The last drops of the recent downpour spattered across the steaming pavement, but the humidity left Matthew as damp underneath his jacket as he was outside of it. Food smells wafted from the undercover market to his right, mixing with the earthy scent left from the rain.
He was early. The trains had run well for once and, given that he had allowed extra time for the journey, it was a good half hour before he was due to meet Oliver. At least it would give him time to settle down at the rendezvous and dry off.
A shout from an overzealous market seller boomed over the roar of cars and chattering shoppers, and he jolted in alarm. Being in the capital always put him on edge.
Sweeping a lock of soaked, black hair from his eyes, Matthew looked around for the name of the road. A drip of water snuck under the collar of his jacket, running a chill line down his back as he saw the sign carved into the stonework above. Practically a historic artefact itself nowadays. The familiar stab of sorrow followed as he noted the faded royal coat of arms inscribed next to the street name. It was a wonder Morgan Heliodor hadn’t had them all destroyed.
The well maintained words, at least, told him he was in the right place.
A few shops down, the tea room looked bright and inviting against the overcast afternoon sky. Matthew pushed the door open and bundled himself inside. It was occupied, but mercifully not busy; a couple of people in business dress were dotted around the single tables, and a group of women with prams had taken over a corner, too distracted by a fidgety baby to notice his entrance.
He headed towards one of the rear corner tables, ducking under the low beams, as he passed. A man was already sat there, his well-cut suit jacket open over an emerald green waistcoat. Sandy brown hair fell towards golden eyes that lit up with a smile as they met Mathew’s.
“You’re early.” Oliver rested his half empty teacup back on its saucer, the movement showing a flash of gold cufflink.
“Not early enough apparently.” Matthew shook his head in mock disbelief, then dragged a chair around the table so its back was against the wall. His wet jacket began to trickle a puddle onto the floor as he peeled it off, and Oliver frowned.
“Dare I ask why you didn’t use a shield?”
“Didn’t seem like anyone else was doing it. I don’t want to draw attention.”
“Well, I’m not sure that looking like a drowned rat is more subtle.”
Matthew laughed and sat down, sodden jeans still dripping. Then, drawing on a small amount of his magic, he heated the water in his clothes and hair until it puffed away in a light cloud of steam. “Better?” It definitely felt better. “How long have you been here, anyway? I thought I might have beaten you for once.”
“Not long,” Oliver replied, taking another sip of his tea. “I decided I may as well take a half day; I could certainly use one.” He gave a heavy sigh and Matthew noticed dark circles beneath his eyes that even the youthful appearance gifted to those with high magic ability couldn’t hide.
“What, did Morgan change the tax code or something?” Even in jest, the name burned as he said it. He continued in a gentler tone, “You look knackered.”
“Thanks,” Oliver replied. Then with a dismissive shake of his head he seemed to appear brighter. “It’s nothing to worry about. Just unusually busy for this time of year. Actually, that’s probably not a bad thing…” He trailed off, a sombre silence falling over them both.
The sound of Oliver tapping the table snapped Matthew out of his reflection. “Before I forget! This is for Alex.” He pulled out a brown paper bag containing a wrapped parcel. “Please tell him how sorry I am that I can’t deliver it in person. I don’t suppose he’s heard back from the university yet?” Oliver passed the bag over to Matthew, who tucked it away by his seat.
“I imagine he will tell me when I’m down.” He gave Oliver a sideways glance. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten what you did.”
“I just offered him a place to stay for the interview. How was I to know he hadn’t involved you?” Oliver’s reply was cool, but Matthew could see a tinge of pink around his ears.
“Oh come on. When do you not know what’s going on in my life?” Matthew ran a frustrated hand through his hair, but there was no anger in his comment. “I thought I was supposed to be your boss.”
“In that case, I thought you are supposed to listen to my advice. He doesn’t understand, and I don’t blame him. Alex thinks that he isn’t good enough.”
“Not good enough?” Matthew paused in confusion. “How? You’ve seen the things he’s made, the spells he’s done. He’s better than I was at his age.”
“I have seen them,” Oliver nodded from behind his cup. “And that’s why he can’t understand why his own father wants him to stay wasting away in Couden Cross.”
“He said that?” Matthew’s gaze fell to the wooden table, and he found himself tracing the scuff marks with his finger. “That’s not what I want. It’s just more important that he’s safe. He can be successful and still have a quiet life.”
“He’d be safer if you told him the truth.”
The clink of the empty teacup snapped Matthew’s eyes back up. “I’m not telling him. Not until he’s older. We’ve been through this.” There was an ache in his jaw as he clenched it.
“He’s going to be eighteen. He’s older than you were when it happened.”
“Yeah, and he deserves more time than we got.”
Matthew sat up straighter, anticipating a counter argument until he noticed that Oliver’s attention had been caught by the tea shop entrance. Concerned, he glanced over in the same direction and saw that the group of women were leaving, struggling to squeeze one of the prams out past the heavy door.
With a small exertion of his magic, Matthew nudged the door wide. The women departed, presumably unaware of his interference, though the flare of energy obviously hadn’t been missed by Oliver, who turned to face him, wide eyed.
“Everything okay?” Matthew kept his voice low.
“Fine.” The shock on his face faded instantly to a blank expression, but Oliver’s eyes didn’t seem to focus.
He’s talking to Ewen. Matthew sank back in the chair and waited.
For the most part, he found it easy to forget about the other soul that had occupied his friend’s mind for the past twenty-three years. The voice of Oliver’s predecessor had, of course, been a great asset, but Matthew couldn’t help but feel unsettled when he remembered that two people often looked out at him through one pair of eyes. It must be worse for Oliver, and Matthew thanked whatever luck he had left that whoever had crafted the Champion spell hadn’t seen fit to confer the same powers upon the royal line.
“Sorry about that.” With a blink, Oliver’s attention was back in the room. “Would you like a drink? I should have asked when you first arrived.”
Matthew didn’t reply, folding his arms sceptically.
“Ewen was advising on tea,” Oliver explained. He looked relaxed enough, but Matthew knew better than to trust his outwards appearance. “This place was actually his recommendation. Would you like me to choose you one to try, or will you have your usual?”
The question was half-hearted, but Matthew decided to let it go. Perhaps he’d misread the concern on his friend’s face. “Maybe next time. Just grab me a can of something.” Unlike Oliver, no amount of education or pressure had ever given him a taste for warm drinks.
Oliver groaned and got up from his seat. “Fair enough. Though you don’t know what you’re missing.” He left the table mumbling something that sounded like ‘sacrilege’.
Left alone to his own thoughts, Matthew let his eyes wander over the room. It was an old building, even by Aedemeer standards, and he wondered how much it had seen over the years. Ewen had been his father’s tactician, to use the common term for it, and it was odd to think of the man sitting in this very room; perhaps he had been prompted by his own mentor, and so on, going back generations.
His musings were interrupted by the return of Oliver, who placed a can in front of him, along with an empty glass, before retaking his seat.
“I’m not saying it has anything to do with us,” he began, arranging a teapot and fresh cup in front of him. “However, I have been observing one of the tea shop patrons— Don’t look!” He commanded with a sigh.
“I wasn’t going to look!”. But his heart rate had increased. Matthew tried to focus on the chilled can in his hands rather than the other people in the room.
“Their behaviour has raised suspicion,” continued Oliver. “Now, I need you to tell me if the large, fair haired gentleman, seated at the table to the left of the door, looks familiar to you.”
Matthew’s fingers seemed clumsy as he cracked his drink open, looking far less casual than he had intended. Ignoring the glass, he took a sip and glanced over towards the table that Oliver had indicated. From here, he had a clear view of the man hunched there; face partially obscured by the newspaper he appeared to be reading. He was tall and broad, wearing a hefty black jacket still damp from the rain.
Matthew didn’t recognise him.
“No, I don’t know them,” he said, leaning in towards Oliver so that they could keep their voices low. “What’s he done that’s worried you?”
“He came in earlier, when the women left.” Oliver responded, “He’s passed the front of the shop three times since you arrived, along with another man, but entered alone.”
“That’s not hugely suspicious,” Matthew said, though he didn’t relax.
“I agree,” Oliver replied, “However he hasn’t ordered a drink, nor removed his coat, and I have watched him continue to take glances in this direction from the moment of his arrival, despite the fact he’s attempting to appear engrossed in a newspaper.”
Matthew made a noise of agreement. He didn’t want to be paranoid, but experience told him Oliver wouldn’t have mentioned anything unless he had a genuine concern. As if sensing Matthew’s thoughts, Oliver continued.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to worry you, but as I went up to order, I saw his associate pass by again. He also seemed very focussed in your direction; my thoughts being that an innocent bystander would be more interested in his friend than another customer.”
“Ewen agreed?” Matthew waited for Oliver to nod confirmation before he continued, panic rising. “How could they have found us?” It had been so long he’d half thought Morgan Heliodor had stopped looking, but now—
“It’s not Morgan,” Oliver interrupted, halting his racing thoughts. “These men— They aren’t subtle. I was hardly paying attention and I spotted them.” He spoke with a quiet confidence as he began to pour some tea into his cup. “Besides, they just don’t give off that professional vibe.”
“When are you ever ‘hardly paying attention’…” Matthew muttered, but his heartbeat no longer sounded as loud. “If they aren’t Morgan’s, then who are they?”
“I was hoping you might know.” Oliver narrowed his eyes. “What have you been doing recently?”
Matthew shifted in his seat, rolling the can between his hands so that the soft metal bent under his fingers. “Nothing notable, just work.” He looked away, unable to meet Oliver’s fixed stare. Even with only two years between them, the Tactician could make him feel like a child. “…There’s one thing I can think of, but that was over two weeks ago.”
“What thing?” Oliver’s tone had turned icy, and Matthew had the uncomfortable feeling that it wasn’t only his friend judging him.
“It was nothing. Really!” Matthew ran a hand through his hair. “Look, I took it on as a quick side job. Something interesting for a change. You know, last week they had me charging lights? Just that. Every day for a week. Because it’s still cheaper than getting electricity that far out from the city.”
“I don’t need to know why you did it, just tell me what you did.”
“It was just a lock. Off the books. Nothing special.” Matthew shrugged. “Honestly, I didn’t even think anything of it until now. Some guy moving here from Vailberg wanted to make sure no one could get into one of his rooms. I whacked on a lock and that was it!”
“You’re working for Velbians now?” Oliver seemed surprised, but didn’t press further. “What was in the room?”
“It was empty, I don’t know. I don’t ask questions. It’s not as though I’d accept anything dodgy.”
“Evidently, that’s not the case,” Oliver murmured, sipping at his drink. “Do you at least remember their name?”
Matthew frowned as he tried to remember. “…Marek? Felix Marek, I think his name was.”
Oliver choked on his tea. “Felix Marek?” He wheezed.
“What?” The reaction brought back his anxiety from earlier, and Matthew glanced over at the man near the door. To his relief, he was still engrossed in his newspaper.
“You do know he was Aiden Heliodor’s business partner?” Oliver’s voice had recovered from the tea, but clearly not from the shock. “He just sold off his share and retired. Don’t you watch the news?”
“…No,” Matthew replied. “I try not to.” Especially at this time of year. He wasn’t pleased to see Oliver’s expression morph into one of pity. “Don’t look at me like that.”
Aiden Heliodor was Morgan Heliodor’s nephew, son of the Arch Canlaw, Kaylee of Vailberg. Matthew felt like a lead weight had settled into his stomach.
For a moment, Oliver didn’t say anything more. He drummed his fingers lightly against the wood of the table and Matthew focussed on the movement, the world seeming to have narrowed down to a point.
“I still don’t believe they know who you really are.” Oliver continued eventually. “You say he wanted this lock unregistered? That makes me wonder if it’s not thieves he’s worried about.”
“You’re thinking he’s hiding something from Aiden? Or Morgan?”
“Could easily be both. Though I doubt it matters either way. My best theory is that this is a silencing operation and they don’t know who they’re dealing with.”
Fear subsiding, Matthew found it replaced by frustration. Couldn’t he even have a simple drink without something happening? It was worse that he’d worried Oliver. “I guess we’d better come up with a plan then.”
“We have a plan.”
Of course we do. Matthew waited for his Tactician to elaborate.
“There’s a back entrance to the tea room, along a short corridor past the bathroom. It opens out into the alleyway that runs between this building and the wall of the market. You likely walked past it on your way here.”
The market would be a good place to lose a pursuer in the crowd. “What if they have people waiting in the alley? You said there could be more than one person following us.”
“You’re right. It is likely the back door is being watched, but I don’t intend for us to fight our way out.” Oliver ran a finger in a line across the table. “If this is the alleyway, and here is where the exit comes out,” he pointed towards the centre of the line. “Slightly to the left, in the wall opposite, you will find an entrance to the market. It was boarded up for years, but when I found it I decided it could be useful to incorporate it, and this tea room, into one of our meeting spots.”
“You magic locked it?” Matthew wasn’t surprised that there had been more to this place than just the pleasant atmosphere and fancy tea.
“Yes, to my signature. It’s not ideal but, if we aim to get through quickly, they won’t be able to follow. By the time they get round to the main market entrance, we should be out and on our way to the safe house at Wych Cross.”
“Fair enough,” Matthew leaned back in his seat, attempting to stretch some looseness back into his limbs. “So if I get up first, as if I am going to the toilet, then you follow sometime after and we meet up at the exit?”
Oliver’s rejected his suggestion without a pause. “No need. We’ll go together.”
“Won’t that seem suspicious?”
“Only to someone following us,” Oliver replied, matter-of-factly. “And if they are, they aren’t going to be far behind. We’ll save time and be safer together.”
Not convinced that Oliver just didn’t want to let him out of his sight, Matthew didn’t bother to argue.
“Ready then?” Oliver set aside his empty tea cup, and Matthew felt the slight tingle in the air as Oliver’s shields went up. Taking the cue, Matthew drew on his own magic, projecting a shield close around his body. He reached back to grab his coat, tucking it over the bag containing Alex’s present before using the handle to pick up both.
“Nothing strange about two friends going to the bathroom together…” Matthew mumbled as he stood up to follow Oliver to the door.
It was quiet in the small corridor. Matthew squeezed past Oliver, who placed his hand over the door handle as he cast a basic lock spell.
“Apologies to anyone who needs the toilet,” he said, tilting his head to indicate they should proceed along the hall. At the far end was the door that led out to the alleyway; the sign and panic bar displaying its purpose as a fire exit.
“Do you think it will be alarmed?” Matthew queried. Touching his hand to the door, he scanned it for magic energy, picking up nothing; any lock or alarm would be manual.
“No, I checked that before we arrived.”
Accepting Oliver’s confirmation, Matthew cast his magic sense out beyond the door. Physical barriers made it harder to pick up the radiating energy of spells or mages, but if anyone was directly outside, he should be strong enough to feel them.
“Anyone out there?” Oliver said, who was no doubt checking himself.
Matthew closed his eyes to focus. There was a strange presence towards their left. A mage, maybe. Or some kind of passive spell? “There could be something to the left, I can’t tell for certain.”
“You can’t tell?” Oliver hummed as he paused to think. “Well, we’ll have to deal with it as it comes,” he continued after a moment. “It’s likely our tearoom friend has sent a message, so let’s assume they are expecting us.”
Matthew moved aside as Oliver grasped the bar of the fire door, then with a nod he pushed down on the handle and darted into the alley. With a tight grip on the bag in his hand, Matthew followed.
The cobbled path was slippery from the afternoon rain. Magic focused into his shield, Matthew kept his eyes on Oliver rather than looking for the door himself. Now they were outside, the confusing magic presence was far more obvious, almost nauseating, unlike any spell he’d ever felt.
They hadn’t made it more than two paces before he heard a shout, followed by a fizzing crack that Matthew felt more than heard. A wave of energy collided with his shield, sending him reeling off balance. He landed clumsily on his knees, pain shooting through his hand as it slammed into the ground. The shield, which should have repelled any attack, warped as it absorbed the energy, and shattered.
Senses returning, Matthew heard Oliver shouting from somewhere above his head. The scene in the alley rushed back into focus and his eyes met those of the man who had attacked him. Smaller and younger than the one who had been watching them in the tea room, he stood frozen, a look of surprise on his face.
Whatever the man held in his hand was still pointed at Matthew, and he scrambled back to his feet. As he did so, his assailant seemed to snap from his daze. He charged forward, blocking their passage to the market door, but a blast of magic from Oliver blew him back. Then Matthew felt his friend grab his arm, dragging him, bag, coat and all, along the alley towards the street.
“I thought we were going to the market!” Matthew called, hurrying to keep pace with Oliver while trying not to slip on the rain slick stone.
“Change of plan!”
Oliver pulled him around the corner as they reached the main road. When he looked back, the man from the alley had been joined by the one from the shop.
“Don’t attack. Too many people.” Oliver instructed through panting breaths. Another flare of magic, and this time the pavement behind them sparkled as Oliver’s spell drained the heat from the water pooled there. The two of them pushed through the crowd, inciting gasps, swiftly followed by the cries of multiple shoppers slipping on the ice spelled ground.
“What the hell did they attack us with?” Matthew shouted as he ran.
“I don’t know,” Oliver replied. “But it could knock you down, then it’s too risky to take chances.”
“We need to find somewhere open.”
“Park. Across the road ahead. If we can’t lose them first.”
As if in response, the air fizzed with another bolt of energy. This time, it was followed by screams and a sickening crunch of metal.
Matthew spun on the spot, no longer running. A bus was horizontal across the busy road; the front crushed inwards above the left wheel, leaving it sagging drunkenly. Another car had crashed into it, causing both rows of traffic to come to a standstill.
From here it was impossible to tell whether the passengers were okay. Matthew had begun to force his way back against the flow of terrified people now rushing in their direction, before Oliver caught his arm.
“Look,” Oliver pointed. Following his gaze, Matthew saw the crowds had parted around the damaged bus. The man from the tea shop stood there, gesturing angrily at his companion as he grabbed at whatever the smaller man was holding. “Looks to me like they weren’t supposed to be creating a scene either.”
Sirens began to howl in the distance, their sound causing Matthew’s heart to leap in his chest. Even so, he didn’t move.
“Healers are on their way,” Oliver spoke gently. “Let’s get out while we can.”
“…Okay.” Swallowing his guilt, Matthew followed Oliver as they allowed the crowd to sweep them away.