“Are you ready?”
In the darkness, it was impossible to see where the voice came from. At least, not for Sergius. He needed light.
In normal circumstances, Sergius would have light. After all, he was a White Swan. Light radiated from his feathers naturally, and so he was usually never in the darkness. And if he needed more light than that, he would dip a feather in some water and light would burst forth from it. If he had touched a lake, he could light up a whole town that way — along with giving it miraculous healing powers as well.
But these were not normal circumstances. Sergius needed to be discrete, and that meant that he had to be human.
And this meant that no light.
Sergius scanned the horizon, frowning. “You realize that I am blind right now, don’t you? It’s too dark for me to see anything.”
“Sorry, I forgot,” the voice said apologetically. “I see everything fine right now in the darkness. In fact, it’s easier to see than when it’s bright outside. It’s hard to remember sometimes, you know, how it used to be difficult to see in the dark when I was — but I suppose that doesn’t matter anymore.” Two red lamps lit up — the Black Swan’s eyes — and cast an eerie red glow everywhere. “You look good,” the Black Swan said to Sergius. “Very human. Very convincing. It’s nice to finally meet you properly. Sergius, isn’t it?”
Sergius nodded. “And you? Have I met you before?”
“Only in passing, when I was still a White Swan,” the Black Swan said sadly. “My name is Nausio. Perhaps you remember me?” he added hopefully.
Sergius shook his head. “No, sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Nausio said lightly. Though as soon as Nausio said this, Sergius knew that not only was Nausio definitely not okay that Sergius did not remember him at all, but that he was actually quite disappointed with the answer. “I didn’t expect you would remember me. You being such an important Swan and all that. It must be nice to be so important. You’re one of the Twelve, aren’t you?”
Sergius scowled. “Eleven. Not Twelve. One of us was destroyed, remember?”
“Oh. Sorry,” Nausio said apologetically. “Still, it’s an honor to finally meet with you, and especially to be given a chance to work with such a distinguished White Swan!” Nausio bowed his head, and as he did so, he closed his eyes and the light vanished.
Sergius jumped, startled. “Nausio! Light!”
Nausio’s eyes blinked open. “Sorry. I forgot.”
Sergius shifted uneasily on his feet and rubbed his hands on his arms. It was cold. “Let’s get this over with,” he said with a groan. “Tell me what you know.”
“About the case?” Nausio asked. “It’s a messy one.”
“They usually are.”
“This one is even messier,” Nausio said importantly, stretching his neck higher in a dramatic fashion. He stretched his wing and pointed. “You see over there?” he said, his voice starting to swell as he started his story. “Three humans were murdered there yesterday. A father, a mother, and their daughter. All three of them murdered together in their home. A tragedy, don’t you think?”
Sergius shrugged. “I suppose. Who murdered them?”
“It’s not entirely clear,” Nausio said. “But there is only one survivor of the family. Out of all four of the people who lived in that house — if you can even call it that, for it’s a miserable and impoverished dwelling that is hardly fit to be called a house — only one has survived. Can you imagine? Though, perhaps it’s not so much a matter of survival as — oh, but I’ll let you decide that.”
Sergius clicked his tongue impatiently. The way that Nausio was telling the story irritated him, and it seemed to Sergius that Nausio was stretching out the story as long as possible for the greatest dramatic impact. “You still haven’t told me who survived.”
“The only person who seemed to survive was the son,” Nausio said.
“How old is the son?” Sergius asked.
“Eighteen years old.”
Sergius considered this. “And so the son murdered them all?”
Nausio tittered a laugh, which annoyed Sergius even more. “An amusing theory, isn’t it? A fitting end, in fact! The idea that, in a household of four, a son would destroy three of his family members in a moment of adolescent rage. The only problem is that it’s — well — impossible.”
Sergius frowned. “It’s impossible?”
Nausio nodded. “Quite impossible.”
Sergius waited for him to elaborate, but Nausio stood there, his head cocked and his eyes gleaming eagerly, waiting for him to respond. It was an eerie sight, seeing the Black Swan stare at him, and it made the human hairs on his skin prick up all the more. “Black Swans are harder to read, but if you refuse to answer my questions, I will forcibly read you,” Sergius snapped. “Why is it impossible that the son killed his family?”
Nausio suddenly fluffed up his feathers and shifted uncomfortably. “It is impossible for the son to kill his family because he wasn’t there. You see, the son had been away on a fishing trip for several days. He had an ironclad alibi. I’ve interviewed dozens that saw him pass by and nobody saw him around for several days afterwards, until he came back. When he came back, he came back with baskets of smoked fish that he had smoked at his campsite. Everything about his story checks out. The family must have been murdered while he was away.”
“So the son didn’t kill them?” Sergius prompted.
“Nobody is quite sure,” Nausio said. “For it appears that the son did not kill the family. However, the father’s body was treated in a particularly gruesome way after he died. And the townspeople believe that the son did this, for the son never got along with the father. So the townspeople believe that he caused the deaths of his family somehow. They are suggesting that perhaps he called upon powerful dark magic to slay his mother and sister, as well as kill his father.”
Sergius sighed and rubbed his head. “Too many idiots have too many idiotic perceptions of magic,” he muttered. “Even the Conqueror didn’t use dark magic to destroy her enemies! Using physical force is a much more effective way of destroying people. Magic only muddles things up. But never mind all that,” he said quickly, when Nausio shifted uncomfortably. “What does this have to do with us? Why did we get called in?”
“The mother and daughter had Swan blood,” Nausio explained. “Indeterminate origin. Or at least that’s my best guess, given that they didn’t seem to have any cards. I verified it as soon as I could. And it appears the son might have the same blood, though he’s been fighting and refuses to let us take a sample. Also, there are reports that the father called them filthy Conquerers — though, of course, that hasn’t been verified yet. And the father was in the habit of yelling at them all sorts of insults, so maybe it was just something he said.”
Sergius rubbed his head. “So we need to verify his blood and make sure that a Conqueror hasn’t risen up and is systematically destroying everybody, starting with his family, with an aim of destroying the entire world?”
“Something like that!” Nausio said cheerfully. Then, in a proud voice, he said, “You know, this is the first time that I was involved in a case like this. While I was flying overhead the town, I heard some screaming and lots of yelling. They had just discovered the bodies of the dead family, apparently, and they were calling for a Swan. And of course, I am a Swan. And I realized that I could help, and so I did. And then I realized that the situation called for you, my lord. So I called on you and you came, and have I mentioned how much of an honor it is for me to help and work with the White Swans again?”
Once more, he bowed down. Once more, he closed his eyes.
“Nausio!” Sergius cried.
Nausio blinked his eyes open again. “Sorry.”
Sergius sighed. “So this is the first time you’ve done one of these before?”
“Yes, my lord,” Nausio said enthusiastically. “Though, I think I’ve done remarkably well, considering. The son is bound, gagged, and under strict orders not to be loosed under any circumstances. He also doesn’t have any weapons — I made sure that he was stripped naked so that he couldn’t surprise us, given the propensity of Conquerors bleeding certain White Swans.”
“Including yourself?” Sergius asked warily.
Nausio’s feathers went up in embarrassment. “No, I accidentally bled myself trying to crawl through a cave when I was trying to — well, it doesn’t quite matter, does it?”
“As long as a Conqueror didn’t bleed you,” Sergius said firmly. “We try to keep the Conquerors’ Swan victims away from potential Conquerors, after all.”
Nausio beamed. “I haven’t met a Conqueror yet.”
Sergius nodded distractedly. “Good. And this is your first time doing an investigation?”
“Yes. It is an honor.” Nausio almost bowed again, thought better of it, and blinked hurriedly.
“Then listen to me,” Sergius said quietly. “This probably won’t end up being a Conqueror. They usually aren’t. There aren’t many Conquerors left in this world — the Oracle said just a couple of days ago that there was only one left, in fact. But, just in case this man ends up being a Conqueror, please be on your guard. They are crafty and dangerous, especially when they are desperate, and I am afraid to say that he is probably pretty desperate right now.”
Nausio looked aghast. “You think I shouldn’t have locked him up the way that I had?”
Sergius shook his head. “No, if he is suspected of killing his family, then what you did was right. But if he is a Conqueror—”
Suddenly Sergius frowned.
In a hurried voice, Sergius asked, “When did you say that the family die? Do you know?”
“Three days ago,” Nausio said confidently. Then he frowned. “Wait, no, I’m sorry. Four days ago. Yes, they died four days ago. The townspeople contacted me yesterday, and now we’re meeting today.”
Sergius stared at Nausio. “Four days ago?” he asked, his stomach dropping. “Are you absolutely sure about that number?”
Nausio nodded. “I didn’t touch the murder scene, just in case you wanted to look at it, but it probably doesn’t smell too good right now. I only looked over it briefly before I had to leave.” He suddenly looked nervous. “Sorry about that.”
Sergius waved his hand, as if to dismiss the apology. “It’s all right. I’m sure you did fine.”
Nausio beamed at him, and Sergius allowed himself to smile at the Black Swan. Still, Sergius was troubled. Four days ago? That had been when the Oracle had made the statement that there was only one Conqueror left, and she didn’t make those sorts of statements lightly. Perhaps Nausio, as blundering as he was, had stumbled on an actual Conqueror.
The thought seemed ridiculous. And yet…
A funny laugh escaped Sergius and he suddenly felt dizzy. Nausio frowned. “Are you all right, my lord?”
“Yes, yes, just suddenly nervous. A bad sort of feeling, I suppose, though admittedly unfounded. It’ll pass, I’m sure.”
Nausio bowed, this time making sure to keep his eyes open. “I’ll protect you as much as I can,” he promised. “The man is bound and gagged and very well guarded. I’ll bleed him so that he doesn’t get close to you, then we can check to see what sort of blood he has, and if he is a Conqueror, you can kill him.”
Sergius shook his head firmly. “No. If he is truly the last Conqueror in the world, we cannot kill him. Otherwise, we’ll destroy the world.”
“What?” Nausio cried. “You’re joking.”
Sergius shook his head again. “No, I am not joking. I am very serious. It’s… a complicated prophecy. I cannot explain it all, especially not now. But only Diamea can kill the last Conqueror. Otherwise, the world will be destroyed.”
Nausio stared at Sergius. “But Diamea is dead. Right?” When Sergius hesitated, Nausio continued, “The Conqueror killed Diamea. Ages ago. Right? That’s why Conquerors are so dangerous. And that’s why we have to kill Conquerors when we find them.”
“But we have to save the last one for Diamea,” Sergius said. “That much is clear. Diamea has to be the one who kills him. And, through the last Conqueror’s death, the first Conqueror will be able to die as well.”
Nausio tilted his head. “Isn’t the first Conqueror already dead?”
Sergius shook his head. “No. Her body is destroyed, but she is immortal. Even now, she speaks to her descendants that will listen to her as a whisper on the wind.” Sergius grinned. “But when Diamea kills her last descendant, he will be able to kill her as well!”
Nausio stared at him. “Except Diamea is dead.”
Sergius shrugged. “Diamea is not dead right now. After all, his Lady has been reborn. The Oracle unofficially announced it not too long ago. And if the Lady has been reborn, Diamea must have been reborn as well.”
Nausio clicked his beak impatiently. “Not to be rude to your mother, the Lady, but just because his Lady has been reborn doesn’t mean anything. The Lady has been reborn eight times in my lifetime and it hasn’t amounted to anything. Forgive me for being skeptical of this new one.”
Sergius didn’t disagree with him. And yet, Nausio’s tone irritated him all the same. “The only reason why nothing happens is because the last Conqueror keeps having children,” he snapped. “If the last Conqueror has a child, then the Lady and Diamea die, and a new generation of Conquerors comes about. It’s hardly the Lady’s fault that this happens.”
“You would think that Diamea wouldn’t allow himself to be so helpless to a Conqueror, him being the creator of the world,” Nausio muttered.
“Don’t speak of Diamea that way,” Sergius warned. “I’m sure that he has a reason for doing what he has done. So far, the prophecy hasn’t come to fruition yet. But perhaps it will someday.”
“And what are the chances that this time will be any different?” Nausio snapped.
Sergius hesitated and thought about the new Lady. “It seems unlikely,” he reluctantly agreed. “Besides, the Lady reborn is quite… well, I won’t say it.”
“Disagreeable?” Nausio offered. “She seems to be very snotty towards us Gray Swans. I’ve heard stories.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Sergius said delicately. “I have tried to avoid her as much as possible. Though, she is young still. Maybe she will grow up in time.”
“Perhaps,” Nausio said. Then he added, “Do we know who Diamea reborn is yet?”
Sergius shook his head. “No, not yet. We won’t know who he is until the Lady recognizes him.”
Nausio sighed. “So, if this is a Conqueror, we’ll have to save him so that Diamea can kill him later, once the Lady finds him for us?”
Nausio shook his head. “Let’s hope that this isn’t a Conqueror then,” he muttered. “I can’t imagine that this man would be very happy to be detained even longer than he has been already. He’s a fighter.”
“Indeed,” Sergius said. “In the meantime, if he does end up being a Conqueror, make sure that he doesn’t try to bleed me, all right? I admit that I quite enjoy my white feathers.”
Nausio bowed. “I am at your service, my lord.”