I felt like Mal Reynolds, when he runs into Saffron the second time and they suddenly recognize each other and both pull guns on each other at the same instant. Except we didn’t have guns.
Ashley’s eyes widened, mine probably did too. I murmured to Sarah under my breath, “help out, I’m about to need it.”
Then everything happened at once.
“Guards! Seize this man! I recognize him and he is no engineer, but an outlaw!”
“Guards, seize this woman! I recognize her and she is no princess, but an impostor, an agent of Ryell!”
The guards looked confused for a moment, then started to close in. On me, of course. So I did the only thing I could do: I sprinted forward and tried to tackle Ashley.
And got thrown into the wall for my efforts. Owww… real Princess or no, she had apparently picked up some fighting moves from the Royal Knights.
I heard the ring of steel behind me, like she was drawing a sword. Fortunately, she may have been stronger, faster, and better-armed than me, but she had no way to deal with magic. Sarah groaned a little with exertion as she did something that held everyone in the room except me and herself paralyzed.
I shook my head to clear it, then turned around. Sarah was in the middle of the room, holding her hands over her head and straining with exertion. Apparently holding a dozen resisting people immobile took a lot of effort!
I needed to put an end to things quickly. “I apologize for the disturbance, Your Majesty. This is what Aylwyn warned of: there is an impostor in the kingdom, a woman who impersonates the Princess. She stands here now, and I can prove it!”
The various guards looked enraged. The impostor looked downright murderous. The king, for some reason, looked amused.
“You wouldn’t dare,” Ashley said.
“I would,” I replied. But I wasn’t about to do what she thought. “Sarah, please remove the ring from her finger?”
Sarah groaned a little, but she managed to mumble something, and Ashley’s fingers were forced open, her sword falling free. Her ring of illusion wiggled its way off her finger, and when it fell free, her features changed and her dark hair went a bright red.
…just like the king’s red hair and beard. Woah. That was kind of eerie. Ashley cried out in frustrated rage, and I nodded to Sarah. “Let them go.” I took ahold of the impostor’s hair firmly, holding her head so the king could see her face.
He boggled a little at the sight. “…Eleanor?” He gestured to the guards and they stood back at their posts. “What is this? Where is Ashley?”
She said nothing, defiant, which just seemed to annoy the king further. A certain hardness came to his gaze, and he gestured to his guards again. “Please escort my treacherous niece to the dungeons until such time as she feels more cooperative. Lady O’Neill, if you will accompany them, for magical protection?”
His niece? Woah. That explains a lot… and raises a bunch of new questions!
A half-dozen guards stepped up, taking ahold of Ashley–Eleanor–a bit roughly. Sarah stepped up, and I moved to stand with her, but the king said, “Stay, Mister Stark. I would speak with you.”
I nodded to him as the guards and Sarah left. “Your niece, Sire?”
He shook his head. “How did you know?”
“Some time ago, I had an encounter with this woman. She sought information from me about the Academy, thinking me to be a researcher. I was traveling under a different name, and she did not know me. When it became apparent that she was well-educated, I asked after her learning and she boasted of being tutored by some of the most prestigious names in the kingdom… including myself. As I had never tutored your daughter, nor indeed even met her, I immediately knew her for an impostor, and who but a spy would impersonate the Princess?”
“You accused her of working for the dragon Ryell.”
“While she still did not suspect that I knew the truth, I attacked her by surprise and subdued her. I learned that her ring gives her the illusion of being the Princess, and when I questioned her, she described a man who worked as her contact, with an inhuman appearance that I recognized from her description as a Conduit of the dragon. Unfortunately, she escaped and fled before I could turn her over to the Royal Knights.”
“And what of Aylwyn?”
“I happened upon her in the town of Barley. Have you heard of the troubles there?”
The king furrowed his brow slightly. “I have heard that Baron Leigh has had some problems with peasants stealing from his storehouse, but nothing to indicate that it is a problem worthy of a Paladin’s attention.”
Hoo boy. “The problems go both ways, it seems. The people sent a Petition of Grievances to you, to complain of Baron Leigh’s misconduct, as they saw it, when ruling them. It would seem that this petition never reached you. Aylwyn was met by the Princess, who told her, in your name, to investigate and resolve the problems in Barley as she saw fit. I told her of the impostor, and warned her against taking any action until she could be certain that this was not a ploy by Ryell to destabilize the affairs of the kingdom.”
“Destabilize… you believe she would have deposed him?” King Ryan saw the implications right away.
“I was not there for long, but…” I nodded slowly. “Richard Leigh does not treat his people as your law requires, and he almost certainly has blood on his hands, the blood of those he is sworn to protect and strengthen.”
The king closed his eyes and hung his head a little. “I had hoped,” he said slowly, “when I confirmed him as his father’s successor to the barony, that he would grow into it, that he would take the responsibility it presented, learn from the challenges of his station, and be strengthened by meeting them. It would appear that that has not been the case, if you speak the truth.”
“You think I wouldn’t?”
“If a paladin can be deceived, why not an engineer?”
That… was an annoyingly valid point. “So what should be done?”
The king stroked his beard again. “A difficult question. Can I send Knights to recall him to Keliar, to stand trial? How long has Eleanor been working among the Knights? Has she suborned any of them and turned their loyalties away from the Crown? And if so, who? How can I know, and who can I trust?”
Uh oh. I didn’t like where this was going. I’d had a similar conversation with Aylwyn not long ago. “You’re about to say you can trust me, aren’t you, Your Majesty?”
That actually got a chuckle out of the king. “Responsibility can be a heavy burden. From what I have heard, you spend a great deal of time and effort evading it. And yet, when we faced a crisis, you stepped up. The bards give the bulk of the credit to Aylwyn, but my men have spoken to the people of the Academy who were present, and they say that it was you who planned and executed the strike against Ken’tu Kel.”
And again he was right. That was getting annoying. Why’d we have to have a king who was intelligent and on the ball? Not that that was a bad thing, of course… except when I had to interact with him.
All right. I had hoped not to have to do this, but for some reason I felt that he deserved the truth. “Then I must tell you something, in the strictest of confidences. What I am about to say is known to the Companions, to Ryell, and to no one else that I am aware of.”
“You have had dealings with the dragon?”
“Not by choice, I assure you, but she seems to take interest in some people, and then it becomes unavoidable. I do take every effort to avoid her influence, though.”
The King nodded slowly. “That is… disturbing to hear. So what is your secret?”
I looked around at the guards who remained in the room. “Might I approach, Sire? What I must say, it is for your ears alone.”
He looked a bit surprised by that, but he nodded. “Approach, but slowly, and leave your dagger behind.”
How had he known about the dagger hidden in my boot? It should have been well-concealed, with the hilt hidden beneath the leg of my trousers. The seam had been carefully weakened to allow me to easily rip it for quick access, but if one of the guards had spotted that, and somehow silently communicated it to the king, that meant I was dealing with some scary-competent people here.
I crouched down and slowly drew the dagger, then set it on the carpet before walking the rest of the way to the throne. “You call me Anthony Stark,” I said under my breath. “But that is not my only name. I am also known by the name of–”
“Peter Parker, the bard,” the King said. “And also Paul Twister, the notorious outlaw, renowned in song and story… as disseminated by the bard, Peter Parker. The same who spread around the song of the Companions of Aylwyn.”
Yup. Scary-competent. I did my best not to show too much surprise. “How many people know?”
“Several people know bits and pieces. Only I and Karl Wynn have the whole picture.”
That was a name I had heard before: a captain of the Royal Knights, about whom little was known. “Then being a Knight is his cover? He’s actually head of Royal Intelligence, I assume?”
“That’s as good a name as any, I suppose,” the king grinned. So even the name of their intelligence organization was a secret?
“Why?” I asked.
“Not ‘how?'” he responded with a twinkle in his eye.
“How isn’t very relevant. If someone doesn’t know they’re under surveillance, the person spying on them is almost certain to learn their secrets one way or another. No, what I wonder is why.”
“Why do you think… Mr. Stark?”
Something about the way he said that… “Of course. I show up out of nowhere, with novel ideas and enough money to run proof-of-concepts, and no one knows who Anthony Stark is or where he’s from, because I made up the entire identity the day before, so someone gets curious.” I looked at him and bit my lip. “What did you learn?”
He smiled. “That the notorious outlaw’s reputation was largely a creation of his own fertile imagination, that he avoided work that would cause harm to innocents, and that he reinvested a good deal of his ill-gotten gains into projects and ventures that he believes would work for the long-term betterment of my subjects.” His eyes twinkled mirthfully. “To put it plainly, you are a very convenient criminal to have around.”
Click. A little piece fell into place. “You put the word out that I deserved leniency, somewhere where Aylwyn would have heard of it.”
He looked surprised for the first time. “What do you mean?”
I grinned at him. “You did, didn’t you? Ask Fiona Khal sometime if she has ever met me. That’s the one part of what happened that I never quite understood, until now.”
“I suppose now is not the time to be recounting long stories.” He started to stand. “Come, I would see what has become of Eleanor.”
We headed out together, the remaining guards falling into step around us and leading us to the dungeons. I had to suppress the urge to laugh at the absurdity of it. Here I was, being willingly escorted to a royal dungeon by an authority figure and a half-dozen guards, without the slightest bit of resistance. This would be the perfect setup, if the king was a whole lot more sneaky and underhanded than he appeared to be.
Inside, I found Eleanor seated on a bench, wrists and ankles in shackles, with a handful of annoyed-looking guards standing around, plus Sarah, who was glowering at her. One of Sarah’s hands was glowing with a deep, malevolent purple aura, and her eyes were narrowed, as if she really, really wanted to throw some nasty spell at Eleanor. There was a table nearby, which held a handful of personal items which I assumed were Eleanor’s possessions.
The guards saluted as the king entered the chamber. Eleanor just glowered at him. “Uncle.” She made it sound like a four-letter word.
“What have you done, Eleanor?”
“I have done nothing but claim what is rightfully mine: the title of Crown Princess, heir to the King.”
I glanced at King Ryan for clarification, He sighed and slumped his shoulders a little. “When our father died, there was some… uncertainty as to whether my brother or I would succeed him. He bore the outcome gracefully. It would seem the same cannot be said of his daughter.” Then he turned back to her, and his eyes got hard. “Where is Ashley?”
“Tekan.” That really was a dirty word, and Sarah blushed visibly when Eleanor uttered it.
“Miss O’Neil,” the king replied far too calmly, “I would take it as a personal kindness if you would set her hair on fire.”
“Gladly.” Woah. Remind me not to threaten someone she cares about! She raised her hand, the glow intensifying. This was not good.
“Wait,” I said, stepping between the two women.
“Mr. Stark,” the king began in a warning tone.
I stood straight and looked him square in the eye. A huge breach of protocol, but this was important. “Do you want to hurt this impudent, rebellious woman who dared to defy you… or do you want to learn the truth about your daughter? I have no doubt you could get her to talk, but a person put to the question would even confess to suicide, just to make it stop.”
He clasped his hands tightly together. “You try my patience.”
I stood my ground, and I really hoped he was playing Good Knight/Bad Knight here. Time to hedge my bets a little “I can get the truth from her,” I said, thinking fast. “But I’ll need a few things. A rope, about so long,” I held my hands approximately three feet apart, “a half gallon of cooking oil, and five live frogs. Small ones.”
Everyone looked at me strangely, including the guards and the prisoner. I put on my best evil smile. “It will make her talk,” I said confidently.
The king growled softly under his breath. “If this is a joke,” he said, “I will have two prisoners in short order.”
“I assure you, Sire, I will get results. We should go for a few minutes, to prepare. By your leave?”
He blinked at me, too confused to be properly annoyed. “I will give you one chance.” He turned and headed for the door. Sarah finally let the glow fade and turned to follow.
Eleanor gave me a strange, unreadable look before I walked out. I paused by the door and looked over the table containing Eleanor’s stuff. It wasn’t much: a sword, a few rings, a handkerchief, a small book, and a coin pouch. But as I turned to leave, a glint of metal caught my eye. Hidden behind the coin pouch was… hoo boy.
It was a chess piece, a metal figurine of a knight with tiny emeralds for its eyes.