I dropped to one knee, my head bowed. Yeah, it kinda sucks having to do that, but I figured, you know, better safe than sorry, and right at the moment I was well on the “sorry” side of that particular line. “Forgive me, my Princess; I did not know you.”
“Clearly,” she said dryly. “So, I will ask again, Mr. Jefferson. Why am I here?”
“Well,” I said slowly, staying down in a supplicative pose and trying to think fast, “I don’t know what Archmagus Wolf might have told you about me, but the truth is I’m no common farmer. I’m an independent agent of sorts, a consultant to the Circle for… special jobs.”
She looked dubious. “A mercenary, hired by the Circle of Magi to rob the Duke’s treasury?”
“Yes, but it’s not so bad as that. The Circle has reason to believe that Duke Graymont has been skimming, taking more from his subjects in taxes than your father permits, in his name, and then keeping the difference for himself. I was supposed to find evidence of his misdeeds–a ledger, a secret chamber filled with his take, something along those lines–that could be taken to the royal court to indict him.”
“An odd story,” she mused, sitting back down and gesturing for me to rise. “The magistrate’s report states that the Duke sought unusually high penalties for you, with no explanation, but that could be due to any number of reasons. Graymont has not always been the most even-tempered of men, it is true. And should I make any attempt to verify your claim, he has had plenty of time since you were imprisoned to cover his crimes, such as they may be. Which means that if he is guilty, I will find no evidence of his misdeeds, and if you are mistaken, or lying, I will also find no evidence of his misdeeds. It’s quite a convenient story you tell.
“The odd thing is, this is quite out of character for Archmagus Wolf, or the Circle in general. While I can understand a desire on the Archmage’s part to see corruption done away with, he is not known for clandestine dealings.”
I chuckled softly. “If you will pardon the observation, m’lady, does it not stand to reason that one with great skill in clandestine dealings would not be known for it?”
A sarcastic smirk curled the corners of her mouth. “My brooch,” she said, gesturing to a jeweled pin just below the left shoulder of her cloak, “is enchanted to ward off wild bear attacks. Proof of this fact can be found in the simple observation that there are no wild bears attacking this camp.”
So she knows about tiger-repellent logic. “Your grasp of the principle of Falsifiability is impeccable, Your Highness. Were you any other woman, I would ask where you had studied, but if I were to guess, I would imagine that you have been tutored privately by the most accomplished minds the Royal Academy has produced, and perhaps the Bards as well?”
She nodded slightly. “No bards, but you are correct in your first guess. John Bennett, Anthony Stark, Angela Claire and Sir Ryan Johnson were among my instructors.”
It’s very difficult to suppress an instinctive reaction when someone says something unexpected. Only my theatrical training saved me. “Impressive,” I said, nodding approvingly as she recited the list of names. But things had just gotten a lot more dangerous. The princess should have no reason to lie to me, but she had just said something that I knew with 100% certainty was neither correct nor an honest mistake. Which meant that I–not to mention the folks who ran the Duke’s prison–was the victim of some sort of supremely audacious Bavarian Fire Drill. “It seems that your education truly has been seen to with a great deal of care.”
“And yet,” she said, “there is one important thing that I have not yet learned. The only good reason for the Circle to employ clandestine agents, such as you claim to be, is deniability. But when you were captured the Archmagus did not leave you to rot in the Duke’s dungeon, but instead he went to a great deal of trouble to have you freed. Why would he do such a thing?”
I shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I only ever met him once, for a few brief moments, and that was above a year ago. Maybe he’s just got different priorities than you do?” If she was going to lie through her teeth at me, I might as well return the favor. “Only one thing I’m sure of, though.” I stepped towards her slowly, looking down at the papers she was reviewing. “See this, here?” I stepped up right beside her and placed my finger in the middle of a line of text, as if I had any idea what it said, my arm passing just inches from her face and her chest.
She turned her head to look up at me, giving me a severe look at my blatant intrusion upon her personal space. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but tilting her head back like that was exactly what I was waiting for. I quickly brought my forearm up and moved around to step behind her, holding her neck tightly in a choke hold. “I know that you’re no princess,” I murmured in her ear through clenched teeth. “I know you got guards outside, and I also know I can snap this pretty neck of yours faster than they can rush in here to help you. But that would end badly for both of us, so why don’t you just stay smart, and stay quiet?” Another lie. I’ve never killed anyone and I wasn’t about to start now, but she didn’t need to know that.
I relaxed my grip just a little, and she drew a gaspy breath, then whispered with murderous venom in her tone “how dare you lay hands upon me?”
“Save the act for someone who doesn’t know better, ‘princess’. I’ll admit you had me going, but you made two little mistakes. You see, Angela Claire is an on again, off again lover of mine, and Mr. Stark and I are old drinking buddies, and they can both be rather talkative in the right conditions. If either one of them had ever tutored a princess, I would know about it.” Both lies–I’d never met Ms. Claire, and my relationship with Anthony Stark was… a bit more complicated than that. But making claims like that was a good way to confuse her, at least, and throw her off the trail. With any luck, she’d believe I was lying on both counts (which I was) and investigate my possible links to Johnson and Bennett. “So, who are you really?”
She grunted softly, then relaxed, as if submitting, surrendering to me. Just to be sure it wasn’t a ruse, I said, “place your hands on the table.” When she did, without hesitating, I placed my hands firmly over her wrists. It was about the best I could do without any actual shackles.
She gave a soft whimper of pain when I released the choke hold. “The man warned me you were clever and quick of wit, but he never said you were violent!” she complained.
“What man? Who are you?”
She shrugged. “An agent, like yourself. My name is unimportant.” She gave a single, soft laugh. “Call me Ashley. It’s as good a name as any. I was contacted recently by a man–I don’t know his name, just that he often knows where to find me when he needs special jobs taken care of–and told to have a young man by the name of Jefferson released from Duke Graymont’s prison. I was given this ring, which would disguise me as Princess Ashley, and this brooch, which would allow me to call forth spirit allies to pose as Royal Knights.”
I nodded slowly. “And with the real Princess Ashley serving in the Royal Knights, no one would question it.”
“Until you,” she said ruefully. “I was to attempt to convince you to perform a certain service for the Princess, in return for having freed you. But if you were to see through the deception somehow, I was to simply pass along this message in plain clarity: ‘Come to Beck’s Ridge the day after the new moon, and await the next move, Gray Knight.'”
A chill went down my spine at those words. Was it too late to get back to my cell? “This man, was there anything odd about his appearance?” I asked on a hunch. “Something that’s just fundamentally wrong?”
Her eyes widened slightly. “What do you mean?” She was trying to play it cool, but she knew something, which meant I was probably right. I usually like being right, but right now would be an exception.
“Like… orange skin and no eyelashes?”
She chewed on her lip for a few moments, but it was hard to deny it. “You know him, then?”
Grr! He was supposed to leave me alone and he knew it, and more importantly, his Mistress knew it! I’d made it perfectly clear two freaking years ago that I wanted nothing to do with her or her schemes. But she was annoyingly persistent about the matter. I suppose that when you’re a greater dragon, you see that sort of casual disregard for others’ desires as your prerogative.
“Very well, thank you for delivering the message,” I said, relaxing my hold on her arms. “May I assume I’m free to go now?”
She still looked a bit annoyed at my reaction to discovering she was lying. “Yes,” she said, seething just a little. “Go.” She drew her hands back, and one of hers brushed lightly against mine.
I felt something tingle. Oh crap. Her ring!
Ashley gasped as the enchantment on the ring fell apart, and the glamour it was projecting over her shattered. Her skin changed very subtly, maybe a shade or two lighter, and her facial features shifted a little. Not too much–if the face she had been wearing was the true likeness of Ashley Rebekah de Morgan, this woman could have passed as a cousin to the Princess–but enough to tell she was a different person. The biggest change was her hair: it went from brown to a bright auburn.
She looked up at me in almost awed fascination as she started to put two and two together. “Dying gods! You.. you’re Paul Twister!”
Of all the rotten luck… “It seems I must ask you again. You know my name, and in this you have me at a disadvantage. Might I know the identity of my benefactor?” I put a bit of an edge into my voice this time around.
She flashed me an infuriatingly cheeky grin. “Sorry! Disadvantages like this are too useful to waste!” Then suddenly she was up and on her feet, with a dagger in her hand. Where had that come from? I jumped back slightly, but it wasn’t meant for me; she gave a quick backhanded swipe and cut a long rent in the canvas of the tent, then hopped through and kicked one of the support poles free. The whole thing started to collapse around me, especially after she ran around the side and kicked another one down.
By the time I extricated myself from the fallen tent, “Ashley” was gone, and so was her entourage, leaving me stranded half a mile out of town with no money, no horse, and no good way to get to anywhere useful.
At least I was out of that horrible dungeon, though. I had to make a brief stop by a local farm, where I’d hidden a few important things before heading out to break into the Duke’s treasury, but I wasn’t quite sure where I’d go after that.
One thing was for sure, though. Beck’s Ridge was about three days’ travel to the west, and apparently Ryell wanted me there in five days. So I was going to do the only sane thing to do: head east!