James understood what was going on, more or less. He looked around curiously, between me, Sarah, and King Ryan.
The king caught his expression. “What is it, James?”
“Simply seeking to understand, Sire. If I know you, you wish to organize an attempt to free Ashley, and to do so immediately, both out of familial concern and to minimize the chance of the spy’s absence alerting anyone.”
He nodded. “As you say.”
“And you are so fortunate as to have two of the Companions of Aylwyn, great heroes of the realm, in your presence, who you have brought to the table.”
I didn’t like where this was going. I already had a quest to finish! But I held my peace for the moment. The king simply nodded again.
“I cannot help but wonder, then,” James continued, “why Mr. Stark is here.” He turned to me. “I mean no disrespect, of course. Our kingdom owes you a debt beyond repaying already. But…” he hesitated.
“But I’m no warrior? Not a wizard or a knight or a spy, but an engineer, a thinker whose contribution to my previous adventure consisted of a machine that no longer exists and has not been replaced? There’s no need to feel embarrassed; it’s the truth. I’m not of use for a quest like this.” Heh. Not of use. At least I’m not wearing a spangly outfit. I turned to the king. “So why am I here?” I wondered what he’d say.
He had to think about that for a moment. “First,” he said slowly, “because you are here, you already know of the facts, and I have no doubt of your loyalty. That alone is worth a great deal at the moment.
“Second, whatever your… questing skills may or may not be, you are, as you said, a thinker. And before this quest is undertaken, it must first be planned.
“And,” he turned back to the minstrel, “there is a third reason, but it is not mine to reveal.”
I saw James’s eyebrow raise a little, and suppressed the urge to facepalm. I wondered if the king knew how big of a faux pas he had just committed, letting on to a master bard that I had a big secret.
Damage control time. There weren’t many ways to divert a bard’s curiosity, or to get him to keep a secret once he had learned it. But I did know one thing. I didn’t want to have to do it, but there weren’t many choices at the moment. I walked over and gestured to him to follow me to a corner of the room, and in a low voice I spoke a very deep oath. “I bind you,” I murmured, “by the dozen woods of the luthier’s craft, by steel and ivory, by copper and gut, clay and leather, cork and felt, by your fingers, your ears, your eyes and your tongue. Guard my secret or forget it forever.”
His eyes went wide as I spoke the words. It meant exactly what it said: as a bard, he was honor-bound to never divulge my secret, either by keeping it to himself or by choosing not to learn it. Reasonable exceptions existed for secrets that were actively harmful, (you couldn’t abuse it to make someone not tell anyone that you’re a murderer, for example,) but by and large, any bard could bind another, regardless of rank or standing, and to violate this obligation would be to become a pariah among a group to whom reputation was everything.
It also implied that a person who he never knew had bardic training had at least one String to his name, so that would intrigue him further. In the end, he did what I expected. “As you wish. I will guard your secret.”
I walked back over to the table. “The king knows that the matter of my adventuring competence is… somewhat more complicated. Anthony Stark is simply an inventor, it’s true,” I glanced over at Sarah, and she grinned, “but Paul Twister might have some relevant skills.”
Classic delayed reaction. He looked at me blankly, then about a second and a half later, he boggled. “You?”
“In the flesh.”
“You… here?” He seemed to think of something amusing. He glanced at Sarah, and she picked up on whatever it was, because she started giggling uncontrollably.
“Might I ask what the joke is?” the king inquired mildly, but with a certain undercurrent of not-amusedness in his tone.
Then I suddenly got it as well, and I groaned a little to myself as I realized what the punchline was going to be, about a second before James delivered it.
“I apologize for the mirth, Your Majesty, but it suddenly occurred to me that you are about to ask Paul Twister to rescue the Princess from the dungeon in which she is being held captive by a dragon!”
That actually made him smile, just a little, which made Sarah giggle again. “That’s not exactly his best skill.”
“Yes,” the king said. “As amusing as that is–”
The door opened, interrupting him. I turned, and saw a rather nondescript man walk in. Average height, bland brown hair that he kept cut about halfway down his ears, and a plain, average face that was neither handsome nor ugly. He wore the plain gray shirt and trousers I had seen on palace servants, and what looked like a very soft and comfortable pair of brown leather boots. The only remarkable thing about his appearance was a pair of spectacles, like a rather well-off scribe would wear. (The art of lens-grinding was still in its infancy around here, so those were expensive and rare.)
He bowed his head respectfully. “Your Majesty?” He held up a small scroll, tied with a red ribbon.
“Approach,” the king commanded, and he started forward. Just a servant, some guy with a message.
I’m not sure exactly why I noticed, but a glance down at his boots as he approached where I sat showed a very subtle bulge on one side that I was all too familiar with. Was that how the king’s guards had noticed my dagger? If so, their eyesight was much sharper than my own, to see a detail like that from across the room.
The same guards that were standing guard outside the doors. How had they let this man in? Something didn’t add up.
I didn’t have time to think; I just reacted. I jumped up, grabbing the man’s arm and twisting it behind his back, bending him over the table to pin him down.
…or at least, I tried to. The guy was strong, with muscles hard as stone under that simple gray tunic! He pivoted when I tried to twist his arm, turning and getting his other hand against my chest and shoving hard. I stumbled backwards, tripping over a chair leg and going down painfully.
The man took a couple more steps toward the king, but then Sarah stood up, both hands glowing brightly, a deep orange color. “Don’t,” was all she said.
Everyone froze. “What is the meaning of this?” the king demanded coldly.
I got up. “Your Majesty, this man is–” is wearing glasses, the only interesting thing about his utterly boring appearance. Why?
To draw attention away from his eyes. I looked into his eyes and saw deep, profound intelligence. Here was a man who didn’t miss a thing. He looked back at me with curiosity and… amusement? Not fear, not anger or contempt, but actual mirth.
“…is your spymaster, Karl Wynn, isn’t he? And you were wondering if I would notice.” Now I saw respect there. “Well played, Your Majesty.”
The king nodded, and Sarah let her magic fade. “Are you going to make a habit of accosting every visitor who interrupts our conversations like this, Paul Twister?” the king asked dryly.
“He’s carrying a dagger, a lot like the one you wouldn’t let me approach you with. He looks so utterly normal that I thought at first he must be an assassin.”
Wynn looked amused by that. “You took me for a ninja?”
Well that’s about the last word I was expecting to hear around here. Was my translation trolling me or something? “Ninja?”
“A sect of assassins from Jinwei, who act as you said. They disguise themselves as peasants, servants or laborers to go unnoticed until they can get close to a target, then they strike, create some great clamor, and flee amid the chaos.”
That… actually sounds a lot like ninjas. Woah. They have ninjas here!
I did my best to keep my face neutral. “I see. I’ve heard of similar things, but the name was unfamiliar to me.”
“Well, I assure you, I am no assassin,” Wynn said, taking a seat. “I am simply a knight, and the eyes and ears of my king.”
“Somehow, I doubt you’re simply anything,” I said wryly, rubbing my sore bottom.
“I do believe that’s a compliment, coming from Paul Twister.”
I glanced over at the king. “It is, but we’d better get down to business before His Majesty reaches the end of his patience.”
“Thank you,” the king said in a tone that indicated he wasn’t feeling particularly thankful for anything that was going on at the moment. He turned to face Karl. “To put it succinctly, I have recently discovered that one of your companions in the Knighthood was not who she seemed to be. The one who we all thought was my daughter was, in fact, my niece Eleanor, disguising herself with the aid of magic. She is currently being held in the dungeon, where Paul and James managed to beguile her into revealing that Ashley is being held at Fort Skyedge. I wish to see her liberated, as quickly as possible.
“Also, from what she said, it appears she is a dracora of high rank. It is safe to assume that several people at Fort Skyedge, people in authority, have been suborned as well.” He sighed regretfully and took a slow breath. “The corruption may or may not reach as high as my brother.”
Everyone looked a bit uneasy at that, beyond what I would have expected. There must be something I was missing. So I spoke up. “I try to avoid entanglement in political matters whenever possible,” I said, “but I have the feeling that there’s a strong political dimension to all this, and so my ignorance in such matters puts me at a disadvantage. Would anyone mind explaining?”
It was James who answered. “When Justin de Morgan failed in his bid for the throne, he was still quite popular among the nobility. There were many who would have preferred him as king, and to be fully truthful, many who still would today. King Ryan could not act against him overtly, so he came up with a compromise by appointing him as Duke of the utmost province of the kingdom.”
The king nodded. “It was not formally a declaration of exile, but there is an… understanding between us, if you will, that he is not welcome in Keliar.”
“I see,” I said. “And in return, you are understood to be unwelcome in Pijal, and if you move against him, it stirs up all manner of trouble among the nobles?”
King Ryan frowned. “I would not have phrased it so… directly, but that is the essence of the dilemma,” he admitted.
“So what you need is a small, highly capable team that can go in without attracting too much attention, free the princess, and hopefully get some information about what else is going on that we don’t know about.”
“Your mastery of the obvious is astounding,” Karl snarked.
“All right then,” I said. “That settles it. Count me out.”
Everyone stared. Sarah was the first to say anything. “Out? What do you mean, Paul?”
I glanced at Karl meaningfully. “Well, it’s obvious that Ryell is attempting to destabilize the Throne and the Kingdom in some way. It’s not just this; I need to deal with the situation in Barley.”
Wynn raised an eyebrow. “You have information out of Barley?”
Now it was my turn to be surprised. “You don’t?”
“I’ve had agents watching the situation in Aster Province for some time now. There have been minor cases of unrest and discontent springing up, nothing too serious.”
“Nothing serious?” I asked skeptically. I wondered what his agents had been telling him.
He waved a hand dismissively. “Something like this happens about once a generation, or once per king or local lord, whichever is shorter. The trick is to time the response right so things can be resolved satisfactorily without reaching the point that either side feels they have no choice but to resort to violence.
“But I haven’t heard anything out of the region in nearly two weeks. The entire south half of the province has gone silent. A few days is one thing, but this is beginning to cross the threshold from ‘unusual’ to ‘worrisome’. So how recent is your news?”
I let out a low whistle. “It seems no one has all the pieces of this puzzle. About two weeks ago–I don’t know if it was before or after things went silent for you–I heard from my sources about unrest in Barley. I heard nothing about the rest of Aster. I went to see, and found my old friend Aylwyn in the middle of a rather tense confrontation with the local peasantry.”
That was news to Wynn. “What is the Paladin doing there? She was supposed to be in Trent!”
“Supposed to as in ‘expected,’ or as in ‘required’?”
“Expected. Last I heard, she was looking into smuggling problems!”
I shrugged. “Well, I asked her about things, and she told me she had been contacted by the Princess and she asked her, in the King’s name, to look into the Petition of Grievances the folk of Barley had sent to the King.”
“What petit–” I could see the wheels turning in Karl’s head. “But she was not the princess. Was there ever a petition?”
“Yes. It seems it never made it to the palace. And there are definitely problems to be resolved, and not with the citizens. This is no common cyclical unrest, unless you have barons with their people’s blood on their hands once every king or so. Aylwyn interviewed him and called him ‘patently unfit to rule,’ and that was before she knew he was hoarding food in the winters.”
Karl’s expression hardened at that. James looked outraged. The king went all stony-faced, but he couldn’t keep the shame out of his eyes. Sarah just looked sad. She had heard this before.
“How do you know this is true?” Karl asked cautiously. “Have you lived there in the winter?”
“I met a certain young girl, just barely becoming a woman, and quite by happenstance learned that she was nearly my equal at picking locks. When I asked her where in the world she had picked up such a skill, she said her brothers had taught her, because it was often necessary to raid the Baron’s storehouses to get through a particularly cold winter. She thought that was normal!
“She ought to be enjoying what childhood she has left, not worrying about choosing between the risk of starvation and the risk of prison! You might question even this, but I know what guile is. It’s my stock in trade, and she didn’t have any in her there. That’s about as damning a condemnation of the baron as I can imagine.” Yeah, I was fudging the details just a little, but I did it to protect her identity.
Karl thought about it. “So Ryell diverts Aylwyn Shadowbane from her smuggling investigations into a volatile situation in Barley, where her resolving things in her customary fashion would put great strain on our relations with the Celestial Realm. Meanwhile, Aylwyn is not investigating smuggling operations in Trent, Princess Ashley is being held captive in Skyedge where we cannot act openly, and Eleanor is subverting the Royal Knights.” He looked at me with a sigh. “What happened next?”
“I had recently become aware of the impostor Princess and her true affiliations–that story isn’t relevant at the moment–and I warned Aylwyn that her request might not be genuine. She asked me to come here to verify things, and along the way I ran into Sarah and we’ve been traveling together since. And you know the rest.”
“Do I?” He asked. “It isn’t two weeks from here to Barley.”
“We got sidetracked on other urgent business which isn’t relevant to this.” Karl raised an eyebrow, but I shook my head. “It isn’t. Just as you have withheld some details from me that I don’t have a need to know. You can decide I’m trustworthy, or that I’m not, but if not, why are you listening to me?”
The king sighed. “You are a very frustrating man.”
“I told you I don’t like political entanglements. I just like meddling dragons even less, particularly this one.”
“Is there anything else we should know?” Karl asked.
“Do you know what a Sameness is?”
“As in the Fae transportation magic?”
“That. Did you know there’s one in Khorun Woods?”
I could see that was news to both Karl and the king. James, however, looked more exasperated than surprised.
King Ryan caught it too. “What is it, James?”
He looked reluctant to say. Instead, he answered with a question. “Do you know where it leads?”
“All I have is a name, Siloneroa. I don’t know where that is, except ‘somewhere in Ìludar.'”
The minstrel nodded slightly, looking a bit embarrassed. “This is Bards’ College business gone awry, Your Majesty, and it does not represent any threat to the kingdom. I will see to it that the Sameness is closed and those responsible are reprimanded appropriately for their unwise decisions.”
That seemed to satisfy the king. “See to it, before it becomes a problem.”
That, more than anything, was what gave me a good overall impression of Ryan de Morgan. Here was a guy who could be The Man In Charge without having to be a micromanaging control freak about it. “Two other things,” I said. “First, and it may have been long enough now that he might have covered things up, but an in-depth audit of Duke Graymont’s finances might yield some surprising results, particularly with regard to his habits on taxation.”
“You know of that?” Karl asked. “An odd criminal case recently drew our atte–” He sighed suddenly. “Was that you?”
“I’d take it as a personal favor if you didn’t spread that around.”
“You will be happy to know, then, that the audit you were hoping for has taken place, and the former Duke has been deposed and reassigned to a minor barony in another province, closer to the capital. He would probably have gotten away with it, actually, had he not overreacted so severely and attempted to bury you. It made it appear that he was hiding something. And what is the other matter?”
That was pretty impressive, actually. Apparently you don’t need the Internet to have the Streisand Effect! “The other matter–and I want to stress that this is nothing more than a possibility, and is likely to be nothing–but in my previous encounter with the impostor, she tried to get me to go to Beck’s Ridge to await instruction from another agent of Ryell. It might be worthwhile to look there.”
Karl nodded. “Or it might not, if the town was simply a meeting point and the dracora was not local to it.”
“That’s the second time I’ve heard that word today. What is a dracora?”
Everyone gave me an odd look, as if I definitely should have known that. After a few awkward moments of silence, Sarah spoke up. “One who forswears their rightful allegiance and pledges loyalty to a dragon.”
I nodded. “Wait. Beck’s Ridge is in Trent, within three days of at least two ports.”
“I am aware of that,” Karl said. “If only I knew who in the Knighthood I could trust, to investigate these activities.”
“Well, I can’t go there, and I can’t go to Skyedge. I’m needed in Barley.” I was gonna stick to my guns on that one. “But I definitely think your odds of rescuing the princess will be good, even without my aid, because you will have a wizard in your party whose strength no dracora could match, who can fly, neutralize an entire room full of guards, or even turn into an ogre if you’re lucky.”
Sarah’s face fell as she realized what I was saying. “But…”
I shook my head. “This is where we have to part ways, Sarah. Aylwyn needs me, and the king needs you.” Then I got an idea. “But when you get back, I’ll write the song of how Sarah O’Neil rescued the princess when Paul Twister could not, and spread it around the kingdom.”
That drew an involuntary giggle from her, but she still looked sad. “I will hold you to that…”
Karl frowned. “I hardly think such publicity is advisable in a case like this.”
I gave him my cheekiest grin. “Have you heard my song? How much of that do you think really happened?”
“Hmm, point taken.”
“The whole kingdom will know of how Sarah, daughter and apprentice of one of this land’s great bards, went out a-wandering one day, as bards are wont to do. At a tavern in Pijal, she heard rumors that at Fort Skyedge they were holding prisoners with no crime and no trial. She investigated and found conditions at the fort to be suspicious, so she hired a pair of down-on-their-luck sellswords and snuck into the dungeons, and great heroism ensues. Or somesuch thing; the details aren’t important. What’s important is telling a good story.”
The king looked across the table at me. “And if I would prefer to send a messenger to Barley, and have you go to Skyedge?”
“Who could you trust?”
He shook his head. “Say I found someone.”
“Then I’m afraid I would have to disappoint you.”
He narrowed his eyes slightly. “And if I found your insolence tiring, and had you imprisoned?”
“Duke Graymont tried that. And yet…” I gestured to myself, sitting there in front of him.
He looked at me grimly. “Perhaps I would simply have you executed.”
OK, not sure what his game is, but he can’t be serious… right? “Aylwyn,” I said as levelly as I could, “would not take that well at all.”
He gave an exasperated sigh. “You have far too little respect for power.”
I shrugged. “I’ve stood before Ryell, her head close enough that she could reach out and touch me with her tongue, and told her she cannot control me, that I will live my own life as I see fit, and I walked away alive and free. After that, saying the same to a man, even a king… it just seems a light matter.”
Then he nodded, and there was approval in his face. “That’s good. Far too many only see a king… and not a man. There are times I think being a king requires more than a man.”
“It does,” I said. “It takes a whole kingdom, I think. In the end, it seems to me that any ruler’s power comes from the people he rules over, and if they don’t consent to his rule… well, it seems Karl has done some studying on the subject of revolt.”
Karl looked at me oddly. “And where did you study political theory? There isn’t an academy in the kingdom that teaches the things I have learned.”
I had said more than enough already. “It’s a long story. One might say that knowledge of such things is my birthright.”
“What, are you a prince or something?” James asked skeptically.
I laughed. “Not even close. I’ll say this, though. Any ruler who remembers he’s a man first and a ruler second, and that he has a responsibility to those he holds power over, I will uphold. I’m no threat to you or your kingdom, Your Majesty.”
“Well,” King Ryan said slowly, “this has certainly been an interesting experience.” He called for the guards and told them to fetch a scribe. “While we wait… who shall rule in Barley in the interim?”
Karl suggested the duke, as the ultimate authority in the area, while James thought that the local countess would be a better choice due to being more familiar with local issues. Sarah really had no idea about the situation, so she stayed out of it.
I had a more radical idea. “Why not let them rule themselves?”
Everyone looked at me like I’d grown a second head. Even Sarah.
I held up my hands to forestall objections. “No, no, hear me out. It would only be for a few weeks at most, not long enough for an interim lord to familiarize himself with the people and their issues. But they know themselves. So have the townsfolk elect a council–nine or ten should be enough for a town that size–and they administer their affairs and resolve disputes until you have a new baron to send.”
Everyone still looked like they thought I was crazy… except the king. He looked like he thought I was dangerous. “Out of the question. Such a choice has two possible outcomes. It could fail, which would be disastrous for the townsfolk. Or it could be successful, and the idea would spread.”
I nodded slowly. “Which, in the end, would be disastrous for you. I understand.”
“I wonder if you do. You say that a knowledge of revolt is your birthright. Mine is maintaining the stability of the kingdom, and I would not wish to make an enemy of you. I want your vow that you will not speak of this idea to my subjects.”
Well, nobody’s perfect, I guess. I suppose you can only cram so much progress into a certain amount of time. Oh well. Assuming I found some way to not die of cancer or get myself killed on some stupid adventure, I was likely to outlive him and all his grandkids. I’d get back around to it eventually.
So I nodded. “You have my word.”
The scribe arrived not long after that, and the king dictated his message to her. It was very simple and to the point.
His Majesty King Ryan de Morgan, to Lady Alissa Williams, Countess of Desh Glen:
You are hereby commanded to depose Baron Richard Leigh of Barley and send him to Keliar to answer for his misdeeds against my citizens. You are to temporarily assume the barony directly, in addition to your current duties as Countess, until such time as a new Baron is chosen.
Signed and sealed by my own hand,
Ryan, Third king of that name
Then the scribe passed him the scroll and quill, and he signed it. Then he laid it on the table and the scribe rolled it up and placed a small lump of wax on it. She used some magic to heat it until it was just beginning to melt, so it got all over the parchment, and he pressed his signet ring into it and held it there for several seconds while the wax cooled. When he withdrew the ring, the scribe tied three ribbons around the scroll, red, brown, and green, the colors of House Morgan. Then she placed it in a wooden scroll case lined with felt on the inside, and placed a wooden cap on the end. This got sealed with another wax seal, exactly like the scroll.
There was a very formal, ritualistic feel to the whole thing, which I suppose was kind of the whole point of drafting a royal decree. The king nodded at me and the scribe handed me the scroll case, then he dismissed her and she left.
I stuck around for the planning of the raid to spring the princess, and we came up with a pretty good plan, but that’s really more a part of Sarah’s story than mine. I’ll let her tell it, if she decides to someday. And it’s definitely a story worth telling, even though it didn’t go at all like we expected. It was well into the afternoon by the time we got everything wrapped up.
It was late enough that there wasn’t much point in leaving until the next day, so we both spent the evening in the markets, gathering supplies and making preparations. Sarah had the audacious idea to try to sell the dragon scales to the Chief Armorer of the Royal Knights, and he paid us with letters of credit against the Royal Treasury, enough to provide a very comfortable life for both of us for quite some time. I stashed mine in one of my safe houses in Keliar.
The next morning, Sarah said a very tearful goodbye to me, which was kind of heart-wrenching because she was in half-nymph form that day, and seeing someone that beautiful cry just tears you up inside. Especially when it’s not safe to comfort her with a hug.
I wondered if Karl and James knew what they were getting themselves into. I probably shouldn’t have, but how was I to know that mine would be the more dangerous of the two missions?