Mercenary Brotherhood quartermaster, he had no idea. I cannot reveal who sent me, but you must understand this: My first loyalty was to that mission – period. I played a part which I did not enjoy, but I did so to get close to Draask. Ricimer, the name you know, was a mere pseudonym – not unlike River Celeste. Again, I am sorry you feel betrayed, but I had strict orders and by that point, I could not disobey them.”
“Betrayed? You were deliberately sent as a spy by a party whose name you refuse to reveal,” Em pointed out. “So… duh. Yeah betrayed.”
“But look. I’m good to my friends. I’ll go out of my way to help them, sing their praises to others, and make sure they get the help they need whenever they need it. You hurt me, but I’ll get over it. To someone who’s proven false to me? Well. I don’t pose much of a threat I suppose — by my own choices and weak standing in the Guild, but not from lack of ability. I’m more than happy to be inconvenient in the extreme if you force me to be your enemy. I could push for an investigation and point interested wizards to question you starting at Derrien and going ultimately to the head of my college in Thalassa or even my original sponsor, Archmagus Revan.” She was pretty certain that by now “Ricimer” had seen her skills at work often enough to know that she had a formidable skill in convincing people without having to use any magic at all.
”But look, it doesn’t have to be that way. I hired you too, remember? And I’m a member of the Wizard’s guild, too. You completed your mission for the other party; now complete your mission for me by telling me who hired you.”
“M’selle, I did my job within the expectations you and the others had. Elemix did not die. No one did. In fact I risked myself countless times for you, even though that may put my secondary mission at risk. I cannot reveal who sent me, no matter what you do. If you push it, raise a fuss, the circumstances will become unfortunate for all. You have every right to feel the way you feel. But I cannot give you the answers you seek.” He paused and then continued, “But I can do this for you. First, it was never about any one person in your group. Second, while I cannot reveal my employer, I can relay your desire to know back to them. In the same way, I cannot report to them except by your leave any personal details of the adventure we engaged in – only the facts having to do with the mission and the destination. It is too bad, as your actions in Storuvan were quite brave.”
Em was disappointed she couldn’t cajole him into revealing anything, and she still wasn’t sure it was worth her time to make a fuss. But it seemed there could still be another opportunity to learn more. “Well. Maybe we can yet avoid any further unpleasantness. If your employer would agree to reveal himself or herself, then feel free to reveal those details to them. Perhaps a little show of honesty will convince them to be less circumspect toward us in the future.”
“Perhaps, but I doubt it, but I’ll convey the message. On another note, I am willing to be honest with you on different subject, if you wish.” replied Ricimer.
Emmeline was puzzled. “What do you have in mind?”
“Reality.” he answered. “Something all of you should be aware of, that I do have leave to discuss.”
“That’s a rather vague subject,” Emmeline pointed out. “But okay, as long as you aren’t about to preach about the ‘realities’ of dealing with mages. For that, I’ve had more than my fill of being told how great it is to be a member of the wizards guild while they dock all my earnings in exchange for deciding to allow me to continue breathing and giving me literally nothing but suspicion and mistrust. You’ll have to forgive me if I didn’t take this latest betrayal very well.
“So yeah. Let’s talk about anything other than wizards. What reality should I be aware of?”
“It is a crisp February day, but I know you are warm enough. Let’s walk.” Walking along the pathway toward the hedge rows he said, “you may have heard a rumor of another power out there, pulling strings. Does this ring true?”
As she walked with him, Emmeline tried to recall what he might be speaking of. “I think I know what you mean. Something or someone must be pushing at the goblinoids to force them to attack in the norht. We’ve been too distracted dealing with Tyaanites to look into anything very deeply.”
He replied, “There is a pattern of recent upsetting of peoples through strife. The Tyaanites could be behind that too, or others who oppose the League. It is certain that they are behind the strife in Maelith, at least some of them anyway. The reality is that we live interesting times. A piece of information you don’t know is that several people have been seen visiting the Vault, and then disappearing on missions or allies of those same people have been doing so.”
Em wasn’t sure she followed. “People are visiting the vault and then performing missions… for who do you mean?”
“For whom else? Sidonius. Rumor has it a few have been summoned by the Vault Librarians in the last six months. It could be nothing, but while a lone individual from time to time is given a visit to the Vault, historically if there are several it is often a prelude to a crisis.”
“So it’s possible my friends are already caught up in the periphery of whatever is brewing…” Emmeline mused. “So a possible crisis that affects Thalassa. What does your gut tell you?”
“That we all are part of something bigger, and we should be vigilant. The best advice I can give you is that no one is as they seem. Even your friends. Everyone is playing a game where we are all pieces and all players. You can fight the game, ignore it and lose, or accept it and play well.” He replied.
“I don’t even know who the major players are,” Emmeline said. “This sounds like a conversation my mother, the Contessa, would have.” She suspected that if anyone can teach how to survive this ‘game’, it would be her. Although, it had sounded an awful lot like if she married the man she wanted, she might just be retiring out of the political arena. Was that even possible, she wondered. Can a person ever really leave the political game of power?
“It is way beyond the vagaries of politics and the day-to-day of court. No offense to your mother, but she is out of her league and could not see the forest for the trees. Even the Mayor would not grasp what is truly going on. This is not about individuals, but about nations and whole peoples.”
Emmeline could tell this was not the Ricimer she knew. The same face. The same voice. But an entirely different personality.
“If politicians are unaware of what you are talking about, how did you come to know?” Emmeline wondered. “Who are you?”
“An actor of a kind – you know that of course with the recent unpleasantness. My master taught me enough of the truth to do my job, no more. In my missions over the years I’ve put the events together to form a pattern.”
“So if the game is really bigger even than the Mayor, and activities are being directed from the Vault, then the biggest players must include Sidonius.” Emmeline reasoned. “So he must really be using a form of time travel to direct things this far ahead of his own time. But who is he playing against? What threat is so dire that the founder of Thalassa would project himself through time specifically to this time period, I wonder…”
“He’s done it for nearly 500 years. I know that at least seven times he has advised the Mayor or the Council or whatever. But that is not shared with most the people in general. It has been awhile since he appeared though.”
“Fiddling about with time makes me uneasy,” Em said. “And I’m not sure he should be doing that. This group of Historians are a bit worrisome, too.” She looked at Ricci. “Do you know about them? Magically adept, they seem to show up at critical moments in history. Or so one of them told me anyway. They say they aren’t there to manipulate things, but they do. Shoot, their very presence and observing changes things, makes people make different decisions than they might have. I suppose that makes them one of the big players, too. But I wonder. Could they be working somehow in conjunction with Sidonius?”
“I do not know as Sidonius specifically appointed the Librarians and Academics as the transmitters of his dream. The wizards and priests have inherited some of this. As have the merchants and bards. It is possible he planned another as well or the Librarians know. There have been rumors others. And the name is Ducard.”
Em was curious. “I don’t know that name. Who are they?”
“Ducard is not a they. It is my name. I give to you as a gift In the duration of the mission I lied to you, deceived you, watched you, and reported that to whom I was employed. I do not apologize for what my duty demanded. Instead of an apology I give you my name. If you choose to, you could use it to destroy me. Or you can someday return my name, and I will help you with information or favor that is in my place to give. You may find me at the Hall of Silence on Thalassa.”
Em recognized the name – the rumored Guild of Assassins was said to have been founded there – now it was a school where children of the elite learned politics, rhetoric, history and some day the art of self defense.
Emmeline looked at him. “Well, I suppose it makes sense you carried an assassin’s blade then. I understand you are wanting to make amends, which at least tells me you didn’t like your last job very much. That’s enough for me.”
“I do what I must. But you and yours are innocent, if naive from time to time. None of you have desires to control others, save for Rivanon or River. She wants power, be aware of that.” Ducard replied.
Emmeline nodded. “I know. She’s her father’s daughter, but she’s a good person. I plan on being right there for both of them. As you say, I have no intention of trying to control anyone, but I can continue to show by example that the best things come from a good heart. I think… she might even have begun picking some of this up.”
“Hopefully that will be the case. I should depart now and leave you to the others. Please give them my regards. Whether you reveal my name or my background is up to you. It is in your hands, as are the consequences, though I would advise not – for now – beyond what you must to maintain your trust with your friends. Be well.”
Emmeline said, “Your secret is safe. Safe journeys — and stay alive.”
“You as well.” he replied.
With that, Ducard, the former Ricimer, left. What Emmeline would say to the party was another matter entirely.