Daniel dismissed Patrick, but not me. He pulled a view disk from his desk drawer. Without a word, he opened his pocket watch and rested the disk over the existing glass. The disk glowed and then projected an image. A translucent version of Aubrey waited at a door. A slit opened at eye level. She said something. The slit closed. And she walked through the door. The image cut off, and Daniel removed the view disk from his watch so it wouldn’t repeat. I had no idea what I’d just watched, but I didn’t comment.
“This is the only view disk in the collection that features Aubrey,” Daniel said. “There are twelve others like this one with different people. Find out what this meeting is and why Cam and Korak could use it to extort Aubrey and the others.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“I know you’ll need to follow Aubrey to do this. Please be discrete,” he instructed.
“I will,” I promised. “Do you know when the meetings happen?”
“I do not. She declined my invitation to dinner tonight due to a prior engagement. Perhaps it is nothing but start by following when she leaves work tonight. I want this answer, Jim. If you must follow her every night until you figure it out, that’s what I want you doing.”
“Of course, sir.”
I hurried to get to Aubrey’s alteration shop. When I arrived, she’d already locked up for the night. I glimpsed red hair turning the corner a few blocks down, and ran after her. People couldn’t see me as I dodged between them, but they’d certainly feel it if I ran into them. When I got to the street, the redhead turned down just in time to see her turn another corner. This time, I saw Aubrey’s profile. I sped up as much as I dared.
I accidentally knocked the groceries out of a man’s hands. As bad as I felt about it, I couldn’t stop to help him. The extra speed paid off as I saw Aubrey duck down an alley. Thankfully, I had fewer people to dodge on this street. I made it to the alley in time to see Aubrey look around her and then walk inside the building. The door slammed shut behind her. This wasn’t the same door I’d seen on the view disk. Aubrey’s furtive looks told me that didn’t matter. I’d found her secret meeting.
People trickled into the alley over the next hour. I watched from behind my concealment spell as they repeated the steps I’d seen on the recording. The group must have moved after Cam and Korak caught some of their members on video. They didn’t record all of them by a long shot. I counted twenty-four people, which didn’t account for anyone who arrived before Aubrey. The door slammed shut behind each person. I stood no chance of sneaking in on someone’s coattails. By the last couple of people I watched, I felt confident I could get in. I’d go in by password as the last resort, though.
First, I circled the block, looking for an entrance I could sneak through. When none presented itself, I climbed the fire escape. I didn’t find any access on the roof either. Things didn’t add up. On my way down, I noticed curtains did not block the windows as I’d initially assumed. Someone bricked over them from inside. Whatever they did at this meeting, they’d taken extreme measures to keep it secret. With no obvious alternative, I decided to try the password I’d overheard.
Hopefully, they were open to newcomers as long as they got the correct phrase. Before approaching the door, I dropped my concealment and adopted a disguise spell. Whoever greeted me would see a younger, thinner man with bright yellow hair. While the color would definitely draw attention, when I dropped the disguise, they’d keep looking for that detail. I couldn’t hide in crowds easily, so if I needed to escape in a hurry, I wanted them looking for something more eye-catching than the tallest man in the group.
I knocked just as everyone before me had. The slit appeared out of nowhere. They hadn’t cut a hole and covered it with a sliding cover, as I’d thought when watching from a distance. Instead, it looked a bit like a maw opening in the door. A pair of silver eyes looked out at me. They took what felt like a little too long looking me over. I almost spoke the password too soon out of nervousness.
“May the First Realm welcome my friends,” a deep masculine voice said.
“And may the Third Realm consume my enemies,” I responded.
The gash in the door resealed itself. A second later, I heard a complicated unlocking process. I looked down but saw no locks on this side. There wasn’t even a doorknob. The door opened, and I stepped in quickly. The door slammed shut behind me. A fit man about a foot shorter than me promptly latched the door and then twisted four locks in an order that must be significant. First, he did the upper-middle, next the bottom, then the top, and finally the lower-middle. That cut me off from a quick getaway.
I walked down the corridor in front of me, thinking there had to be another exit that simply wasn’t obvious from the exterior. Having a single escape route that bottlenecked the group in an emergency was an excellent way to get a lot of people killed. When I reached the end of the hallway, I found black curtains instead of a solid wall. Bright light hit me in the face as I parted them. I squeezed my eyes shut on instinct. I forced them back open, and they adjusted to reveal an old theater.
Only two people paid my entry much attention. They both looked like hired muscle. The rest of the group, probably seventy or eighty people, chatted in smaller cliques. I walked down the slope, scanning the groups until I spotted Aubrey. While most others formed packs of six or more, she spoke to two people. The three of them stood near the far right of the room. Since my disguise only covered my physical appearance, I didn’t dare approach her. She might recognize my voice. She might not make the leap that I’d magically altered my appearance, but I didn’t want her thinking of the real me at all if I could help it.
Instead of joining or lingering near her, I walked to the far side of the group closest to hers. I still couldn’t hear her conversation at this distance, but I had a clear line of vision to her. The people I approached paused their discussion and looked at me. I still had no idea why they’d gathered. Thankfully, someone interpreted my expression as nervousness about not having a group instead of recognizing my fear of being called out.
“First time here?” the woman next to me asked.
“Yeah,” I said, hoping to get by on monosyllabic answers until I knew more.
“Welcome, I’m Katya. We were just discussing the possibility of allowing sympathetic Casters into these meetings,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s safe,” a man said, saving me from having to answer. “They’re part of the system. Why would they want to change things?”
His comment sparked more discussion. I listened and watched. They stayed on the topic of Caster’s motivations to seek change, but no one said what the group wanted to change. As the debate continued, I noticed the one thing they all had in common. Everyone in my group wore a quelling band. As subtly as possible, I glanced at other groups in the room. Not every person had one on obvious display, but over half the people had a clearly displayed thick metal brace around their wrist. This was a meeting of suppressed magic users.
If my life had gone just a little differently, I could have ended up here under different circumstances. I couldn’t leave without drawing attention, but as I listened, I discovered I wanted to stay. I struggled to keep in mind that Daniel sent me here to spy on Aubrey. Whenever I remembered to check, she still stood with her two friends. After a few more minutes, the lights dimmed, and the conversation stopped. Everyone sat in the theater seat closest to them. The room filled with the sound of creaking chairs until people settled completely. Hushed anticipation swelled around me.