Mike and Rich are dismissed for the evening.
After the meal, Brian Houser dismissed them. “Tomorrow will be early enough.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Mike wasted no time going to the main gate, which remained partly open. “Go.”
Rich launched into the outer courtyard where the living history programs, shop, and administrative buildings formed a loose square. Mike tracked his progress by the occasional clatter of rocks—or pottery—and chants of “Ooh, good worm, ssssluuuuurrrrp good worm!” Rich had behaved amazingly well, really. Too well?
He slalomed back, did two laps around his mage, and flopped onto his back, muddy paws in the air. “Dirt’s funny, boss,” he reported.
“Funny odd, or our kind of funny?” As much magic seemed to flow in the air, having it muck with the dirt sort of made sense, ish. Maybe.
“Our kind. No Elementals, none, nada, zip, zilch.” Rich rolled right-side up and shook all over. “Funny taste in the air, dirt too. Trees but no vegetables or eating plants.”
Huh. That is odd. And he didn’t trust the local net access to do any looking. A whiff of bitter tobacco smoke teased his nose, and he smiled. Welcome to Eastern Europe. Smoking wasn’t as common as it had been, but more people smoked than did back home.
The sour presence in the magic shifted. Mike eased into a half-trance, just listening and feeling the world. Rich draped himself over his mage’s shoes. The “flavor” . . . A little like the peat bog, but not exactly? Yes, heavy with years and a bit of char, like singed but not burnt toast. That didn’t match either the usual sense of forest land in this region, or of the swamp, quite. The presence moved behind them in the castle, then faded as if going farther away or diluted by the night air.
“This is an odd castle indeed,” Mike said.
“It is. But having a separate kitchen in case of fire is a possibility.” Rich wiggled, probably getting dirt on his mage’s shoes.
Mike nodded, then scooped up his Familiar and dusted his feet of the worst mud. “You can’t leave any stone unturned, can you?”
“Not if it’s smaller than I am! I’m a mongoose, remember?” Mad giggles straight out of a bad movie filled the twilight of evening as Mike plodded up to his room, carefully ignoring the smokers spread out along the wall of the inner courtyard.
“Boss, wake up. Defender!” A cold nose on his neck drove away the last bit of sleep fog. “You’re starting to call out, and the shields are weaker,” Tik-Tik reported. “And your alarm’s about to ring.”
Mike rolled far enough to turn off the simple alarm clock without dislodging either the covers or his Familiar. Then he flopped back into the supine position, arm over his eyes. “Blessed St. George, that was one damn strange dream.”
“It was bad enough that you tried to hit something, then began talking in Draku-German.” The mongoose sniffed. “They were some of those phrases he’s too young to know.”
Bad language in German and something else. Great. “Ugh. Glad I don’t remember that part. We were . . . not being chased, exactly, but were trying to renew spells on one of those huge medieval wax seal things? That’s what it looked like. And something kept pestering us, like a were-cat but with garlic breath.”
“Wow. That’s weird even for you, boss.” Rich snickered, then dove under the covers. He emerged at the foot of the bed, looking somewhat flat from the weight of sheet, duvet, and folded blanket. “That’s magic mushroom strange. Shroom shroom, zoom zoom,” and he dove off the bed to do laps of the furniture legs.
Mike rolled out of the bed, then stretched. He had half an hour before early breakfast. The actual diplomatic part of the day wouldn’t start until nine, so he had three hours to kill. Breakfast began at six-thirty, come and go. He did push-ups, crunches, and anything that wouldn’t thump. Then he sat and relaxed, clearing his mind as much as he could. Rich settled onto his lap, still and quiet. Mike recited the morning devotion and prayer in English, for the benefit of any listeners.
As Rich had said, the shields he’d set on the room appeared weaker to his magic senses. Not the secondaries that used mage magic alone, but his personal power had been nibbled. “That matches yesterday,” Mike murmured.
“Yes. As if the other party does not recognize mage magic, only personal and shadow.” Rich hesitated, tail twitching. “Have any other mages visited since the SEE?”
Who else would have? Granted, that was almost fifty years ago, and he didn’t know all the mages in Europe. “I know not. We are rare, and those with larger Familiars might not come as mages.” The lady in Poland with the giant horse certainly wouldn’t have come here with her Familiar. “Perhaps the Hungarians? Heike and Walburga have not, or Draku would know.”
“Worker of shadow, yes, but not mage. And not the ones you are thinking of from Hungary. The mage is blind, doesn’t go far from Budapest. Only to farm vacation, has too much work in Budapest.” Rich shifted his weight. “We do no magic unless pushed, Defender. Hide in plain sight.”
I do not like what you are implying. And I agree. If something went south, they’d be the wild card. “I wonder what I’d have to give up for the Lord to grant us a dull, quiet, uneventful assignment.” Beef, alcohol, sweets, impure thoughts, and hot showers wouldn’t even start to be enough sacrifice to get that level of blessing. “And if I keep thinking like that, I’m going to get hit by lightning while standing in the cellar. Shift, buddy.”
“That would be funny!” Rich slid down to the floor. “Mage on toast, mage is toasted in a wine cellar!” He rolled back and forth, laughing his tail almost off. Mike glared at him, stood, and went to get a shower and dress.
They went to breakfast. The buffet had been set up in the pink-walled room. Mike glanced around, saw the e-g-g-s, and hurried over. He snagged a small bowl and put two soft-boiled eggs in it. He almost got back to the corner table when—
“Eggs! Eggyeggs I smell eggs. Round mounds of wonderful egeegggg!” Mike set the bowl down and yanked his hand back before Rich took it off. Happy devouring sounds followed him back to the food. The young man setting out the last tray gave him a worried look. Mike shrugged.
He’d half-finished his first plate of real food and nursed coffee as Mikolai Kowalczyk walked with slow steps into the room. Damn. He looks like two miles of bad road. The sensitive moved carefully, like an old man afraid of falling. He got coffee and glanced around. Mike stood as the other officer approached. “Be seated. Is this taken?” He waved at the empty seat.
“No sir. Please.”
“Too early for sir.” The Pole set the coffee at the empty place and came back with a laden plate. The caterer’s assistant followed and set a bread basket down on the table. Kowalczyk devoured sausage, cold-cuts and cheese, and a buttered roll before speaking again. “Your Familiar?”
Rich, licking his whiskers free of egg, poked his head above the edge of the table. Mike slipped him a bit of farmer’s bacon.
“Dobrey.” Good. After a sip of coffee, the Pole said in German, “Something moved last night, and I sensed an attempted spell casting. You?”
German I can do. “No. When we arrived, we ran a test. A presence reacted to shield-casting, just a common ward to keep away Elementals and stray magic.” Mike had more coffee as well. “Rich and I decided not to do anything unless forced to defend.”
Rich’s head appeared again and he rested his chin on the white tablecloth. “We don’t do charms or many pre-sets. Mage magic is free-form, mostly.”
Kowalczyk blinked, puzzled. He got more coffee, this with some milk, and sat once more. “How interesting. You are the first mage-Familiar pair I have ever met. You do not need patterns and charm-carriers?”
“No. We can use them, and have. Some mages also use a focus, as someone in the sorcery tradition would, to store power, but we don’t need patterns or to keep season and moon-phase in mind the way coven and sorcery workers do.”
The Pole ate another roll. Mike sampled the dark bread. Sour, heavy, dense, just like he preferred it, especially with real butter and a bit of soft sausage. He gave Rich a bit of the sausage as well, on a spoon. Delighted lapping sounds came from below the edge of the table.
“I know the coven tradition best. Is he truly eating that?”
“Yes. And anything else meat-ish. He also hunts, but not while we are on duty.” Most of the time. I hope. I will never live down the snake episode so long as Shadow and Ears are alive. That had been awkward. Very awkward.
“Different topic. What do you think of Blind Guardian’s latest release? The album.”
Mike smiled. “It’s heavier than I prefer. Evanescence, Ad Infinitum, Delaine, Avantasia, Aurochs’ Ghost, that local group from Bialystok, help me, Rich.”
“Thorn of the Swamp Rose,” came the instant reply.
“Thank you, Thorn of the Swamp Rose.”
Kowalczyk’s smile grew as they recited names. “That matches my impression. I found their Thirty Years War album more to my taste.” The next few minutes passed quickly as they discussed bands, festivals, and bad fashion choices.
At last Rich sniffed. “The last we heard, the revolving door on the lead singer’s dressing room remained in place, and that they were talking to Marcella, but that was six weeks ago.”
The Pole rolled his eyes. “That’s clearer than what we’re hearing here.” His chair scraped back from the table. “Excuse me. Duty and a briefing calls. Thank you for confirming my observation.”
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