The Conspiracy: Part One
Some years ago, immediately following the second Darigan war, there was an abundance of uncertainty and hostility concerning the matter of dividing the territory between Meridell and the Citadel. Naturally, each side wanted a good deal more than the other was willing to give; and it ended more fortunately than such disagreements often do, for King Skarl and Lord Darigan agreed to postpone the division until such time as the land could be fairly reevaluated – not to mention such time as tempers in each party might have the chance to cool.
In accordance with that previous arrangement, Lord Darigan was now established in Meridell Castle with several of his most eminent ambassadors and aides; and while, happily, nothing had yet occurred to transform the universal tension into turmoil, the general opinion was that it was only a matter of time.
Additionally, both Meridell and the Citadel were scheduled to attend a conference with Faerieland and the Lost Desert in the near future; and so it was absolutely vital that the two parties should reach some measure of understanding.
In such overwrought times it took a mind of singular capabilities to remain unagitated. Among those directly dealing with the Darigans, there was perhaps only one with such infinite ability for relaxation, and at the moment he was taking the pleasure of greeting Lord Darigan personally and as a friend.
Mr. Lockwood was one of Meridell’s sorcerers, though a relatively new one, having been brought to the castle for instruction under the famous sorceress Lisha not twelve months earlier. He was a pleasing and a fortunate young gentleman in the usual sense of the term: he had dozens of friends who adored him, several especially intimate friends who genuinely cared whether he lived or died, a great deal more money than he could ever want, and an uncommonly handsome countenance. As for such unhappy things as faults, he was entirely free of them – unless the beholder were so severe as to rate a certain coldness and selfishness of temperament, and a rather ugly scar along the side of his face, as faults.
In one area he considered himself particularly fortunate and that was his acquaintance with Lord Darigan. On more than one occasion Lord Darigan had shown Mr. Lockwood unbounded kindness, as well as providing an invaluable resource in his vast stores of magical knowledge and his almost unnatural quantities of patience. Lockwood was, therefore, in very good humor to meet him again.
He found Lord Darigan at his desk, barely visible behind precarious stacks of scrolls and papers, looking extremely busy and quite anxious. It appeared, however, that Darigan was very glad to see him. “Mr. Lockwood!” he exclaimed. “I admit I was hoping that you might stop by. I trust you have been keeping well? – keeping well, that is, since you and Lisha were held captive?”
“Oh yes! excessively well since then. You will forgive me for failing to return the question; I can see there is no need. You are certainly as charmingly relaxed as I have ever seen you.”
Darigan smiled grimly and shifted the position of several mountainous stacks so as to be able to see his visitor. Many would have reckoned it a sight well worth seeing: Lockwood was a remarkably handsome shadow Gelert, exquisitely dressed in black suit and white silk cravat, and really quite unexceptionable in appearance excluding the aforementioned rather ugly scar. It is probable, however, that among all his charms what Darigan valued most in him was the air of intelligent, ironic humor, which saved him from the arrogance and insipidity to which he might otherwise have succumbed.
“I hope you will forgive me for being a little preoccupied – we have been looking for anything and everything likely to support our claim for more land, and it is very tedious work. However, I am really rather in need of a short break; intelligent conversation will be a welcome change.” The corner of his mouth twitched upward. “And as I am a little pressed for time, I must ask you to forgive me once again, for being very forthright and coming straight to the point.”
Lockwood arched an eyebrow, but seated himself comfortably and replied, “It is already strange enough talking to you when I am not in a situation of crisis – I do not think anything will surprise me more than that. Although perhaps if we are very lucky some crisis or other will arise.”
Darigan shuddered. “Don’t jinx it. Well – in any case – what I really want to do is warn you.”
“Warn me?” asked Lockwood in astonishment.
“Yes. Nothing specific, you understand, and I would not mention it if I were not fully convinced that you will use it to your advantage, and understand that I do not mean to slight you in any way. But have you not noticed by now that your magic has some rather self-destructive tendencies?”
Lockwood considered his magical career and was temporarily silenced. He could not, at the moment, recollect one major spell that had gone entirely as it had been intended; but he could recall several that had been directly harmful to both himself and others around him.
“I am truly sorry to bring it up,” said Darigan, sincerely apologetic, “but I think you should be aware of it. Perhaps the most peculiar thing of all is the ease with which you seem able to create magical artifacts.”
Magical artifacts, as Lockwood had learned at his expense, were pieces of magic invested with an irreplaceable piece of the casting sorcerer; to his knowledge, however, he had only ever created one. “Artifacts, in plural?”
“Yes – I know it seems odd, but those spells you were forced to cast on Meridell Castle were certainly magical artifacts as well. Not in the traditional sense, of course; nevertheless they would have persisted after your death, and they were created with magic you might easily never have regained.”
“How lovely,” muttered Lockwood under his breath.
“And so I, well,” continued Darigan, looking almost slightly sheepish, “I simply wanted to warn you to be very careful what spells you cast. If you ever have any doubts, incidentally, you might consider consulting Lisha. She is quite a genius of magical theory.”
“Very well,” agreed Lockwood, with the shadow of a smile. “I will attempt to reconcile myself to the idea that I may not always be perfection itself; and I will even go so far as to take what might be termed criticism, without resorting to petty defensiveness.”
“I hoped you would not take it amiss. I should not have mentioned it at all, really, except that my conscience pricks me – it is only that you remind me somewhat of a person I used to know...”
“Vira?” suggested Lockwood with interest.
Darigan could not help being momentarily amused, but his answer was very serious. “No, no – it does not matter. Nobody that you know. In any case, I am really quite curious as to why your magic appears so eager to leave you; or perhaps I should not be personifying it in that way. But by all accounts I have ever heard, creating a magical artifact is immensely difficult and generally causes a great deal of mental anguish in the maker.”
“I cannot imagine why I find it so simple. It is most inconvenient.”
“Inconvenient, or worse. I am not sure how you may capitalize on it, but I do know that others can – and will, given half a chance, as did our friends Sly, Tricks and Duplicity. If you will allow me to give you a piece of advice, I think it would be prudent to publicize it as little as possible.”
“If I disagreed with your advice, I cannot pretend that I would follow it,” Lockwood replied with an arch smile. “However I think you are right.”
“Well,” said Darigan with a sigh, “every sorcerer has his own magic, I suppose. I am sure you will discover more about it in time.”
The conversation turned to the several varieties of spells, and they continued for some time until Darigan ruefully decided that he had to return to his work.
“I simply cannot understand why it is so impossibly difficult for Meridell and Darigan to settle this silly dispute,” Lisha proclaimed irritably, sifting for the fourth time through an excessively large stack of papers.
Jeran sighed and seated himself by the window. They were in Lisha’s study, a pleasant room with a faint pervading air of magic that Jeran – no sorcerer himself, but quite accustomed to the art – could just barely sense. “I know it seems ridiculous, but it’s impossible to reach an agreement on both sides. You must remember the war, after all – though it does seem rather hard on you to have to do the paperwork.”
“Lockwood,” she replied acidly, “is supposed to be helping. What an idea! – catch Lockwood doing anything he doesn’t feel like doing! In the meantime, naturally, I have to make a convincing case that Meridell should own the land directly under the Citadel – which, frankly, is outrageous.”
“Well,” said Jeran cautiously, “it was ours to begin with, you know...”
He was spared from the further vexation of his sister by the convenient entrance of Lockwood at that very moment, as Lisha evidently considered it more practical to vent her displeasure at the sorcerer than at the knight. “I suppose it would be absolutely unreasonable to ask where you have been all day!” she exclaimed as he sat down.
“Certainly,” Lockwood agreed rather lazily, opening an ancient blue-covered tome. “I would not dream of answering such a question. If, however, I were inclined to do so, I would most likely explain that I have been investigating.”
“Investigating what?” asked Lisha, interested in spite of herself.
“I did not think that you wished to know.”
“Lockwood!” she snapped. “If you believe for one instant that –”
“I have, however, no objection to answering,” he continued, “if you do not consider the question too unreasonable. I would not offend you upon any account. I have been investigating the science – or should I perhaps say, the magic – of eliminating a spell’s traces.”
“Do you even know how to detect a spell’s traces?” scoffed Lisha, who barely knew herself.
“No,” admitted Lockwood, unperturbed. “Not really; but the art of concealing them must necessarily be more interesting, as it is less generally known.”
“Less generally known! Not known at all, you mean.” Lisha could not affect disinterest, given her propensity to be fascinated by all things magical; but she felt herself quite justified in wishing that Lockwood had found a more appropriate time for his studies. In fact she could not help suspecting that he had waited until now on purpose to excuse himself from the work they were supposed to be doing.
Jeran yawned, stood, and (perhaps foreseeing conflict in the very near future) proposed a short walk in the shrubbery, to which Lisha agreed after some coaxing.
“Do you suppose you could possibly exert yourself to join us, Lockwood?” she inquired sarcastically.
Lockwood replied that he supposed he might contrive to do so, and the little group removed to the gardens. It was an uncommonly lovely day, even by Meridell’s standards (and readers must surely agree that there is no place in Neopia more generally lovely than Meridell, which is perfection itself in all ways). The atmosphere of the castle was, however, oddly subdued. This was a consequence of both prejudice and genuine fear: Meridell’s noblemen were eager to display their disdain and hostility toward the Darigan visitors, and for the most part actually wished to avoid any direct confrontation. Lord Darigan’s guards and advisors were sufficiently prudent to refrain from exposing themselves, save one or two sentinels posted at the doors for the sake of formality.
Therefore it was remarkably empty and quite pleasantly deserted. “Do you know,” remarked Jeran with a grin, “I almost wish the Darigans would come to stay more often.”
“Perhaps; but I have an odd feeling,” said Lisha unexpectedly.
“How poetical!” exclaimed Lockwood. “I am sure we would be most obliged if you would elaborate on the nature of this feeling. Is it a portent of some sort?”
The yellow Aisha glared at him. “No, it is –”
What precisely it was, however, Lockwood never knew; for at that moment a Kougra in Darigan armor walked straight toward him and quite calmly – before anybody had a chance to remark – drew out a dagger and raised it to attack.
To be continued...