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Oct 18, 2019 7:44 AM
Silvers and lotuses in Goldmage
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Iliar is all snuggled up to his sister. This is perfectly safe -- she's not a redmage, nor a whitemage -- and she doesn't mind it, though it doesn't really do for her what it used to.

"Do you know of any resources we have," he asks her, "which could convince the crown prince to change his mind about any of these propositions?"

Saria doesn't so much as glance in his direction, instead frowning down at the sheet where he's carefully written out the list of goals they absolutely must achieve to get the wheels of political change moving. It's hard to guess whether that's just concentration, or if she's forgetting again that he's not another of her carefully organized files.

"...no," she says, after several minutes of silence. She doesn't elaborate, of course.

Iliar frowns, and strokes her hair. "Do we have any contacts of degree -- mm, six -- or greater among the nobility who reside within a day's walk of the palace?"

"No," Saria says, more promptly, and takes away some of her papers that Iliar was going through, in order to refile them.

"Give those papers to me, love," Iliar says patiently; Saria complies immediately. "Do we have any contacts of degree six or greater among the palace staff?"

"No."

"...do we have any contacts of degree six or greater among the ambassadors at the palace?" he tries, not very hopefully.

"No," Saria says, gets up and wanders over to her loom. Iliar sighs and lets her go. She's a brilliant coordinator, and it's not as if he has trouble communicating with her, but she's developing a tendency to get bored if he doesn't reach a conclusion as fast as she does. It's okay, though. He'll work out a way to manage it; as issues go, it's nothing.

 

Of course, it's the fact that her issues are still so manageable that's providing him with this particular decision to make. Iliar unfolds the letter again, then refolds it without reading it, pressing the creases flat with his fingernails.

The palace needing a new bluemage and asking for his sister is the opportunity of a lifetime for a revolutionary. But -- she's his sister; Iliar prefers her comfortably far away from the impact zone of his plans.  And he's the one who takes care of her, so at the end of the day, he has to be the one to make the call.

Iliar reaches for the letter again, then stops, and picks up the list of goals instead.

5. Jury trials for crimes meriting capital punishment, with the exceptions of high treason and dereliction of duty.

It's his own handwriting. He knows it by heart.

8. Protection from the crown for servants and apprentices reporting illegal acts by their masters.

He looks between the parchment and his sister -- sixteen, lovely, brilliant, kind, weaving a stretch of linen with an absurdly intricate interlocked mazelike pattern in yellows and greens, absolute attention focused on her work.

He would feel better if he could get her consent, but even if that's not meaningless yet, it will be soon enough. She'll do as he tells her -- has to do it now, so it'll be habit when she needs it to be habit. And -- well.

Iliar wouldn't sacrifice his sister. Not even for this. But it's not a sacrifice. It's only a slight increase in risk.

 

They ride snuggled up in the carriage to the palace.

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Where they're received by the palace staff that are responsible to take care of the mages, including an interview to assess their specific needs and a small lecture on various rules, Expected Behaviors and how to get this and that, it's very efficient. They don't get to see the crown prince just yet, the former bluemage is still going to get a couple days worth of their money before being retired (at a still relatively young age).

Iliar is at the royal palace the heart of the very government he is trying to oppose, certainly there is something he can do with that extra free time.

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Iliar is excessively charming and polite and accommodating at the palace staff.

He interprets for Saria as necessary during the interview. She would like a couple of items of furniture removed from her room, he tells them, to make room for her desk and loom and bookshelf. It's probably best if no one tries to come in to clean it, she likes her things arranged just so and will remove an offending housekeeper with the same brisk practicality that she'd shut out an annoying draft; he knows which things shouldn't be touched and is happy to handle  whatever cleaning is necessary. They only need the one bed, thanks, and he'd thank them to stop making creepy innuendoes about it, Saria is his sister, but she's a bluemage and it won't occur to her to wake him if he's asleep when she wants something so it's easier for him to sleep in the same bed where she can't help waking him if she gets up at night.

The process of settling in takes a while even after they're left to themselves. Saria wants her things arranged just as she's used to. She needs her loom assembled, so she has an oasis of calm in the transition. Iliar has to work out a new set of rules for her, go over them patiently until she has them memorized: when to stay in her room, whose instructions to follow, what qualifies as an emergency where she should break the usual rules. She doesn't need all the guidelines all the time, not yet -- she hasn't lost all her intuitions about people -- but she needs most of them some of the time, and she'll only need them more as she starts to take up her duties.

Eventually, though, Iliar's free to leave his sister at her loom and go explore the palace. As the minder for the royal bluemage, he occupies a convenient social station: he's not barred from speaking with the upper echelons of society, nor is it scandalous for him to associate with servants. As a result, he has a great deal of freedom of movement. He drifts in an exploratory fashion through the kitchens, the gardens, the music rooms, making pleasant smiling conversation with anyone who seems potentially interesting or useful.

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The palace staff is very charmed! Apparently the previous bluemage minder was far less socially capable. They're accomodating of the furniture's rearragements.

Most people just leave him be, some are curious, some completely ignore him, nothing unusual. He finds no resistance from the palace's guards until he tries to get to the other prince's tower, but that he already knew to expect and they just send him away.

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It is fairly predictable that the famous reclusive prince continues to be reclusive, yes.

Succeeding at charming the staff is very gratifying! A cook or footman with a soft spot for you can be marvelously helpful in a pinch. Iliar chats with people and memorizes faces and names and positions and schedules and quirks until he's left Saria alone for as long as he's comfortable with, and then heads back to their shared room.

Saria's made a foot or so of progress on her tapestry before getting tired of that, finished up unpacking, and eaten some of the travel rations from the lower drawer where Iliar stashed them. (Iliar made sure to pack more than they needed for the trip for just that purpose -- she should be able to handle getting food from the kitchens herself, eventually, but it'll take a couple iterations of Iliar tagging along while she goes through the process to make sure he's explained the if-thens to her in a way that irons out all the kinks.) She's sitting in the armchair now, her feet tucked under her, reading -- poetry, no less, which means she's having an unusually good day. (She lost interest in fiction years ago.)

Updating her on the new contacts for her roster can wait. Iliar wants some time with his sister, and good days aren't something to waste. He steals her book and scoops her up; she only looks annoyed for a few seconds before giggling and hugging him, and when Iliar asks about her day she slips regularly between her careful reporting voice and an ordinary storytelling tone.

Good days are really nice.

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Grandfather visits his chambers and they have breakfast together, with no guards around Faix can just reach up and hold the King's hand during the entire conversation. Faix smiles and listens to what he has to say and offers back what he can.

It isn't much, his main sources of information are the current king and his successor, there is little that they wouldn't have thought that Faix would. Not while a step removed from the source and not while they both have more time to think about it. Better minds to think about it too.

Still, he can hold the King's hand, smile and make the king happy with his love. Love is both the best thing he can offer and the entire reason why he has nothing better to offer.

So Prince Faix - second in line to succession despite having zero chances of ever getting the crown - will have breakfast with his grandfather, talk to him, make him feel loved and ignore when his grandfather cough gets worse. They both know that they don't have a lot of time left together.

And in the back of his mind, Prince Faix wonders if in that inevitable day he will lose his brother too, because the crown-prince is already too busy as it is and can't - shouldn't, really - spend time with the brother secretly cursed with redmagery and who must be kept locked in a tower for his own safety.

Grandfather notices - and of course Faix notices he notices - something is off and stops talking about civil unrest or that suspicious fire in that noble's castle. Changing the topics to more pleasanter things, like what books Faix has been reading.

Faix has been reading a lot of books. He has the time to do so, his favorites are the sort of romance where the heroine is eventually free to explore the world.

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Iliar receives a coded message, it shows up with the rest of their correspondence, after deciphering it. A few tidbits of useful information, nothing major, but potentially useful and it would take forever to figure them out, even for Iliar.

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Saria takes the message -- it's safer if no one knows too much, not even Iliar, so she's the only one who keeps track of all their agents and allies.

What she's lost hasn't taken away a thing from her genius for codes. She reads through the letter like it's written in plaintext, gives a satisfied smile at the value of the information -- she can still assess that, too, without finding herself stumbling over the confusing unpredictability of people. Keeping track of who knows what, of who knows that they know that, isn't so bad, not if she thinks of it like a logic puzzle. (Ten men wearing hats, and the first one says "I don't know what color my hat is"...)

She has new information, so the next time Iliar comes to her room, she says "I have new information," according to procedure; according to procedure, she answers the questions he asks her.

There's a new stack of paper on her desk, ruled with criss-cross lines breaking it into squares, so she takes that and a pen and starts designing a new weaving pattern. It's lovely, delightfully engaging work. It's so nice not to be bored.

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Information! Information is marvelous. Iliar's not sure he extracted all of the new information -- he stays away from "tell me what the letter said," that would defeat the point of keeping information need-to-know, and it's not as if Saria can give him an answer to "what is there in the letter I should know" -- but he thinks he probably picked up everything relevant. He is, after all, very very good at asking the right questions.

The heir to the throne has a reputation among the palace staff for being absurdly busy, even given his position. But Iliar has fragments of his schedule -- it clearly shifts, cyclically and based on a variety of factors, but that's just the sort of puzzle Saria has a gift for -- and can make himself entirely innocuous loitering in rooms that the prince might pass through or pause in on his way between appointments.

The prince, after all, has a great deal of power, if one had leverage over him to use it. And the prince, after all -- well, it's hardly open knowledge, but this sort of thing Iliar has a gift for -- likes men and women both. And Iliar, after all, is very pretty.

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Iliar is very pretty, that earns him a distracted glance from the crown prince, which is about the longest he looks at anyone that isn't directly speaking about government-related affairs. Which he apparently does non-stop because whenever he is moving between appointments he is talking to or being informed by assistants on various things. Yes, redirect this budget to this effort. No, don't lower this tax. Send the crown's regards to this noble. Yes, they will have to send this one person to prison because this despicable-yet-influential noble wants it. What are the price for this or that product and how long it takes to transport it? And he speaks, listens and thinks politics much in the same way other people breath.

The prince probably rests and has fun like a normal person, but seeing him like this makes you wonder if he must be dream of ruling the kingdom.

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How competent of him. And annoying. Both of those things.

Iliar can't exactly arrange to have urgent government affairs to talk to the prince about -- well, he could try, but it would be a stretch.

On the other hand, Saria is a government affair, and interpreting for her is precisely his job; so there'll be opportunities there, if only occasionally. (And even if the thought does make him feel sick to his stomach, and not even from his father's conditioning -- every question the prince asks of Saria is another fragment of her precious beautiful mind gone forever.)

He's done enough for today, in any case. Iliar goes and finds Saria and walks her through the process of getting dinner from the kitchens. She'll eat alone, of course -- expecting a bluemage to eat at a common table full of servants and staff who've never spoken to a mage would be ludicrous, they wouldn't know what to make of her. Iliar carefully breaks the process into steps, explains them to Saria one by one: follow this route to the kitchens, use this procedure for navigating obstacles in the hallways, say these words to a person who meets these criteria in order to obtain food, process their possible responses in thus and such a way... He explains things to the people she's likely to interact with, too, and some of them have of course dealt with the previous bluemage; but most people aren't good at bluemages the way Iliar is good at bluemages.

Iliar washes his hands -- carefully, arduously, he's not likely to spend much time around whitemages here but it's ingrained deeper than habit -- and eats dinner with his sister, and then reads with her, and lies down with her and sings her to sleep.

(It's so good that he was able to arrange for the palace to take her, so good that her mind is so sharp and quick. They'll have years and years more of this than most mages can hope for.)

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Eventually the former bluemage is retired and there is a period of several days where Saria's services are not requested since they used up the other bluemage to check everything they could need for the next while. They do eventually need her and the crown-prince does ask for Iliar's help with the best possible ways to ask this or that question.

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The prince is much better than the average person at framing his questions correctly for a bluemage -- the things he wants to know have clearly been refined to just the right degree of precision and concreteness -- but certain quirks of phrasing and tricks in angles of approach are just a matter of expertise, plus a touch of familiarity with the particular mage. Iliar interprets carefully, helping the prince settle on a firm set of questions so not even one will be wasted through carelessness.

Iliar makes himself lovely and charming, carefree and open and friendly, every moment except when it might compromise his communication with Saria. He carefully avoids the appearance of flirting -- he mustn't look unprofessional, mustn't look presumptuous, above all else mustn't look like he's planning something -- but he doesn't want to look oblivious, either, the prince doesn't seem the sort to enjoy snaring someone too innocent to know what they're walking into. The character he's playing thinks the prince is good-looking and fun and rather impressive, doesn't expect anything to ever come of it, has no intention to act on anything -- isn't even actively thinking about it, not while he's on the job -- but is too casually open and confident to bother concealing that he enjoys the prince's company in its own right.

It's a finely devised act.

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The prince admires his competence. Might also admire Iliar looks too, but he is too professional to mess with the feelings of a mage caretaker. The relationship remains cordial but distant, but that is true to pretty much all of his relationships with any of the staff.

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Dammit. There's nothing more annoying than people who insist on sticking to their principles.

Once they're done and the prince has left, Iliar pets Saria and praises her; she smiles and preens. She's probably not actually parsing it as approval from her brother, at the moment; but they've set up conditioning so this can be positive reinforcement for her. (Iliar's aware -- she told him, way back when -- that normal people would find that a little uncomfortable. He doesn't, of course. It works so well. Besides, she helped plan this, back when she could.)

"Help me phrase the updated mandates?" Saria asks, after a while, and Jean settles in to compose messages to Agents Epsilon, Snowfall, Gold, and Vambrace, leaving blanks among his carefully turned phrases for Saria to insert confidential information before she encodes the transmissions.

 

(So the prince is professional. He has to let off steam sometime. Iliar has every excuse to find himself at loose ends, a sheltered young man now enjoying a taste of the dissipated pleasures of court life. He's not giving up yet.)

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The crown-prince remains professional, polite and principled. As far anyone can tell his main sources of entertainment and rest were the regular visits to his reclusive brother and to the royal redmage.

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Okay; fine.

Iliar is an expert mage-minder; he was raised in a temple community; he's alone and separated from his friends and relatives; there is no one it's more reasonable for him to socialize with than the other royal mages.

So: he'll do that! Charmingly, casually, incidentally. With whichever of them are up for taking visitors.

But definitely with the redmage. Iliar is going to learn all about ... him? her?

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Him. His name is Alsar. He isn't as young as Saria, but he isn't too dwindled to walk around the gardens on his own.

(Still, his caretaker should be reprimanded for this.)

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Well isn't that stunningly convenient. Iliar's perfectly capable of looking after a redmage for a walk around the gardens, he gets to have a nice chat, no one has to explicitly acknowledge that anything happened, and the caretaker ends up quietly owing him one.

Of course, Iliar wouldn't dream of asking a redmage to share a client's confidences. He just makes friendly conversation, insofar as that's possible with a redmage -- and for Iliar a lot is possible, he's good at mages -- and draws it around to the topic of the prince, whom Alsar can after all be expected to be enthusiastic about.

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Tse Alsar thinks the crown-prince is pretty great and will make an excellent King one day - he is probably dwindled enough to not remember that this day is coming very close, given the state of the current King's health. Alsar will describe the picture of a virtuous king, which is hardly unexpected from a redmage, but does paint a favorable portrait of the crown-prince's inclinations.

There is an odd edge of sadness to this speech, like Alsar is remembering something really bittersweet.

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Huh.

Iliar agrees with all of Alsar's praise, and tries to dance around the source of the sadness, see if he can narrow it down -- asking is hardly going to get him anything, but maybe if the redmage is in a talkative mood he can narrow it down.

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Alsar is very talkative and friendly! Subtly poking about that sadness will make him talk about the royal family. Alsar will not reveal any confidences or tell anything too private, though...

But he doesn't talk about the reclusive prince. At all. And Iliar can recognize that the way he doesn't do that is the result of greenmagery.

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And isn't that interesting.

Iliar lets the conversation drift, and keeps it up long enough to be unsuspicious even if someone were eavesdropping, and hangs about until the redmage's minder makes an appearance; and then he heads back to the room he shares with Saria.

Where the two of them have a rather lengthy and interesting conversation about goals and resources and the pinning of blame.

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Alsar's minder does show up, thanks Iliar for keeping him company and takes Alsar to have an early dinner. No one interrupts his conversation with Saria.

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Plotting is such a good sibling bonding activity.

Saria will be fine. She won't fall under any suspicion. She's a bluemage; how could she possibly have known?

Iliar will ... probably not be fine; but this would be a key political moment to establish a charter. If he can get the concessions he wants, or even a key subset of them -- Saria helps him work that out -- it'll be worth it.

He won't be missed for at least a day, with any luck. The odds are good that he'll even come out alive. If they send Saria back to the temple, afterwards -- and, even without a blot on her personally, they almost surely will -- he'll be able to swing back and scoop her up and make a break for it. New identities, new lives, maybe a new country, there'll always be people who don't ask too many questions of a mage.

They go over it all, very carefully, together, until Iliar's sure Saria understands.

They've managed to catalog, between them, nearly all the palace's security procedures, down to the pattern of the crown prince's visits to his brother. Iliar only has to ask Saria to look once, at a document detailing guard assignments in the case of security breach. It's one of their most smoothly planned operations yet.

If he picks the right day, suggests to the right scullery maid that she distract the right guard, a bribe here, a drug there, a bottle of really good wine to leave her with a hangover, a forged letter from an ailing mother that'll have him scurrying home without giving notice --

 

-- he can have nearly half an hour, around twilight, the day after tomorrow; and, if all goes well, no alarm will be sounded for nearly a day after that.

Iliar can't wait to find out what vulnerability the reclusive prince is concealing.

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Iliar plan pays off and he manages to get in the Prince's chambers, it is basically a tower just for him, quite literally in fact. The place is well kept, but here are no guards or servants. If it wasn't for the fact that Iliar is was already being sneaky, his footsteps would likely be heard through the entire tower.

Speaking of being heard. Iliar can hear a couple of voices coming from that way. Maybe he would like to hide behind this conveniently placed folding screen?

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