Play Until Collapsing Dreams had an enchanter’s workroom, stocked with arcane picks and awls for carving artifacts to store aether, crystal pods full of filtered aether in different colors and varieties, vises and grips, and an assortment of enchanted tools whose main purpose was to manufacture more enchantments. She also had an impressive collection of small golems, scrying mirrors, and basins, though surprisingly, no crystal balls. Cushions hung suspended in the air, more or less at random, between the tables and shelves of the chamber.
Play grabbed a couple of the cushions and spun them through the air to her guests, then hoisted herself atop a third and sat cross-legged. “Now, Ardent. What crazy stupid stunt do you want me to help you with?”
“All I sent in my message yesterday was ‘I’m looking for some information’! How do you know it’s crazy or stupid?” Ardent took a seat on the floating cushion, and tugged it until it was high enough that her legs dangled off the edge. She braced her hands against the cushion edge, between her knees, and leaned forward. Miro adjusted his to torso height and leaned against it instead of sitting, listening to the other two.
“Because it’s you. And you’re not Justiciar any more. So what snooping do you want done?”
Ardent rubbed her chin. “Are you – or anyone – still working on the Eternal View project?”
“You’re asking about that? Now? You hated that idea.”
“Yeah, I hated it. The High Court didn’t, though.”
“What was the Eternal View?” Miro asked.
“An enchantment that would record the whereabouts of every fey in the Moon Etherium on a minute-by-minute basis for retroactive analysis,” Ardent said. “Plus every instance of teleporting.”
Miro stared. “You can do that? Why would you want to do that? Let me rephrase that: why would anyone want that done to them?”
Ardent gestured. “See, he understood right away why this was a terrible idea.”
“Yes yes yes, I’m a horrible monster for even having thought about it.” Play waved one slender dark hand in dismissal. “I might note that I was doing it specifically to make your job easier, you know. Do we have to keep talking about it? Anyway, I abandoned the Eternal View after your last lecture on the subject. Fourteen years ago! Shadow of Fallen Scent made some effort to revive it – after she’d made High Court, of course, and naturally it wouldn’t be tracking High Court. But I’d already destroyed all my notes. And it was a huge project. You’d need a lot of fey all working in concert to execute it. None of the information mages are willing to touch it now. It can’t even get started.”
Ardent nodded. “That’s good to know. So, let’s say that – hypothetically – I want to find out where a particular fey has been for the last several days. There’s no spell or enchantment that will do that for me, correct?”
“What about those, whatchamacallits, enchanted golems that were going to track a single fey remotely, even if they weren’t carrying a tracker? Did you finish those?”
“Tracers. Yes, those I made. They’ll only tell you where the fey has been since you began tracing them. And if the Queen or the Justiciar – which you aren’t any more, in case you forgot – wants to authorize you to use one, I’ll be happy to provide it.”
“Mmm.” Ardent kicked her legs in the air. “So. How would you feel about providing it if the Queen or the Justiciar didn’t authorize it?”
“Really crappy. Which is why you’re not going to ask me for one just for old time’s sake.” Play scowled, flattening her feline ears back.
“What if I only wanted one that’d tell me where the target went when they were in public? That’s not an invasion of privacy. Lots of places have golems that I can farspeak to find out who’s there, as it is.”
Play made a face. She had thin white whiskers standing out from her cheeks, and they crinkled as she thought. “I guess I could do that. Sure. Why not.”
Ardent grinned. “Fantastic. So. Countermeasures. If someone is using a tracer on me, how could I tell?”
“You, personally, could probably use Sun-prince there to overcharge the cast of a standard reveal-spellwork, and that’d show it. The tracer spellwork’s stealthy, though; it won’t show on an ordinary detection pass. I did get some requests for trace-revealer enchantments, so the fey who have those would be able to tell. An information mage with the right sort of scryers would be able to work it out. Free advice: don’t go spying on an information mage. It’s not worth it.”
“Mm-hmm. Would you be willing to tell me who purchased the trace-revealers?”
“Tell you?” Play flattened her whiskers. “No. Absolutely not. My customer ledger is aether-indexed, and kept in the locked top drawer of that cabinet over there. Which is keyed to this charm.” She pulled a chain out of her tunic, with a gold kitten charm hanging from it, and then pulled it off over her head and tapped it. “Which I’m almost always wearing.” She set the chain and charm on the cushion next to her. To Miro’s soulsight, it had a string attached to it, beckoning in invitation to Ardent. “There were two different kinds I sold, one just to detect traces on the user, and one that also detected scrying spells in the vicinity of the user. Anything else you wanted to ask me about, Ardent?”
“No – wait, yes. Do you still make those little snoop golems?”
“I do. They’re much easier to spot than the tracer spells, though. Even a mortal might see them, and they’re magical enough to register to glamour-sight, so a fey could spot them just by looking around. And anyone casting a basic reveal-spellwork would see them.”
“No improvements in the design since I left, then?”
“Eh. They’re smaller and cuter now? That’s about it.”
“What about your scryers? You didn’t start making anything that can scry people in private, right?”
“No, scrying in private’s too hard for an enchantment. The protections of privacy are much stronger against scrying than against simple location, because there’s several different ways aether can discern location, and only two ways to scry. Getting past privacy protections is another thing you could probably bull your way through with prince-boy and an ordinary farsight spell or scrying mirror. It’d still be easy to detect if the target was looking for it. If you were sloppy, it might be obvious even if the target wasn’t looking for it.”
“Good to know. So what’s your stealthiest scrying device, and can I borrow it?”
“It’s my Ocyale mirror, and can you give me a single legitimate use you’d have for it?”
“I want to keep an eye on my new pet, for whenever he wanders off on his own.” Ardent waved a hand in Miro’s general direction.
“He’s Sun Host. He’s doing well if he can spot a glamour in Moon Etherium. You don’t need stealthy to keep watch on him. Also you just told him you’ll be watching.”
“I don’t care about hiding it from him. I want to know how fey treat him when they don’t think I’m watching.”
“Mph.” Play rubbed one feline ear, crumpling it with her fingers. She glanced at Miro. “And how do you feel about being watched, Sun prince?”
Miro concealed his surprise at being consulted. “Grateful that my mistress is taking such interest in my welfare.”
Play narrowed almondine eyes at his answer, but the essence of his words was true; there was no lie to see through. “Fine. You can borrow it,” she told Ardent. “If I need it back, I expect you to return it promptly. In minutes. Not days.”
“Of course. Thanks, Play.” Ardent chewed her lower lip, thinking. “So, let’s say someone good, someone like you, who knew how to breach privacy wards, was using a farsight spell on me. Would I be able to tell that, or would that be sneakier?”
“You could tell. Usual caveats apply – if they’re watching from a distance you’ll be less likely to notice, or if they’re watching a spot in your area and can see you but don’t have the focus on you. You get the idea.”
“Right. Any new ways to block someone’s scrying or tracing that I don’t know about?”
“The tracers are unblockable. Not the one I’m loaning you, of course: it’ll be blocked by any privacy ward. But if you’re worried about being traced by someone, the regular ones can breach any ward I know of. Maybe you and Sun-prince could whip something up, but I doubt it. Scryers…eh. Some of the older variants of privacy wards are easier to breach than the latest and greatest ones, like the kind the Underground uses. Scrying spells and devices still can’t follow you automatically through a teleport. Teleports leave traces of where the subject went, but you pretty much have to be on-site at the time to follow those. So you can always try porting away from the scrying spell. Or getting inside a better privacy ward. But there’s no counterspell you can use to squash a specific scrying spell that you’ve noticed. Or against a tracer.”
Ardent nodded. “Pity. Are you losing the arms race against trespassers, too?”
“Nope, we’re winning that one. Haven’t found a vulnerability in a modern ward in three years.” Play cocked her head. “Are you still using an older ward?”
“Not that old. I was here for a couple of weeks in the winter of 1251, and you made me learn the newest one then. Under the threat that you’d break mine and rob me yourself if I didn’t.”
“Hah, right. I remember. You’re good, then. I don’t think even sun aether would get you physically past a properly-made ward. Mine are overkill, to be honest. Ooh, though if you get a chance and want to try Sun-breaking them, I’d love to see them tested.”
Ardent glanced at Miro. “I’ll keep it in mind, sugar, but I don’t wanna break my sun prince, and I’ve got other plans that come first.”
The catgirl bobbed her head. “Aren’t there always? So, is that everything?” At Ardent’s nod, Play hopped down from her cushion, leaving her necklace behind. “Wait here, I’ll go find that tracer for you. Be back in five minutes.” She strolled from the room.
Ardent waited a moment, then slid off her floating cushion and walked to Play’s vacated one. She flicked one hand, and a clockface formed of glamour out of the aether. “Keep an eye on the time for me, sugar? Let me know when four minutes are up.” She scooped up the necklace, walked to the cabinet beside the outside wall, and pulled out a ledger book. With Ardent’s acceptance of the offer the kitten charm represented, the soulstring attached to it wove into the existing obligation Ardent had to Play, thickening it. She set the ledger on a clear section of a worktable and pressed the charm against a recess in the cover, then opened it. Aether stirred as she activated its index. It turned a single page. Ardent frowned at the page and pulled a sheet from the aether. She pressed it briefly against the book, and grumbled as it flashed and dissolved in a puff of smoke. “Of course. Paranoid kitty.” Ardent summoned another sheet and a pen, and copied down names. She checked the index again, found a new page, and continued copying.
“Three minutes,” Miro said, splitting his attention between the door and the clock.
“Great, almost done.” Ardent copied two more names and shut the ledger. She returned it to the cabinet, put the necklace back on Play’s vacated cushion, and dismissed the clock. She ambled to Miro’s side. “So. ‘Grateful I’m taking an interest’, huh?”
He smiled, touching the collar around his neck. “Where would I be without you?”
“Safe and sound in Sun Etherium?” she offered.
“Perhaps. For a value of ‘safe and sound’ that involves some safety and very little soundness.”
Ardent raised her eyebrows at that, but Play returned before she could reply. Their host walked over to one of her shelves and took down a small, unanimated golem in the shape of a clay man with the head of a grumpy bloodhound. She fussed with it for a moment, then handed it to Ardent. “This is the tracer. Works just like a regular tracker, except you have to identify your target for it. It needs either name and current appearance, or aether signature. If you use name and current appearance, then once you’ve begun the trace, it’ll continue even if they shift, glamour or trueshift. It’s a lot harder to shake than a golem or a scrying spell.” She selected one of the mirrors from her collection, a round platter, and wrapped it in batting drawn from the aether before giving that to Ardent, too. “And this is the Ocyale mirror. Don’t break it.”
“I’ll take good care of both,” Ardent promised. She slid them into her shoulder bag, which was smaller than either but accommodated both easily. A messenger bird chirped and tried to hop out. Ardent patted it back down and closed the bag. “Thanks again, Play. I’m in your debt.” Miro watched the soulstring from Play’s hand to Ardent’s nape thicken again. The obligation remained untainted.
“You sure are.” Play led them from the workroom. “Have fun. I’ll see you at the party tonight.”
Ardent grimaced. “Ugh. I’d almost forgotten the party.” She sighed. “See you there.”
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