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[personal profile] invoking_urania
Title: Shadows on the Ground (Chapter 4)
Fandom: Slayers
Rating: PG
Genre: Mystery/Action
Words: 49,000 total (4,900 this chapter)
Notes/Warnings: A sequel to The Sun, Half Covered. Story may have a Zel/Amelia bias, but I think it can be read as friendship.
Summary: Amelia and Zel visit a foreign country to seek out a conspiracy against Saillune. Meanwhile, Lina and Gourry are hired to track down a stolen manuscript, one that may be one of Rezo the Red Priest's. These two plots cross unexpectedly, causing trouble that could lead to war.
Disclaimer: Slayers copyright Hajime Kanzaka/Rui Araizumi/Kadokawa/TV Tokyo/Medianet and this derivative work was created without permission.

Previous Chapter

The assassins had been stowed somewhere -- Zelgadis wasn't terribly sure where, but they were guarded. "Now, I'd like to know who sent them. You don't suppose-"

Someone had finally woken up High Priest Calande and she was standing there, with only the dark circles around her eyes showing it was well past midnight. "I'm sorry, Mister Graywords, but that might be impossible. These men-"

Amelia looked up. "Are they from some sort of secretive group of assassins that lurk in the shadows, and are sworn to never reveal their name of employers, even if you threaten torture? Or were their tongues cut out by a mob boss, so they couldn't tell any tales if captured? Or maybe a suicide pill... are they still alive, High Priest Calande?"

"My, what a sense of imagination you have, Princess." High Priest Calande smiled, in a way that Zelgadis would have smacked her for if he was Amelia. Well, more likely ignored with an annoyed glance. He didn't think Amelia noticed, though.

"I was going to say they were probably were hired through so many intermediaries, we'd be chasing down people for a month," Zelgadis said. "I want to avoid improbable conspiracy theories, and some secretive organization of assassins or organized crime syndicate just makes things even more complicated. Plus, they probably would have done a better job." 

"Are you objecting to those guys being incompetent, Mister Zelgadis?" Amelia asked, a twinkle in her eye. He wondered why she seemed so perky; he was running on adrenaline right now. 

"Not at all." 

"If you'll excuse me, Princess, Mister Graywords, those demons did a number on our wards. I'll have to see what can be done before morning." High Priest Calande nodded to them both. "Most of the rooms in this wing are free, if you need to shift locations. Just look for one without a nameplate on the door." 

Amelia nodded. "Thank you, High Priest Calande." 

The High Priest left, and Amelia started gathering up her clothing. "Don't bother," Zelgadis said. 

"Excuse me, Mister Zelgadis?"

"You can get it in the morning. No one's going to steal anything in the mean time."

"I'd still like to keep some of my documents with me," Amelia said. "Uncle Christopher would have a fit if I left them in an unsecured room." 

"Fine," Zelgadis said. "I need to get my sword and some things from my room, anyway." 

Zelgadis quickly went and grabbed his sword, and took out his rolled-up bedroll from on top of his pack, and a pillow from his bed. He returned to Amelia. "All right, let's start knocking on doors." 

"What's all that stuff for?" Amelia asked. 

"Like hell I'm letting you sleep unguarded." Zelgadis said. "Besides, if you're guessing randomly, it'll be harder for whoever this is to find one room than two." Amelia didn't answer, quickly turning a shade of red. Zelgadis sighed, feeling his own cheeks start to flush. "I didn't mean it like that, Amelia. I brought the bedroll for that reason. Hell, we could drag the mattress from my room onto the floor. It's not like there's bed frames in here." 

"To be honest, this is the first time I've shared a room with a man who wasn't a family member, Mister Zelgadis, without, you know, Miss Lina or another woman with me. I don't think it's quite appropriate. I mean, we're just friends, and all, I thought, and-"

Zelgadis sighed. "I said I didn't mean it like that. You and I and Lina and Gourry have camped together lots of times, and there was Redcliffe-"

"Well, that's totally different. No one's in a room, and you and Mister Gourry are on one side of the fire and Miss Lina and I are on the other. And in Redcliffe, we had a sheet. What if someone like High Priest Calande or Mister Miwan saw us?"

"Fine. Would you like to talk about who did it now or in the morning?"

"The morning, I think. I don't know if I'll sleep, but I'm too tired to not try." 

"All right," Zelgadis said. "I'll be in the next room, if you need anything."

He was just settling back into bed when he heard a knock on the door. He figured a very polite assassin was unlikely. He was tempted to tell whoever it was to get lost, so he could get back to bed. "Come in," he said. 

Amelia entered. "I'm sorry, Mister Zelgadis, but I just can't get to sleep. Do you mind-"

Oh, for crying out loud. She had just argued against this. "Fine. Fine. My bedroll's against the wall. You can use that, all right? I'm going to try getting some sleep right here." 

"The bedroll?" Amelia asked. 

Zelgadis wondered if she had expected him to give up the bed for her. Like hell he was doing that. She had already declined his offer the first time. And it wasn't as if they could share the bed. Neither of them would get any sleep that way. At least, Zelgadis thought he'd be pretty damn distracted by it -- hell, the thought was distracting -- and judging from Amelia freaking out about even sharing a room, he thought she'd feel the same way. Not to mention, he was pretty sure it wouldn't be comfortable for her in other ways. "Yes, the bedroll. Unless you want to drag your mattress in here. But tell me if you do that, because I'd like to get some sleep tonight." 

"No, the bedroll's fine." He heard Amelia lie down, and the cloth sounds of her moving against the bedroll, trying to get comfortable. He hoped she wasn't just saying that to make him feel better, then decided if she was, she should speak up about it. If not tonight, then next time. As long as it was in the morning. 

"Bomb di Wind!"

Lina Inverse had learned something about mercenaries in the last couple of days. The first was that there were varying sizes of groups, and that the two Enarra had mentioned, Becker's Brigade and Russell's Rangers, were both small groups, specialized for hit and run attacks. The second was that very few groups of mercenaries, no matter how elite they sounded, weren't prepared for a single sorcery genius (and one damn good swordsman partner) invading their campsite at night, when they weren't in a combat situation. 

"You know, most mercenaries expect to fight groups," Gourry said as he fended off several mercenaries of Becker's Brigade that had the presence of mind to grab their weapons before their pants. He kicked up one of the bedrolls into a man's face, backing up to keep pace with Lina as she strode to the command tent, oblivious of the chaos she had just set off.

"Well, then they've learned a valuable lesson," Lina said. "Think of what would have happened if I was an enemy agent, huh?" 

"You mean you aren't?" One of the men Gourry was fighting nearly fell down in shock as he said that, giving Gourry an opening to push him aside with the flat of his sword. 

"You know, Lina, you probably could have used your magic to sneak in," Gourry said. "I mean, we're not even sure these are the right guys." 

"This works fine, Jellyfish Brains. You're keeping up, and we're almost there. And I didn't even use any fire spells, except the one on one of the tents. Wind's easy enough to clean up after." Plus, it had the benefit of letting her keep in practice, and was a good excuse to stretch her magical muscles against someone more sophisticated than the average bandit. Not that these guys were really much better than a bandit gang. They ought to be ashamed of themselves, really. It probably would have been better practice to be stealthy. Though, if these guys were as good of guards as they were fighters, Prince Phil leading a flight of dragons and the entire Saillune Royal Orchestra could have snuck into camp. 

Lina cast another wind spell silently, and then turned aside the tent flap, letting her cape blow in the wind. "Rumor has it you mercenaries were raiding caravans. That makes you no better than bandits, in my opinion." 

What Lina could only assume was the commander, a middle-aged man that actually looked pretty tough... if he wasn't in his night shirt with a pair of pants around his ankles, turned towards her, a shocked look on his face. She tried to keep a straight face. Some people just didn't know the value of drama. Depressing, really. "I don't know anything about any caravan," he said. "What the hell do you think you are doing to my soldiers, Little Missy?"

"The Sorcerer Guild's caravan to Atlas City was robbed. Rumors put your men at the scene of the crime." Which was a bit of an exaggeration, really, but at least five mercenaries in the bars said they were both a shady company and had a lot more money than normal, last week. 

The man paled. Lucky! Lina grinned. For once, it wasn't the last group on her list. "I..." 

"Listen, if you have the stuff, we'll let you off with-"

"A warning?" the man looked hopeful. "Listen, it was just a sparse season, and I had to feed my men and-"

Lina cut him off with a gesture. "I meant, we'd turn you over to the Sorcerer's Guild, as opposed to letting me finish setting your camp on fire."

"Seth, what do you think you are doing?" 

Lina turned to see where that had come from. A woman in sorceress's robes, the showy velvet kinds with the embroidered mystical symbols, and not the black leather battle bikini with cape that the younger set favored, thank heavens, came into the back of the tent. Aw, heck, I'll bet they're married, and Gourry and I got the middle of another stupid marital debate.

"Hello, sis. I was just talking with-"

"Don't 'hello sis' me. What is going on here?"

"Well, if you wouldn't interrupt me, I'd tell you." 

Oh, it's worse than a marital dispute -- it's sibling rivalry. This is why people should go far from home as soon as they're old enough to travel. "Gourry," Lina looked around for her partner. "Hurry up with those mercenaries, please? I might need you over here."

"I'll see what I can do," Gourry said. He looked like he was holding his own fine. "Can you ask if the leaders will order them to stop fighting me?" 

"Well?" Lina looked at Seth and the sorceress. 

"Are you kidding?" the sorceress stared back. "This is our camp! You're invading us! That could be an act of war against our employers."

"Well, if you stole that bunch of books from the caravan, I get to arrest you and confiscate whatever I find as an officer of the Atlas City Sorcerers' Guild." Lina grinned. "Your employers don't like it, that's not my problem." 

"One moment," Commander Seth said. "We need to confer." 

"Fine. Tell your men to stop beating up my partner then." 

The commander sighed, then produced a respectable bellow. "You heard the cape, men. Disengage!" 

To Lina's satisfaction, the three guys fighting Gourry moved off, and Gourry relaxed a hair. Still in a position to start again if they got close, but no longer obviously on guard. He looked tired; even the best swordsman could be worn down, Lina supposed, and at this stage he was probably lucky he wasn't just going for the kill instead of stunning or disarming most of his opponents. 

"Wait outside," the commander told her. 

"And let you plot against me, or try to sneak out the back way?" Lina said. "I'm not letting you out of my sight." 

"Fine. Fine." The two turned their back on her, and started a hurried conversation in hushed tones. Even Lina's excellent hearing couldn't pick up on what they were saying, which was a shame. It would only give her a moment of warning if they decided to try something stupid, like order their mercenaries to attack. 

When they turned back to face her, they were grinning. That was never a good sign. They were going to try to do something smart, and she'd end up having to set everything on fire, and everyone would be worse off. Well, they'd be worse off, and she and Gourry would be extra tired when she finally got back to her nice inn room. 

"Well?" Lina said. She called a spell to mind, really to yell out the Chaos Words to invoke it if things got hairy. Mega Brand would be best in close quarters. She saw Gourry move in beside her, ready to either jump towards the leaders of this ragged band of bandit mercenaries with his sword, or away from whatever spell she cast. 

"Well, we came into possession of something that could have been your goods," the sorceress said. "But we turned it over to our employer last week. Guess you won't know if we were really responsible, huh?" 

"Guess not," Lina said. She started saying the words for the Lighting spell under her breath, letting the magic trickle through her fingers and form light in her hand. A magic user ought to recognize the difference, but... well, there were a lot of two-bit magic users that didn't. Plus, it looked impressive and would blind the two while she made her exit and got into a better position. Gourry backed up; whether it was to get clear of the tent, or to avoid the spell she wasn't sure. He'd seen her use this trick before, and his otherwise-terrible memory did actually work most times about battle strategies. "On the other hand, you two just admitted you raided a caravan, even if it wasn't necessarily the right caravan. So, that makes you bandits in my book, even if you aren't the ones I was paid to bring in. Fair game." She smiled back at them. 

The two exchanged a look, their grins suddenly replaced with very dismayed looks. "Hey, Tasha, I think that's Lina Inverse," the commander said. "You know, the Bandit Killer." 

"No kidding," the sorceress Tasha said. 

"Bingo!" Lina said. It was so nice to be recognized. 

"Wait!" the commander said. "Tasha made a copy of some of the books. She couldn't read them, but they looked magic. If you set fire to us, they'll burn up too." 

So, Commander Seth was smarter than he looked. "Hand them over." Lina said.

"No way," Tasha said. "Those are valuable magical documents! You wouldn't set fire to them."

"You just admitted they're only copies," Lina said. "Even if they do get burned up, the originals still exist." 

"You're bluffing." 

Lina just grinned, and increased the power of her light spell. Seth and Tasha, the commander and the sorceress, exchanged a terrified look. "We'll hand them over. Just don't cast any more spells!" the commander said. 

"I can do that," Lina said. "Gourry, go with the sorceress when she gets the papers."

"You sure?" Gourry asked. 

"I think you're faster than she is on the draw," Lina said. "You've got those instincts of yours."

Gourry nodded to her, smiling. "That's the nicest thing you've said to me all day, Lina."

"Oh, just do it." Lina rolled her eyes. She turned back to the commander as Gourry and the sorceress Tasha left for where ever a mercenary sorceress kept her working notes. "I hate the waiting part." 

Gourry and the sorceress returned quickly, thank goodness, with Gourry holding a stack of papers. "This is all of them," he said. "I made sure."

"And you did not need to tear my tent apart looking for more, you idiot muscle brained swordsman!" The sorceress Tasha was utterly livid. Lina was noticing her face turning red, and a rather dangerous looking vein was starting to be visible. "Half of those are my own personal notes, not copies from books!"

"We'll let the Guild return anything that isn't its property, or things they're going to confiscate to pay for losses," Lina said. Considering the Sorcerers' Guild was pretty damn mercenary for a group of old people in frilly embroidered robes, it probably wouldn't be much. "And I'd say Gourry was pretty smart, considering that you probably tried to hide some things in your own documents." Judging from the sputtering rage from the sorceress, Lina thought she hit the target. Besides, there was the principle of the matter. Sure, she might insult Gourry worse when she was angry, but he was her partner, dammit, and no one else was going to call him an idiot. Besides, she was pretty sure he knew she didn't mean much by it. She hoped.

"Are you feeling all right, Lina?" Gourry gave her a concerned look. 

"I'm fine, Jellyfish," she said. Of course, that didn't mean she thought there wasn't a grain of truth to the insults. "Hand me the papers, all right?"

She started flipping through them when Gourry handed them to her, trusting him to keep an eye on things as they went. Tasha's notes were pretty clear, and Lina thought she recognized other sorcerers' works. At least, the methods they used to keep their work hidden from prying eyes looked familiar, though for all she could tell from a brief glance, they could actually be their mothers' secret spice cake recipes. Some magic users were weird about secrets. 

The pages she was interested were dark with charcoal or graphite, as if someone had done a rubbing of something and had saved the paper. The dust rubbed off on Lina's gloves as she leafed through the papers. A series of dark dots stood out from the dark surface, as if they had been raised and captured more charcoal than the flat paper. Someone, probably Tasha, had gone over the dots with colored ink, to protect against the smudging that handling the paper did, or at least make sure that even a smudged paper was still legible. It occurred to Lina that making indentations and raised dots would be quite legible to someone reading in the dark... or a blind man. She held one up. "This is it?" 

"Yes," the sorceress said. 

"Great," Lina said. "Now, if you two will accompany me back to town, I can turn you over to the Guild and we can get paid." She wasn't really sure what to do with the rest of the men, since she couldn't haul them all in. Probably just drop a line to some of Gourry's mercenary friends that Becker's Brigade had been caught in banditry, then come back after she got paid and delivered the notes to make sure the remains had dispersed and weren't just trying to become highwaymen. After this mess, more 'teaching bandits the meaning of the word fear' sounded like a nice way to relax. And maybe after that, she could go find a beach somewhere, and take a break. 

"And what makes you think we're going to go willingly?" the sorceress Tasha said. 

"Tasha, don't!" the commander yelled.

Lina tucked the papers away, into the fireproof pocket of her cape, then dismissed the light spell. Gourry moved out of the way, to face the rest of the camp. "Damu Brass!" 

Or she could just raze the camp now, then have Gourry help her haul back the unconscious ringleaders. That worked too. 

Amelia couldn't get comfortable. Part of it was being on the hard wood floor, with only Zelgadis's bedroll and her pillow. Maybe I should have dragged in the mattress, like Mister Zelgadis said. Somehow that seemed like even more of a disruption. Silly enough to ask to spend the night in a friend's room, like he was her father, because someone had tried to kill both of them. Especially after he had offered, under the guise of a guard. 

Besides, it's not like it was terribly romantic. Amelia had read plenty of romance stories about how the heroine had watched the hero sleep and had observed a inner vulnerability to his otherwise tough facade. She had been curious, and had pretty much observed that if that was true of Zelgadis, it wasn't anything she could discern. He did look a lot happier being asleep than he generally did awake, especially before his first cup of coffee in the morning, but he also looked pretty silly. 

It hadn't fit any of the romance novel cliches, either. Zelgadis hadn't even thought of offering her his bed, or anything else, for that matter. 

Eventually, as dawn was starting to shine through the windows Amelia decided to get up for good, and go back into her own room to change. She put on a loose belted tunic and trousers, and grabbed her slippers. She felt like she hadn't slept at all last night, and she was tempted just to find a quiet spot somewhere and curl up for the rest of the day. "But, I have things to do in the morning, if I could remember what they were." She had her schedule in her belt pouch, and she took it out and looked at it. "I'm not going to be awake for half of these." It occurred to her that an assassination attempt was an excuse to cancel meetings, but that seemed a bit of a show of weakness. "Besides, if I did that, I'd never get anything done." 

She crept downstairs into the small pantry. The kitchen staff was already up and about preparing breakfast for the temple's residents, but it wasn't ready yet. Amelia managed to find some of last night's bread left over, and took it back to her room to snack on while breakfast cooked. 

By that time, she heard sounds of people waking up. She passed by Zelgadis's room just as he was leaving, dressed for the day. "Sleep well?" he asked.

"Well," Amelia thought about whether to answer him honestly, or be diplomatic. "I suppose considering what happened, I didn't sleep horribly." 

Zelgadis nodded. "Next time, you might want to take up my offer." Sweet heavens, did he realize how that sounded? Apparently either he did, or read it in her face. "I meant, the guard thing. So you feel safe." 

"Right, the guard thing. I guess next time I won't worry so much about it." 

Zelgadis nodded. "I wanted to go over who might have sent either the assassins or the demons. Over breakfast. You look like you could use some tea."

In fact, it took at least two cups of tea and a lot more food than people normally ate at breakfast before Amelia was feeling a bit more normal, and not like there was sandpaper coating her eyes and her face was all puffy. Zelgadis looked like he had slept fine. "So, who do you think did it?" she asked. 

"I don't know. Who did we annoy badly enough to make them want to kill you?" 

Amelia sighed. "And I was trying to increase goodwill towards Saillune. When we got here, we only had one enemy. Now we have two." 

Zelgadis had taken out a piece of paper. "We've only really interacted with the king and his council, so let's look at them first. I suppose the Elemekian ambassador also counts as someone one of us has spoken to, but let's leave him off for now." 

Amelia nodded. "That makes sense." She watched him write down their names. "And, yes, let's leave him off." 

"That's King Kavei, General Siraba, Master Dareiba, Duke Shanin, Archamage Awel and High Priest Calande. What order do you want to go in?"

"Alphabetical works," Amelia said. "Archmage Awel. He seemed nice enough to me."

"He came out to get me after I ran afoul of the local laws," Mister Zelgadis said. "Seemed awfully interested in how I became a chimera. Said it was so he could better enforce the laws against people trying to create them. He also wanted to know how I knew you." 

"That fits with what I thought about him. I think he was fishing for potential spouses for the king." 

Zelgadis raised his brow. "I wouldn't think you'd be interested in that," he said slowly.

"I'm not, Mister Zelgadis," Amelia said. "I mean, I'm sure the king is a perfectly nice person, and all. I mean, from what I've seen of him, he is, but I still barely know him. Besides, if my sister does decide to never come back, I'll be the one on the throne, which means I can't go marrying into another royal family. Not unless I'm prepared to merge the kingdoms." 

"I can't imagine that the isolationists here would like that," Zelgadis said. "The other questions did worry me. If someone interested in chimera, they could also be able to summon demons. A sorcerer, especially a Guild Leader, ought to be able to find the books pretty easily." 

"True," Amelia said. "But, his reasons did make sense on their own. And most everyone else seems to think he's not that socially aware." 

"It would go with his idea to marry the king off to you," Zelgadis said. 

"That gives the High Priest next. Did you hear anything about her?" 

"Not really," Zelgadis said. "You?" 

"No. About the only hint that something would be wrong is that Miss Sholei... Sholeiba, sorry, could have easily contacted her without having any suspicion arise. Also, she's a magic user, so could summon demons if she had to." 

Zelgadis nodded. "We can check the messenger thing with someone, if someone hasn't hidden it. If she summoned the demons, it would explain how they got into a temple. The wards aren't as strong as the ones in Saillune City, but it wouldn't have been a walk in the park." 

"Paranoid much, Mister Zelgadis?"

"Two someones tried to kill us last night. It's not paranoia if someone is really out to get you. Next is Master Dareiba... tab Dareiba? I haven't spoken with her, but she gives me the creeps." 

"She's got a skin disorder, so she has to cover up and wear dark eyeglasses." 

"Are we sure about that?" 

"Well, most people her age don't have white hair," Amelia said.   Plenty of people had light hair, but pure white was less likely.  "She's also very pale. And even if she is hiding something, that doesn't mean that it has to do with us. From when I talked to her, she was very interested in trading with Saillune. It wouldn't make sense to start a war that way. I think she's the least likely candidate."

"Point. Unless she wants to encourage arms dealers and mercenaries," Zelgadis said.   

"I don't think so. Considering Jarei would fare poorly in a war, even against a peaceful country like Saillune." 

"So noted. The king? You had dinner with him last night, didn't you? What did you talk about?" 

"He seemed really nice," Amelia said. She wondered if Zelgadis was jealous -- no, that was silly.  They were talking about someone who might send an assasin, not who might ask her to a ball. "We talked a lot about my plans for the south of Saillune and then I ended up telling some stories about my travels. He hasn't been out of the country much, so he was interested to hear about other places, especially the Outer World." 

Zelgadis nodded. "So the king has got the same positive outlook that Dareiba does?"

" I think General Siraba thinks he was involved with the death of the old queen and her consort, though." 

"Really? What makes you say that?" Zelgadis tilted his head, staring at her.  

"Nothing specific -- she said that Duke Shanin blamed the foreigners and High Priest Calande blamed him and the isolation movement. And then she said whoever killed the old queen wanted King Kavei on the throne." Amelia considered.  "But he seems like such a nice person."  Which wasn't a strong argument against it, unfortunately.  

Zelgadis nodded. "What a mess." 

"Yes, it is." 

"What about the General? It seems like she might be worth looking at as someone who'd be interested in a war." 

"You'd think so, but she seemed like she wanted to be helpful," Amelia said.

"She's the one who told you about the king? Sounds more like spreading rumors than being helpful."

"That's a possibility as well, I suppose." Amelia said. "But isn't that a bit paranoid?"

Zelgadis cleared his throat. 

"Well, yes," Amelia said. "But it's going to be hard to narrow down the choices if we can't rule anyone out."

"Then we can just rank the most suspicious ones, and do them first." 

"This is going to take a while, isn't it?" Amelia said.

"Probably. I hate politics." 

Amelia sighed.  "So do I, Mister Zelgadis. At least, we only have one more person on the list. I didn't talk to Duke Shanin." 

"Neither did I. But the Elemekian ambassador said he was working with the isolationists, and General Siraba said High Priest Calande thought he killed the queen. But, he probably didn't summon the demons-"

"What, you mean you think someone didn't do something, Mister Zelgadis?"

"Well, I think it's safe to assume one of the magic users was our demon summoners, with a third option being someone hired, like the assassins. So, I think we should focus trying to rule out Calande and Awel as our demon summoners, and only consider the others as people who hired either the assassins or a demon summoner." Mister Zelgadis said. 

Amelia nodded. "Glad that's settled. Now I have to do something even harder. I have to tell Uncle Christopher I ran into trouble." She slumped down. "He's probably going to try to order me home -- I can feel it. He isn't going to like this."
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Becca Stareyes, Invoking Urania

December 2013

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