I’m not sure what all was going on at the Baron’s manor, but whatever it was must have kept Aylwyn out pretty late. By the time the sun went down, she was still away. I got a room as well, and the innkeeper put me right next door to her room with a sly grin and a nod. If only he knew the truth!
If only I did. Aylwyn confused me, and it was hard to tell where I stood with her.
I headed to bed that evening, feeling at least somewhat safe. I’d gone well out of my way to cultivate a reputation as a folk-hero style outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and that gave me a bit of an advantage in a place like this, where the peasants were having trouble with the local lord.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t take any precautions, of course. I strung a tripwire up across the floor, just beyond where the door would open to, in case anyone thought to cause any trouble, and I rigged it so that tripping the wire would also drop a heavy brick from the ceiling, which would most likely land on their head or in the middle of their back, depending on how they fell. I also made sure the door was locked and would stay locked, with a carefully-shaped piece of iron stuck in the lock and turned cleverly in such a way that it would be very difficult to get it back out from the other side of the door, and without removing it the lock could not be opened–or picked.
And I slept light. But that wasn’t really a precaution here; I just sleep light in general. Always have. And so I awoke in the middle of the night at a soft sound that just seemed a little bit out of place. Just outside my door, there was a scratching metal-on-metal noise.
Well that wasn’t right. I got up very quietly, carefully skirting the tripwire–the moon was out and I had at least some light to see by through the window–and silently pulling the piece of metal free from the lock. I took my room key and unlocked the door as quietly as I could, and pulled it open just a crack, hoping the hinges wouldn’t creak.
There was a shadowy figure standing not three feet away, doing something that went rasp rasp rasp at Aylwyn’s door. I had to suppose the paladin was still out; that should have woken her up as well.
Oh well, you know what they say. Set a thief to catch a thief. I quickly pulled the door open, stepped out, and placed a hand firmly on the arm of the would-be burglar. I tensed, watching for the inevitable swinging punch–and it never came. Instead, the figure jumped and bit her lip to suppress a shriek of surprise.
Yeah, her. It was definitely a girl here. She looked like she was trying to stuff a knife blade and a length of wire into the lock, and had no clue what to do with them. She turned to look at me, and in the dim light I recognized the face of the pregnant girl from earlier.
“Janie?” I asked in a soft whisper.
She looked terrified. All right, time to change tactics. “Here, let me show you,” I said. I reached out, gently brushing her hand away from the crude tools, then felt around a little. To my great surprise, the lock opened easily; she’d been only moments away from working it out, and with such primitive tools too! “Or maybe not,” I murmured, impressed. “Where’d you learn to pick locks?”
She whimpered softly, staring at me with wide eyes. “Please,” she whispered, “please don’t steal my soul! I didn’t mean no harm to the angel…”
Steal her soul? What kind of rumors were they spreading around about me now?!? “I won’t,” I reassured her, “if you tell me what you’re doing here.”
“I didn’t mean no harm,” she repeated nervously. “I just meant to run her off. Make a mess in here, show she’s not wanted, and then she leaves us in peace.”
Hoo boy. This girl does not know Aylwyn if she thinks a strategy like that has the slightest hint of a chance of success. “Why would you want that? I thought you all knew she’s on your side.”
She whispered back, “we also know what you said. Some secrets aren’t meant to be found out.”
That didn’t make much sense. I’d said to be careful in what they asked her to look into. Had someone already… “Oh. I see. So who’s the real father?”
Her eyes went wide in the dimness. “How did you know?”
“Lucky guess. So some local boy put a bun in your oven?” She nodded silently. “And you wanted to pin it on the Duke’s son. Why?” I quietly slipped the door open, and went in to sit down on the edge of Aylwyn’s bed. She followed to get out of the hallway, and sat beside me, closing the door.
Then she explained. “The lad I dallied with was thrown from a horse not long after. Hurt his back, and he’ll be no use as a father.”
“So you tried to claim a father who could provide a good life for your child? The other folk here don’t seem to think too highly of him.”
She shook her head. “I claimed a father who I knew would never recognize my claim. Marcus is cruel and heartless. Charming when he wishes, and he’s charmed enough friends of mine and then left them crying once he had his fun. Everyone knows what he’s like; no one would say he wouldn’t do that with me.”
I bit my lip. “And what would you hope to gain by doing this, if he won’t recognize you, and even if he did it sounds like he’d make a poor husband and father?”
She gave me a positively wolfish smile. “If the Crown acknowledges my claim, I’d be entitled to reparations. Enough to raise my little one in comfort.”
Woah. The girl seemed so simple and guileless, but she knew how to pick locks, and she’d apparently manipulated the rest of the town to the edge of open revolt… all for what amounted to a welfare fraud scheme. That was kinda screwed up and, I had to admit, kinda awesome. In another life, she’d probably have made a heck of a bard.
“Aylwyn will find out,” I said, gently but emphatically. “I hate to say this, but you’re in a very bad situation. I know a few things about telling lies, so just believe this: the truth here is going to come out. The only real question is, how long will it be, how many people will get hurt because of it, and how badly?” Yeah, I know, that’s three questions. I don’t care; it’s still all one question.
She shook her head, looking well and truly freaked out. “No,” she whispered, sounding terrified. “My plan should have been perfect! We just need to get rid of the angel.”
I gave her a frank look. “The one you’re counting on to get rid of the Baron as the key to your plan?” Her hands started shaking. “No, you have to tell her the truth. There’s compassion in her heart as well as justice. If she thinks you’re being honorable and trying to help the people of the town, and the other girls–”
“Stop it!” She sounded afraid… of me! “You’re Twisting my thoughts! You’re trying to get me to do what she wants!” That’s the downside to having an ability that no one understands: it tends to get misunderstood. I was just trying to reason with her and expose her mind to the bigger picture that she hadn’t accounted for, but she was interpreting the resulting cognitive dissonance as ensorcellment!
Well, sometimes it’s easier to work with a delusion than fight it too hard. “If I was Twisting your thoughts,” I said as calmly as I could, “you wouldn’t notice, because those thoughts would get Twisted the same way, right? No, I’m just talking with you, like normal folk.” Because normal folk have reasonable conversations while sitting on the bed of a third party whose room they’ve broken into all the time, right? “Aylwyn won’t be gotten rid of, I promise you this. The best thing to do is work with her.”
Janie’s eyes widened slightly. “You are on her side,” she whispered, bewildered. “But I thought you were her adversary!”
I sighed. “My relationship with the paladin is… complicated.” Wow. Isn’t that what Sarah said? “We both know each other well enough to respect each other, even when we don’t agree on things.”
“So you’re not here to take up our side? Even if my lie is bad, it’s meant to help folk, like yours are. You can do better, right? Help me fix my lie?”
“You’ve been listening to that song the minstrels sing about me, haven’t you?”
She nodded. “Everyone here loves the Lay of Paul Twister. When the first minstrel performed it for us, some of the townsfolk couldn’t stop singing it for days! You were a hero!”
“I was an ear worm,” I said dryly.
“A what?” she asked, face twisting slightly in disgust at the imagery the term evoked.
“It’s a musical term. A song that burrows its way into your mind like a worm and just stays there and is hard to root out. It was put together by a bard to be that way, on purpose, to entertain people.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her who that bard was.
“That’s all?” she asked, sounding disappointed.
I chuckled softly. “You didn’t really think I tricked a hungry imp into letting me go with a clever riddle about what I had in my pocket, did you? Or bet my head to a dwarf, then swindled my way out when I lost by claiming that he couldn’t take it without also getting part of my neck and that wasn’t in the deal?”
Poor girl. She was staring at me like a kid who’s just been told there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. “Then… what did you do?” she asked.
“Steal things from wizards, mostly. A few times, those wizards were hurting ordinary folk and so the ordinary folk decided I was helping them. But mostly I was just trying to get by, even if it means doing things I oughtn’t to do. Just like you, really.” An idea came to mind. “Your lad… the father, the one who got hurt… how bad is it? Can he still move his arms and legs?”
She nodded. “It hurts him to move around too much, though, and he’s not getting better.”
“You should definitely talk to Aylwyn, then. She’s a healer as well as a warrior; it’s part of being a paladin. If she could give you back an able-bodied father for your child, you wouldn’t need the reparations from the Crown, right?”
That got through to her. Made her look all conflicted. And that kind of made sense; the king’s money would have been quite a bit, most likely, and it’s hard giving up on even an impossible dream.
It kind of made me feel bad for the guy, the calculating way she seemed to be weighing the options against each other. Time to put a little bit of pressure on her. Making someone think they’re about to lose an opportunity is an effective psychological trick to get them to buy into it. “We should probably go soon. I don’t know why Aylwyn’s out so late but we don’t want to be here in her room when she gets back.” Yeah, it’s sort of a jerk move, but I swear I was doing it for a good reason.
She looked at me, eyes wide. “Do you really think she can heal William?”
Ugh. Young man named William. The daughter of Brian of Barley, and her heartthrob is Billy of Barley? What was with this town?
“I’m not certain,” I admitted, “but I think so. And I’m certain of this much: it has better odds of a good outcome for you than your first plan. Sometimes, that’s all you can be sure of.”
She hesitated. “And even so, the paladin will rid us of the Baron?”
That was a trickier question, especially as Aylwyn might not even be here legitimately in the first place. “I actually don’t think that what his son did or did not do will have much of an effect on Aylwyn’s evaluation of the Baron.”
She blinked a few times, as if fighting back tears. “I… I will.”
I got up and nodded to her. “It’ll hurt some,” I said quietly, “but you’re doing what’s best. I just wonder one thing.”
“Where did you learn to pick locks?”
“Matthew taught me. My big brother. In lean years, sometimes you sneak some food from the Baron’s cellars or you go hungry in winter.”
Grr. If she wanted Aylwyn to throw the guy out, she should have just told her that!
I offered a hand to help her to her feet. It seemed like the right thing to do. We left the room, and I carefully picked the lock back closed. Then I went back to my room and Janie left, presumably back to her place. I heard Aylwyn return about an hour later. I don’t think she ever knew what went on in her room that night.
I fell asleep feeling like I’d done some real good. And in a way, I had. Things eventually turned out well enough for Janie, William, and their little James, but the Law of Unintended Consequences has a way of biting you in the butt sometimes.
Then again, if I had it to do over, I just might end up doing the same thing. I really did do some good there, and that counts for something, right?