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Metamorphosis

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I sigh with distinct content as I set the last of the crystals I’ve been organizing into the shop’s display case, a proud smile on my lips. If I said I hadn’t been cleaning and organizing obsessively throughout the entire day while Asra was preparing for his most recent journey, it’d be a lie. For most of three years we’ve had this routine. He gets ready to leave while I do everything I can to distract myself. At the beginning, I’d cried and begged to join him, terrified of being alone, but that fear has left me now.

The soft clatter of the beads on the curtain separating the back room from the shop announces that Asra is done, but I don’t look up at him, pretending to polish an orb of amethyst for the fifth time. He sighs behind me, and I feel a hand on my shoulder.

“Dauna, I know you don’t want me to leave, but I won’t be gone long. I promise. And besides, you’ll have Faust.”

He hugs me from behind, Faust sliding from his arms to wrap herself around my shoulders. I sigh but can’t help the smile that comes to my face. “I know, Asra. I just…” I cut off and bite my lip, already regretting opening my mouth. Asra doesn’t miss a beat, moving around me so he can meet my eyes.

“What’s bothering you? I can tell something’s wrong.”

I choose to deflect, putting on a forlorn face and looking away. “Well, it’s just that… you promised to bring me a souvenir last time.”

After a moment of silence, Asra’s laughter fills the space between us. I relax, glad that he bought the lie. “Is that really all, Daun? Don’t worry, I’ll definitely bring you something this time.”

He presses a chaste kiss to my forehead, making me roll my eyes. He’s always affectionate just before and after his trips, and I can’t say it’s on my list of Asra’s best qualities. It just feels like he’s trying to get brownie points to excuse his leaving me all by myself.

“Alright, mister magician, you can stop stalling. I’ll be fine, really. What’s the worst that could happen, a murderer falling in through the window?”

Asra raises an eyebrow at me as he places his silly traveling hat on his head. “Where do you get this stuff, honestly? So morbid. Anyway, I’ll see you in a week, at the worst. And I’ll have your souvenir this time, promise.”

I nod and wave, leaning against the counter as he disappears through the door. I wait one minute, then two. After five, I sigh and go back to cleaning. All I can do now is deal with the shop and wait for him to come back. He’s right though, at least I have Faust.

Even with no memory of my life before, I can’t help but feel that this is all a bit off. Asra says it was normal for us. He doesn’t elaborate, most likely afraid I’ll have another spell like every other time I try to remember my life before. I’m thankful he was here when I woke up, but…

A knock startles me from my thoughts. Suddenly, I realize that the sun has gone down outside and that I’ve been so distracted I forgot to close the shop. The knock sounds again, and I momentarily consider ignoring the visitor. My sense of manners gets the best of me, though, and I head to the door, opening both it and my mouth to greet the guest.

The visitor, however, is in no way what I expected. The Countess of Vesuvia, Nadia Satrinava herself, stands at my door, her imperial stare pinning me to the ground and stealing my breath. She quirks an eyebrow, and I quickly clear my throat, a flush of embarrassment spreading across my cheeks.

“M-my Countess! To what do I owe such a visit?” I step aside, ushering her inside. I’m struck with a small sense of relief that I’d cleaned so obsessively today.

The Countess strides into the shop, waving for her guards to stay outside. Once the door is firmly shut, she rounds on me, a calming smile on her lips. I feel the tension in my shoulders easing and find that I’m returning her smile.

“Good evening. I apologize for the late call, but I simply must find the magician Asra. I was told this is his shop, but I don’t believe you are the one I’m looking for.”

Ah, Asra. Ever popular, it seems. “No, madam, I’m not him; I’m simply his apprentice. I’m afraid you’ve just missed him. He left a few hours ago, and will be travelling for quite some time.”

The Countess nods thoughtfully, her fingers hovering above the glass of the display counter. “A shame. You said you’re his apprentice, yes? Surely the apprentice of the best magician in Vesuvia could aid me instead.”

I pause a moment. Yes, Asra has taught me magic. He’s taught me to read the Tarot. I would, however, hardly call myself a suitable replacement for him. Magic doesn’t come to me as easily as Asra would like to think.

As if sensing my doubts, the Countess approaches me, placing her finger beneath my chin and tilting my face up so our eyes meet. “Surely he wouldn’t have you keep the shop alone if he were not confident in your ability. I don’t require anything difficult, merely a reading of the cards.”

I nod, relaxing. Just a reading. That’s simple enough, right? I lead her to the back room, offering her a seat at the table. For a moment, I’m worried because I’ve only ever used Asra’s tarot deck. He would have taken it with him, right? Just as I’m thinking this, I notice the neat stack of cards on the table. He left them behind. For once, I’m glad he’s got a tendency to forget things.

I take my seat, running the cards through my fingers and shuffling them. After a minute or so, I cut the deck and lay out three cards. I’m not expecting to feel anything, but, to my surprise, the center card calls to me. I turn it.

The Magician.

Nadia picks up the card, examining it thoughtfully. “What does he tell you, magician’s apprentice?”

I am silent for a moment, listening for the card. He speaks to me. “You have plans. The time has come to set them into motion.”

The Countess nods thoughtfully, slowly setting the card back into place. She examines me with a bemused glint in her eyes, a smile playing on her lips. “Excellent. I must say, I’m very satisfied. In fact, I may have a job for you. Please, come dine with me at the Palace tomorrow. You’ll be my honored guest.”

I bite my lip. An invitation to the Palace? Asra told me that no one but the staff and highest nobles have been past the gates since the late Count Lucio’s murder three years ago. At the same time, Asra shouldn’t be the only one who gets to have adventures.

My confidence growing, I nod, smiling softly. “It would be my honor, Countess.”

She chuckles and stands, heading for the door. Just before she leaves, she looks back at me. “Ah, it seems I’ve allowed my manners to slip. What is your name, magician’s apprentice?”

I bow deeply. “Dauna, milady. Dauna Plessus.”

She laughs again, amused, it seems, by my manners. “Well, Miss Dauna Plessus, I eagerly await our meeting tomorrow.”

With that, she’s gone, the door shutting firmly behind her. I quickly close the shop once she’s gone, only pausing once I’m sure there will be no more visitors. I take Faust into my hands, a mischievous smile on my lips.

“Well, looks like Asra’s not going to be the only one with a story to tell when he gets home, hm?”

Faust begins to respond, but a loud thud in the back room overwhelms her. She slithers up my arm and back onto my shoulder as I hurry to see what the commotion is. On the floor beneath the now open window lays a man clad in black, a plague doctor’s mask covering his features. I gulp as he slowly stands, not having seemed to notice me yet.

The stranger takes his mask off, and I take a step back. I know I joked about murderers falling through the window earlier, but I didn’t expect Doctor Julian Devorak himself, the very man who confessed to murdering the late Count Lucio, to tumble into the shop. He runs a hand through his hair, fluffing it out, and stretches before calling out as he turns towards me.

“Ooooh As raaa- oh, who are you? You’re definitely not Asra.” His eye falls on me, and I gulp again, frozen in place. I ignore the slight feeling of familiarity as the doctor looks at me appraisingly.

“I’m… no, I’m not him. I’m his apprentice. He’s not in Vesuvia at the moment.” I try to stay as calm as I can in the presence of a confessed killer. The longer I’m in front of him, though, the less certain I am that he could kill someone. I mean, he probably could. I could if I really tried, but this Julian Devorak in front of me seems… unable, in the simplest term.

The doctor pouts and kicks the floor a bit. “Oh that just figures. I come back to town and he’s run off.” His eyes land on the Tarot deck still sitting on the table. “Oh, I remember these cards. Surprised he left them here, honestly.” Julian casts me a sidelong glance. “He must really trust you if he left his cards with you.”

I start to answer, but Julian cuts me off. “Not that all this magic mumbo jumbo is real or anything. It’s all highly suspect, in my opinion.”

Huh. Funny, I said something similar when Asra first started teaching me magic. I decide to take a page from his book. “Why don’t I do a reading for you? You can decide whether it’s mumbo jumbo based on your reading.”

The Doctor looks at me with a playful smirk. “Oh, you sound just like him, don’t you. Always tricking me into his little spells. Fine, what can your cards tell me?”

I sit and start to shuffle the cards, nodding to the seat across from me. He sits, long legs barely fitting under the table. After I shuffle, I cut the deck again and lay out three cards. Again, I feel a supernatural call, this time to the leftmost card. I turn it over.

Death.

Without waiting for me to speak, Julian leans forward and laughs, picking up the card. “Death? Of all cards? Isn’t that hilarious. Death cast her gaze upon this wretch and turned away.” I try to explain that it doesn’t mean literal death, but he stands and heads back to the window. “I’ve seen enough. Tell Asra when he gets back that I’m back in town, if he cares.”

With that, he’s gone, out the window and into the shadows. I close the window, staring at it for a few moments before sighing, shaking my head, and heading up to bed with Faust.

-

The next day, I close the shop early. I dress in my best, even if my best isn't quite Palace worthy, make sure Faust is snug in my shawl, and grab Asra's Tarot Deck, just in case, before heading out into town. I weave through the familiar streets, waving at the townsfolk I've met through Asra and the shop. Faust trills her own cute greetings, her head poking out of the fabric of my clothes. We stop in the market, talking with the baker and buying pumpkin bread to eat on our walk.

We round a corner, intent on heading to the stairs that lead to the Heart District, but come up short when we run directly into a young woman carrying a basket of pomegranates. I quickly grab her hand to keep us from falling, but a few of the fruits tumble to the ground. I pick them up as the girl checks her basket, smiling apologetically.

"Sorry about that, I was distracted. Are you alright?"

She accepts the fruit with a grin, shaking her head. "Oh, don't worry about me, I'm right as rain! Takes more'n a bump to rattle me around." She gives me a hard once over before grinning. "Say, aren't you Dauna Plessus? You're supposed to be milady's guest of honor tonight! Let me walk you to the Palace, I know all the shortcuts."

I raise an eyebrow. Has word really traveled that fast? I'm not one to turn down a faster route, though, so I accept her invitation.

Along the way I discover that Portia, as the girl is named, is the closest thing to a personal handmaiden the Countess has, and I note the pride and spring in her step as she says it. What a cute crush. I also learn that apparently whatever plans the Countess has for me involve me staying in a guest room tonight. Asra is sure to get a thrill out of this story when he gets home.

We scurry through the gates, large and looming and beautiful. Asra brought me to see them once, not long after I first awoke. Something felt familiar, then, and I can't shake that same feeling now. In the back of my mind, I hope that I will find clues to my past through this foray.

Portia leads me to a lovely room, advising me that an outfit has been laid out for my use during my stay here, and that a servant will escort me to dinner. I thank her, looking around at the magnificent room as the door clicks shut. I'm sure that the shop could fit into this bedroom alone, and it’s only for guest use. I can't begin to imagine what the rest of the rooms are like.

I shake myself out of my wonder, stepping over to the bed where the clothes I've been provided are laid out. The cloth is soft and feels like air between my fingertips, the color a golden amber. I can't help but wonder if Nadia picked it herself, seeing as it's nearly the same color as my eyes. I disrobe quickly, letting Faust slither down my arm. She hides in my clothes, her head poked out as she watches me change. I give her a little kiss on the head as I finish the final clasp, stepping towards the floor length mirror to examine myself. I'm not familiar with the cut of clothing, but I must say that I do like the high neckline and empire waist. Oh, and pockets too! Maybe I could make something similar for myself if Asra and I ever have something fancy to attend.

A soft knock alerts me to my escort's arrival, and I smile at Faust. "Would you like to come with me, or do you want to explore?" She repeats my last word and I giggle, opening the window for her to slip out. "Stay out of trouble, sweetheart. Asra would have my head if you got hurt." She flicks her tongue at me, darting outside.

The dining hall I'm led to is beautiful, a scene I really thought I would never see. The Countess waits patiently at the end of a long table set only for two but decorated nonetheless with golden candlesticks and fresh flowers. I make my way to the setting placed beside her, bowing nervously. Seeing her in my shop was one thing; I'm in her element now. She motions for me to sit, and I follow her command, watching her do the same.

"I'm glad you could attend, Miss Dauna. It's a pleasure to have you at my table."

Our conversation is relatively, shall I say, strained through the course of the meal. Not that the Countess isn’t a wonderful conversationalist, because she very well is. I can feel, however, a sense of something great looming over her. She’s holding back from the real reason she brought me here.

As the final course draws to a close, Portia steps forward with a bottle of something wrapped in shimmery foil. The Countess praises her for her choice as we’re both poured a glass. I think I hear a hint of adoration in her voice, and I quickly hide the little smile it brings to my lips by taking a sip of the drink I’m offered.

After a short silence, interrupted only by the sounds of the servants moving back and forth, the Countess sets her glass down, fixing me with a look that radiates confidence. “I’m sure you’re wondering, Dauna, why I’ve called you here today.”

I give her a smile that I hope is serene. “Is it not because you enjoyed my company, madam?”

The Countess’s laughter rewards my remark, and I can’t help the grin that lights up my face. The servants, too, seem amused by my teasing, and Portia has to cover her mouth to hold back her giggles. Once she’s calmed down from the outburst, the Countess wipes a small tear from her eye, shaking her head with a smile.

“Well, as true as that may seem to be, I’m afraid I’ve called you here for a more serious matter.” He gaze trails away to a painting on the wall. I had noticed the piece when I came in, but I only just now realize the subject matter. A host of animal headed figures gather around a goat headed man in the center, who lays before them an assortment of food. “My husband had this painting commissioned. A testament to his provision for the people of Vesuvia, who lapped up what they were given from the very palm of his hand. In his mind, no gift he gave was greater than the Masquerade, held to celebrate his birthday each year. Do you remember the last one, Dauna?”

I’m spared having to answer as she continues to speak. “It was tragic. Imagine the outrage when the people of Vesuvia learned their opulent Count had been burned to death in his own bed, on the very day of his birth. Such a scar has tainted the memory of the Masquerade.” Her lips turn back up from the somber look they’d held into a smile. “Which is exactly why I intend to revive the Masquerade this year.”

The servants whisper excitedly, and even Portia seems surprised. Once all the commotion quiets back down, Nadia fixes me with her imperial gaze. “Which is where you come in, magician’s apprentice. There is one small issue that must be dealt with before Vesuvia can rest easy over the murder of my husband. The culprit needs to be caught, and I believe you are just the girl for the job.”

I gulp, taken aback by the confidence in her tone. “You… Want me to find Doctor Devorak? And what will happen if I do?” My mind replays the scene from last night, of the doctor staring me down in my own home and my initial belief that he was not the sort to commit murder.

The Countess sits back in her chair. “Well, the laws of Vesuvia state that the punishment for such a crime is to be execution-”

No sooner than the word leaves her mouth, there is a crash of breaking glass. We both turn to look at Portia, who is no longer holding the bottle she had poured our drinks from. Instead, it lays broken at her feet, her face awash with shock and horror. She quickly sputters an apology, citing slick hands as the reason for her clumsiness before hurrying to clean up the mess with the help of the other servants.

Nadia settles back into her seat, but I note the worry on her face. “As I was saying, the laws state that he is to be executed, but I have been working on a small judicial reform for the city of Vesuvia. So, while I wish for you to find him, I also wish for you to prove without a shadow of a doubt whether or not Doctor Devorak truly committed the crime. There was no formal investigation conducted when the murder occurred, so you won’t have that to go from.”

She fixes me with her smile again. “Of course, I don’t expect you to decide right away. Please, take the night to think about your decision. You’re free to roam the Palace during your stay.”

I nod, giving her the best smile I can as I thank her. This is so overwhelming. I know I wanted an adventure, but this might prove to be a little too much. If Asra were here, he could take some of the burden, but I’ll be set in my decision by the time he returns.

Nadia takes her leave, and another servant leads me back to my room. I’m glad, as I probably would have gotten lost if I’d tried to find my own way back. Faust is already curled up on the bed, but my clothes have been suspiciously replaced with a bundle of white linen and a note informing me that my belongings are being laundered. I sigh, slipping out of the amber gown and laying it over the back of a chair before changing into the linen nightgown. Thankfully, I notice that Asra’s Tarot deck and the other contents of my pockets have been placed on the dressing table.

Satisfied with the location of my possessions, I slip into bed, letting Faust slither into my nightgown for warmth. I stroke her head, looking up at the ceiling. “What do you think Asra will say, sweetie? ‘Oh, hey, I stayed the night at the Palace and got asked by the Countess herself to investigate the most infamous murder of Vesuvia! By the way, did you bring that souvenir?’”

Faust’s tongue flicks my cheek as she replies. “Heart attack!”

I laugh, booping her on the nose. “He probably would have a heart attack, huh? I bet we’re having a lot more fun than he is.”

With that, the two of us relax, drifting slowly off to sleep in the calm of the Palace.

-

I’m awoken by golden light spilling across my face, a cheery hum accompanying it. As I sit up, I take a moment to try and remember where I am. Asra left two days, and yesterday… Right, the Palace! I open my eyes, looking for the source of the humming. Portia is brushing out the dress I wore yesterday, a bright smile on her face. On the nightstand, beside the Tarot deck and my other possessions, sits a tray of little breakfast pastries.

“Mornin’, Miss! Milady said that, if you’ve decided to accept the investigation, she has something to show you that should help with. If not, I brought you breakfast, and you’re free to go .” I notice the way she averts her eyes when she mentions the investigation. I’ll have to remember to ask her about it later. “And, if you stay, she wants you to meet the inner circle of the court. They’re all really excited to meet you!”

I raise an eyebrow as I eat one of the pastries from the tray. The members of the court? I don’t know anything about courtly affairs. Seeming to sense my unease, Portia smiles reassuringly at me. “Oh, don’t worry. Milady won’t let them bite. They’re harmless, really. Just eager.”

As I finish breakfast, Portia lists off each of the courtiers’ names and positions, as well as a short summary of their duties. Consul Valerius is the most important, he is practically second in command to Countess Nadia herself and is the one she most lends her ear towards. Praetor Vlastomil handles legal affairs, acting as a sort of judge. Procurator Volta is in charge of food distribution, and Pontifex Vulgora seems to preside over matters involving Vesuvia’s military.

The final courtier gives me pause. Quaestor Valdemar, whose expertise lies in the medical field. Something in the back of my mind begs that I press for more, telltale signs of a headache coming as I dwell on the thought. Could they have something to do with my past?

Portia claps, pulling me out of my thoughts. She announces that she’ll leave me to change before heading out to wait in the hall. I take a deep breath, looking around for Faust. She’s nowhere to be found, but I trust that she won’t get into too much trouble. I slip back into the dress I was given. As I check my appearance in the mirror, I absently wish I hadn’t had Asra cut my hair so I could make it look a bit more presentable.

Portia and I don’t talk much on our way to meet Countess Nadia, but the silent isn’t awkward. It’s nice and reminds me of slow days at the shop with Asra, though Portia radiates a good deal more mischief than Asra ever has. She keeps sending me little glances that I can place on the spectrum between worry and hope.

Finally, we stop before an opulent panel in the wall depicting a beautiful tree. Its roots curl into the floor, and beautiful gems are set into the panel. Portia jingles a set of keys before fitting each one into its matching lock. “Milady had this door installed. Isn’t it something?”

I nod, watching the roots of the tree uncurl as the panel is unlocked. Finally, it slips open to reveal a beautiful library. I revel in the scent of literature, rich with age. This is the biggest collection I’ve ever seen. The Countess, seated at a table within the room, chuckles as she watches me take in the scene. “Do you read, Dauna?”

I nod, blushing a bit. Asra says it’s a good hobby, reading, that the way I engross myself in whatever I’m reading to the detriment of my awareness is endearing, but I’m sure such a thing wouldn’t be looked well upon at the moment. “I do, madam. You could say it’s a passion of mine.”

She hums thoughtfully. “You are my guest. Should you wish to return for leisure, no one will hinder you. But today, I’ve brought you here to show you something that I hope will be illuminating to your investigation.” Nadia ushers me towards a secluded corner of the library, lit by a beam of sunlight from a tall window. There sits a small desk, overflowing in a meticulous manner with manuscripts, papers, and journals. “The Doctor’s desk, where he spent a majority of his time while here researching the Red Plague.”

I step forward, running my fingers over a leather tome. This could prove useful, indeed. One of these journals may very well detail Julian Devorak’s innocence or guilt. The Countess watches me closely as I make my cursory examination, leaving me to my work after the first few minutes. I sit at the desk, starting through the many journals kept here.

I’ve only made it halfway through the first when Portia comes to bring me lunch; Doctor Devorak’s hand writing is anything but legible. I thank her, and she gives me a smile, peering over my shoulder.

“Are those even words?”

I laugh a bit, shaking my head. “Some of them, I think. Most of it is just scribbles. I wonder if Doctor Devorak could even read his own handwriting.”

She giggles a bit, casting one last long look at the journal before leaning against a nearby shelf. “Do you mind if I wait with you? I’ll need to escort you to see the courtiers, after all.”

I set the journal down, turning to the tray she brought me. “I’d like that. I think if I read another line of that journal right now, I’ll go insane.” Not only that, but this is the perfect opportunity to ask her about her reactions to the investigation.

I let silence hang between us as I take a few bites of my food, watching her eyes flicker from the books on the shelves to the desk and then back. I take a drink of tea before speaking. “Did you know Doctor Devorak, Portia?”

She chokes, sputtering a bit at the suddenness of my question. Her cheeks flare as she tries to stammer a negative, but I raise an eyebrow skeptically. She sighs softly, nodding. “Yes… He’s… Dauna, he’s my brother. I came to Vesuvia to find him, but he’s so good at hiding… I know he didn’t kill Lucio; he couldn’t kill a fly! You have to believe me.”

She looks at me with wide, teary eyes. I give her the best smile I can, reaching over and taking her hand. “You heard the Countess, Portia. My job is to find the truth, and that’s what I’m going to do. I promise, if he’s innocent, I will prove it.”

We share a smile before she springs forward, wrapping her arms around me. “Thank you! Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you! I promise I’ll help in any way I can!”

I smile, patting her back and thanking her. We chat happily as I eat lunch, the weight of Portia’s secret no longer hanging over us. Once I’m done, Portia passes my tray off to another servant and begins walking me down the winding halls to where I’ll be meeting the courtiers. I must look nervous, because she squeezes my arm encouragingly.

The room she leads me into is lovely, furnished as lavishly as I had expected. The group inside pauses in their merriment. I cast my gaze around as Portia introduces me, catching Nadia’s eyes as she pauses playing the lovely organ by the window before glancing to the courtiers. Thanks to Portia’s brief rundown earlier, I can piece together who is who. Valerius glares at me over his wine glass while Vlastomil, Volta, and Vulgora all eagerly invite me to sit with them.

As I step forward and open my mouth to greet the group, my eyes meet with those of the final courtier. As soon as I make eye contact with Quaestor Valdemar, I know that something is wrong’ my head sears with pain and my vision whites out. I think I’ve fallen to my knees, but I can’t feel anything but the pain. I hear voices, but they’re distant, as though I’m trapped underwater.

In the midst of the pain, I feel a pair of hands grip my arms and haul me up and into a sitting position. The hands tug at my wrists, bringing them above my head, and I feel a different set of hands take hold to keep them in place. A voice breaks through the white-hot fog roiling in my mind.

“Miss Plessus, I need you to take deep breaths. Open your mouth plea- no, Praetor, she is not dying. Now, miss plea- Procurator, she is not suffering from hunger. Now, plea- Pontifex, don’t start. Now, mouth open, deep breaths, and- Consul, if you do not let me treat my patient you are the one who is going to need a physician.”

It doesn’t take as long as usual for the waves of pain to subside. When my vision clears, the first thing I see is the Quaestor kneeling before me, examining me closely. They nod and instruct whoever is holding my arms to let go before reaching forward and taking my chin, turning my head left and right. The leather of their gloves creaks as they check my pulse, and I can’t help but blush when they press an ear to my chest to listen to my breathing.

Satisfied by what they hear, the Quaestor pulls away, sitting nonchalantly on the low table in front of me. The other courtiers, I notice, have left, and only the Countess, the Quaestor, Portia, and I remain. Tense silence hangs in the air, the only calm person in the room seeming to be Quaestor Valdemar. Finally, they break the silence.

“How long have you known about this condition of yours?”

“For as long as I can remember…”

“And how long is that?”

“Just under three years.”

Their eyebrows raise, and I see Portia and Nadia exchange a look. The Quaestor produces a small notepad and pencil from their apron pocket and begins jotting something down. “And what seems to be the triggering instance for these spells?”

“Whenever something happens that should make me remember something from before three years ago.”

They nod, writing another line and tapping the pencil thoughtfully against their mask. “Have you sought medical assistance in these instances?”

I nod. “Asra, my master, his magic can ease the pain, and I’ve taken some medications before. But I never know when it will happen, so preventative measures haven’t been successful.”

They nod again, writing on the paper again. “An interesting case. If you think of any other bits of information regarding your condition, or if any of these symptoms manifest again, do let me know. I’d like to keep an eye on this anomaly of yours.”

With that, the Quaestor stands and leaves, not even bothering with a farewell to the Countess. Silence hangs over us before Portia quickly drops onto the couch beside me, her eyes wide.

“That was terrifying, Dauna! Are you sure you’re okay? I had to hold your hands up because you were trying to tear your hair out!”

I smile apologetically. “I’m fine, Portia. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. And, milady,” I turn to Nadia. “I promise this won’t hinder the investigation you’ve tasked me with. I can work around it, especially once Asra returns.”

She nods, moving over to sit on my other side. “I believe you, Dauna. But please, do not feel like you must push yourself. You are my guest first and foremost.” She smiles and sets a hand on my back. “And please, call me Nadia.”

Before I can reply, there is a knock on the door. The Countess - no, Nadia - calls for the newcomer to enter. A befeathered and quite high-strung servant enters, clearing his throat. “Milady, there is a gentleman, a magician, who wishes to see your guest, Miss Dauna.”

Nadia raises an eyebrow and glances at me before asking that he be show in. Just a minute later, Asra enters the room, a furrow in his brow that eases when he sets eyes on me. I give him a small smile, just as surprised as Nadia is at his arrival.

It seems I’ll get to share my adventure with him sooner than I anticipated.