“Your Majesty, this needs to be destroyed immediately,” I said once I was outside, holding up what I had found.
“A chess piece?” He looked closer. “Why is it dangerous?”
“This is a token from the dragon herself, almost certainly attuned to her. With it, she can spy on the surroundings, or project magic through it.”
“How do you know that?” Sarah asked.
“She offered me one just like it, as a reward of sorts for defeating Ken’tu Kel. I… turned her down.”
“I have the feeling you compress a small saga into those few words,” the king remarked dryly. He looked over to Sarah. “Can you unmake this?”
“Maybe,” she said hesitantly. “Destroy the physical form, sure. But I don’t know much about dragon attunement. Maybe Gerald Wolf would.”
I shook my head. “He doesn’t know enough to undo something like this. The only wizard who does is Ken’tu Kel. Don’t ask how I know.”
Sarah closed her eyes for a moment, then grinned. “I know!” She held out her hand. “Let me see it?”
I gave her a wary look, but handed it over, being very careful not to let my skin touch hers. “What are you going to do?”
She cupped her hands, holding the knight between them, then mumbled something, and it vanished with a small pop of displaced air.
“Teleportation?” the king asked. “Where did you send it?”
“The ocean.” Sarah beamed at him and giggled softly. “Let her cause trouble there.” Then she turned to me. “Rope, oil and frogs?”
The king nodded at the question. “What could you possibly do with those?”
I shrugged. “I have no idea. But the important part is, neither does she. And it’s going to drive her crazy, imagining horrible things I could do with them. Especially since I said I’d be back in just a few minutes, but it’s likely to take a few hours, if not a day or two, to put my real plan into effect.” I turned to Sarah. “I don’t suppose your father is someplace that he could reach the palace quickly?”
“My father? …oh! You want him to use bardic magic to compel the truth from her?”
I nodded. “Exactly.”
She frowned. “I don’t know where he is at the moment, actually. He’s traveling, and he might be difficult to reach.”
The king had an idea. “I could send for the Court Minstrel. He is counted as a Master Bard, as your father is.”
Sarah bit her lip. “That’s a tricky spell, though. It’s not like a bolt of force, where you just walk up to someone and smack them with it and they fall over. If someone’s expecting it, they can resist the effects.”
Oops. I didn’t know that. Think fast. “Then I’ll go in there, with the rope and the frogs–but no oil, that’ll keep her off-balance–and start asking her questions. Leave the door open slightly. Wait three minutes, then let him slip in while I’m distracting her.” I chewed on my lip a little as a thought struck me. Something I’d seen in movies a few times. I had no idea if it would actually work, but… I was pretty sure Eleanor would never have heard of it. “Oh. And a shuttered lantern would be very nice.”
* * *
It took a while, but we got the minstrel and the things I had asked for. Turns out frogs are surprisingly easy to come by in a castle; just fish a few out of the moat with some fine nets. At first I thought the king was going to assign the task to some of his guards, but instead he called one of the squires and had him get his two sons, who were both around 10, to do it. They had a lot of fun with the task.
The court minstrel was a tall, thin man by the name of James Pearce who, thankfully, didn’t seem to recognize me as Peter Parker. That would have just added to the confusion. He grinned as I explained the plan.
I headed back into the dungeon chamber, and took the rope, finding a place on the ceiling that I could attach it to. I asked the guards to cover the windows and extinguish the torches, and then I hung the lantern up, turning it and opening the shutter so it would shine directly into Eleanor’s face, the only source of light in the room. (The door was left slightly open, but we had hung a curtain over it before I entered.) Then I stood behind the lantern and set down a wooden box that occasionally emitted a croak or ribbit.
“The king,” I said, “wanted to do some terrible things to you. You heard his first idea; it would not have been the last one. I stepped in because I didn’t want my friend to join in on it; I don’t think she realizes what attacking a defenseless, restrained person can do to you, no matter how much they may deserve it. She may literally turn into a monster from time to time, but she gets over it easily enough. Becoming the metaphorical variety, though… that’s another matter, and a lot harder to overcome.”
“Your concern for your friend is touching,” she said. “But I’m afraid you’re doing it wrong. You’re supposed to start by telling me that you’re on my side, that you sympathize with my plight and if I’ll just cooperate, you can help me. But this, this makes it sound like if Uncle Ryan had had a different wizard with him, you’d have let me lose all my hair.”
I shrugged. “Why lie? I probably would have. A kingdom needs a few tame monsters to deal with the feral ones. I just don’t want Sarah joining their ranks.
“I respect what you’ve done. It takes some serious audacity to make the attempt, and real intelligence and skill to pull it off. Apparently you had everyone fooled, even her own father. That’s amazing! But taking up with Ryell, that’s where we have a problem.”
She sighed. “And now you display ignorance. You have no idea what Ryell has done for this world, and for this kingdom. Could you send for a real interrogator? At least being tortured would be less boring than this.”
“All right,” I conceded. “If I’m so ignorant, educate me. What has Ryell done to be so worthy of my respect?”
She gawked. “Aren’t you supposed to be questioning me about my dear, sweet cousin?”
I growled and took two steps forward, raising my arm as if to backhand her across the face. “I SET THE AGENDA HERE!”
She flinched. Just a little, but she flinched. That was good; it told me I was dealing with a real person with real emotions somewhere underneath all the bravado and the screwed-uppedness. I backed off and lowered my arm, stepping back into the shadow behind the lantern. “Is that what you were expecting? I told you I don’t like that.” (I had also told her I’d be fine with it happening to her as long as someone else did it. Keeping her off-balance and confused was important.) “Besides, why should I play by your rules and do what you’re expecting? I am the one setting the agenda here. And you know what? I understand how you feel. You’re frustrated that I just don’t see something you think is obvious, especially since you believe that you have been wronged and this is part of it. So explain it. I’ll listen.”
The urge to rant is an inborn part of human nature. It’s cathartic, getting all the frustration off your chest. And I wanted her talking anyway. So I listened, and I asked questions, and listened some more. She started talking about how the dragons kept the peace between the nations with their “subtle guidance” (aka manipulation and meddling in the affairs of nations.)
When I presented my counter-theory about money being taken out of the economy by the Fates so that no one could afford to raise a large army, she laughed scornfully at my ignorance of basic economics. “Imagine half the silver and gold disappeared suddenly, but all the farmers still grew the same amount of wheat. If no one can afford to buy bread, the entire society breaks down, so instead the price of bread will be cut in half, and it will necessarily happen very quickly. It is not very different for the price of soldiers.”
It didn’t quite make sense at first, but partway through her explanation, the little lightbulb went on in my head: she was talking about inflation. Or the same principle, at least, but in the opposite direction. (Deflation? Is that a thing?)
“But you, and me, and everyone else in the kingdom needs food every day to survive. A standing army is not a basic necessity the way food is.”
She shrugged. “That only means it would take longer for the price of soldiers to fall. It would still happen, inevitable as day and night.”
Fair enough. But even so… “As I understand it, there has been peace in the kingdom, and throughout the neighboring lands, since the end of the last war, about eighty years ago. Ryell has been around far longer than that.”
“Eighty-three years ago,” she recited brusquely, “the great scarlet dragon Telar was murdered, tricked by a Celestial Paladin into claiming a piece of treasure that contained the essence of a magical plague. He made his lair in Anduin, not far from our borders.”
That was kind of creepy to hear. I’d never thought of angels as the sort of people who would employ germ warfare! Then again, I was dealing with a skilled liar. Which, of course, didn’t mean that it wasn’t true. I know how the game works: The closer to the truth, the better the lie, and the truth itself, when it can be used, is the best lie of all. I’d have to ask Aylwyn what their side of the story was.
Either way, there was a hole in her assertion. “Post hoc ergo propter hoc?” I already knew whatever was translating words worked on non-English words and phrases, so I figured she would understand.
She did. So she laid out a pretty detailed history, over the next several minutes, of how the lack of visible dragon influence had led to some of the border barons on both sides getting overly bold, raiding each other, and calling upon their neighbors, their kings, and eventually nearby nations for aid as things continued to escalate.
According to her, one of the dragons whose territory bordered on Telar’s was Ryell, his mate. She attempted to claim his former territory but was balked, for a time at least, by an unholy coalition of misguided wizards and malicious, scheming angels, and it was not until she was able to overcome their opposition that she could step in and bring the war to an end. Apparently she accomplished this by essentially flying around and going “don’t make me come down there,” which gave everyone a good incentive to work things out diplomatically.
It was a pretty good story. I wondered how much of it was true. Luckily, I had a friend who had lived through those years who I could ask.
I never noticed when James Pearce slipped in and cast his speak-the-truth spell, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t either. She just kept talking, and I kept listening, occasionally challenging some point she made, which invariably prompted a well-reasoned defense.
“So you see the dragon as a misunderstood benefactor of mankind?”
“Not just her; all the dragons are the protectors of this world. They defend their territory against ruinous invasions, whether it be from their neighbors, giants, demons, or things even more terrible. The only Outsider threat they have been incapable of beating back so far has been the Celestial incursion.”
“Incursion?” I boggled a little at her choice of words. “Most people regard them as benefactors, you know…”
“Most people,” Eleanor replied contemptuously, “are fools who think with their senses, rather than their minds. They see a being who is tall, strong, noble of bearing and lovely of face, radiating light, and think ‘surely this is a great force for good before me.’ But you know how to think, so tell me. They say you know one of their Paladins better than most. In all the time you have known this benefactor, this protector, have you ever seen her take up a shield? Have you seen her defend or protect? Has Aylwyn the Shadowbane ever once show mercy or compassion?”
I didn’t even have to think about that one. “Yes. She could have executed Ken’tu Kel for his crimes, but she took him prisoner instead.”
Eleanor rolled her eyes. “Oh, what a great act of mercy, to refrain from killing someone who was already rendered harmless because her companion had struck him down with a ton of steel, and would make a very valuable prisoner anyway because of his great knowledge!”
Where had she heard that? That was a lot closer to the truth than the report we’d put out about what happened! Either way… “Typical. I give you an answer you don’t want to hear, and you can’t refute it because it’s a fact, so you change the requirements.” I would call that “moving the goal posts,” but football hadn’t been invented here.
She shrugged. “Say what you will. You will never see an act of true mercy, compassion, love or sacrifice from an angel. They are beings of fire, vengeance and self-righteous wrath.”
“And dragons aren’t?”
“Dragons manipulate people and nations to put an end to conflicts, not to instigate them.”
“So when did you come to this… realization?” I asked.
“I’ve always been one to think deeply about things. Many things that we hold as true are highly simplistic, with much deeper truths beneath the surface, and often those truths are distorted or suppressed outright by those in power.”
“You’re saying that history is written by the victors?”
She grinned. “I like that phrase! Yes, exactly. And the Celestials have conquered the hearts of the human kingdoms.”
“…and your father was not the victor in his bid for the throne, and that made you ‘think deeply about things?’ How old were you when this all happened?”
That was getting personal. This is the point where she should have gotten all defensive and clammed up, which is why I asked. She barely noticed, though. “Seven.”
“Wow,” I said. “That must have been rough. And so there you were, without what you had thought would be your birthright. And somewhere along the way, a man comes to you. He looks strange, but he speaks of things that appeal to you, of ways to fight back against the uncle who stripped you of your promised heritage, and of truths not known to most.”
She nodded a little, probably not even realizing she was doing it. I was just making this up as I went along, but apparently I was more or less on the right track. “And eventually, you find yourself working for Ryell. When did she give you the Knight?”
That actually got a laugh from her. “Somehow I’m not surprised you would know what that is and what it means. I’ve had it for four years.”
I nodded. “I don’t actually know what it means. What is it for? Simply a sign of rank?”
“When I hold it,” she said, “sometimes insights come to me. I can know her will, or feel her strengthening me.”
“Why a chess knight?” I asked.
“Because I am not like most people. Like the knight, I move in a fundamentally different way.”
That sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Ryell hadn’t said that to me… had she? “So are there other people with these emblems? Pawns and queens and wizards and towers?” I assumed she herself was the King.
Eleanor shrugged. “If there are, I have never met one.”
“So whose idea was it to replace Ashley?”
“Mine. Once I saw what the dragon could do, I always knew that would be my goal.”
“And what did you do with her?” Here it was, the moment of truth.
“Nothing inhumane, I assure you. She lives in comfort, if not liberty, in Fort Skyedge.” It was a border fortress up in the mountains, a rather remote location. Suddenly her eyes widened. “How did you do that?”
I just grinned, then stepped forward and leaned in until my lips were so close to her ear that I could have kissed it. “The Twist turns as it wills,” I whispered.
Then I took the box of frogs and dumped them in her hair. She deserved something for what she had done, at least! She squirmed and bit her lip, but to her credit she didn’t scream.
“Thank you!” I headed out and went to talk with the king, James and Sarah. I found the latter two listening eagerly at the curtain.
“Fort Skyedge?” James asked.
“I turn into a monster on a regular basis?” Sarah was not amused.
I waved her off. “I had to have something to say.” I glanced over at the king. As befitting the dignity of his station, he was not standing listening at the curtain, but standing about twenty feet off, his back straight, his posture poised. His face, though, kind of ruined the “dignified” thing; he looked a bit queasy at the news.
I looked over at James, who looked a bit concerned as well. “All right,” I asked him, as I closed the door to the dungeon, “for the benefit of those of us who have never traveled out that way, what’s significant about Fort Skyedge? I know it’s a fortress up north, in the Dlen mountains, on the border with Dwarven lands. Pijal province, I believe.”
James nodded. “Pijal is the holding of Duke Justin de Morgan.”
“And,” the king added, “the province that encompasses Mount Peren, where Ryell makes her lair. Skyedge is perhaps three days’ travel from the mountain.”
“Is that three days of rough mountain terrain?” I asked. “And much less actual distance on a map than that sounds like?”
James nodded again. “Precisely. Much less by air.”
“We should not speak of this here,” the king said. “Come.” He led us to a hall that served as some sort of conference room, and left the guards outside, telling one of them to go fetch Karl Wynn.
Hoo boy. He wants a council about what to do with this information, and he wants me and Sarah in on it? Looks like things were about to get real…