“I knew it,” said Lytha as soon as she saw a head of dark gray hair poking above a stack of tomes in the library. “Never send a scholar to do an assassin’s job.”
Garyl craned his head around the books, placing his index finger against the spine of the nearest tome as a placeholder. “Correction,” he said. “Never send a scholar if you want to do a sloppy job.”
The middle-aged Lytha drew herself up to her full height of almost six feet tall. She brushed aside a strand of ginger hair that had fallen into her face and glared at the other eavesdropping students in the Lorinthian library. Studying spellcasters all, they took the hint to gather their books and retreat to other chambers, leaving the teacher to deal with her quarry in private.
“If I had wanted delays, I would have kept forwarding this matter to the Lorinthian guard,” said Lytha as she strode toward the large table where Garyl had returned to his reading. “As it is, Falden still lives in that repulsive shack down by the sea. The waifs he recruits continue to steal from my people, and orphan children inevitably find their way into his abusive employ.”
“Falden will be dead within the month,” said Garyl, turning a page in The Dragon Spotter’s Guidebook and scanning it rapidly with his orange eyes.
“If so, it will be no thanks to you,” snapped Lytha. She kicked at the sword and shield which Garyl had propped against the wooden table, sending them clattering to the library’s marble floor.
“Be careful with those,” said Garyl, pursing his lips and looking cross. “They’re valuable instruments.”
“Something only has value if it brings pleasure or utility,” said Lytha. “And as far as I can see, you only carry those on you so people assume you’re some sort of knight.”
Garyl clapped his book shut, breathing in the pleasant scent of aged paper and leather binding as he did so. He stood up from his seat, found himself at a significant height disadvantage to Lytha, and picked up his shield.
“One problem leads to another,” he said, polishing the silver boss of his shield with the sleeve of his tunic. “If I shut down Falden’s operation right now, I would lose track of one of his employees.”
“You mean slaves,” corrected Lytha.
Garyl gave the term some thought. “Yes,” he said as he set his shield back in its previous place and then picked up his sword. “Yes, slave is the right word. If he pays his workers anything, it’s certainly not enough for them to travel away from his little shack down by the sea. He’s got guards who almost certainly deliver beatings to those who don’t steal enough for him to turn a profit, and the people who turn caught fish into the slurry he sells as a miracle cure probably come close to losing an arm on his rusty old tools every day.”
“Which is why I asked you to deal with the man. He can play politicians from Blackwood and Lorinth against one another, but you assured me you could make the problem go away.”
“And I can,” retorted Garyl. “And I will. The next time I pay Falden a visit, he’ll wind up as shark food and the skyship that he turned into a base will have disappeared off the map.”
“How long will the citizens of Lorinth have to wait for that, hmm?” Lytha gritted her teeth as Garyl carefully rubbed away an almost-invisible scuff on his leather scabbard instead of paying her proper attention. “I paid you good coin almost a week ago to get this job done, and now I see you sitting in the reference room of my academy’s library playing bookworm!”
Garyl snapped his fingers and spoke a word. At his command, the top tome on the stack of books he had gathered floated into the air and landed on the table. The brown-covered book opened of its own accord and flipped through gilded-edged pages until it came to a section Garyl had taken special note of during his studies.
Lytha rolled her eyes. “Don’t think you can impress me with parlor tricks,” she said. “You’re right in the heart of the Lorinthian Magic Academy. Any first-year student can do what you just did.”
Nonetheless, she craned her neck to inspect the page. Cursing her failing eyesight and the fact that she had left her glasses in her office, she leaned closer to see what Garyl was so dramatically calling her attention to.
“Creatures with a compelling gaze,” she murmured. “Basilisks, gorgons, fey…dragons.” She looked up at Garyl and frowned. “So?”
“I was looking for first-hand accounts from people who had fallen prey to one of those gazes,” said Garyl. “Obviously, there’s not a lot of information about basilisks and gorgons—it’s hard to ask a statue how they’re feeling. But those who looked into the eyes of a fey trickster in the moonlight or who dared to stare at a demon as it chased them down…their accounts are all similar.”
Half of Lytha wanted to have Garyl thrown out of the library for wasting her time. But the other half enjoyed books just as much as he did and wanted to see where this was going. That part of her won out after a very brief internal struggle.
“And?” she said, her voice betraying more curiosity than she wanted it to. “What does this have to do with Falden?”
Garyl propped his sword back where he had placed it earlier and slid onto the bench in front of the table where he had been working. He moved over enough to allow Lytha a comfortable seat and then patted the bench invitingly. His angry employer took the seat without any further prompting, and both of them turned their attention to the book.
“You can find it in almost every first-hand account of this kind of magic,” Garyl continued. “These enchanted gazes make a person feel lust or fear or some other compulsion, but never directly. Instead, they project thoughts into a person’s head—some sort of great vice or treasure, a childhood fear, or something similar. They don’t make you feel the emotion—they make you recall something from your past that you connect to that emotion. There’s only one creature I can find that just changes somebody’s thoughts on a whim and conjures emotions without any sort of personal connection.”
“And that creature is?”
Garyl closed the tome in front of them and pulled another off the pile. This one was titled Fury and Flame: A History of the Dragon War. He didn’t need to use magic in order to open this one to the right place: a single page early in the book had been examined so often that the spine had been trained to open to it almost unerringly. A detailed sketch of the great dragon Derrezen flying over the burning community of Miren’s Heart filled most of the page.
“So you think Falden’s got a pet dragon stored away somewhere?”
“Something like that.” Garyl closed the book and stood up. “A dragon doesn’t try to play with your memories when it twists your mind. If it wants you to be afraid, it just locks eyes with you and tells you that you’re afraid. When that happens, a mortal mind suddenly feels terror that they can’t explain…even if they already have a lot of things to be afraid of.”
Lytha stood up and took a few steps away from the table. As she realized that Garyl was dancing around an issue rather than truly explaining things, her crossness returned. “If Falden has some sort of dragon, it has to be a young one. He would sell an egg, and he wouldn’t be able to fit a full-sized dragon into that shack of his.”
“Oh, it’s a young one, alright,” said Garyl.
“Well, then…” Lytha gave Garyl a curt nod. “Since I doubt you feel up to dragon slaying, I’ll have to send this news to the agents I dispatched this morning. Fortunately, they should prove more than capable of dealing with a young dragon.”
“Yes, but it’s not as simple as all that…wait a minute,” Garyl narrowed his eyes toward Lytha. “You sent somebody else out to deal with Falden? I thought you trusted me!”
“So did I,” Lytha replied. “But then I heard that you were back on campus reading in the library—and bringing weapons into the building without proper permission, of course.”
“Well, how did you know I hadn’t done the job and made my way back here?”
“Because I’ve been scrying the area of Falden’s shop every day since I learned how he gets his ‘employees.’ The lack of fire and dead bodies tipped me off that the job wasn’t finished.”
“And you didn’t think to consult me before you sent off a bunch of green apprentice mages to attack first and ask questions later?!” Garyl’s already dark face grew darker as he felt blood rush into his forehead.
“I sent off agents whom I could trust to report directly to me instead of scurrying off to a research room before they gave me important facts.”
“What’s wrong with wanting to know what’s going on before I report to you?”
Lytha put her arms akimbo and glared hotly at Garyl. “Be honest with yourself. This wasn’t about prudence. You were here because you wanted to make sure you were the cleverest person in the room when you walked into my office.”
“I…argh!” Garyl slammed his fist against the table, then shook his hand as the impact left him with a sore hand. “Look, there’s room for both of us to be right on this one.”
“Oh? And what are you right about?”
“That you’re going to get a lot of people killed unnecessarily.” Garyl shook his hand until the pain went away. Then he strode toward where his weapon and shield lay. “Send out one of your homunculi—the fastest one so it can catch up to them.”
“And what should the messenger say? ‘Beware of dragon?’”
“I’d prefer, ‘Turn around and come back.’ Maybe even put in a little service announcement like, ‘Poor communication kills.’”
“So you want me to embarrass myself and suggest to my agents that I don’t trust them, all so you can save face?”
“No.” Garyl buckled his sword’s sheath to his belt as he spoke. “I want you to keep a group of people from getting killed while dealing with something they don’t fully understand.”
Garyl didn’t wait for another verbal parry from Lytha. With his sword and shield equipped, he clapped his hands together and shouted a single word.
Lytha couldn’t hide the trace of a smile that forced its way onto her face. “You forgot that teleportation spells don’t work on academy grounds, didn’t you?”
Garyl rolled his eyes and stormed toward the door. “Wonderful,” he said as he walked. “More delays. But at least you get to feel like the clever one. Send that blasted message!”
Lytha glanced apologetically toward the students at the far corner of the research room. That argument had caused far too much noise…maybe she should put up some “Quiet, please” signs.
Then her eyes fell across the illustration of a wrathful Derrezen, and her amusement faded away. Closing the book, she turned and strode out of the library, heading for her office. Perhaps there was room for both she and Garyl to be right about this one after all.