The three of us settled down on hastily de-papered chairs in Instruktanto Miratova’s office. Kylie and I had seen this before, but Max looked a little unnerved at the scriptural chaos around him. Quite possibly he’d never seen somebody use a teaspoon as a bookmark before.
Instruktanto Miratova herself sat opposite, imposing in her palace of books and papers. She certainly looked recovered. Her sharp eyes flicked between the members of Dorm Australia, resting on each of us just long enough to be unsettling.
“Alright,” she said, “what’s this about?”
“We think someone might be trying to kill you,” Kylie said.
Miratova didn’t respond. Her eyes just narrowed. Max cleared his throat.
“I’ve been, uh… studying that staff that you gave Kayden,” he admitted. “Just… just out of academic curiosity, you understand, and well, it had quite a bit of cauldron shrapnel in it. More than I would’ve expected, actually, assuming a radial distribution after the explosion; I’ve been meaning to ask if perhaps you think there might be some kind of attractant effect caused by the mirroring of your – ”
I kicked his shin.
“Right. Anyway. Among the shrapnel in the staff, I found this. When the staff exploded. Violently.” He went to dramatically tip the ring out of the little pouch he’d put it in, but couldn’t seem to find an appropriately empty piece of desk. After a moment’s hesitation, he simply handed the pouch over.
Miratova tipped it onto the stack of papers in front of her, and, without touching it, leaned forward to analyse it. “Hmm. I recognise the sigil, of course, but not the ring.”
“It’s Simon Madja’s,” I said. “Well, the Fiore’s I suppose, but he gave it to Simon to wear. It’s enchanted.”
Miratova drew back. “That’s the Fiore’s Guardian Ring?”
“I… guess so? All I know is I tried to hit him awhile back – he wanted me to, I wasn’t starting fights or anything – and that thing threw back at me every bit of force I’d tried to use and more. I could barely move my arm for a few minutes.”
“And it was in your staff,” Max said. “The only reasonable explanation we can find for that is if it was embedded there during the explosion. We think that it might have been dropped in your cauldron and – ”
“Yes, I think I understand,” Miratova said. She got up and headed to the chest at the end of her cot. After a bit of rummaging around, she pulled out a fountain pen, the old kind that people use for calligraphy, and a clean piece of paper.
She used the handle of her pen to pick up the ring without touching it and dropped it in the centre of the paper. Then she pulled up the hem of her robes, revealing a mage mark inside her right ankle, and stabbed the tip of her pen right into the middle. Ichor welled up, coating the nib like ink; she cleaned the bottom with an expert swipe on the edge of the paper and then, around the ring, began to write.
I couldn’t read the runes, of course, but I was familiar enough with their look by now. They were the sort around the Pit, the sort drawn on the Fiore’s paper circle, the sort I’d glimpsed in some of the more complicated mage marks. She finished her elaborate circle, dropped the pen in a cup of water, and pressed her fingertips to one edge of the paper.
“Reis,” she whispered. The ichor runes near her right hand started to dull and dry in a wave that moved counter-clockwise around the circle. Max, Kylie and I all reflexively flinched back when the circle was complete, expecting something to happen, but nothing did.
No, not nothing. The ring in the centre was different. Duller. I looked closer.
It was covered in a fine, even layer of frost.
Miratova once again used the back of her pen to pick up the ring and inspect it. “Hmm. Interesting.”
“What does it mean?” Kylie asked.
“Nothing.” She caught our expressions, and clarified. “It literally means nothing. There is no spell in this metal.”
“There is,” I insisted. “It blew up and everything.”
“The integrity of the ring is badly damaged,” Max pointed out. “I’m not certain what anchoring structure was used for the artefact, but the pattern of energy discharge since the accident is concurrent with an unstably housed spell. It is possible that the ring is no longer enchanted, but it was until very recently.”
She put the ring back down. “Pattern of energy discharge?”
“Yes. I, uh, I may be wrong, but I have a theory which significantly substantiates our claim.” He pulled out his tablet. “I photographed the notes I took throughout the process of deconstructing your staff. Here are the relevant ones… you’ll notice I date them as I take them. The dates are important.”
Miratova skimmed the notes, slipping quickly into ‘interested academic’ tones. “Oh, I see you started under the crystal seating.”
“Of course. The crystal was already shattered; the shards were no trouble to remove. I wanted to have some idea of what I was looking at before I actually cut into anything.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s fair.”
“While we’re on the topic, why did you include a familiarity linkage rune? I mean, you’ve got an externalised spell. It’s about as focused as you can get it, without the messy distraction of a link to a fetish or familiar. So why remove that advantage by linking it to something? Doesn’t that make your spell harder to use?”
“A little, yes. But I determined it was better than potentially burning to death. What happens if I pass out when I’m losing control? Linking the spell to the power sink is a must for safety.”
“Okay, but the link increases the danger of losing control in the first place; doesn’t that danger outweigh the other?”
“Oh, no. It just takes practice to learn to compensate for that. I carried that staff for years; I barely noticed the link. In fact having full control since the staff burned out has been a little disorienting.”
“Actually, uh… about that. I’m not certain your staff ‘burned out’, necessarily. In theory, if shrapnel cut through the main lines in the middle of an overload – look here, at this photograph – then you’d have some of the power sinks still active, in subsidiary links.”
“Should that matter? I suppose it’s a small hazard if somebody throws a lot of power into it, but it’s still set up as a power dampener. You’d need a massive amount of power to even accidentally…”
“Like an enchantment escaping its damaged object, you mean?”
“So your theory is that the Fiore’s enchanted ring, which you’re claiming was used in an assassination attempt against me, overloaded the remaining sink circuits and caused the staff to explode? And this is the basis on which you’re claiming that this ring was enchanted?”
“Um, no. Kind of the opposite, actually.” Max gave an embarrassed cough. “I think the remaining power in the staff was holding the ring stable. I believe it exploded, and the enchantment escaped, when I cut into them.”
“Well, that’s a neat little story, Max, but I’m not sure how you expect me to believe – ”
“But that wasn’t the point I was trying to make. Look at the dates on the notes. Here, I found the runes under the crystal seating right away. And if you look a few pages over, I start sketching the main circuit a few days later.”
“I see that. I don’t – ”
“Those runes are underneath the familiarity rune. And the dates…”
“So what does that… hmm.” Miratova frowned, and flicked through the photos in silence for a little while. Then she handed the tablet back.
“Hell of a coincidence, don’t you think?” Max asked.
“Any time someone wants to explain what’s going on,” I put in, “I’m listening.”
Miratova nodded. “Your friend was just showing me that he cut my spell’s connection to the staff on the day I got out of the medical ward. It’s not really any of your business, but I’m sure you and the entire rest of the school already knows I was having a lot of difficulty controlling my spell at the time.”
“Your sudden recovery was miraculously quick,” Max said, “if the problem was due to injury or trauma or spell desynchronisation. But for an external factor influencing your spell that was suddenly removed… you might be used to the effect of linking your staff to your spell, but can you compensate for random surges of power in a damaged enchanted object?”
Miratova thought in silence for a while, staring at the ring on her desk. “Have you told anyone else about this?” she asked.
The other two looked at me.
“I may have accused Simon of attempted murder,” I said.
“Well… the rest of his dorm heard me. But other than that, no! Nobody but you.”
Miratova closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, looking for a moment like any number of commonfolk teachers I’d had meetings with. “Okay. Okay. It would be to your benefit, all of you, to keep this to yourselves for now. Rest assured that I will investigate this fully, and that I will take appropriate action.” She put the ring back into its pouch, using the fabric of the pouch itself to avoid touching the metal, then tossed it into a drawer. ‘Thank you for bringing it to my attention, and my apologies to you, Kayden, for giving you something potentially hazardous. I shouldn’t have let the staff out of my sight until I’d analysed it for danger myself. Max, if I might have a private word with you?”
Kylie and I, reluctantly, left. As soon as the door closed behind us, we pressed ourselves to it, straining to hear.
“I understand that you and Simon Madja don’t get along,” Miratova said.
“I wouldn’t say we don’t get along,” Max said. “We don’t really know each other very well.”
“You have been observed fighting in the hallways. And the cafeteria.”
“We disagree on some things. And I find him really annoying. I think the feeling’s mutual.”
“Right. Well, let me give you some advice. Sometimes, when dealing with others – even people we don’t like, or people from families our families don’t like – it’s not a good idea to immediately escalate every conflict in every situation. Learning to simply get along is an important skill; there will be times when you have to cooperate with people you don’t like, and that’s a lot harder if the two of you don’t have some basis of pre-established trust. Not to mention that overplaying your hand in burning a bridge with one person can burn a bridge with a lot of other people, too, because it gives you a reputation. At your age, you shouldn’t be risking anything for a good reputation, because the risk is too high that it’ll give you a bad one. Sometimes, the sensible thing to do is to not play at all. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes, Instruktanto, I do.”
“Good. Now, you’ve made an extremely serious accusation against another student. You’ve presented a lot of evidence that all fits together very neatly, accusing Simon Madja of perhaps one of the stupidest assassination attempts I’ve ever heard of. And the reason I say it’s stupid, Max, is because there is absolutely nothing that Simon could gain from killing me that would be worth even a tenth of the value of that ring. I could be the sworn blood enemy of the entire Madja family out to murder them one by one, and killing me wouldn’t be worth the value of that ring. Yet here I am, with this nice little ring that doesn’t contain an enchantment but that you claim once did, with a lot of notes that could be very easily backdated to build a neat story, and an attempted murder accusation. Which I will be obliged to investigate. I’m going to have to send this ring off for analysis, and when people ask me why, I will have to explain what I was told. I am going to have to explain what Max Acanthos claimed about Simon Madja, and somebody is going to come out of this vindicated and the other person is going to come out of this guilty and with a tarnished reputation. With this in mind, is there anything else you want to say to me before I proceed?”
“You’re certain? You’re sticking to this story? You’re adamant that that ring is the Fiore’s, that it was enchanted, and that you found it embedded in my staff?”
“Yes, Instruktanto. That’s what happened.”
Miratova sighed. “Very well. I’ll make inquiries. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”
Kylie and I managed to pull back in a very-not-suspicious manner before Max exited the office. We waited until we were definitely out of earshot before Kylie exclaimed, “She didn’t believe us? Seriously?”
“It’s a pretty tall claim,” Max said, sounding unsurprised. “‘Oh, this might come out of nowhere, but one of your students is out to kill you; here’s some easily falsifiable evidence that directly incriminates him’. She knows I don’t get along with Simon, and it’s not exactly a secret that I admire her work. It’s not impossible that I might take exception to the Fiore muscling in, and try to solve both of our problems at once.”
“Well, yeah, if you were an idiot!” I said. “And she has to know you’re not an idiot.”
“No, she doesn’t. She barely knows me at all. But we achieved the important goal, which is her investigating the matter. If she takes this at all seriously, that ring will end up in the hands of somebody able to verify its identity. Then we’ll have him.”
“How long will that take?”
Max shrugged. “A month? A few months? I don’t know what the proper channels for this sort of thing are.”
“So we basically have to stop Simon from killing her before then.”
“I suppose so.”
“Great. That’s just fantastic.” I’d thought that if we could just get this information in the right hands, it wouldn’t be our problem any more. It hadn’t occurred to me that we might not be believed. We had the ring! She had the ring!
Ugh, this was frustrating.
“Great,” Kylie mumbled. “Making nice with a murderer for months. Always wanted to do that.”
“Technically, we have no evidence that he intended to kill Instruktanto Miratova,” Max said. “Perhaps he simply wanted to disrupt her experiment.”
“Why? Doesn’t this whole theory rest on the Fiore trying to take Miratova’s job? What other motivation could he possibly have?”
“I don’t know,” Max said. “That’s what worries me. It has to be about the Fiore; he gave Simon the ring. He’s the only possible motivation. But…”
“But Instruktanto Miratova’s right. A teaching position here isn’t worth a tenth of the value of that ring, and that’s not even taking into account the massive risks involved. The Fiore gave him the ring. The Fiore happened to be in the right place at the right time so he’d be the only one able to take over her classes. But…”
“But there has to be another reason,” Kylie finished, “to justify that kind of risk and expense. Some other reason to be on campus, other than just getting the job he wanted.”
Max nodded. “There must be something else here that he needs access to; something far, far more valuable. And I have no idea what it could possibly be.”