Aerema: Founding of A Kingdom
Author: Artesian Different

Chapter 21
I Get These Suspicions

“Good morning, Lord Bane!” The cheerful ram dished out a bowl of oatmeal for him. Raisins and pecans spattered the surface like seeds in a guava. “A beautiful day, cold, but at least the sun is shining.”

“Yes, isn’t it?” Bane could feel the sun’s weak glow warming his spotted fur.

“Aye, a beautiful day indeed.” The ram waved him away and scooped up a ladle full of oatmeal for the next officer in line.

Septimus had woken before the sun that morning. His internal clock was set to a quite different time. The snake’s eyes scanned the room carefully and settled on Bane. I can follow Bane today… He could be instructive. Bane caught Septimus’s cold emerald eyes with his own for a moment. Septimus shuddered internally at the power that coursed from Bane. The eldest son of the Tartarus family had truly inherited his family’s power. Septimus had an unnerving feeling of being exposed, as if the panther’s eyes could see straight through him. No, I won’t follow Bane. Bad idea.

Bane broke the connection and sat down at a table nearby a window. He swallowed hard and spooned a lump of oatmeal into his mouth. He felt a prickle down his spine like a drop of water trickling down his back, but he ignored it. He was okay; everything was fine. He gulped down a few more spoonfuls. A free day today.

Bane was currently stationed as a helper for the healers. He hated the job but admired the nurses that worked there. He completed all his assignments with superlative efficiency and speed. Yesterday, the nurses had received a new assistant to help with their work. As a reward for his dedicated service, they had released him for the rest of the week.

He appreciated the break, but had no intention of just lazing around. The Armory might be able to use me, he thought cheerfully. Or, I could take over for Daniis as a courtyard guard. She would enjoy a break. Daniis was a beautiful but shy white and gray snow leopard with beautiful ice-blue eyes. Bane enjoyed helping her out when he could.

He glanced over his shoulder at the snake. Or, I could follow Septimus. Bane had no doubt that he could do it without being detected. His father had given him lessons on the subject when he was young. He had studied for years, though he had hated the secrecy and sneaking about it.

Bane extended his ivory claws one at a time. That feeling in the back of his mind just wouldn’t go away. Well, it won’t be harm anyone if I indulge myself just this once, he thought, and wiped his mouth. He carried his dish to the dirty dish drop-off point and handed it to the small and dexterous little monkey who was cleaning the many oatmeal bowls. Septimus was slithering out the door, so Bane nodded to the dishwasher and hurried out after him, timing his exit carefully. Septimus was going to have a secret partner today. Let’s see how he behaves with someone on his tail.

“Good morning, Lord Bronze.” Bane nodded to his superior politely.

“Hello, Bane.” Bronze beckoned the panther in. “What brings you here today?”

“Ah, I’m worried. I have some information you might not know,” Bane answered, his whiskers drawn back fractionally. His emerald eyes showed sincere anxiety.

“Come in, then. Did you want to talk to Alexandra?” Bronze led him to a side meeting room. Various magic supplies littered the floor. Bronze carefully closed the red leather book. It locked with a distinct snap.

“Yes, please. It is important,” Bane replied, his tail twitching.

Bronze nodded. “I’ll bring her in. Luckily, she doesn’t have any appointments for the next hour or so.” Bronze padded down the hallway. Bane sat down on the couch and surveyed the room, noting with curiosity the variety of stones that littered the floor. An enormous agate was being used to weigh down a stack of notes, and two colorful glass marbles sparkled nearby.

He was watching a bewitched stone roll in a perfect circle when Bronze returned with Alexandra on his heels. “Hello Bane. You wished to see me?” Alexandra greeted him.

“Yes, mi’lady. I have been investigating something irregular lately, and I thought you might want to hear about what I have found out,” Bane said.

“Certainly,” Alexandra replied, and sat down on a chair across from him.

“This past week, I have been following Septimus Salvador,” Bane said sedately. Alexandra’s ears flicked back in surprise. “I received a few days of absence from the nurses as a reward for my efficient work, and I…” Bane trailed off. He didn’t want to acknowledge that he didn’t have a decent reason for his suspicions in the first place. “I just had a feeling Septimus was up to something.”

Bronze nodded. “What did you find out?”

“Septimus is associating with some very… suspicious characters in the camp. I have seen him with two different strong allies of Ténebrous repeatedly. I’ve even observed him speaking to some ruffians that appeared to be river pirates. He also is asking some very odd questions of more respectable characters.”

“What sort of questions?” Alexandra asked.

Bane drew his whiskers back a few more degrees and began hesitantly. “He has been asking questions relating to the Coronation. He asked the builders of the castle the exact place where the Coronation will take place. He questioned the healers what antidotes they possess for different poisons. At least half a dozen people told me that he asked them who they thought would crowned.” Bane’s tail twitched involuntarily.

“Interesting.” Alexandra said. Her golden eyes glittered like metal. “Did you have anything else to report?”

“Uh, no, mi'lady. Just that.”

“Any ideas as to what it could mean?” Bronze asked.

“Well, I… I have nothing to prove it. It’s a fairly outrageous idea…” Bane said uncertainly, his tail drooping.

Bronze raised one eyebrow fractionally, something he had learned from Ryath.

“I think that Septimus has turned on us. Swampmurd is a corrosive place; being that close to the Psycadians is dangerous.” The words fell from Bane in a torrent. “It’s a serious accusation, but I don’t know what else to think.”

“I see.” Alexandra stood and stared out the window at the pattering February sleet.

Bronze stared down at his lap. Septimus was ordered to follow Bane; he was our first lead. Could he have discovered that we were investigating him? He idly lifted a willow stick from the table and telekinetically whirled in front of him. Why else would Bane come here? He stopped the stick and looked up at Bane. The jaguar was watching him silently.

Their gazes locked for a moment, but Bronze could read nothing. Bane was as sealed as a hickory nut, but his eyes glittered with undisguised worry. Tartarus tricks. Perhaps. Could such emotion be faked?

“Bane, Septimus was told to investigate the camp for plots against the Coronation. It is natural that he would be asking such questions and be associating with our more dubious lords,” Alexandra replied after a moment. Her voice was cool and emotionless. Bronze plucked the willow wand out of the air and set it back down on the table.

“But mi'lady… He was asking the nurse about his own venom. He was wondering if there was an antidote to half-tree, half-water snake venom! That doesn’t seem like – ” Bane protested.

“Enough,” Alexandra said firmly. “Septimus is following orders. I would thank you to devote yourself to a more useful hobby.” She turned to Bronze. “Bronze, can you re-assign Bane to some more engaging post? Apparently the nurses aren’t giving him enough work.”

Bronze nodded, his eyes on Bane’s twitching tail and hard eyes. “Right away.”

Alexandra turned to Bane. “Good day, Bane.” She strode out of the room and closed the door with a sharp snap.

Bane sighed. “I don’t know what I expected,” he mumbled into his paws.

“What was that you said about Septimus asking about venom?” Bronze asked.

Bane’s whiskers drew back. “Septimus asked the head nurse what antidotes they had. He scanned over their lists and studied one page in particular, the snakebite page. He asked the nurse later if they had any antidote for tree snake or water snake venom. She told him no.”

“That’s very interesting,” Bronze replied. He spun his twig again. “Are there any more details you thought were suggestive?”

“Yes, sir. He was investigating the hall quite thoroughly. At one point, he slithered out of a hole in the wall just large enough for him to fit through.” Bane reported. “I lost him for nearly ten minutes after that. It took me a very long time to find him again. By then, he was talking to the harbor master,” he admitted.

“You mean, he was mapping escape plans for a potential assassin? That’s his job,” Bronze replied, skeptical.

“I suppose so, sir, but that hole would be useless for anything but a snake his size. It’s so small, I could hardly see through it,” Bane objected.

Bronze was silent for a few moments while he whirled his willow stick. “Why did you investigate him, anyway? Did he do anything that made you suspicious of him?”

“No…I just…” Bane looked uncomfortable. “Just had this bad feeling about him,” he finished, all too aware how weak his explanation was.

“A feeling,” Bronze repeated.

“Yes.” Bane tried to explain it. “It’s like a drop of water or oil is trickling down my spine, and I just get this sense he’s lying.”

“Hmm,” Bronze mumbled. It was possible that Bane had some sort of psychic magic. Bronze cast a fresh eye over the exiled Tartarus son. “I’ve heard that the Tartarus clan had an immunity to drilling. Is it possible that your family’s” – Bane cringed at that; he hated to be reminded of his heritage – “gift could extend to other branches of psychic magic?”

Bane considered it reluctantly. Tartarus is causing trouble for me again… I can’t seem to escape it; no matter how hard I try! “That might be so, sir; there are a few cases of my relatives possessing mental abilities. I believe my grandfather had a slight controlling and suggesting ability.” Bane didn’t think it was necessary to mention what he had done with his talent.

“You must have a psychic ability too… I think it runs in your blood,” Bronze theorized.

Bane nodded. “That would explain it.”

Bronze considered him for a moment longer before fishing out a quill and piece of parchment from a drawer. “Unfortunately, I’m not involved in the spying and espionage side of the captaincy; that’s Alexandra’s duty. However, I can appoint you as a guard on Coronation Day,” he said, scribbling out a note. “You can take Lord Quinoa’s position.”

“T-thank you, sir,” Bane said gratefully.

“Bane, I am trusting your word on this. Alexandra believes you to still be entangled in Swampmurd and your family.” The panther opened his mouth to protest, but Bronze stopped him. “I think you honestly support Aerema. But I don’t know. I can’t read your thoughts; I can only perceive your actions,” Bronze finished, and performed a complicated motion with his right hand. The letters on Bane’s badge swirled from, ‘Hospital Assistant’ to ‘Honor Guard’.

“I do support Aerema, with all my heart. I won’t fail you, sir,” Bane answered passionately. If there’s any way I can help, I will. I’ll do my best.

“That’s what I like to hear. Good luck, Bane. I’ll see you again soon,” Bronze said, and ushered him out.

“You did what?” Alexandra asked in a low voice.

“I assigned Bane to the Honor Guard,” Bronze repeated.

Alexandra glared at him as she dropped her quill. “You must be insane. He’s a Tartarus, the eldest son of a long line of vicious nobles. Unless you can do something that Ryath can’t –” Her voice was oozing with sarcasm.

“No, I can’t read his mind. But I think I can tell. He told me some very interesting details.” He repeated them for her benefit, but her expression didn’t change, except leaning slowly towards exasperation.

“Perhaps he thinks that the assassin will be a snake, and he was investigating escape routes for the villain. Or, he wanted to make sure the nurses were prepared for any poisoning,” Alexandra retorted. “And what if he was just lying about the feeling, or just misleading you?”

“I don’t think so,” Bronze said stubbornly.

Alexandra sighed and picked her quill back up. “Well, it’s your authority. I’m going to watch him carefully though.” She handed him a stack of letters to take to the messenger cliff. “I’ve ordered a prairie mouse spy troop to follow him and watch what he does. We’ll find out soon enough which side he’s on,” she said smugly.

“True enough,” Bronze replied, his claws tingling with annoyance. He picked up the letters and trotted out the door into the sleety drizzle.


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