An elusive figure.
Written August-November 2021
A sudden snort from the sleeping Irikshan made Lucile freeze in place, hands buried in her saddlebags. As his breathing returned to the regular heavy rhythm that she’d grown used to over the past week, she continued softly rummaging about. She gathered a few odds and ends she might possibly need during the day into her shoulder bag, then pulled out her spare travelling cloak and put it over herself and the satchel.
Before she could leave, however, Irikshan spoke, “Are you actually going to be following him?” He sounded better than he had for the past week.
“Yes, and he left earlier than usual today.”
“You know, there are many legitimate things that he could be doing each day. The man is allowed to have a life of his own. He is sure to have some friends or acquaintances in the city. He has certainly been here plenty of times before.”
“As I said yesterday, I agree with you, but I also do not believe that he has no ulterior motive in travelling with us. He’s too important of a person. There’s no way that he just happened to be in the right place at the right time to depart with us.”
“And what is he going to get from us? The research I’m doing is something anyone with the interest and means could do. We’ve broken no laws, and he won’t know of your leniency with Fenlan unless she or one of us told him. Sure, my three crystals would be worth a small fortune, but I keep them close at all times and have protection on them. What ulterior motives do you think he could have?”
“I don’t know. That’s what I intend to find out. I’m not going to insert myself into his affairs, but I want to at least have an idea what he’s up to.”
When Irikshan did not reply, she looked towards him. He had clearly been lacking the energy to clean up his stuff, with notes and stationary and other possessions laying all about his side of the room. Even his crystals were simply laid on the floor.
He’d complied with the doctor’s orders to not leave the Jinmeng’s property, but stubbornly refused to rest properly. He spent every moment he could with the Jinmengs, plaguing them with questions. With little else to do, she’d been there most of the time too, occasionally participating in the conversation, but mainly just listening.
He’d pursued a broad range of topics, many that she found far more interesting than architecture. The major specialisations and careers for magic-users, as well as how scriven training techniques differed from those that the tumen used. Irikshan found the apparently declining proportion of scriven with knacks to be surprising, which got him going on a tangent about the unstable inheritability of magical potential in humans and dragons.
He asked Rong about life during past imperial cultural suppression campaigns two centuries ago, something which Lucile found herself listening to with interest, as she’d only ever heard the other side of the story – vaguely and dismissively. The end of the campaigns with the changing of an emperor had marked the start of gradual acceptance of the Scriven, Meihianese and other Otai peoples into imperial governance and structures, something which Lucile and Jared themselves were beneficiaries of. The empire’s cultural efforts were now focused on promoting Imaadudish and a pan-imperial culture rather than actively suppressing the cultures of the conquered.
The Jinmengs’ understanding of the empire’s interests in Vrakura was another potentially sensitive topic that Irikshan asked about. They clearly didn’t buy into the empire’s claims that it was bringing civilisation to the uncivilised denizens of Vrakura, Irikshan serving as a very tangible counterpoint to that despite his lack of knowledge about Meihianese culture and customs. There were easier ways to aid other nations than conquering them. Rong believed that the decreases in costs of precious metals and exotic resources available in the empire were more indicative of the empire’s true motives. Although, he believed that as long as the current emperor and his successors ruled the nations they conquered as now they did Meihian, rather than the manner in which the first emperors and empresses did, things would hopefully be stable in the long-run.
“I should be going,” she said – more to herself than to Irikshan.
Although he was already awake and there was no one else in the room, she found herself treading as lightly as she could as she left the house. The large doors, even as thin as they were, required a good deal of effort for her to slide open and closed again.
In the garden, Lucile found Jared and Rentik still talking. Rentik’s brothers had left to visit friends earlier, but she had stayed with Jared. A crystal floated between the two. Even this, the smallest crystal the Jinmengs owned, was only marginally smaller than the one Lucile had.
“Is master Kennissoeker awake?,” Rentik asked.
“Yes, I accidentally woke him, but I think he should rest more. Have you two given up on solving his puzzle?”
“No, we are still trying. I was just wondering.”
“Good. Have fun. I’m going to be out for a few hours. Goodbye,” she turned towards the gate.
“Farewell, Ms. Manghka.”
“Bye, master. See you later.”
Once she was on the street, Lucile mentally reached for her crystal. Inside it, she found Irikshan’s tracking enchantment. Two of them, in fact. One was the one he had created months ago, which had a partner on his heart-crystal, so that they could find one another when he flew around to observe the landscape while the humans plodded along the roads at their slow pace.
The other he’d created yesterday, at her request. It was paired with a tiny crystal she’d borrowed from the local imperial mages, with Major General Benbow’s permission. This time, however, the partner-enchantment was not designed to allow both sides to track one another. She’d hidden the small crystal deep within the bag that Kamon took with him each day.
She held her bag tightly, then triggered this enchantment. Her bag jerked slightly to her left. She was glad that she had asked Irikshan to change the enchantments to make the crystal to pull in a certain direction, rather than release a directed air puff.
She turned that direction and set off down the street, with nothing to go on other than the direction. She’d been out only a couple times since they had arrived in the city. Hopefully, the streets would not be maze-like, riddled with dead ends. That would make tracking down “Kamon” troublesome.
Sprawling compound by sprawling compound, she made her way down the streets. Her path was taking her through the centre of the dragon housing sector. She was long past her disbelief at how many dragons there could be in a single city, but still admired each one she passed. Golden horns, often adorned with jewellery. Striped navy and white scales playing with various patterns, augmented by brightly coloured clothing for more personal expression. Intent to keep practising, she kept her mind open as she travelled, politely avoiding intruding too far into the mental space of any dragons she passed.
She didn’t even know if Irikshan had brought this much clothing with him. All she’d seen him wear were his bags and his scarf. But he didn’t need another way to show off wealth and status when he had three large crystals floating above his head.
Her path had brought her past the university, where Kai taught, to a commercial district. Trying to not look too lost, she followed the tracker until it lead her to a woodworker’s shop. She looked in as she kept walking, the man sitting in front watching her with the hopeful face of someone thinking they might have a customer. This turned to disappointment as she broke eye contact and looked away. She was glad she wore her travelling clothes rather than her uniform.
Reaching out with her mind, she sensed others inside. A couple of men worked just inside the shop. She sensed a dragon deeper inside. Its mind was distracted and fortunately, it did not notice her. Just at the edge of her mental range, as she walked away, she noticed a curiously small mental obstacle pass between her and the dragon. She stopped to pretend to admire a cabinet for a moment to probe the gap further. There was a human-sized someone there, but they were hiding their presence so well she would not have noticed them if not for the dragon. Something like this would have taken extreme levels of training.
There was no way of identifying who it was, but she knew only one person who could likely have gone through that sort of training. While he’d always had a solid block on his mind, it had never been like this. Then again, entirely erasing one’s mental presence while travelling alongside a dragon would not be a good way to remain incognito.
The attendant had stood up and was now approaching her. She looked to him quickly, shook her head, then continued on her way down the street, trying not to appear hurried. She turned left at the end of the street, hoping to find an alley behind the shops. There was no such luck.
There was, however, a teahouse nearby. It was pretty crowded inside, but there were a couple of empty tables beside the street. Rong had mentioned how these were places to socialise in Meihianese culture. Hopefully, she would not have any trouble if she were to sit alone.
She edged her way in, quietly claiming an unoccupied two-seater table with a view of the woodworking store. To her surprise, she was attended to in moments.
“Good morning, madam, what would you like?”
Lucile hummed a bit before she answered, “I’ll have your most popular, please.” New country, might as well try new teas.”
“Will you have a pot or a cup?”
“Just a cup, please.”
“Yes, madam.” The waitress bowed, then bustled away.
She then settled in to watch the activity down the street, trying not to stare too much at the woodworker’s specifically.
The waitress returned with a teapot and a cup. Lucile admired the symmetrical patterns in the falling tea as it was poured, thanked the waitress, then raised the cup to get a good smell. It had a floral scent. First using her magic to siphon some of the excess heat so she wouldn’t scorch her mouth, she sipped at it. The flavour was much lighter than what she was used to. Much less underlying bitterness. There seemed to be some sort of berry-like flavour there too, or maybe that was the flowers themselves.
After she was accustomed to the taste, she settled in to slowly sipping at it while watching the street. For a long while, long enough for her to get a refill, there was no activity at the woodworker’s beyond an occasional shopper. Whenever she triggered her crystal, however, it still seemed to tug towards the shop.
Eventually, she spied a middle-aged Scriven somewhat ungracefully squeezing their way out from the woodworker’s and heading along the street towards Lucile. Behind him, a man slipped away in the other direction. He looked like he could be Kamon, but it was too far to be sure. He was also too far for her to even attempt touching his mind, so she could not use that to confirm whether it was Kamon or even the person with the perfect mental block. The crystal seemed to pull in his direction, however.
She returned her attention to her tea, to finish it quickly. As the dragon approached, she retracted her mental presence and made an effort to calm her mind so that she’d not stand out from the rest of the mind-blind patrons.
Standing up and fishing for her purse, the waitress again promptly approached her. “That’ll be one crown and six decs.”
Lucile handed her two coins and waited for change. “Thank you. Have a good day.” During this exchange, she felt the dragon’s presence briefly brush past her mind, and tried not to react mentally.
Raising her travel cloak over her head as she exited the teahouse, she again followed the crystal, which did indeed lead her past the woodworker’s this time. Ahead of her, the man – it had to be Kamon – turned a corner. By the time she had rounded the corner, he was nowhere in sight. So, she followed the enchantment.
Through twists and turns, she followed it. Streets growing narrower as the city returned to a more human size, she followed it. She hesitated as she was led through a gate in the wall around the inner city, but she persevered. At some point she passed through a street that she thought she’d gone through already, causing a growing unease to rise in her stomach, but she followed the trail. She usually couldn’t see her target, but she wasn’t too far behind either.
Eventually, however, the path led her to a dark alleyway. She stopped for a moment to peer down it, but there was no visible entrance, and no one visible in the alley despite the busy street behind her. There were some obstacles on the right side of the alley that could hide a person or even a door. She didn’t dare enter, instead continuing down the street and looping around the block. To her dismay, her tracker had not moved from that dark alley with no one in sight.
Something about that did not sit right with her. Stretching out mentally, she could sense no one, but she already knew there was at least one person in the city – probably the one who she had been following – who had such fine mental control that they could entirely mask their presence. It was behind the obstacles that the tracking enchantment seemed to be leading her.
I’m a skilled mage, I can handle them, she thought before remembering that night when Irikshan fought the Xinbi. Irikshan had mentioned that Kamon had been the one to block its mind, freeing him to attack. Normally, her powers put her leagues above other humans, but nullification projection could strip her of that advantage if they were skilled enough. Despite some training with a sword, she was not good at close quarters combat and doubted it would end well if she got jumped.
Rather than risk entering, she decided that she would head back to House Jinmeng. Unfortunately, the outer city was a confusing maze, and it took her hours to find her way back to House Jinmeng.
When she entered the property, she found Jared, Rentik, and Irikshan sitting together by the stream. Rentik said something that Lucile was too far to hear. Once she was closer, Irikshan’s reply seemed to be related to his journey to Meihian. She didn’t get close enough to interrupt the conversation, but reached out to brush Irikshan’s mind. Without stopping what he was saying, she sensed him shift focus to her – shielding the connection between them from the open minds of the youngsters. She was never sure how he could focus on multiple things at once, but here he did it again. Must be a dragon thing.
He thought a question to her, Did you find anything?
I followed the tracker to a human-sized woodworking shop, where I sensed a scriven talking to someone who had erased their mental presence. I only sensed them because they passed between me and the dragon. When the dragon left, someone else left in the other direction – and they had the tracker. I followed them for a while, in a very meandering route, but then the tracker stopped in a dead-end alleyway I dared not enter. They probably were Kamon, and he might have somehow figured out that I was following him. She sat down next to the dragon, waving to the youngsters.
Don’t you know anything that might help?
Not really. Espionage and mental brute force are not areas I practice. Not going to slip by the guard of someone who’s good enough to erase their mental presence. Nor will I be of any use to you if you’re trying to sneak anywhere.
I guess I’ll try again the next time he goes out.
Don’t become obsessed by this. Maybe it’s better off not knowing and risking getting involved. If he knows you’re following him, he might try something.
He has to be up to something unscrupulous, otherwise why would there be all this secrecy? It’s my duty to protect the people of the empire, even if this is not my home province. That’s why I want to know that he’s not doing anything that will pose a danger.
Very well, that is your decision. I do not want to get involved in this. As I’ve been made aware of in the past months, despite my purely academic interests, this expedition of mine could easily be viewed in a more political light. I would not want to provide fuel unnecessarily for such perspectives. Just remember that you are alone out there. I’ve grown accustomed to your… supervision of my expedition and worry that if I were assigned another steward, they might not be so agreeable.
Is that your way of saying you like me?
There was no response, but she looked up at him just in time to catch him glancing at her.I’ll try to be careful, she thought, before his presence on her mind lessened.