I’m not sure what those knights at the barricade were expecting me to be able to come back with in the short span of two days, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t involve a pack of men and women in bright clothing, carrying musical instruments, laughing and singing and chatting with each other as they rode up on whatever horses or carts they happened to have handy. (Turns out there was a second way in to Amber String that looped around the camp, a hidden trail broad enough to bring a cart up without getting blocked by the thick forest. That must have been how Cory got his huge, heavy rack of bells in there.)
We all worked together to move enough of the barricade aside that the carts could get through, and then close the road again behind us. I congratulated the three knights on their work, and of course I had to explain who all these people with me were. (Well, technically as an Arbiter I didn’t have to, but I had no good reason to antagonize these guys.) So I told them that they were a troupe of performers I had encountered not far away.
The knight in charge looked aghast. “Do they know what you’re leading them into, Sir Arbiter?”
“Aye, that we do!” Charles boomed out when he heard the question. “Peter here tells us you’ve got a right mess of angry folk milling about in the very worst of tempers. And we’re in the business of raising people’s spirits, so it seemed a perfect match!”
There was a chorus of laughter at that, but the knights scoffed. “You seek to put down a rebellion with songs, tales and dancing?”
“You’ve been trying to put it down with the sword,” one of the minstrels jeered. “How’s it working so far?”
“Please,” I said, waving a hand from high to low, palm down, in a “calm down” gesture. “It’s said that music can soothe the savage beast, and I think we can all agree there’s nothing more savage than a man or woman overcome by wrath. And besides, they were the only resource available to me. In such circumstances, I thought it useful to engage the services of people with a good deal of experience at the art of improvisation.”
He shook his head a little. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
OK, that bit about not having a reason to antagonize them was changing quickly. “Are you questioning my authority, or simply my judgment?” I barked at him. “You seem to be under the impression that there is a good idea to follow. From where I’m standing, I don’t see any. The king has charged me with fixing a bad situation, and I am going to do the best I can with what I have available! If you have any good ideas, feel free to present them. But if not, then in King Ryan’s name I charge you to at least be silent and refrain from making things worse!”
That shut them up, except for the youngest-looking of the three. He actually had something constructive to say! “Sir Arbiter,” he began nervously, “we have heard that the main body of the rebels are marching on the Duke’s keep. If you can reach White Lake before them…”
“An excellent idea!” I said with a smile. I turned to my band of bards and gestured to them to get moving. “You heard the man,” I called out. “To White Lake!”
* * *
I’m not sure why they called it White Lake. The lake was… well… water-colored, just like every other lake I’ve seen, and white was neither the color of the local soil around the lake nor the predominant color of the buildings in the town that took its name from the lake.
There were, however, a great number of white canvas tents pitched along the shore and surrounding the town. Looks like the rebels got here before us, and from a cursory overview, we figured there were over a thousand of them, maybe as many as 1200.
“Looks like they’re here ahead of us,” I said as we stood on a hill about a mile off, overlooking the scene. We had made plans for four scenarios: arriving ahead of the rebels, arriving after them and finding active fighting going on, arriving after them and finding them encamped or still arriving, and arriving and finding no rebels on the way because we had bad information. “You all know what to do.”
And they did. They split off into groups of two or three and headed into the camp, looking for leaders to speak to, and common people to get information from. Me, I headed for the town, accompanied by Amber and the two biggest, burliest bards from our little band. They carried clubs, daggers and studded leather gloves. Amber carried a long staff, and a canvas-bound bundle on her back.
I carried the Arbiter Box.
We were about halfway through the camp before someone stopped us with a challenge. A couple big, scruffy-looking men with long knives in their belts confronted us. “Haven’t seen you around before,” one of them growled a bit suspiciously.
“Haven’t been around before,” I replied. “What seems to be the trouble?”
He gave me an odd look. “Trouble is us not knowing who you’re loyal to.”
I held up the scroll case. “Do you know what this is?”
Blank looks. “A fancy messenger’s case?” the second thug ventured.
“You might say that. I bear a message for you, for your leader, for all the people in your camp: the king has heard your complaints, and he has sent an Arbiter to deal with the corrupt nobles.”
That was apparently not anything they were prepared for. Everyone was silent for a few moments, then the first one gave me that slightly suspicious look again. “So where is this Arbiter?”
Not the brightest hammer in the sack, this guy. I was about to say something snarky when Amber stepped forward. “You are speaking to him,” she said, head held high. Her tone, posture and bearing had “regal” written all over it. She looked the man in the eye. “Show respect for the king’s representative,” she demanded haughtily, “and escort us to your leader.”
The two thugs looked abashed, glancing downward. “Yes, m’lady,” they both mumbled. And then we had a couple more escorts. They led us through the camp to a plain white tent that looked just like any other, except there were a couple guys standing outside with leather armor and swords. It was among the larger tents in the area, but from a distance, there was really no way to tell this was a command tent. That was either really smart or really sad, depending on whether they’d done that intentionally or just hadn’t had the resources to set up something fancy.
There were three men inside, standing around a table with papers all over it. They looked up as Amber and I entered, and one of them stared at her with wide eyes. “Veronica?” he asked, looking stunned to see her.
I turned to her, and she gave me a Look. She didn’t even need to say a word. Her eyes conveyed plenty: don’t you dare say anything.
“Ah, hello, Timothy,” she said smoothly, with just a touch of disdain in her tone, still in the Regal Lady persona. “I suppose I should not be surprised to see you at the heart of all this.”
“You know these men, Veronica?” I asked.
“Only the one,” she replied smoothly.
Timothy looked from her to me and back, regaining his composure. “And what brings you back into my life after so long?” he asked smoothly.
“That should not be a difficult thing to work out,” she replied diffidently.
“Always speaking in your little riddles,” he said wearily. “Clearly you are here on account of our struggle for freedom, but why?”
She gave him a little smirk, then reached out and carefully took the scroll case from me, setting it on the table. “Your men outside knew not this box, but you…?”
He picked it up and looked it over, then looked at me in surprise. “It is an odd Arbiter who would allow a woman such as Veronica in his retinue,” he remarked, handing it back to me. “Do you know who she is?”
“A woman who I know I can trust,” I said, looking him in the eye.
“Then the king has sent us a fool,” he responded, meeting my gaze. “Has she tried to charm her way into–”
Amber cut him off by rapping the end of her staff against a table leg with a loud crack. “That, I have left behind,” she said simply. Which is kind of a shame; I was hoping to see what sorts of skeletons she had in her closet.
Either way, gotta stay in character. “Fool or not,” I said, “I am what the king has sent you, and he sent me to help. He’s aware that not all of the nobility are living up to his expectations, and he’d prefer to see them dealt with without all the violence, death, chaos and misery of a revolt.”
“I’m afraid you’re a bit late, Sir Arbiter,” Timothy replied in a voice that was not apologetic in the slightest. “We’ve had our fair share of each already. Highwaymen, looters, paladins, scavengers, they even say there’s dragon-cultists stirring everything up worse and worse.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “Most of that, I can accept, but don’t you even try to tell me the paladins are making things worse. They’re dealing with the highwaymen and looters.”
Timothy scowled. “Makes it worse when it’s us that need to loot something,” he grumbled.
“Which you are to cease forthwith,” I told him sternly. “I’m here to help you, but I need your cooperation. Even an Arbiter can only conjure up so much royal leniency.”
He scoffed. “And if I’d rather take my chances with the Duke and his retainer of knights?”
I gave him the darkest look I could come up with. “You know those angels who aren’t causing too much trouble for you because they’re busy dealing with more serious threats? One word from me, and you will be the most serious threats in their eyes.”
Timothy laughed. “Five paladins against a thousand of us? They’re mighty in battle, but not that mighty, and they know it.”
I shook my head. “I’ve seen how Paladins fight. Have you? There’s a certain… brutal efficiency to it. The philosophy is, end the conflict as quickly as possible, with the least amount of damage and death. But least does not mean none, and where they do strike, they hit hard. In a situation like this, the most efficient way to bring down the rebellion would be to target leaders, not soldiers. They wouldn’t go after you, the rebels; they would go after you, Timothy. But I would prefer that things not reach that point.”
He growled at me. “They won’t if you never deliver the message.” And then he was reaching for a sword, and so were his two companions.
I don’t even know exactly what Amber did; she did it too fast. There were a couple of painful sounding cracks, and then Timothy was on the ground, writhing, with the wind knocked out of him and his sword arm broken. She turned to the other two, holding the staff across her body in a combat stance. “I hope you’re not as stupid as your friend here is,” she murmured, her voice low and menacing.
My head was spinning a little. Had the sweet, flirtatious postmistress seriously just done that? That staff wasn’t even a weapon; it was supposed to be the pole for the banner she was carrying rolled up on her back! I was a bit freaked out and–though I would never admit it to her–a little turned on as well. Maybe Sarah was right about me. Amber was certainly pretty, but I’d never really thought about her like that before she went all Romanov on some guy with more confidence than sense.
Wow. I guess I’m more screwed-up than I thought.
Anyway, so there she was, staring down the other two guys… and they hesitated, swords partially drawn. And then they glanced at each other and sheathed them again. “Depart in peace, Arbiter,” one of them said. “Timothy does not speak for all of us; we’ll do what we can to keep our men under control.”
I nodded graciously. “A wise choice, friend.” Wow. Either there were some serious ideological differences represented under the roof of that tent, or Amber had just managed to roll a natural 20 on her Intimidate check! I picked up the Arbiter Box and we headed out, our two bodyguards falling into step as we left. No one else harassed us as we made our way through the rebels’ camp and into town.
“Mind telling me what happened in there, Veronica?” I asked as we were walking through the streets, making our way towards the keep.
“We all have our secrets,” she said with a slight shake of the head and a subtly mocking curve to her lips. At that point, I wouldn’t be too surprised if she’d started humming The Lay of Paul Twister and asked how my song ends, just to mess with my head. But she didn’t.
I rolled my eyes at her. “Whatever. It would sure have been nice to know going in that you were going to pull something like that.”
She nodded, sighing. “It would indeed be nice to have foreknown that Timothy McPherson was within that tent. I could have then responded better than I did.”
“And who is Timothy McPherson, anyway?”
“Nobody of any consequence anymore,” she said, making it pretty clear that I wasn’t about to get anything useful out of her.
* * *
The four of us arrived at the keep, a large manor set on a small hill near the north end of town, with a courtyard and a palisade wall around it. A pair of knights stood guard outside the heavy wooden gates.
“Good day, sirs,” I said, walking up to them with a smile. “I am Peter Parker, Arbiter of the Crown, and I must speak with Duke Bronson immediately.”
“Arbiter,” one of them scoffed. “Now that’s a new one!”
His expression changed when I held up the box, though. Suspicion, then bewilderment, then curiosity as he looked closer. The two knights looked at each other, then I handed the box over and they examined it, before handing it back. “My apologies, Sir Arbiter. One cannot be too careful in these times.”
I just nodded to him. “I require an immediate audience with the duke,” I reiterated, “and my banner is to be raised upon the wall.”
The knight looked like he was about to ask something dumb like “what banner?” Amber forestalled the question by planting the butt of her staff against the ground and reaching around to grab the bundle she wore on her back. She pulled it over her shoulder and unrolled it, fastening the banner to the staff with a pair of brass rings. It was a stage prop, a red and brown banner–the royal colors–specially prepared to easily take and hold an illusion spell to add an emblem. Instead of the coat of arms of the kingdom, I’d had the bards add one of my own design: a woman, standing tall, wearing a long robe. She had one hand on the hilt of a sword sheathed at her hip, and the other holding a balance scale aloft, and a blindfold covering her eyes.
The basic design had been familiar to them; the Lady of Justice was a well-known bit of iconography since ancient times. But they’d been surprised when I suggested the blindfold. An aspect I had always taken as normal was unknown here. They had thought it was a brilliant adaptation, fitting well with the theme of our court. Which I suppose it was… it just wasn’t really my adaptation.
The knights looked at it curiously as they opened the gate. “Why is the Lady wearing a blindfold?”
“To show she does not look upon those who stand before her, to unfairly favor one and condemn another. It means that all are equal before the demands of justice, regardless of one’s station in life.”
“An odd sentiment, Sir Arbiter,” one of the knights said, but he seemed to think better than to say anything beyond that.
I just grinned at him as we walked inside. “These are odd times.”
One of the knights stayed behind at the gate; the other walked us up to the manor, and into some large, open room with several comfortable-looking padded chairs sitting around. “I’ll bring His Grace momentarily,” he said.
We sat down and waited, and after a few brief minutes a graying man in his 60s walked out. It looked like time was treating the duke well; he walked straight and confident, and he kept himself respectable-looking, well-dressed, with a well-kept mustache adorning his upper lip.
“So,” he said, his voice a bit on the nasal side, but not obnoxiously so, “we needed an army, but the king sent an Arbiter. I certainly hope you’re at least an archmage or something.”
I smiled innocently at him. “Whatever would you need an army for, Your Grace?”
“What would I… to fight the rebels, of course! They’re laying siege to my…” he sputtered, then gave me a very odd look. “How did you get through?” he asked suspiciously.
I was already starting to not like this guy. Best to keep him off-balance. “We have our ways. What’s this about a siege?”
“The rebels have blocked off the roads, cut off all passage between the town and outlying farmlands. They have access, we do not.”
“I wouldn’t think food would be a great concern. I saw granaries on my way through town, and a large lake that must have fish and isn’t easy to blockade.”
The duke scowled. “You saw two granaries. Did you see the three that were torched by the Blind Bandit, before an angel ran him off?”
Rogers did what? That’s not just an act of vandalism; around here that’s held in about the same regard as what we called “war crimes” back home. I tightened my jaw a little. “Ran him off?”
He nodded. “The man’s a menace, a powerful sorcerer that was the equal of even Shadowbane. She attempted to engage him in combat, but he escaped.”
I tried not to let my feelings show. “Aylwyn Shadowbane is here?” The duke nodded. “That is good. I would speak with her.”
“About the fighting?” the duke asked.
“There will be no fighting,” I said. “I have already negotiated an armistice with the rebel leaders.”
That brought a look of disbelief. “How?” he asked bluntly, almost defying me.
I grinned wickedly at him. “I told them to behave, and when Timothy McPherson decided he didn’t like the idea, my companion here beat him up before he could even finish drawing his sword.” I gestured to Amber, who just smiled serenely at the duke. “After that, his comrades decided that our plan was worth following.”
Duke Bronson laughed heartily at that. “Oh, that does my heart good. McPherson’s been a good-for-nothing rabble-rouser all his life, and when word got around that Shadowbane finally did in that worthless thief the Twister, he’s the one who jumped on it and roused up all the rabble against us.”
Yup. Definitely didn’t like him. He couldn’t even get my name right! I wasn’t planning on it, but now he had me wondering if I had an ethical obligation to recuse myself for his trial.
“So,” he continued, his voice low, almost conspiratorial, “what is our plan?”
I shook my head. “I still have one last detail to work out,” I said. “Do you know where I could find the paladin, Aylwyn? She’s likely to have important information that’s vital to the plan.”
“Ah, she’s out on patrol,” he said, waving his hand. “I don’t know exactly where, but she should come by here within a few hours.”
Ugh. So, go out and look for her and probably miss her completely… or spend a few hours in the delightful company of Duke Triggerhappy. What a lovely choice.
“We’re going to need to hold some trials,” I said. “Where is your courthouse, Your Grace?”
He frowned a little at the idea. “After all the chaos they’ve stirred up, you wish to resolve this by simply putting the rebels on trial?”
“Oh, that’s not all,” I said. “Just one part of it, but an important part.” I stood. “Come, I would see your courthouse, make sure that it is suitable.”
He frowned even more, but he couldn’t really defy a direct command from an Arbiter like that. I left a message with the guards, that if they saw Aylwyn, to tell her that her presence was requested at the courthouse, by Peter Parker, Arbiter of the Crown.
The courthouse wasn’t too far from the manor, and he spent some time showing us around. It was interesting for a few minutes, and then we had to get down to the boring details of planning for a trial. I remained quiet on the subject of who it would be who was on trial, letting him assume what he wanted to think, and I caught Amber smirking a few times when the Duke wasn’t looking. I don’t think she liked him much either.
It was a relief when Aylwyn finally arrived. The door to the courtroom opened and the tall angel strode in. She looked a bit haggard; the last few weeks must have taken a real toll on her, enough to worry me a little actually. “Aylwyn?” I asked.
“Peter! The king made you Arbiter?” she asked, her voice thick with disbelief.
I nodded as she slowly approached. “I can scarcely believe it myself,” I said. “Are you well? I hope you’re not angry about–”
I was expecting anger, after what I’d done, after what Sarah had done. I was expecting a good chewing-out or… something. The last thing I would have ever expected was for her to grab me and hug me tight with almost a sob of relief.
I carefully, tentatively put my arms around her in return. Her wings were just as soft as I’d always imagined. “…are you all right, Aylwyn?” I was getting seriously weirded out. I’d never seen her like this!
She held tight to me and shook her head. “I’m not sure if anything is all right,” she said. “The last few weeks have been a nightmare. Everything imaginable has gone wrong; it’s as if the Fates themselves have been conspiring against me.”
And just like that, all the warm fuzzies were gone. It was like she’d poured ice water down my back. “…what did you say?”
She pulled back, looking at me. “I have had the worst possible luck in every endeavor. This rebellion… all of the misery and death and pain… it’s all on my head for being unable to handle things properly,” she whispered, her voice thick with agony.
I barely noticed Amber and the duke staring as they watched the scene. My head was too busy spinning.
One of the rooms I found in the Treasury seemed to be filled with stuff of no obvious value, but when I looked closely, I saw the common theme: things whose value was personal. Chairs and furniture, handkerchiefs, dolls, lovingly carved and polished boxes, mirrors, trinkets of all kinds; these things had all been dear to someone’s heart, and giving them up had been a true sacrifice in a way that money would never be.
Gods, spirits and demons! It wasn’t the lute at all. It never had been!