“That’s not a place, that’s a grain!”
I sighed. The last three days had been kinda rough, and this was just more of the same. “I assure you, Kyle, there is indeed a town by the name of Barley, about three days’ distance from here. A farm town. You can probably guess their major crop.
“Word is, they’re having all manner of trouble with their local lord, and there’s a paladin in town to try to sort things out.”
His sightless eyes widened. I’d made him take off that ridiculous blindfold the first day… and the cape. “You want me to steal something from an angel?”
I grinned at him wickedly. “No, worse. I want you to help her. I owe this particular angel a favor.”
He groaned. “Are you trying to kill me?”
“Are you trying to disobey me?” I responded acidly.
Rogers cringed. “No, I would never–”
“Then don’t. Tell her you were sent by me, and that I said I was sorry for what happened to her horse. By those words, she will know I truly sent you.”
He looked at me suspiciously. Kyle had a remarkably expressive face, for a blind guy! “She. She, she, she. What is this paladin’s name?”
“You are trying to kill me!” he gasped. “Turning me over to Shadowbane!”
Shadowbane? I’d have to ask her about that sometime. “If I wanted to kill you, I wouldn’t need her help to do it. I am sending you to help her,” I reiterated. “Just imagine having her owe you a favor!”
His face brightened a little at the thought. “I can see how that could have its advantages,” he mused. But then he shook his head. “But would it be worth drawing her attention?”
I grinned. “Angels take a favor owed very seriously. The first time she owed me one, she repaid me by helping me get free when I was literally seconds away from being caught by a guard. The second time… well, that’s quite a story. Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime. But a grateful officer of the law is the best friend a thief can have! Some of my greatest achievements have come when I had her watching my back.” Well, one of them anyway. And I couldn’t really talk about it. And it wasn’t some great act of thievery or anything like that that he’d understand anyway, but I didn’t have to tell him that.
“All right,” he said, a bit hesitantly. “What am I to do for her?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t seen the situation there, but I know she’s there, and I know things are problematic. You are to help her in anything she may require.”
“And how will I know when it’s over?”
“I have business in Keliar. I’ll come to Barley when it’s finished. It should only take a few days.”
He nodded, and I looked at him quietly. The guy had magic, and a knack for showmanship that he’d leveraged into a fairly successful career as a bandit–for all that that still didn’t make sense to me as a career choice–but he was a cowardly, treacherous weasel of a man. He’d tried to escape already once, and if I hadn’t been expecting it, he’d have probably gotten away.
“A word of warning,” I said. “You fled once, and I found you. Try again, and I will find you again, and I will not be so merciful this time. And whatever you do, do not even dream of betraying Aylwyn, or I won’t need to hunt you down. Is that clear?”
He nodded, an avaricious glint in his eye. “Why would I flee from such a boon?” he said, starting to really take this seriously. Hopefully not too seriously; I’d hate to disappoint him too much! I had gotten on Aylwyn’s good side, such as it was, by proving to her that I was more than the simple magic-thief I appeared to be and that I was actively working to build something greater than myself. Somehow I doubted Kyle would do the same.
Be that as it may, it was time to part ways. We were at a crossroads. South lay Khorun, and Keliar was to the east, so it was time for him to leave. We unhitched his horses and let him take them, but we kept the cart.
Sarah gave a sigh of relief as he rode off. “He’s quite the character,” she observed, “but I’m glad he’s gone. You think he’ll actually help Aylwyn?”
“I really hope so,” I said. “Because if he’s stupid enough to try to make trouble for her, that means I may well have just sent a man to his death, and I really don’t want to have done that, even if I did warn him.”
Sarah looked surprised. “She didn’t kill Ken’tu Kel, and he had done far worse than simply ‘making trouble,'” she pointed out.
“Good point.” That actually was kind of reassuring.
* * *
It was getting dark when we finally arrived at the capital a few days later, so we stopped at an inn for the night. I’d been deliberately going without shaving, and I had about a week’s worth of facial hair by this point, which I made sure to trim and make it look presentable the next morning.
Sarah ended up as a half-elf again that morning. She had always wanted to see the palace, so after eating, bathing, etc, we headed for the Royal Academy, which was not far from the palace. I figured that would be the best way to get an introduction for Anthony Stark to go speak with King Ryan de Morgan.
When we were about half a mile away, I looked up and saw about the last thing I wanted to see: a carriage approaching, drawn by horses decked out in blue and silver. I quickly turned into the nearest store, a glazier’s shop, and pretended to be very interested in his collection of mirrors for a few minutes, while carefully watching out the window.
It turned down a street that would take it directly to the palace. That was just what I needed.
“What’s going on?” Sarah asked.
I headed back out into the street; I didn’t want to discuss this with listening ears nearby. “Did you see that carriage?”
She nodded. “Sort of.”
“What color was the livery?”
She closed her eyes briefly, thinking back, then groaned when she got it. She shot me an alarmed look, and I nodded.
“Yeah. That’s why.”
The various nobles of the kingdom all had their own colors and coats-of-arms, but they weren’t the only ones. By law, a craftsman acknowledged by their guild as having achieved the highest levels of mastery could register an official coat-of-arms as well, and that carriage bore the colors and pattern of the Archmagus of Keliar, Fiona Khal.
When Gerald became Archmagus of the Circle in the aftermath of the whole mess a couple years back, he and Aylwyn put a lot of time and effort into rooting out corruption in the Circle of Magi. But to everyone’s frustration, particularly Aylwyn’s, Fiona had proved untouchable.
Nobody had been able to establish any solid evidence that she knew about or supported Ken’tu Kel’s plans, and the fact that the good guys had had to concoct a false story about what he had been up to, since the truth was too outrageous to be accepted, didn’t help; it’s hard to find proof of someone’s involvement in a plot that never existed. Between that and her political connections, she had never faced any sort of justice for sending me and Aylwyn out on a quest under false pretenses and eventually delivering to Ken’tu Kel exactly what he needed.
And now she was headed to the palace too. She knew my face, and the name she associated with that face was “Paul Twister.” She had actually expressed interest in meeting Mr. Stark, but I’d avoided her pretty successfully so far.
Sarah was the first to bring up the obvious solution. “We should come back tomorrow.”
I thought about it. Khal might be gone, but then again, she might not. She might stay at the palace for half an hour… or a week. She might stay for half an hour, and then go out into the city and run across me by accident. She might send her carriage away, to return hours later, and then I might think she’s gone and run into her. Or that could even be her carriage returning for her to take her away.
…I could be stuck waiting for days, leaving Aylwyn stranded in a holding pattern that would just deteriorate as time went by.
“I don’t know how long she’ll be there,” I said. “I do need to get in, regardless, but I’ll have to be careful if she’s around.”
“How careful?” Sarah asked. “If she recognizes you, can she have you imprisoned?”
“Probably not, but she could expose me, and that would be even worse.”
She blinked “Why would that be worse than being imprisoned?”
“I’ve been telling you the stories of my home,” I said, and she nodded slowly. “Perhaps one of the greatest stories of all is the tale of Jean Valjean. He was a man who, through extreme poverty and the threat of starvation, stole some food and was imprisoned as a thief. Years later, he was released, repented of his former ways, and soon realized that, as much as he would like to be a good, honest man, his past would forever deny him the opportunities that others enjoyed.
“He went on the run, abandoning his former life and identity and established himself in a new town. Unfortunately, this meant breaking parole, and he became a fugitive in the eyes of the law. Years passed, and he rose to prominence in his new home, establishing a factory that brought prosperity to the town.”
“A what?” Sarah asked.
Oh. Right. “A place where people use machines to produce useful things in large quantities. It employed a lot of people and brought wealth and prosperity to the town, and he generally worked to help people and do good. But one day, an officer of the law who had known him from his time in prison came across him. He didn’t recognize Valjean at first, but eventually circumstances conspired against him, and the truth was revealed.”
“So he got imprisoned again?”
I shook my head. “He couldn’t; he had someone to help. So he fled again to another city, and a lot more things happened after that. But the thing is, as the author originally wrote it…” I sighed and took a deep breath. “When the man who had run the factory was exposed as the fugitive Jean Valjean, it discredited his work. Without his leadership and with the taint of his criminality hanging over it, the factory ended up falling into disrepute and eventually closing, and all the good he had done for the town was erased.” It had been a while, and I didn’t remember if that was exactly how it had happened in the book, but the general idea was right at least, and that’s the point I was making.
“I’ve had that scene on my mind a lot lately. Eventually the truth is going to come out, and I don’t want that to impact the Academy. It’s doing some real good in the kingdom.”
“Quick,” Sarah said. “Turn around!”
I turned, just in time to hear a horse-drawn carriage come around the corner and down our street. Once it had passed, Sarah explained. “When you mentioned her, I started feeling around for active sources of magical power, and I felt that one approaching. It’s the same carriage, and there was a very powerful wizard inside. I think it was picking her up; we’re safe now.”
I hadn’t seen her using any spells, and that worried me a little. “So you can just… sense people with magic, at will?”
She nodded. “It takes some practice, but yes.”
In that case… “Can you sense anything special from me?”
Sarah gave me a coy, flirtatious look. I scowled at her. “Not what I meant!”
She giggled and shook her head. “You don’t stand out as magical,” she said.
“I wonder why that is,” I mused. “Ken’tu Kel said I was ‘carrying around a hole in the world with me’ that was what caused the Twist.”
Sarah shrugged. “You probably are, and there’s probably some way to detect it. But what I was doing–the standard way–that doesn’t work.”
That was good to hear.
We made it to the Academy without further trouble, where I was a bit surprised to run into Evan Tranton. He was talking with one of their researchers about some new discovery. She was a woman in her forties, with dark hair down to her shoulders, a somewhat lined face, but bright eyes that looked as though they had never lost the exuberance of childhood.
Evan had his back to me, so I grinned at Sarah, snuck up behind him, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Evan!”
He jumped slightly at my enthusiastic greeting, but he recovered his composure quickly enough. “Ah, Mr. Stark! I wasn’t expecting to see you here. You heard about the bounce-sap, I take it?”
Bounce-sap? Could that possibly be… “No, I must confess I’ve heard no such thing. What have we come up with?”
The other researcher ahemmed softly. I looked over at her, and she smiled. “We have come up with nothing, Mr. Stark. An exploratory vessel to Valmos recently returned, and their crew brought back a most fascinating substance. The local orc tribes boil it out of tree sap, and they use it to make tools and toys of various kinds. Here, look at this.” She held up what looked like a simple rubber ball, about two inches across, probably because that’s exactly what it was. Then she dropped it and let it bounce on the floor once, before catching it.
“A wondrous material!” Evan gushed, while Sarah looked on with wide eyes. “Even our finest samples of nickel-steel do not have the elasticity of this ‘latex,’ as the orcs call it.”
“What did you say they call it?” I asked, looking into his face. When he repeated the word, my ears heard “latex,” but his mouth looked like it was pronouncing “ko-na,” or something like that. Interesting. Not for the first time, I wondered how the translation thing I had going worked. I looked over at the researcher lady. “May I see that, m’lady…”
“Angela Claire,” she said, handing me the ball. “And you are Anthony Stark, I presume?”
I’d heard that name before… right! Angela Claire. One of the people the fake Princess had claimed as a tutor. I nodded to her. “Thank you.” I squeezed it and rolled it back and forth in my hand, then bounced it on the floor and against the wall a few times.
“Certainly bouncier than our best steels,” I agreed, “but nowhere near the strength, almost certainly. Which doesn’t mean it’s useless, just different.” I grinned. “I think this is something very different indeed! Would you like my recommendation?” I handed the ball back to Ms. Claire, then gave the recommendation before anyone could say yes or no. “We should study this; it has unique properties unlike any material we know. Pay any reasonable price for the samples, have our researchers measure and determine its physical properties, and commission another voyage, if we can find the budget for it.
“Try and establish a trade agreement with the orcs–something we have and they want, in exchange for a steady supply of latex. And try and get some seeds, see if anyplace in the kingdom has good conditions for cultivating the latex tree. But be very careful with that last one; introducing a tree from another continent might have unforeseen consequences for the local life cycles. But I do think this material could prove extremely important!”
“All that for a child’s toy ball?” Evan asked.
I shook my head. “This material squishes and stretches and retakes its old shape, far more easily than steel or even bow-wood. Just think what could be done with that. If it is watertight, and this feels like it would be, you could make a ring of it, stretch it slightly, and use it to seal junctions between water pipes without needing to weld them together by magic. Just imagine the implications for aqueduct projects!”
Angela’s eyes widened slightly. “You look at a toy and see aqueducts. No wonder they named the new academy in your honor!”
Yep, I’m a man of vision. What they don’t know is, it’s hindsight, not insight.
Evan grinned a little. “That, and he paid a great deal for the privilege.”
“So Evan, how goes your project?”
He looked a bit surprised that I would even bring it up. “It… has been less than a month, Mr. Stark.”
“I know. But how is it coming along?”
“Still in the design stages, but I do think it’s viable.”
“What’s this project?” Sarah asked, butting in.
Angela looked at her. “Who is your… companion? Mr Stark?” She seemed unsure what to call her.
“Ah, my apologies, this latex has made me forget my manners entirely. M’lady Claire, this is my friend, Sarah O’Neil. Sarah, Angela Claire, of the Academy.” They bowed their heads politely to one another in greeting.
“So, what’s the project, Mr. Tranton?” Sarah asked again.
Angela looked curious. “Yes, what is this project of yours, Evan? You never told me you were working on something of your own; I thought administration was taking up all your time these days.”
Evan looked a bit uncertain as to what to say. He hesitated briefly, then said, “Mr. Stark and I were speaking of writing, and he remarked how, unlike handwriting, the print of a signet always looks exactly the same. And then an idea struck me.”
He paused, and Angela thought about it for a moment, then smiled brightly. “Why, that’s brilliant! Carve a wooden plate with raised writing, and use ink to stamp it onto pages! It would revolutionize the publication of research!”
Evan shook his head. “Close, but my idea was to build metal rods with a single letter at the end. Letter-signets, if you will. Hundreds of them, thousands of them. Set them in order to form a page, as you thought, stamp many copies, and then take it all apart and reuse them to prepare the next page.” Then he bit his lip, thinking for a moment. “Although… yes! Your idea could be used to add diagrams and illustrations! Angela, that’s brilliant!” he enthused, echoing her. I had never seen him get all excited like this before. “Oh, I could kiss you!”
She laughed and placed a hand against his shoulder, as if to hold him back, looking over at Sarah and me with a bit of embarrassment. “No,” she said softly, “you couldn’t.” Interesting. I wondered what their story was.
“Anyway,” I said, to keep things from getting too awkward, “this latex is a fascinating discovery, but I’m actually here on urgent business. I need an introduction to speak to the king, right away if not sooner.”
“The king?” Evan asked. “I thought you preferred to stay out of political matters and away from royalty and nobility as much as possible.”
“I do,” I said. “So when I come looking to see the king, doesn’t that sound like a truly urgent situation? I come bearing a message from the paladin Aylwyn.”
“Then why are you here?” Angela asked. “The letter alone, sealed with a Paladin’s seal, should get you in.”
“It would if I had it,” I said, “but Sarah and I were waylaid in our travels, ambushed by the Blind Bandit, and he stole the saddlebag that I was keeping the letter in. But I know what the message is.”
Evan let out a low whistle. “That’s troubling news.” He looked to Angela. “Is there anything we can do?”
“I think so,” she said. “Wait here.” She walked off down a hallway, gesturing to Evan to follow.
“They like each other,” Sarah remarked with an impish grin once they were out of earshot.
“You think so? There’s something between them, but I’m not sure exactly what it is.”
She nodded. “Definitely!”
I shrugged. “If you say so.”
It wasn’t too long before they got back, and Angela nodded to us. “Come along, we’ll take you to see the King.”
We walked out of the Academy, and there was a carriage waiting to take the four of us to the palace. Angela smiled and remarked on how she had me to thank for this smooth ride. I just passed on all the credit to the Royal Engineers. “I had the idea,” I told her, “but they’re the ones who made it work.”
As befits a stone castle, the palace was at the top of the highest hill in Keliar. The carriage crossed over the moat and passed the outer walls, and proceeded into the courtyard, where we disembarked. The guards knew Angela, and we headed inside and down some hallways, to a large double-doorway guarded by a pair of Royal Knights.
Angela presented us. “Anthony Stark and Sarah O’Neil, Companions of Aylwyn, here with a message from the angel for His Majesty.” The Knights touched fingers to shoulders in salute–to Sarah and me!–and opened the doors for us. I’d never actually had occasion to trade on the reputation of those events, but it was good to see that it did come in handy at times.
I headed inside, with Sarah right beside me. Evan and Angela remained outside. Since coming here, I had seen a lot of things that didn’t quite look like what I’d imagined things from a fantasy world would look like, but the throne room looked like a throne room. High ceilings, stone walls covered in rich tapestries, guards standing along the walls, thick, plush carpet running the length of the spacious room to the big throne at the far end with the man sitting in it. King Ryan II looked every inch a king, tall, stoutly built, with a thick red beard, a royal robe of deep purple and a fancy, jeweled crown on his head.
He looked up at us and spoke. “So you are Anthony and Sarah, of the Companions? Our kingdom owes you a great debt of thanks. Have you come to seek a boon?”
That might actually be pretty cool, under other circumstances, but I had to shake my head. “Actually, Your Majesty, I come with a message from Aylwyn, and a warning.”
The king frowned slightly, looking a bit exasperated. “And what does the angel wish to warn of this time?”
I wondered what that was about. “Not many days ago,” I said, “Aylwyn was contac–” I broke off as I heard the doors behind me open again.
The king looked up and smiled. “Ah, Ashley! Back so soon?”
I felt a little shiver go up my spine. Obviously there was nothing to worry about, right? But even so, I had to be sure. I turned around and looked at the familiar face of the Princess.
She looked back at me, and it took a moment, but I saw her startle slightly as recognition dawned. Recognition, and just a hint of fear.