Caleb watched Essek hover back and forth like a miniature, panicked storm cloud.
“This is ridiculous! It must be some kind of joke. We haven't had any contact for years, and now he expects me to believe him? What is he playing at?”
“Breathe, Essek. Breathe. You will not solve this mystery by wearing a hole in—above—the carpet.”
“What?” Essek looked down, then stopped floating. “Oh. My apologies. I’m a bit…well, you know.”
“I would be too.” There was urging in Caleb’s voice. “Take a seat, Schatz. Let me see the letter.”
Essek obliged, handing over a crumpled scroll before collapsing heavily into his chair. The fire of a cold late-autumn evening cast their den in gold and orange light.
“Does he explain himself?” Caleb turned the scroll over. “Does he give you a reason why?”
“Has Da’leth ever bothered to?” Essek snorted. “All he wrote was that I—rather, that Thain, had been selected. And I only have two days to respond.”
Caleb waved his hand, and a glowing orb appeared. He brought it closer to the parchment. “May I?”
“To the esteemed Lord Dezran Thain of Nicodranas—good grief. He really isn’t subtle.”
“Tell me about it,” Essek said.
“Perhaps,” Caleb continued, “you are aware of the ongoing investigations into the Cerberus Assembly. If so, then perhaps you have also heard that Archmage Tversky and Archmage Margolin will be leaving our ranks by the end of the week—ah yes, Beau was quite proud of that.”
“She should be,” Essek said miserably. “It’s about time. Read the next part.”
“And so it falls on the surviving members of our organization to fill these vacant roles. We believe, for the safety and stability of our country, that the next Archmages of Conscription and Dysology should come from within the Empire; however, it has been brought to our attention that adding a Nicodranian mage to our ranks could be quite valuable. Such an alliance would strengthen our ties to the Menagerie Coast, as well as assuage any concerns that the Empire is isolationist or inflexible. Therefore, as we have been friends for some time—really?”
Essek made a face. “I would not have called him my ‘friend’ in any form, but we have known each other for a few decades. Unfortunately.”
“Unfortunately,” Caleb commiserated. He smoothed out the letter and found his place again. “—I wished to have the pleasure of informing you that on behalf of the Cerberus Assembly, you, Lord Dezran Thain of Nicodranas, have been extended the honor of replacing Archmage Margolin in his secondary capacity—as the distinguished Headmaster of the Soltryce Academy. Oh, gods.”
Essek groaned. He had his head buried in his hands.
“You Identified this?” Caleb managed eventually.
A half-nod. “I wish I hadn’t.”
He continued to stare at the letter. Da’leth’s fluid, curving script seemed to blur together. “That’s…gods,” he said again.
“I…can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now.”
Essek snorted. “If anyone could, it would be you.” Then something occurred to him. The hearth shone oddly in his eyes. “This was delivered to our home, Caleb. To this house, in Rexxentrum. Yours. That…bastard.”
Caleb was quick to understand. He took a deep breath, then reached over for Essek’s hand.
“Maybe it was just enchanted to find you wherever you are. Like a Sending spell.”
“I’d hate to think otherwise. That would mean—”
Caleb interrupted him out of mercy. “Every inch of our tower is warded from divination. Besides, you’ve adopted an endless array of personas. I don’t even think we’ve been seen together with you as Thain, not since the party years ago.”
“Still.” Essek rubbed his eyes. “The timing makes me think he knows something. That, and the fact that it’s for Thain, I mean—what has Thain accomplished? I don’t even remember telling anyone I was a mage!”
“That, ah…that might have been Jester’s fault. She really enjoyed adding to your personas. You needed a past, after all, otherwise you would have just appeared from nowhere.”
“So she told everyone that Thain was a famous wizard?”
“The best lies are often true,” Caleb shrugged. “Though I admit that she might have gone a little overboard. You know how much she likes to praise her friends.”
It was a testament to Essek’s troubled mood that he barely acknowledged this. Caleb squeezed his fingers. “They said…they did say you could reject them. And their political reasoning is not unsound. Maybe that is all there is to it—the Assembly needs someone to be the Headmaster, and they thought of you.”
Even after so many years of trying, Caleb’s reassuring voice still left some things desired. Essek shut his eyes.
“My love, the very idea that the Cerberus Assembly is even thinking of me is a nightmare.”
“I just want to know why,” Essek muttered. “Why now? Why me? What is he after?”
“I don’t know,” Caleb said. “I wish I did.”
Essek suddenly turned toward him. “I—I hate to ask this, but can you find out? You know…ask our old friend the newest Archmage.”
“Ah.” Caleb’s face gave a complicated shuffle, one common these days when Astrid was mentioned.
“If you don’t want to—” Essek hurried.
“No, no, I can…try.” He scratched his chin. “She’s just been less open, lately. She’s not…pleased by how thorough the Soul is being. Beauregard is relentless.”
“It has been seven years. That’s a lot for your kind, but probably just enough for Da’leth to finally realize they mean business—” Essek blinked. “Do you think that’s why he picked me?”
“We don’t know that he’s behind this,” Caleb said lamely. At Essek’s expression, he relented. “Alright, alright. I’ll stop suggesting otherwise.”
“It’s not unappreciated, I just prefer to be direct. It is clear that Da’leth is trying to use me again. This time, in order to hurt you and the Cobalt Soul. There is no point in believing otherwise.”
Caleb brushed Essek’s face. “No, that would require him to think he could use you in the first place. But that is impossible, because Thain does not know Widogast.”
“He does, though.”
“Yes, but is Da’leth aware of that? He cannot be.”
“I thought we put an end to that.”
“Only to statements of idle hope, not facts.” Caleb was now holding both his hands. “The truth of the matter is that…yes, perhaps the Martinet does want you for some devious plan—”
“—however, any plan he has cannot be based on our connection. We have been doing this…being us, for seven years now, Essek. If he were going to play against that hand, he would have done so already. This must be something else.”
Essek huffed. “What, though? What reason does he have? I haven’t been important to the Kryn for years. I resigned, I’m virtually a stranger there, and I certainly don’t have any more secrets for sale.” He paused. “Well, ones that Ludinus would desire. I’m useless to him.”
“I highly doubt that,” Caleb said. And his voice, while kind, had a faint edge to it. “You are right in that there probably is some motivation here. It might be related to the investigation in other ways—after all, two members of the Assembly are leaving. That makes four upheavals in under a decade. And if the Soul and the crown are both pushing for the appointment of more partial Archmages, then it might very well be the case that Da’leth just wants someone he can control. In your case, through blackmail.”
“Hooray for me.”
“He probably wouldn’t, though,” Caleb said. “Since, as you said, this is a situation of mutually assured destruction.”
Essek grimaced. “I have been somewhat wishful in that department. Even with your support, it is still my word against the Martinet.”
“Our word. That includes the Cobalt Soul.”
Essek shook his head. “You’ve seen how well he’s stood up to them so far. Can you honestly say that my safety is a sure thing? Don’t lie to me, Caleb.”
There was a pause.
“Essek, I will do everything in my power to protect you.”
"I know." He patted Caleb on the hand.
Outside their tower, far away, the evening bells of the Rexxentrum began to ring. One, and then two, and then almost a dozen, loud and bronze across the dimming sky.
“There is one way to find out for sure what Da’leth is planning.”
Essek sighed. “I know. But I don’t like it.”
Caleb leaned back in his seat. “Neither do I.”
The cry of the great bells waned. In their den, all around the wall, points of magelight flared to life—flickering and purple harbingers of night.
“Will you do it?” Caleb said.
“I don’t know if I have a choice.”
“You do,” Caleb said. “The worst-case scenario is that Da’leth tries to talk, and we…deal with that.”
“We’ve been trying to deal with him for years,” Essek said. “And…maybe this is bold of me to say, but the worst-case scenario isn’t that—it’s not knowing. Maybe I can…maybe I can find the answers here. If Da’leth thinks he is controlling me, if he trusts me to do his bidding, maybe I can finally learn something to break his hold.”
“As long as he never truly controls you,” Caleb said. “That is a risk I cannot accept.”
This time, Essek was the one to offer assurance. He gently pressed a kiss to Caleb’s hand.
“You forget,” he said wryly. “I am a powerful wizard. Haven’t you heard my title?”
“Shadowhand?” Caleb said. He did not look fully mollified, but he managed a chuckle. “I thought you were retired.”
Essek smiled. “I was, my love, but now it seems that I have a new role. Starting soon...you will be sharing your home with the next Headmaster of the Soltryce Academy.”