The Conspiracy: Part Nine
For several seconds Lockwood was simply too overwhelmed with shock and indignation to do anything but gasp and choke. She was horribly strong, and in the mirror before him her lovely features were contorted into a hideous expression of vicious delight.
He struggled against the Acara’s grip, but it was useless; she already had the advantage of him, and he was sluggish and could not think straight. He realized with a flash of cold fear that in a matter of minutes, he might very well be dead. A thousand forms of magic raced through his head – none of any use. Why, why was it, he thought desperately, that magic always deserted him when he needed it most?
Suddenly she gave an involuntary screech of pain; Lockwood knew not from what, but as her grip loosened for just a split second he seized his opportunity, getting his hands under the cravat and sliding out from under it. Whirling around, he saw that Bunny had bitten her leg and was mercilessly clinging on; he expected to see her succumb to the magic he had seen once before, but she appeared to be somehow resisting its numbing effects.
With horror, he realized that she was a magic user – and in that instant, before he could do anything to prevent it, she disappeared.
He collapsed back into the armchair from which he had only ever half-risen, coughing, gasping and massaging his throat. What an idiot he had been – of all the ridiculous, humiliating ways to be caught off guard – if Lisha ever heard of it; but no, he shuddered at the thought.
With a heavy thump, Bunny hopped onto the coffee table in front of him and looked up at him with sad, sympathetic blue eyes.
“Yes, very nice,” he muttered. Then, “Sweet Jhudora! What an awful way to die!” The true seriousness of the situation was only beginning to dawn on him. Roxie, a dangerous magic user, had escaped to goodness only knew where. He had very nearly been killed with startling ease. And as for the conference – surely, surely this was somehow connected to the conference!
Aside from the fact that he was not dead, he concluded, things really could not be much worse.
An icy touch on his shoulder startled him, and he drew his breath in sharply and painfully; but it was only the lovely, slightly translucent faerie he had called up earlier.
“Thank you so much for helping back there,” he said, hoarsely and sarcastically, by way of greeting.
She only smiled her cryptic smile, holding his gaze in hers.
“Who was she?” Lockwood demanded, deciding that he might as well get what he could out of her, as she had so conveniently chosen to appear.
“A shapeshifter,” replied the faerie.
“I – what?”
“Listen carefully. She is now at the banquet, in one form or another, and tonight she intends to murder King Skarl.”
Lockwood discovered that he really had nothing to say to this, and simply waited for her to go on.
“Illusen is there, but she will be no help; she is keeping guard for magic of a different sort; she is looking out for anyone unusual. There will be no one unusual at this banquet.”
“You mean... she will take the form of...”
A realization came to him. “And the assassins, the Darigan guards...”
“All one and the same,” replied the faerie. “It was enough to reveal herself once, and disappear.”
“So we have all those guards...”
“Wrongly imprisoned? Yes, Mr. Lockwood.” She paused for a moment. “I would advise you to hurry... and because it bears reiteration... you have been very foolish.”
“Thank you,” he snarled, already attempting to plan what he might do next. He would have to get to the banquet, and quickly; it would be best to look natural, as though he had simply decided to drop by, and therefore go unnoticed. With a slightly sick feeling he picked up the much-abused red cravat and tied it hastily. As he stood to reach for a jacket, another matter came to his attention which he had momentarily forgotten: his leg, stiff and protesting under his weight.
“Ow,” he said irritably, struggling into the jacket and beginning to form a transportation spell with a feeling of dread. Perhaps, he thought without a great deal of optimism, this would be the one time his magic would cooperate and bring him to the correct place...
Opening his eyes again, he found he had been entirely right in believing that it would not. It was not, however, as bad as it might have been; the banquet was down the hall, and he was not so ludicrously far off from the spot he had aimed for.
Taking a limping step, he wondered which hurt more – his throat, or his leg. His transportation spells made him horribly dizzy at the best of times, and he had already been slightly disoriented; it was all he could do to hold the wall and stagger down the passage.
The urgency of the situation inspired him to hurry as best he could, and he cursed himself for having lounged around for so long; if only he had not been so lazy, he might have been able to make it ten feet now without the threat of imminent collapse...
After what seemed an age he was in front of the doorway – a side entrance, as inconspicuous as any he could find – and he took a moment to straighten his cravat, check his cuffs and grit his teeth against the pain. He would simply have to appear as unremarkable as possible, and hope that there was a nearby chair.
“How is it,” he muttered to himself, entering as quietly as he could, “that I always find myself in this sort of situation?”
It appeared that, by luck, he had chosen the perfect moment to enter. The guests were mingling amongst themselves, and it appeared they had not yet sat down to dinner. Lockwood noted with a sigh of relief that King Skarl was seated at the head of the table; it appeared that the assassin had not yet done her work. Or his – but that, all things considered, was a thought upon which Lockwood preferred not to dwell.
The even, muffled sounds of polite conversation filled the hall, accompanied by the notes of a violin from some corner he could not see. Small groups of people milled about. Assuming that he did nothing stupid – which, given the events of the evening until this point, was by no means a safe assumption – it should prove relatively easy to go unnoticed.
Fortune, however, was not on his side. “Mr. Lockwood!” exclaimed a familiar voice from behind.
It was Lady Hamilton, a young brown Xweetok whom he generally did everything in his power to avoid; he cursed himself for not having paid more attention to his surroundings. “Mr. Lockwood!” she repeated, smiling, with a slight bow. “I have not seen you in an age! You do look particularly handsome tonight. I heard that Miss Colton had left?”
“Yes,” he replied distractedly, scanning the crowds for any sign of Lisha or Jeran. “Yes, she left some time ago.”
“And good riddance, between the two of us! A remarkably disagreeable and fastidious woman. I am so excessively glad to hear that she is gone.”
“I believe Lord Hamilton is looking for you,” Lockwood remarked, and slipped away behind a portly Skeith as she turned, in some alarm, to verify his statement.
But no sooner had he escaped from Lady Hamilton, than he was assailed by a rather dashing white Scorchio and an elderly blue Shoyru. “Mr. Lockwood, we did not expect the pleasure of seeing you tonight,” said the young Scorchio, whom Lockwood recognized vaguely as Lord Fenton.
“Ah! Well, I am very much afraid I could not resist. Lord Fenton – Mr. Anville.”
“Are you certain you are quite recovered?” said Lord Fenton.
“Oh, perfectly,” answered Lockwood, repressing a sneering retort.
“Need you ask?” Mr. Anville cried. “Mr. Lockwood has never looked better. You are very handsome indeed tonight.”
“Yes – so I have been told.”
“I have always admired your taste in dress,” the old man continued placidly. “So many young dandies these days throw themselves after every trend without taste or quality; I of all people, you know, appreciate such a really lovely outfit as the specimen you have currently produced. How well you have tied your cravat, and what a lovely shade! I was quite a dresser in my time, I can assure you...”
Resolving never to wear a red cravat again, and resisting a peculiar urge to remove the article of clothing and use it against Mr. Anville as it had so recently been employed against him, Lockwood smiled coldly and departed.
“Of all the idiots!” he said furiously under his breath. “How well I have tied my cravat – I have never done it worse in my life. Lovely shade – totally mismatched with the jacket. And never looked better – incredible!”
It was then, at last, that he came across Lisha, who stared at him in perplexed concern. “You look really unwell,” she stated. “And what in the world are you doing here?”
“Peculiar as this may seem, I am actually rather relieved to hear you say that...”
“And you’re really limping,” she added. “What are you doing? I thought you were not going to come.”
“So did I, and was sadly mistaken. Listen – I have no time to explain; you are simply going to have to trust me. My maid attempted to kill me just now –”
“ – and while she quite obviously failed, I have solved the mystery of the multiplying assassins. Listen carefully: it is a shapeshifter, and has been every time.”
“But...” Sudden comprehension dawned in Lisha’s eyes. “Oh! But you cannot possibly mean...”
“Yes. There was only ever one. And now she... he... it... is going to try to kill the king, tonight.”
“Oh, goodness,” breathed Lisha. “What should we do?”
“I propose that we keep an extremely close eye on King Skarl, and act extremely quickly if anything suspicious should occur.”
“How do you think they mean to... Lockwood!” she said urgently. “What if they are going to poison him? What if they already have?”
Lockwood frowned thoughtfully, massaging his bruised throat. “No – I think that is unlikely. After all, when you consider it, it seems that the killer is aiming for a public display. She... it... has gone to a great deal of trouble each time to ensure that the deed is witnessed. And why choose the night of a banquet, if your intention is secrecy?”
“But if you are right, then...”
“Somebody has a very vehement dislike of the Darigan Citadel, yes. Or of Meridell. Or, most likely, both. In any case, I imagine we are looking for a quite obviously Darigan killer.”
Lisha tapped her fingers uneasily on the edge of a table. “Perhaps we should announce it now, and put Skarl out of danger.”
“I do not think that would put him out of danger at all. A shapeshifter who wants somebody dead badly enough is certain to succeed eventually. It will be much better to catch her... him... it... in the act and eliminate the risk entirely.”
Lisha simply stood, frozen with anxiety. “How do you know all this?” she asked suddenly.
“Never mind that at present,” he replied rather hastily. “When does the dinner begin?”
“Any minute now. Oh, Lockwood, what should we do?” she exclaimed. “I don’t see Fox or any of the other sorcerers around...”
“Well,” he said, making an exhausting effort to keep his thoughts straight, “ahh... perhaps we should try to tell Illusen, or Lord Darigan.” The idea of Lord Darigan conjured up a flash of suspicion; surely he was himself, and not the shapeshifter in disguise? And yet how disastrous it would be if that were the case... “How long has Darigan been here?”
“Since the beginning of the banquet, about an hour or two ago,” Lisha answered in some surprise. “He’s been here the whole time, in fact. Why do you ask?”
“No reason of importance.” Upon further consideration, it struck him as highly unlikely that Lord Darigan would be the target. It would be extraordinarily risky and take a very large amount of magic to somehow incapacitate Darigan, in order to keep him out of the way – altogether more trouble than it was worth. “Tell any of the sorcerers, or Lord Darigan, if you get the chance; do not tell King Skarl; and whatever else you do, try not to look at all suspicious.”
He thought that Lisha appeared doubtful, and rather frightened, but he could hardly blame her. After a moment’s hesitation, she spoke. “Why don’t you sit down, and I can –”
But at that instant the king rose to speak.
It was, evidently, the cue for everybody not vitally important to the conference to leave; the banquet was over and Meridellian nobles exited in droves. The Darigans seemed to have materialized out of nowhere and sat in a grim line along one side of the large mahogany table. Those left on the Meridellian side were all people whom Lockwood recognized vaguely as statesmen, knights, advisors, and Royal Sorcerers.
“Come on,” muttered Lisha, helping the unresisting Lockwood to a chair before the crowds had dissipated. “This is as close to Skarl as we can get, so you must be careful. Do you really think your reflexes will be fast enough?” she added anxiously.
“I don’t know.”
Lisha looked as though she intended to say something else, but silence had fallen over the table and she did not have the chance. Lockwood took the opportunity to look around him. He was not as close to the king as he would have liked; however, the situation might certainly have been worse. There was only Fox, Jeran, and two others between him and King Skarl’s position at the head of the table. Jeran caught his eye with a look of surprise – which was, Lockwood supposed, perfectly understandable given that he had not expected to see him here – but he had no way of communicating what had happened to the blue Lupe, so he merely shook his head slightly. Jeran, taking the hint, looked away.
King Skarl was speaking, but Lockwood had no attention to spare for his words; he was busy observing. Directly to Skarl’s right was Lord Darigan, looking rather worn and harried, from which quarter Lockwood anticipated no danger. Therefore the shapeshifter would be obliged, at some point, to walk over to the king...
He tensed as an impassive Moehog servant came around with drinks, but she retreated with no suspicious actions whatsoever.
Think, he commanded himself. Who could it be? There were really only so many possibilities, if his hypothesis of a Darigan assassin was correct; the only servants and courtiers would be Meridellian, and so – surely the shapeshifter would have had to impersonate somebody at this very table?
As intently as he could, without drawing undue attention, Lockwood searched the faces of each; but either they were all of them legitimate, or his skills at reading their expressions were subpar. They were all the same to him, a subdued blur of purple and black with the occasional splash of red.
As for the conference itself, it was intensely boring. It was all Lockwood could do to stop himself from yawning. He was already rather sleepy, having eaten a great deal of dinner and drunk a great deal of punch, and the excitement of the past hour had not helped. But he simply had to stay alert...
In an effort to distract himself from his bruised throat and aching leg, Lockwood reviewed the facts, comparing what had happened with what he now knew.
What had always puzzled him before – the fact that the Darigan guards had made themselves totally conspicuous during each attempted assassination – now made perfect sense. The aim all along had been to be visible. He had to admit it was a clever plan, although it struck him as rather risky; what if somebody had managed to catch the shapeshifter? But then again there would be risk in any such attempt... Yes, it was certainly clever. Illusen, sitting at the other end of the table, would not be expecting anything like this; whatever she did, it would inevitably be too late. Lord Darigan, who had everything to lose, would be equally helpless.
As for Lisha’s peculiar premonition, he could only suppose that she had subconsciously sensed the shapeshifter’s magic. It was true that he, also a sorcerer, had sensed nothing of the sort; but Lockwood had realized some time ago that he was almost peculiarly oblivious, for whatever reason, to magic in his vicinity.
On the whole, it made sense.
Desperately bored, he stifled another yawn and attempted to attend to what was going on in the conference. The rush of adrenaline had by now entirely worn off, and more than ever he struggled to stay alert.
On the Darigan side of the table, a Bruce was speaking. “There is no doubt that your claim to the thirty-fourth division is legitimate, and yet we assert that the sovereignty of the Darigan realm extends at least as far as the thirty-third. While hitherto you have acknowledged nothing of the sort, we feel it incumbent upon us to mention that quite different use was made of the land under Lord Kass than will be under Lord Darigan...”
Perhaps not, Lockwood thought, giving up. While Lisha appeared to be listening with great interest, he could see that Jeran was very near to slumping down on the table. Skarl looked annoyed, Lord Darigan somewhat worried; Mr. Fox was exactly the same as always, but that was hardly a surprise.
Quite suddenly it occurred to him that everybody would have to sign the treaty at the end, and he thought he could see when the assassin intended to strike. In that crowd, tame and civilized as it might be, it would be extremely difficult to keep track of the king well enough to prevent disaster. Lockwood fiddled with his cravat, wondering whether he had better not warn everybody now. Or a shield spell? – but no, that would certainly alert the shapeshifter. It was quite a dilemma, and disturbingly well-planned.
But he had no chance to pursue his thoughts any further, for at that moment the doors of the conference hall were thrown open and two guards rushed in. As per custom, one sentinel was Meridellian and a Draik, the other, a Darigan Techo; both were gasping for breath, spears in hand. “Your Majesty!” cried the Draik. “There has been another murder!”
To be continued...