The Conspiracy: Part Six
“What is it?” Lockwood inquired sharply, startled by his sister’s cry.
Cecilia shook her head numbly, staring at the shadowy tendrils that rolled out of his mouth when he spoke. One part of her urged that it was only a nightmare, her own overactive imagination; but another more substantial part of her knew that she saw only what was there.
She shook her head and cleared her vision with an effort, returning to her perfectly handsome brother and his rather irritated expression. Bunny sat innocuously next to him, gazing up at her with round blue eyes.
“It is nothing at all – only – I was startled,” she said hoarsely. “It is just that you look... different.”
“Considering the amount of magic I use on a daily basis, I suppose that can only be natural,” he agreed rather coldly.
“Oh! yes, certainly, nothing could be more... but the time has entirely escaped me, Harlan. It is – quite late. I will not postpone your dinner with my selfishness and I absolutely promised Lady Greenway a walk in the courtyard. I hope you do not mind?”
Lockwood raised an eyebrow, and then he merely shrugged without a great deal of interest. “By all means, do whatever you like. I would not dream of preventing you. Incidentally, if you would be so kind as to tell the servants that I am ready for dinner, I would be very much obliged; that is of course if you are not too thoroughly occupied with Lady Greenway.”
His little addition stung, and Cecilia thought miserably as she quitted the room that he had good reason to be annoyed. Perhaps she should have told him – but an instinctive impulse more powerful than reason had warned against it, and she was not altogether certain, on further reflection, that it would have done more good than harm. No; she decided that the most sensible course of action would be to speak to Lisha about what had happened as soon as was at all possible.
It was most unfortunate that when a shaken, harassed white Ixi arrived at Lisha’s chambers, that sorceress was not available.
“Another,” said Jeran grimly; the explanation was perfectly adequate.
Lisha panted as she struggled to match with her brother’s long strides. “Another ambassador, do you mean? And another Darigan guard?”
“Precisely. And I must say, it isn’t a very difficult pattern to predict these days.”
“What will Skarl do? I can’t imagine that he will just turn them out with no evidence –”
“Lisha, he has evidence,” the long-suffering Jeran replied with a sigh. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but you have to admit that accusing Darigan is only logical. At this point, I simply don’t see an alternative. The King has ordered them out by the end of two days, immediately following the big conference.”
Lisha halted in her tracks, evidently quite unable to believe what she was hearing. “Are you serious?” she cried. “But the peace – the treaty – the meeting with Faerieland and the Lost Desert – everything will be ruined! King Skarl cannot do this! Surely he knows that Lord Darigan would never do something like this to risk it all!”
Jeran shook his head helplessly. “I am not the one you have to convince, Lisha. In any case, he’s only allowing this much time because I proposed that we consult Illusen before doing anything else.”
“Illusen?” said Lisha doubtfully. “Is she absolutely... reliable?”
“Possibly not,” he admitted, “but as far as I can see she’s the best option we have. You’ve told me often enough that faerie magic doesn’t work like your magic or Fox’s or Lockwood’s – perhaps she will be able to tell us something that you haven’t. Saving your presence, of course,” he added with a hollow grin.
“Is there anything I can do?” she asked anxiously. “I would like to be doing something to help, you know.”
“Well, apart from telling me what’s going on here and how to stop it...” Jeran paused to consider. “Let me think. What can you do that nobody else can?”
“I could place spells of protection around the remaining Meridellian ambassadors,” Lisha suggested in a sudden flash of inspiration.
“Lisha!” he exclaimed. “That’s brilliant! We have guards around them, of course, but that doesn’t seem to have helped much – in the last attack the Darigan guard simply shot the ambassador at close range with a crossbow. A magical shield is exactly what we could use. Can you really manage that?”
“Oh, yes,” she assured him. “That is, as long as I can get close enough to the ambassadors to cast the spell.”
“That will be the least of our problems; I’ll have them come to you.”
“That would help,” she agreed. “I have very little experience with protective magic, but of course I can consult Lockwood – whatever he did when that guard tried to kill him certainly seemed to work.”
“Except for the part where he got stabbed,” said Jeran, giving his sister’s ear a teasing tug.
“True,” conceded Lisha. “Nevertheless.”
“Well, I’ll leave you to it then. Do you think you’ll be ready to do it by this evening?”
She replied that she would, and proceeded to her favorite location – the Castle Library.
Massive, ancient books littered the floor, table and chairs; scraps of parchment covered in Lockwood’s lovely looping handwriting served as bookmarks and Bunny was doubling as a paperweight.
Lisha sighed. “How you can always appear so perfect and keep your room so messily is entirely beyond me.”
“I might return the sentiment, reversed; however I imagine that you have something terribly important to interrupt me with. I can tell that I will not be permitted to concentrate for very much longer.”
“Lockwood!” she protested. “The fact that I don’t spend an hour getting dressed every morning does not signify that I look messy!”
“You are right,” he agreed; “that is probably not the reason. In the meantime perhaps you might consider telling me what you came for.”
“Another ambassador was killed, by another Darigan guard, and I need you to help me cast a sort of general protection over...” She broke off to examine the stack of books that she had moved from her chair. “What on Neopia are you doing?”
“Reading; I believe that is what one generally does with books.”
Lisha picked up a heavy tome and set it warily on her lap to flip through its thick yellow pages. “Spirit guides?” she said slowly. “Familiars? Faeries? Lockwood – you aren’t thinking of calling up a spirit guide, are you?”
“An infinitely fascinating proposal. Would it perturb you if I were?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “Yes, it very much would! It is wrong on more levels than I can count!”
“I will hazard a guess that you are referring to the danger.”
“No, although that is considerable. It isn’t – it isn’t fair!”
She was rather relieved, though not entirely appeased, by his laughter; she could not quite believe that he would dabble in anything so completely illicit, and yet at the same time it was difficult to be sure, with Lockwood.
Lockwood, however, appeared entirely amused and not at all discomfited. “I must admit that I have never heard that reasoning before, and I further confess that I would never in a thousand years have considered it myself. I am most excessively intrigued. Pray enlighten me – what exactly about it do you fancy unfair?”
“How can using magic that isn’t your own be anything but unfair?” she returned hotly. “There is no substitute for learning and hard work. It’s cheating.”
“Well! I congratulate you most heartily. That argument is, I believe, an entirely new one; and what is original, you know, must always be estimable. Nothing would please me better than to discuss your opinions all day long, but you still have not shared with me the purpose of your visit.”
Lisha sighed. “Shield spells. We need to put shield spells up around the ambassadors – I haven’t done it since the Darigan Wars, and then I didn’t really know what I was doing. I thought you might be able to help, in part because you used one on the day they tried to assassinate you, and in part because you certainly ought to be helping me. If you feel well enough to read this many books, I am quite sure you feel well enough to do magic.”
“I am not disputing it,” he replied with a touch of irritation. “However, I seriously doubt that my own experience will be of much help. My shield spells to date have all been quite draining and entirely reflexive; I would not have been able to sustain them for any length of time.”
“Yes,” agreed Lisha, “then you’ve been doing...” She produced a large book and it fell open to a page with a great quantity of very small text: in short, the very sort of page calculated to please the sorceress. “A Continuous Shield Spell. The name is a bit misleading; it simply means that you have to maintain it continuously or it will die out, and it takes a significant amount of magical energy.”
“There is, I imagine, another, marvelously efficient method.”
“As a matter of fact, there is. It isn’t nearly so effective as the Continuous Shield Spell against magical attacks, but it ought to be perfectly sufficient for anything physical.”
Lisha simply shut the book and glared at him until he added, “I mean that in the spirit of extreme admiration, of course. What is it that you would like me to help you with?”
“Placing the spells, obviously.”
“Ah yes,” he replied noncommittally, returning to his reading.
“You don’t even care, do you?” she said slowly. “You aren’t really interested at all. People are dying, Lockwood, whether you know them or not. Is it impossible for you to see anything beyond your own nose?”
“I don’t think so. My book is quite definitely beyond my nose.”
Lisha considered flaring up, but in the end she only turned away in disgust. “Never mind about the shield spells; I will do them myself. Clearly you can’t be bothered. I suppose you are only really interested when your own well-being is at stake – and quite truthfully, even then... Well, good afternoon.”
“Why should I be bothered?” he replied coldly.
But she had already left. Lockwood shivered. He felt chilled somehow, beyond the temperature of the room, as though the chill had penetrated his bones and settled in his heart. He reached for a coat with a sigh – and his eyes met the pale, slightly translucent form of the faerie he had summoned before.
“What,” he said flatly, “are you doing here?”
But the icy faerie did not answer. She only held him in her white, endless gaze and smiled her small, enigmatic smile. “Ungrateful of her to say, Mr. Lockwood, when you have done so much for her. What has she ever done for you?”
And even as he opened his mouth to make an indignant retort, he realized that there was truth to this.
To be continued...