There was one other reason I had wanted to visit the Bards’ College: a guild of wandering professional storytellers and gossips was a great place to get caught up on current events. Stopping by here gave me a good picture of how things were in the kingdom, where folks were doing well and where they weren’t. And that’s important knowledge, because discontent is a thief-for-hire’s bread and butter.
Given the state of peace the kingdom had been in for quite a while now, you might think that serious problems would be in short supply, but it’s not quite that simple. One of the most basic parts of human nature is an impulse that’s nasty, selfish, and overly competitive, and a lot of people don’t see a little thing like there not being any good reason to let it out as a good reason not to let it out. So there were always little bits of trouble popping up throughout the kingdom.
The bigger problem for me was that the sort of jobs people used to hire me for had been getting more and more scarce. Ever since Gerald took the reins as head of the Circle, he’d been doing a pretty good job at getting the wizards to shape up, which made it tricky to find wizards who really needed a good screwing-over and had a wealthy enemy (frequently another wizard) willing to pay for it.
I’d actually managed to pick up a few jobs on the down-low from Gerald, and most of them didn’t turn out as disastrously as my attempt to raid Duke Graymont’s treasury, but even so, money was a bit tight lately. The kingdom was getting a bit more civilized, which was good for most people. I guess I should be happy? But it kinda left me out in the cold.
So the Bards’ College was a good place for finding out about opportunities, because the Bards considered it a sworn duty to share interesting news. The development of the teleporting messenger pigeon had made things both easier and more difficult in that respect. It was easy to get a message to one of the camps, but setting up any sort of communications network between them was trickier than you might expect, for a couple reasons. First off, no one knew where all the camps were, and second, a guild of storytellers tends to have a certain institutional disdain for spoilers. And even presenting the names of the different camps would count as a spoiler, since they tended to be related to the location in some way, such as Amber, which was out in a forest.
But in the end, the ability to spread news around like this proved a temptation too strong to resist. So what the Master Bards came up with was a system where they gave each letter a number, and then for each camp, they would sum up the values of the letters in its name, and that became a code number representing the camp.
I was impressed. With zero input from me, they’d managed to come up with one of the three principles of hash codes, a very important part of computer science involving turning text (or other data) into a smaller, simpler, and (hopefully) unique number. It had all sorts of applications, from large-scale information storage and retrieval to cryptography to password security. And my professors at college had said that the other two principles, collision resistance (developing an algorithm that makes it unlikely that two inputs will resolve to the same number) and resistance to reverse engineering (making it difficult for a person to take a number and figure out what the original text was) were very difficult mathematical problems that were still the subject of active research in the 2010s. A few bards had actually raised the question of collisions, and the general consensus seemed to be “if anyone finds two camps whose name-sums are the same number, we’ll worry about it then.” So far, it hadn’t happened.
Anyway, the post for Amber String was located in a building on the far side of the camp from the lodge. I headed over the next morning. This was both the most boring and the most dangerous part, actually. Since I couldn’t read, I needed to have the notices read to me, and therein lies the problem. Bards are pretty clever people, on the whole, especially the ones who’ve managed to figure out the locations of the secret camps. If someone tells me about something going on in the kingdom, and then I leave and Paul Twister shows up there a few days later, someone might start to wonder, especially if it happens more than once. So I couldn’t just ask “what interesting things are going on right now, within a few days’ ride?” I had to go over pretty much everything and pretend to be equally interested in all of it. And there’s no one who can see through an act like a trained performer.
“You’re up bright and early, Peter,” the postmistress said with a warm smile as I walked in. Amber, as she called herself (just Amber, no other name,) was one of the more interesting characters around here, that rarity of rarities, a sedentary bard. She looked to be in her mid-30s, with fiery red hair she kept cut high, not falling to her shoulders. She was rather petite in stature and pleasantly curved, with green eyes and skin a fair bit darker than you’d expect on a girl with red hair and green eyes; it gave her an exotic, alluring look that plenty of guys around here had fallen for.
She was almost certainly much more than she appeared to be. For over a decade, they say, she’d been the keeper of the post here, making sure all the messages got to whoever should get them instead of going out and wandering and exploring. With the advent of the pigeons, her role had changed somewhat, but she still saw pretty much everything that anyone wanted someone else to see. Some bards thought she was some sort of spy or agent. Me, I had a slightly different theory. The way she talked when presenting news had a certain rhythm to it, a pattern that teased at my mind. I couldn’t help but suspect that she was there to serve up clues, that those who “got it” would find the location of another String. But so far, I didn’t get it. It was too easy to get distracted while talking with her, especially if you happened to be looking at her!
“Morning, Amber. What’s going on in the kingdom?” I asked with a cheerful smile.
She laughed. “You’re asking me? I’ve been here all along. What has been going on out there?”
It was always like that with her. So I told her about rumors of Duke Graymont’s tax malfeasance, about the eccentric visionary Anthony Stark being injured in a demonstration of one of the crazy machines they were trying to build at that academy of his, and a rumor I’d heard that there was an agent of an unknown power going around impersonating Princess Ashley and potentially causing trouble. Plus a bunch of silly gossip I’d picked up along the way. She had a quill and ink handy, noting down the things I told her almost as fast as I could relate them.
In return, she read me a bunch of silly gossip from the notice board, and a handful of things that actually looked relevant and interesting, if only they weren’t several weeks out of date, a long distance away, or both. There was one thing that caught my interest, though.
“Out Barley-way,” Amber drawled, “it says here there’s a lass, turned up with child. She claims the father is the oldest son of the baron, but the baronet denies it.”
I nodded slowly. “Poor girl. I’ve heard this story enough times to know how it usually ends: with some undeserving kid growing up in poverty and misery, punctuated by the occasional bitterly disappointing bout of false hope.”
She just grinned. “There’s more, though. In this case, it seems the townsfolk all believed her, and they’re rallying behind her. They see this last offense as if it were a final provocation after living for too long beneath the baron’s heel. Word is he doesn’t do too good a job at running things out there, and never has. They’re clamoring to bring the baron down. They even sent off a petition to the king. From what I’ve heard, it looks like they might be annoyed enough to act without first hearing from the Crown.”
Wow. To most folks, a situation like that sounded like the makings of a first-class mess.
To me, it sounded like opportunity!
“Anyway, next we have quite a tale over in Millersford…” I endured the rest of the reading, trying to focus more on how Amber was saying what she was saying than what it was she was saying, trying to understand why something in the back of my mind saw a pattern there, but whatever it was eluded me again.
When it was done, I smiled and told her I’d have to take my leave, that I wasn’t planning on staying long.
“Well, come back soon; we’ll all miss you so!” She raised her skirt slightly and gave a curtsy that, as close as she was standing, gave me a brief view of just a little too much beneath her loose, low-cut top. Or maybe exactly enough; she always had this flirtatious manner about her. She behaved like that towards everyone, older or younger, man or woman, though as far as I’d heard no one had ever managed to persuade her into any sort of romantic entanglements, though plenty had tried!
So I packed up and got my horses out of the stable, and headed off. Time to see what sort of trouble was brewing in town.
* * *
Barley. What a boring name for a town. Descriptive, I suppose; the road into town led past a few miles of barley fields. But even so. And I guess that meant that the local lord, the one whose son was at the center of all the trouble, would be the Baron of Barley. At least his name was Richard and not Brian or Barry or something like that.
So when I got into town proper, I did the first thing I pretty much always do; found the inn and took my horses around to the stable to get them squared away for the night. Not that it was night just yet; I’d been going about three and a half days to reach this place, and it was early in the afternoon. But when I got inside, I saw something that made me stop dead in my tracks.
A few stalls down was the largest, strongest, most magnificent horse I had ever seen. A powerful mare, taller by a few hands than any other horse I’d encountered in the kingdom, with soft, creamy white hair covering her from head to tail, and powerful muscles evident beneath her skin. The light inside was just barely dim enough that I could see the horse’s body emitting a faint glow, but only because I knew to look for it.
What in the world was Wyntaf doing here? That could only mean one thing. My luck was really changing. But was it for the better, or for the worse? I guess the only way to find out would be to head inside.
I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting to find in there, but the scene I encountered was definitely not it. There were maybe twenty-five or thirty annoyed-looking villagers crowded into the common room, all talking over the top of each other, directing their complaints at a single figure over in the corner who stood a few inches higher than even the tallest of them. Broad wings adorned her back, the plumage the same creamy white color as her horse’s hair. She turned her head at the sound of the door opening, and her eyes widened slightly when she saw me.
Poor Aylwyn. She looked pretty frazzled, confronted by all those villagers whose attitude suggested they were only a few torches and pitchforks away from an all-out riot. I’d seen her fight an undead dragon, and intimidate a group of armed bandits into flight without saying a single word… but apparently this was not quite what she was trained for.
She held her hands up before her and brought them together in a loud crack that was evidently enhanced with a bit of power, as it was much louder and about an octave deeper than any hand-clap had a right to be. That got everyone’s attention, and they jumped a little. “Please,” she said in the brief moment of shocked silence that followed, “one at a time. What are your complaints?”
A tall, burly man in rough peasant garb stepped forward. Everything about his appearance virtually screamed “farmhand”. He looked to be in his 30s and had black hair and a few days’ growth of hair along his jaw that was too much to call stubble but not quite enough to call a beard. He spoke up in a rough voice. “Our complaints, Lady Angel, are simple. The Baron’s a man just like us, and we don’t want no more o’ him holding himself as above us. I hear his great gran’pa and his gran’pa were decent Barons, but his pa wasn’t, and he’s worse. And now his son Marcus refuses to be honorable and do right by Janie here,” he indicated a girl standing nearby, mid-teens, with a noticeable bump showing in her dress, maybe five or six months along, “and he’s next in line, and we’ve all had enough.”
He scowled at her. “Let the king send some angel to try and a-timidate us and tell us all the wrong we’re doing. We don’t care. We been done wrong to, and we’ll not be a-timidated.”
Aylwyn gave a brief nod of acknowledgement. “Is that why you hired Paul Twister? To act on your behalf?”
Argh. Why’d she have to go say something like that?
Everyone looked confused by that question. “Huh?” asked Mr. Farmhand. “We didn’t hire no Paul Twister. Why’d you think something like that?”
Well, if that isn’t a cue, I don’t know what is. “Hello, Aylwyn. What seems to be the trouble?” I asked in a slightly fuller voice than usual, not loud so much as projecting, ensuring that the audience could hear clearly.
She didn’t look as pleased to see me as I might have hoped. “The only trouble, Paul, is people like you inserting themselves where they’re not wanted.”
Well, if she was going to cast me in an adversarial role, I guess that puts me on the townsfolk’s side. Best to make myself sympathetic, then. I tried to slip into the basic attitude and cadence of Mr. Farmhand, but I don’t think I got it quite right, since what came out felt more “Mal” than “Jayne.” “Well, I reckon these fine folks would agree with the generality of that statement, though they might differ a bit on the details.”
She had the good grace to flush as she realized what she’d walked right into. I don’t think anyone else noticed, though; they were too busy all staring at me.
“Paul Twister is here?”
“This is Paul Twister?”
“You know Paul Twister, Lady Angel?”
“Who hired Paul Twister?”
And so on. People’s expressions were mixed: excitement, worry, curiosity, but no hatred or contempt that I could discern. That was good. I was liked here, it seems. I let the cacaphony play itself out for a few moments, then spoke up. “I’m afraid you’re wrong, Aylwyn,” I said apologetically. “I only stopped in because I heard that the innkeeper here serves the best barley-vegetable stew in the kingdom, and I had to try some and see for myself.” I grinned at the assembled crowd and took a seat at an empty table. “Quite a story I came in on the middle of, though. Please, continue. How did things go from ‘Marcus won’t be honorable and do right by Janie here’ to ‘angry folk facing down an angel in the tavern’?”
The rough-looking farmhand continued. Apparently he was the leader of this group? “Well, Master Twister–”
“Just Paul, please,” I said. “Is the innkeeper about? I’d like a bowl of stew, and a nice, big steak for the angel. My treat. I know she enjoys them. And do you make that recipe for deep-fried potatoes that’s been going around the kingdom? I just can’t get enough of those!” I jingled my coin pouch slightly. “Anyway, I’m sorry, please continue. What was your name by the way?”
Aylwyn closed her eyes and sighed when she saw me go into this routine. She knew what I was doing: taking over the scene. By keeping everyone off-balance and establishing myself as the only one here with a handle on things, a certain degree of social power would naturally accrue to me. It was a cheap trick, but better than the alternative if the alternative involved tempers flaring.
Mr. Farmhand didn’t look too impressed. “Name’s Brian.” Wow. So there actually is a Brian of Barley. Good thing he’s not the Baron! “And things got from there to here because we had our scribe write up a grievin’ letter and send it off to the King.”
I blinked. “A grievin’ letter?”
“A petition of greviances,” Aylwyn clarified.
OK, that makes more sense. “What she said,” Brian nodded. Ugh. How did this big oaf get to be the spokesperson for these townsfolk here? “And the King sent off this angel to straighten us out. Well, we don’t intend to be straightened, not when the crookedest one of all is up in the manor on the hill.”
I smiled at him. “Just one thing you got wrong. The Paladins, they ain’t agents of the crown. They’re otty-tonny… oh, what’s that word. Bah. Independent, anyway. If the King sent her, it means he’s more concerned with seeing true justice done than with quieting down a few folk who talk bad about his nobles.”
Brian gave a little grunt of surprise. “Is this true, Lady Angel?” Aylwyn nodded, and he just looked at her blankly. “Well, why didn’t you tell us that before?”
Aylwyn gave a quick laugh that was almost a scoff. “When did I have the opportunity to?” she asked incredulously.
“So you’ll get rid of the Baron for us?” he asked, like a man who’s afraid to be hopeful.
That was dangerous ground, though. Before she could say anything, I spoke up. “What then? Who’ll be the new Baron?”
Brian furrowed his brow slightly. “Why’d we need a new Baron?”
“Well there has to be a Baron. Who would settle disputes between you without one?”
He gave a little growl of frustration and smacked a closed fist into an open palm. “We would. Like real men.”
I let out an exaggerated sigh and shook my head. “You’ll forgive me for sayin’, but that’s awful convenient for such a big, strong man as yourself, and much less so for others. And what if a man had a dispute with his wife?” I paused momentarily. It was mostly men here, but there were enough women present to make this avenue of social shaming worth taking. “Or his daughter? Do you have a daughter, Brian?”
He and Janie looked at each other briefly, then she looked away and he looked down at his boots. Aha. So that’s why he’s here speaking for all the rest of them! I nodded at him, then got up from my seat and began slowly, calmly walking towards him. “I see. Or, well, what if you had a dispute with a man who was less big and strong than you–perhaps someone built like me–and he decided the best thing to do would be to even the odds a little?” And suddenly there was a dagger in my hand. It was another cheap trick, sleight of hand mostly, but it made the point effectively.
I put it away again before he got it into his head that I was actually threatening him, then walked over to stand half a step behind Aylwyn. “Or what if he decided the best thing to do would be to even the odds a little? No, there has to be a Baron.”
Brian scowled at me. “For such a big outlaw, you’ve got far too much regard for the King’s laws.”
Aylwyn shook her head slowly. “There is much more to Paul than a simple outlaw,” she said wryly. “I learned that at some cost…”
I ignored her. “Well what’s the fun in being an outlaw if there’s no laws to go around breaking?”
Brian still wasn’t convinced. “And who’ll settle disputes with the Baron?”
I just grinned at him. “Paladins, it would seem. Just beware of one thing.”
“Did you all hear, a couple years back, about the trouble the minstrels were all sayin’, with that Circle of the Wizards? They say a paladin took down the man in charge, because he’d gone bad?” A few people nodded, then most of the others joined in, not wanting to show ignorance. “Well, this is the paladin, right here, her very self. She was investigating for months, looking into everything she could find, until she finally got to the bottom of it. So I’ll tell you, ask her and she’ll help, but don’t ask about anything if you don’t want her finding the truth.” I paused, then nodded to everyone. “I learned that at some cost…”
Aylwyn turned and glowered at me. I just flashed her my most roguish grin. “So, the king really sent you out here? I must confess, I’ve never met him. What’s he like?”
She shook her head. “I have not met him either; I was sent by his official proxy, the Princess Ashley de Morgan.”
Hoo boy. Things just got more complicated. Why do they always have to get more complicated around me? “The Princess? Well, ain’t that something? She as lovely as I hear?”
The girl, Janie, looked over at me. “Pardon, Paul,” she said, a bit hesitantly, “but… why are you helping us?”
I shrugged expressively and made my way back over to the table, sitting down again. “I’m not; that’s the angel’s job. Me, I’m just here for the stew. And since no one’s making any, I’d have to guess that the innkeeper and the cook are here in the crowd somewhere? So if I can help conclude this gathering faster… makes it easier on my poor, empty stomach, y’know?” I jingled my coin pouch again. “And a round of drinks for everyone!” I pointed to Janie. “Except her, of course.”
She gave me an odd look. “And why not me?”
“Healers say it harms the child. You wouldn’t want your little one born an idiot, would you?” That and she’s still too young to drink, but customs are different around here.
Brian meandered over and sat down across the table from me. “And how do you know a thing like that? You’re no woman.”
Because I’m the guy that the guy the healers got it from got it from, but I wasn’t about to tell him that. I just grinned. “There are times when a healer you can trust is an outlaw’s best friend,” I said. “And some folks, you get them talking and they just won’t shut up. Apparently it’s some big new discovery. She shouldn’t have any strong drink until the baby’s been weaned.”
The crowd was starting to break up a little, a few folks heading out, but most staying around for drinks and slightly less tense socializing as the proprietor and his employees got back to work.
Aylwyn walked over. “I need to speak to you,” she said, rather tensely, placing a hand firmly on my shoulder.
I got up and followed her as she headed towards the stairs, presumably towards her room on the second floor. I turned and grinned at the patrons over my shoulder, wiggling my eyebrows suggestively. That got a few laughs, and I quickly turned back before Aylwyn could turn to look. “What?”
“I think someone made a joke,” I said.
She led me to her room and closed the door. “What are you doing here?”
“I said. I’m just here for the food.” I looked around. There wasn’t much to see; Aylwyn always did travel light. A pack over against the wall, and on the bed, an intricately carved wooden box. “Still working on that?” I asked, gesturing to the puzzle box. “I’d think you’d have solved it by now.”
She ignored my antics. “Why are you here?” she repeated.
“Better question. Why are you here? You said the Princess sent you. Have you met her before?”
She looked a bit confused by that question. “Once. Why is that relevant?”
“Did anything seem different about her?”
“No. Should it have?”
“I don’t suppose you used your eyes-closed-magic-examining trick thing on her?”
Aylwyn gave me a level look. “Paul, there is a question you are not quite asking, and it almost sounds as if that question is ‘Aylwyn, did you verify that the person delivering the request from the king was in fact the Princess and not an impostor?’ Why are you almost-but-not-quite asking me that question?”
She’s always been a perceptive one. I explained to her about my run-in with “Ashley,” and her face went all stony. “So either I am here legitimately, or Ryell is attempting to manipulate me into… what?”
“What indeed?” I asked. “I wish I knew.”
“So why are you here?” she asked yet again.
“I heard that there was trouble brewing in town. Thought it might present some sort of opportunity.” I grinned at her. “Back home, in a different nation, their language is written by combining symbols, and it’s said that the symbol for crisis is made by combining danger and opportunity.”
She gave a short laugh and glowered at me. “That sounds right. It’s usually some fool trying to turn a dangerous situation into an opportunity for personal gain that causes things to degenerate into a crisis.”
Ouch! OK, time to change the subject. “So what have you been up to for the last two years? I mean, there we were, side by side at the tower… and then the next morning, you’re gone. What happened?”
“I had other duties to attend to,” she replied emotionlessly.
Well, that explains everything! “We’ve all missed you,” I said. “It’s good to see you again.”
“You weren’t acting like it down there.”
I shrugged. “Just staying in character. In the role you cast me in.”
Aylwyn scoffed. “You don’t do a particularly good ignorant peasant.”
“I haven’t had too much practice at it. So what are you going to do now?”
“Speak to the Baron and get his perspective on recent events.”
“Makes sense. One thing, though. I’m sure word’ll get around about me being in town quick enough. Let him know I’m here, but make sure he doesn’t take any action against me.”
Aylwyn actually grinned at me. “I’ll simply tell him that, should your behavior become out of line, I will deal with you myself.” There was a bit of a spark in her eyes, as if she wanted me to give her some reason to do so.
I just smirked at her. “It’s good to see you again too,” I teased as I turned and left, heading back out to the common room.
The stew was delicious, by the way.