"Count Lumus, of--"
Duke Orland looked up from his desk as Lumus pushed past the herald to enter Orland's study. "What is it?" he asked.
"I'm sorry, Orland," Lumus said. "Our house was robbed last night. I just found out. They took it. Your painting."
Orland's blood ran cold, and he felt a spike of pain in his head. Was it just his imagination, or had they started already? "Slow down. Who took it?"
"We don't know," Lumus said. "We're trying to find out. But it was definitely your portrait they were after; they left behind more valuable ones."
The important matter was not who had stolen it, but who had hired them. Orland had enemies who would find the painting useful. Aluin had died before he could use it, and Orland had thought Lumus could keep it safe, since he could not destroy it and live.
"So what now?" Orland said, getting up and beginning to pace. "Just sit and wait to see who asks me to vote on what Council motions? It's probably Elsilia, or Vendesel, but it could really be anybody who could afford to hire the burglar in the first place."
"They can't be too blatant about it," Lumus said. "If enough people become convinced that you've been suborned, then they'll oust you from the Council entirely."
"Which may be their goal in the first place," Orland growled. "Elsilia in particular would be happy enough to see that, because she has Akenin all ready to appoint as my replacement." He continued to pace. "Who even knew about the painting in the first place, besides you and Aluin?"
"Hangel was spending a lot of time with Aluin before he died. Aluin might not have brought Hangel into his schemes, but he may very well have suspected. Why else would anyone commission a portrait of their political rival, then have the artist killed? And I've seen with Elsilia more than once in recent months."
"Can we start at the other end, with the Guild, to see who hired the burglar in the first place?" Orland asked.
"Not any more," Lumus said. "Maybe back when Corvus was Guildmaster, because he liked to sell information to the highest bidder, but now that Falconus has taken over, he's more inclined to keep his secrets."
"Magi, then?" Orland said. "Could they trace the canvas? It's got a spell on it, and it's obviously got some kind of link to me, or it wouldn't be able to have its effects."
"That's a thought," Lumus said, considering. "I have a contact or two. I'll follow up and let you know."
Orland gave out a sudden cry and clapped his hand to his cheek. A moment later he drew it away, shaking, and saw blood on it. Lurching over to his desk, he took out a small mirror from the drawer and held it up. A jagged, zigzag line of blood made its way down his left cheek. "Or maybe they just want to kill me," he whispered.
"I suspect that was more in the way of a warning," Lumus said. "I would expect the messenger soon."
"Talk to your mage friends, then," Orland said, holding a handkerchief to his face. "Quickly!"
Lumus returned to his city residence, wondering if he had brought the bell with him or not. It wasn't something he used very often, because a mage's gratitude was a fickle thing, but because it could also be very handy, he tried to keep the bell close.
Once in his rooms, he barred the door and pulled the chest from under his bed. He unlocked it with the key he wore around his neck, and pulled out the red silk bag. He sighed with relief upon finding the black box inside.
The box had its own key, a tiny one that he kept hidden inside his mother's old set of nesting dolls. He extracted the key carefully and unlocked the box. The bell was inside, nestled in cotton to keep it from being rung by accident. He gently extricated it and held it in front of his face for a moment, contemplating the impossibly delicate rune tracery around its rim, before turning towards his mirror and ringing it delicately once. He kept the bell at eye level until he saw his image in the mirror begin to waver, then lowered it slowly. The reflection faded into blackness, and then a face appeared, covered with what looked like tiny pinpricks of different colours, which Lumus knew were small tattoos of mystical runes.
Lumus held his breath until the face broke into a smile. "Count Lumus! Greetings! How may I be of service?"
"Hello, Plomacon," Lumus said, setting down the bell carefully. Plomacon had assured him before that after the bell was rung, he wouldn't hear it again for several minutes at least, but Lumus preferred to be careful. "A friend of mine is in trouble. Several years ago, an adversary had a portrait of him created, and linked to him using some blood magic so that it could be used to harm him. I'd been storing it for my friend, but now it's been taken. Can we find it somehow, or nullify its effect?"
"Hmmm, that's a tricky one," Plomacon said happily. Aside from the fact that Lumus had actually saved his life years earlier, Lumus knew that Plomacon was also fond of puzzles, especially if they involved magic, and he liked Lumus because Lumus never bothered him unless there was an interesting puzzle in the offing. "We should meet. May I visit?"
"By all means," Lumus said. "I'll let them know to expect you. How long will you need to prepare?"
"I just to gather a few things," Plomacon said. "Half an hour, at most." The mirror darkened again, then Lumus's reflection snapped back into place. Lumus carefully stored the bell away again before opening his door and informing his majordomo Kradaw of the impending visit.
Plomacon appeared in the front foyer three-quarters of an hour later, without having bothered to actually use the door. Lumus and Kradaw were used to this by now, and had sent any excitable maidservants away in case the mage forgot to bring clothes with him again this time. His robe, while worn and stained, at least covered him adequately, and he carried a bulging leather satchel.
Lumus ushered Plomacon up to his chambers with some alacrity, since otherwise the mage had a tendency to either talk about sensitive matters where servants could hear, or get distracted and lose his thread entirely. "So tell me more about this portrait that was made," Plomacon asked once they were private. "What sort of blood magic was used?"
"The blood of the artist, after it was painted, I gather."
"That should create a fairly powerful link," Plomacon said thoughtfully. "Not as much as the blood of the person it's being linked to. Were there any other links to the victim? Skin, hair, other bodily fluids?"
"There may have been some hair woven into the canvas," Lumus said. The Aluin incident had been before his acquaintance with Plomacon, unfortunately, or he'd have brought the mage into the situation then.
"Hair is dead, so it's not as powerful as blood," Plomacon said. "But it does facilitate a thaumaturgic resonance. The artist's blood just charges the canvas with energy, through an existing channel."
"So can you use that to locate the painting?" Lumus asked.
"It's difficult to follow those kind of resonances," Plomacon said. "Whenever there's an active transmission going from the painting to the target, you can follow it, but it dissipates quickly, more quickly than any tracking ritual can actually be enacted, so you'd have to get lucky. No, it may be easier to break the connection than try to follow it."
Lumus raised his eyebrows. He hadn't thought that it could be done, so it hadn't occurred to him to ask. "How would one go about doing that?"
"Breaking the thaumaturgic resonance...let's see... Well, it's done using the image, transformed using the soul of the artist, anchored by the discarded hair. A sudden change in the image might work. For instance, if he were to lose a substantial part of his body, such as an arm or a leg, that could snap the connection, because it wouldn't really be a picture of him anymore, you see?"
"That might be a bit extreme," Lumus said dryly, trying to picture him telling Orland that he had to cut off his arm to break the curse. "What about shaving his hair?" That would be easier to convince Orland of, and at least possible to explain.
"The hair in the canvas doesn't really resonate with his own hair, as much as it does the follicles that it came from in the first place, so the effect would be minimal. We could also try to create another such canvas, with a similar resonance; it should cause interference and damping, and should help counteract the thaumaturgic effect."
"So we just need to kill another artist?" Lumus asked. "That seems a little extreme." Though it's possible that Orland would rather that than lose an arm.
"Hmmm, I suppose," Plomacon said, though Lumus could tell he really didn't understand what Lumus was getting at.
"Can we use other means to locate the painting?" Lumus said. "For instance, the frame was made right here in this house, from a tree that grew just outside, and I'm sure we have more wood from the tree as well."
"Really?" Plomacon said.
Lumus nodded. "The tree had been struck by lightning, and we had just chopped it down, but there was plenty of good heartwood. We used some for the frame, because it was handy, and we had some of the rest made into furniture."
Plomacon took a book from his satchel and began to flip through it, muttering to himself, "Heartwood...lightning-struck tree...Inken had something to say about that...yes, here it is." He stood silently reading for several minutes, flipping pages. Lumus waited as patiently as he could manage, sitting down in an overstuffed chair after a few minutes.
Finally Plomacon closed the book with a snap. "We should be able to find it, then. The heartwood resonance is very strong, and the lightning will have energized it the same way that the artist's blood did the canvas. We could also use it to destroy the frame by destroying another piece of the heartwood, but that could have a deleterious effect on the canvas. With some care, we can use the effect to overwhelm the canvas's resonance, but that is best done at closer proximity."
"Find that frame for me," Lumus said, "and I'll do what I can to increase the proximity for you."
Plomacon had brought with him an odd device he called a "borealocus" which contained a small piece of metal that always pointed northwards. When he replaced it with a small piece of wood from the chair that Lumus was sacrificing for Duke Orland's cause, it swung to point northwest instead. Plomacon then drew a line on a map of the city that Lumus had provided. "It's somewhere on that line," he said. "To pinpoint it more closely, I'd have to try it from somewhere else...like my tower, perhaps."
Lumus knew very well that Plomacon's "tower" was really little more than an attic, from the occasional glimpse he'd had of it through the mirror, but Plomacon was very secretive about its location. "By all means," he said. He noticed that the line didn't pass anywhere near Elsilia's mansion, nor Hangel's, but there were plenty of other properties they could be using, if they wanted to keep it hidden.
Plomacon disappeared with the map and the borealocus, and reappeared a few minutes later with another line drawn, intersecting the first. Lumus peered at the map. He didn't recognize the building, but he would wager that it was owned by either Elsilia or Hangel. Unless he was wrong and it was another Councillor...or somebody else who had divined the picture's qualities.
"Thank you, Plomacon, you've been very helpful," Lumus said. "I'll contact you again when I have acquired the frame, or if there prove to be other obstacles for you to deal with."
"I look forward to it," Plomacon said, and vanished again.
Lumus prepared to visit Duke Orland again. The next step would be up to him.
This started out as part of one of my writers' group's "Best Opening Contest" entries. I dug it out to continue it and see how it would end up.
Once it reached 2000 words, my standard length goal, it was nowhere near the ending, and while I could have brought it to a lame and overhasty conclusion, I decided to see if I could stretch it out into a two-parter instead.