The leader of the assassins scaled the wall with one of his companions.
Acting on a tip from their client, they were sneaking into the building through an empty room on the second floor when suddenly the companion, who had gone first, hit an empty void and fell backwards.
He quickly got up, looked around, and started walking forward again.
He fell again.
The boss’s face scrunched up in disbelief.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing?”
The colleague groped forward in confusion. Something, a wall of glass, stood in his way.
“It’s not my will. I can’t move forward… I can’t move forward anymore!”
He stretched out his arm in the air, and to his disbelief, something caught in his fingertips. He made a fist and tapped it, and it made a plump, light sound.
“What is this…?”
The two men stared at each other. They both looked like they’d seen a ghost.
“Let’s try to break it.”
His companion pulled out a dagger.
At that moment, something flashed through the boss’s mind. It occurred to him that this might be a remnant of magic.
The boss hurried to block his companion, but it was too late. The sharp tip of his companion’s sword sank into the invisible surface of the wall. The two men saw a thin line of gold etched into the transparent wall.
And then it happened.
With a blinding flash, a massive magical shield appeared.
* * *
About ten minutes before the assassins entered the mansion, Mariella had been eating a late meal.
If the meal could be considered a meal at all. It was a meal of munching on a hard piece of bread handed to her while her hands were tied behind her back.
Without protest, she gulped down the bread handed to her by the young witches, silently thinking to herself.
‘I wonder how the witches of Farni survived.’
It hadn’t been a day since she’d been locked in her study, eavesdropping on their plans, but she’d managed to work out that they were witches of House Farni, renowned for their mastery of defensive magic.
In truth, this was not a difficult task. The four major magical families of Verdan had a few physical characteristics that were as famous as their crests.
One family with black hair and black eyes, the Han family. Another with white hair and green eyes, the Leberg family. A third with blonde hair and blue eyes, the Ladarsi family. And finally, the Farni family with messy orange hair, freckles, and brown eyes.
Not all of the maids had the same hair colour and eye colour, as they had intermarried with various families during their settlement in Verdan, but there was one similarity among the maids, their hair was all wiry and their freckles were very prominent. Freckles and malignant curls were the characteristic of the House of Farni.
‘I wonder if the Marquis of Arell bought this house because of the Farnis?’
She thought it might have been.
Everyone has a strong sense of nostalgia for their childhood home, especially if they are forced to leave.
It wasn’t until she had finished eating that Mariella realised the real reason the witches of Farni had insisted on this mansion.
“You’re finished, now I’ll shut you up again.”
The young witch who had handed her the bread said as she wiped the corner of her mouth. It was at that moment that the witch picked up the gag she had placed on her desk.
A tremendous flash of light spread throughout the mansion and then disappeared. Time seemed to stand still for a moment.
Mariella looked around in amazement. She could see the young witches scrambling around.
“There’s an intruder!”
“What do we do?”
They despaired like soldiers facing death.
The door burst open and the second person leading them entered.
The second person’s name seemed to be Sierra.
Sierra gave quick instructions.
“Clear the desks and carpets. We’re going to Plan B.”
The young witches moved in unison.
Desks and carpets were removed and pushed into corners.
Hidden beneath the carpet was a huge magic circle. It was large enough to fill the floor of the study.
“So, this was the manor house of the Farnis.’
Mariella would later learn why this house had survived the Holy War.
And the real reason Cedric Arell had insisted on this mansion.
“Everyone in place!”
At Sierra’s command, the girls stood on the circle, their eyes closed and their hands forming a triangle, their hair and skirts blowing in the wind. At the same time, a black aura emanated from them. The aura was soon absorbed into the magic circle. The magic circle began to glow an ultramarine blue.
Soon after, the air made a low vibrating sound.
Sierra placed her hands on her hips, taking in every detail of the process. She looked at the young witches with the eyes of a conductor overseeing an orchestra.
“Yes, you’re doing well, don’t panic, just concentrate on adding to the magic circle. They only sent a few assassins, most of whom the mistress took care of herself.”
A few people not on the circle, presumably House Farni’s staff, raised their voices to warn of the danger.
“But, Sierra. This is too soon. It’s only been a day. We haven’t even had a proper conversation. The negotiations haven’t even begun. Why are they doing this? The royal family is pushing at double or triple the rate we expected.”
“Maybe because we didn’t answer their second question properly.”
Mariella, who had been observing everything from afar, nodded involuntarily.
She’d been listening in on their conversation from here, so she knew the two problems Josef posed.
He had sent the assassins because, as they said, they hadn’t answered the second question correctly.
If the hostage-takers couldn’t figure out the second question, it meant that Mariella Coburden, who held the answer, was likely in danger.
‘Josef is getting anxious. What’s his second reaction in this situation, and did he recognise the sign I sent him earlier?’
To stay alive as a hostage, she had to predict both the hostage-taker’s behaviour and Josef’s response.
While Mariella was quietly thinking about Josef, Sierra suddenly spoke up.
Apparently she didn’t like the pressure from the staff, and apparently Sierra wasn’t a woman who enjoyed using her head.
“Shut up! This isn’t some little kid’s battle game with sticks. We’ve come here to risk our lives! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself in front of those little bastards? Think of the disgrace of the last war. Remember the moment they slit our mothers’ throats and pulled out their hearts…”
It was then.
Sierra was flailing her arms about, pouring out her anger, when suddenly the door burst open and the matriarch and the two or three women following her entered at once.
The grey-haired matriarch stopped Sierra with a graceful, determined glare.
“The children are right, Sierra.”
Then she whipped her head around and scanned her surroundings.
In an instant, the matriarch and Mariella’s eyes met.
Without hesitation, the matriarch walked over to Mariella, a neatly folded note in her hand.
Sierra called out to the matriarch with a dumbfounded look on her face.
The matriarch knelt down on one knee in front of Mariella.
“Forgive my rudeness, Marquise of Coburden.”
Mariella stared down at the middle-aged witch whose demeanour had changed.
“I’m afraid I don’t know Prince Josef’s mistress.”
Cedric Arell’s message had finally reached them.
Rising from his seat, the Farni matriarch flicked her hand lightly, and the ropes that bound Mariella snapped.
Free of her bonds, Mariella rose to her feet. She glanced at her wrists, which still bore the marks of the rope, before turning her gaze to stare at the matriarch.
Mariella smiled back at her.
“As it should be, Lady of Farni.”
“Enough of this nonsense, shall we get down to business?”
The matriarch waved her hand once more, and a chair and table flew from the distance.
The two people sat down, facing each other.
“I’d like to get some answers to the second question, because I don’t want to provoke Prince Josef just yet.”
Mariella picked up on something odd in the matriarch’s tone.
“Apple pie, that was about you, wasn’t it?”
The matriarch put on a kind face and tried to coax Mariella in a soft tone. Her sweet, aunty-next-door air emanated from her as she leaned naturally toward Mariella with her arms crossed.
It was a little creepy for Mariella, knowing who she really was, but she shouldn’t show her emotions here.
“It’s a memory from my most brilliant days.”
Mariella pretended to be relaxed, not letting them get a good read on her mind or thoughts.
“So, what is the right answer?”
“Do I owe it to the dying remnants of Farni to answer that.”
The matriarch’s expression hardened at Mariella’s out-of-line words.
“I see you still don’t understand the situation.”
Mariella didn’t blink at the dark mage’s momentary display of power. It was because her life had not been smooth for her to be frightened by such threats one by one.
‘The opponent has to show an unexpected reaction. So that I can reveal their weaknesses without even knowing it.’
Mariella remembered Josef.
His haughty, arrogant demeanour and body language. Things like the smug look he wore with his shrugged shoulders.
And she mimicked them.
“You’re not getting the picture. There are so many questions I’d like to ask you, but my patience is short, and I don’t think we have time to put them all into words, so I’ll ask you a simple one.”
This time, Mariella’s body leaned forward across the table, and she looked directly into the matriarch’s eyes, asking in a low, small voice.
“What do you hope to gain from Derschabach, that the witches of Farni, who are barely breathing, are willing to risk their lives for?”
* * *
Josef, Julian, and the Marquis of Arell paced busily to the meeting place.
It had been an hour or so since they had received the report of the sudden creation of an aurora shield around Marquis Arell’s mansion, where the princess and her two handmaidens had been confined.
There had been no meeting called, but the nobles, terrified by the appearance of the shield, had gathered in the throne room on their own, demanding an explanation.
“There are too many birds.”
Josef muttered softly as he looked up at the sky through the wide windows on his way to the meeting.
Marquis Arell, who was following behind him, asked with a dumbfounded look on his face.
Josef ignored him, pretending not to hear him, and turned to Julian.
“Julian. I have a favour to ask.”
He whispered something in Julian’s ear.
Julian nodded, looking thoughtful. He quickly turned and walked back the way he came.
“Excuse me, what was that conversation you just had…?”
Only Marquis Arell was dumbfounded, not understanding the situation.
Josef laughed and shook his head.
“Nothing, nothing. Then we’ll go our separate ways.”