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Chapter 10: Star Badge

“Richard Leigh,” Aylwyn said to me privately in her room the next morning, “is patently unfit to serve in the position to which his birth entitled him.”

I nodded.  “I’d have to agree. I was talking with people last night, and I heard a bunch of things, many of which can be discounted as wild rumors, but if even some of it is true…” I shook my head.  “Probably the most damning thing would be reports that he hoards food during difficult winters, living in abundance while the peasants go hungry or even starve.”

I’d thought that would anger her.  I was right.  I could practically see the fire flashing in her eyes, and it was a breathtaking sight.  I know it’s a horrible cliché, but Aylwyn truly is beautiful when she’s angry.  (As long as it’s not me she’s mad at!)

She also had a remarkable degree of self-control.  She composed herself quickly.  “That is something I have not heard.  As you say, many things may be reported that are not true.  As an… expert on such matters, how would you judge the credibility of that accusation?”

Wow.  That was practically a compliment! I looked at her as seriously as I could.  “Some of the things people say may be made up, Aylwyn, but that one’s golden.”

She took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “I see.”

I nodded to her.  “So what are you going to do?”

“At the moment, nothing.”

“What?”

“I am… troubled, by your report yesterday of the woman, the impostor.”

I didn’t quite get it.  “Why is that? What does she have to do with the facts in this matter?”

“In this matter specifically, nothing.  In the bigger picture, though? Everything.”

What bigger picture? Aylwyn, incompetence is one thing, but he’s leaving his subjects to starve!  That’s murder and beyond murder; he deserves a flaming sword through the chest for that alone and we both know it. Even if you’re not here at the king’s request, what’s bigger than that?”

“Ryell,” she replied simply, “and the fact that House Leigh is kin by blood to House Morgan.”

Well… crap. She was actually right about that.  Politics of the worst kind.  “So if you depose him, and not on the Crown’s authority, then a Paladin just killed the king’s…”

“Second cousin. Yes.  And when the truth comes out, it reflects extremely poorly on the Paladins, as a great part of our charge is to defend against the influence of the dragons.  Relations between the kingdom and the Celestial Realm would be tarnished, perhaps for generations.”

“But if you are here legitimately and you do nothing…”

“I am well aware of the ramifications,” she said.  “And unfortunately, I cannot pursue what should be the single most effective course of action and visit Keliar to take the matter up with the King in person.”

I nodded.  “Baron Leigh knows you’re investigating, and right now you’re the only thing keeping him from taking retaliatory action against his own people.”

“Precisely,” she replied.  “Therefore, what I will do now is nothing, for there is no course of action to take that will not potentially end in a tragedy of some form.”

“Sure there is.  You can summon more angels. I’ve seen you do it.  Call in another Paladin or two to keep watch on things here, while you head to Keliar.”

She shook her head. “If it were that simple, would I not have thought of it?” she asked with just a hint of annoyance.

I held up one hand. “It’s an engineer thing.  Always ask the obvious questions first, just in case something got overlooked.  It’s successful surprisingly often.  But all right, if it’s not that simple… why not?”

She closed her eyes and rubbed at a temple, looking almost as if this were giving her a headache.  “It’s frustrating, sometimes.  You are clearly such a highly educated person that it’s all to easy to forget that you were not educated here, and so you occasionally appear shockingly ignorant of basic things.”

I nodded. “Very well.  Cure me of my ignorance, please.  Basic things such as…”

“Such as the fact that the action you describe is considered a military act, and to do so in the absence of an immediate, existential threat to the world, the kingdom, or the prevailing state of peace would be a direct violation of the Paladin Charter.”

I blinked.  “Wait.  Military?  I thought the Paladins functioned as a type of semi-autonomous police force.”

She nodded. “We do.”  She looked at me curiously.  “Why is that strange to you?”

Any self-respecting geek could answer that one.  “It’s basic political theory.  The police force keeps order among the people.  The military fights enemies of the state.  This means that when military forces are used as police, there’s a disturbing tendency for the people to become the enemies of the state.”

Aylwyn looked bemused.  “You have some odd political theories on your world.”

If only she knew!  “Yeah, I’d be the first to admit that, but that one is perfectly valid.”

She shook her head.  “It is a system that has worked smoothly for centuries.”

She certainly seemed to believe that.  And it might even be true.  Either way, I wasn’t going to get anywhere following this line of reasoning.  “So anyway, what do you plan to do?  You can’t just stay here for the rest of your life–or the Baron’s.  I suppose you have a travel mirror?”

“No, unfortunately.  The one that Fiona Khal used was custom-made, and I have seen very few others like it.”

“Messenger pigeons?”

“There are none in this town.  I already checked.”

“Then I give up.  What’s your plan?”

She looked at me as if it should be obvious.  “There is only one thing to be done: send an agent for aid.”

“But if you can’t summon anyone or call… for… oh no.  Don’t even look at me that way, Aylwyn.  Don’t make me trot out the ‘I’m just here for the stew’ line again…”

“What other choice is there?”

I shook my head. “You’re a very intelligent person.  We both are. I’m sure we can come up with something less absurd than deputizing a notorious outlaw.”

She wasn’t buying it.  “Who better than you to deal with Ryell’s agent, should she be in play?  You’re the only one who can easily see through and nullify her disguise.”

“You’re flattering me, appealing to my ego.  Don’t try and use con tricks on a con man; you’re fighting on my home turf.”

She flashed me an irritated glower. “I am speaking the truth!  Between your power, your… ‘con man’ skills, and your myriad identities, at least one of which has established connections among the upper echelons of a major royal bureau and is known to be an acquaintance and former companion of mine, I can think of no one better qualified, particularly if the list of candidates is restricted to those located within a day’s journey from here!”

Grrr.  She had a point there.  Sometimes I hate when that happens.  “Qualified for what?  What exactly do you need your agent to do?”

“Deliver a sealed message to King Ryan de Morgan on my behalf, then return with his reply.  I anticipate it should not take longer than two weeks, in the worst case.”

Wait, what?  “Two weeks worst case?  I don’t have a map at hand, but Keliar has to be six days’ ride from here, if not seven; that’s an extremely optimistic margin of error you’re planning for.”

Then she said something that might, just maybe, make it worth it… if it didn’t get me killed.  “Six days on your horses.”

My eyes widened a little as I realized what she was getting at.  OK, probably more than a little.  There may or may not have also been a certain degree of jaw-droppage involved before I composed myself. “Would that even work?  I mean… just to be clear here, you’re talking about me, riding Wyntaf?  Taking possession of her, taking her away from here while you stay behind?  Isn’t she like, bonded to you or something?  Would she even acknowledge me as a rider?  How far does my experience riding mundane horses apply?”

She actually cracked a smile at my semi-panicky reaction to the suggestion.  “She will acknowledge you if I direct her to, and you have enough equestrian skill to take her anyplace that she does not actively wish to avoid going to.  I would suggest that you not take her into any sort of fight, though; even if you are trained for that, you are not trained as Paladins and their mounts train.”

I held up both hands, shaking them back and forth a little. “That would be the farthest thing from my mind!

“This is crazy, you know that, right?  You’re talking about giving a priceless horse into the keeping of a thief.  What’s to stop me from… I don’t even know. Doing any number of nefarious things?”

She sighed.  “First, as you say, I am bonded to her.  If she is harmed in any way, I will know.  And I can summon her back to me, without anything or anyone that may be on her back at the time.  Second, the thief in question once sacrificed a priceless steed of his own to save my life, and Wyntaf’s as well.  This creates a certain presumption of trust between the three of us.  Third,” she narrowed her eyes slightly at me, “the thief in question cannot seem to avoid casting longing glances at my chest, or my wings, when he thinks I am not looking, and would no doubt go to great lengths in an effort to win my favor.”

OK… I wasn’t expecting that out of her.  “What are you saying?”

“I say exactly what I have said.  Do not make the mistake of hearing words I did not speak.”

“Got it.  That’s kind of low of you, though, that last bit…”

She rolled her eyes. “Would you feel more comfortable if I appealed to your lust for silver and gold?”

Well that was a rhetorical trap if I’ve ever heard one.  I sighed.  How did I keep getting backed into corners and sent on ridiculous quests by powerful women?  “Fine,” I grumbled.  “I’ll do it.  Write up your letter.  But you seriously owe me for this, Aylwyn.”

She favored me with a smile so radiant it could almost serve as a down payment on the debt I’d just pronounced.  “The letter is written.”

I closed my eyes.  “Of course it is,” I said slowly as she retrieved it from her pack.  “Now, when you say sealed, is it anything I’ll have to take special care with?”

She nodded and pulled a small leather satchel out of her pack.  Opening it, she showed me a scroll with faintly-glowing lines of energy visible on the surface.  She handed me the satchel.  “Take this, and keep it closed until you reach your destination, and it should remain intact.”

She… really planned this whole thing out, didn’t she?  “What does it say?”

“A simple overview of my findings, a warning that I have reason to suspect an impostor is impersonating the princess and seeking to undermine the stability of the kingdom in some way, and a request for clarification regarding my status in Barley.”

Well, this was certainly not what I had in mind when I came to town!  But somehow I was getting roped into it.  I let her lead me to the stables, where we went through an almost ritualistic process of introducing me to Wyntaf and letting her get accustomed to me.  Letting her see and smell me, then having me touch her head and neck, stroking and soothing her a little, talking to her in a soft voice.  Then Aylwyn had me saddle Wyntaf and prepare all her tack myself, then load up the saddlebags with provisions and my gear.  She gave me a handful of silver to cover expenses, and then I led her out of the stables and mounted up.

For such a powerful horse, Wyntaf was surprisingly docile.  Aylwyn caught my reaction and looked up at me.  “Don’t be deceived by her gentle manner.  Hang on tight when you urge her faster, or you will fall.”

Good acceleration on this model.  Got it.  “Why Aylwyn, you almost sound concerned for my well-being,” I teased.

She sighed.  “Go.”

So I went.  I shook the reins and held on tight with my knees, and still was almost thrown backwards as Wyntaf’s powerful legs surged forward.  I regained my balance after a moment, though, and leaned forward as I headed out.  The sooner I got to Keliar, the sooner it would be over with, and that’s all that mattered.

Afterall, I was already like some bizarre thief/bard/engineer/anti-mage multiclass.  I really didn’t need to go confusing things further by adding a level in Paladin.

Comments (3)

  1. Griffin

    “Afterall, I was already like some bizarre thief/bard/engineer/anti-mage multiclass. I really didn’t need to go confusing things further by adding a level in Paladin.”

    Abso-freakin’ brilliant!

  2. William Carr

    This would make a great eBook when you get it finished.

    I can’t help but wonder how sentient Wyntaf is. Could Paul talk out his issues with Alywyn on the ride and get Wyntaf’s blessing?

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