Wizards often prefer their solitude. Magic has a pretty decent reputation around here, due in no small part to the magi and their rather heavy-handed approach to “internal affairs,” but it still tends to give a lot of people the creeps. When you pick something up and let go of it, it falls to the ground, and you’re so familiar with that that it just feels right. It’s something you don’t even question. But when a mage picks something up and lets go of it, it might very well stay right there until he’s ready for it to fall to the ground, or even start moving around in ways that everyone knows it shouldn’t, even though they never had Newton here to lay down the law. So wizards, particularly those powerful enough to have their own towers, tend to live a bit apart from civilization, to avoid interference both mystical and societal.
On the other hand, wizards are humans too. (Well, most of them around here are, at least, and most of the rest are half-human.) That means they need to eat, and they have to provide for all the same basic needs as the rest of us. And like most of us, they solve that by relying on civilization. Someone else grows food and makes clothing, and wizards purchase it in return for money, which they obtain through applying their skills in some way that someone else finds useful enough to pay for, since that’s generally easier than conjuring up food and clothes for yourself. But the upshot is, they can’t afford to live too far away from people. So they tend to strike a bit of a balance.
Robert de Long lived about four miles out of town. A decent hike, particularly when it’s all woods, with no actual roads leading to the tower. It was getting on towards noon by the time I got back to the inn I was staying at. I made my way to the common room and inquired about lunch.
“Ah! Mister Kent! I hope you find our town agreeable, thus far?” The innkeeper had a warm smile as I walked in, hoping to earn himself some tips of course.
I nodded. “No need to be formal, George. You can just call me Clark. I’ve actually been out in the woods this morning, more than around town per se.”
His brow furrowed slightly. “For your… research?” he asked.
Yep, that’s me. Clark Kent, traveling scholar, under a royal grant to investigate some potential new medicinal herbs. At least, that’s who they know me as here. In other parts of the kingdom, I might be recognized under names like Peter Parker, Wayne Bruce (turns out that sounds better here than the other way around), Robin Locksley, Anthony Stark (no one goes by “Tony” here) or Diego de la Vega, with a variety of cover stories.
Why the silly names? Context. They don’t sound silly to people here, and in case anyone else from back home ends up here somehow, hearing a name like that would make them more likely to want to meet me. Much easier than me finding them, right? Especially since I wouldn’t probably even know they’re here. So, get them to come to me.
That, and I’d really rather not have any magi learn my real name. Names have power, and the Twist doesn’t make me invincible. So here, I’m Clark Kent.
“That’s right,” I nodded. “I found some rather interesting moss growing out among the trees off to the north, so I’d say it’s been a productive morning.”
The innkeeper raised an eyebrow. “I should hope you didn’t venture too far to the north of town.” He leaned in and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “There’s a wizard living out that way, in a big stone tower.”
“A wizard? You don’t say! Well, I didn’t see it. Must not have gone the right way. What’s this wizard… what’s his name, by the way? And what does he do?”
The innkeeper shook his head. “Gets up to all manner of unnatural workings out there. Hight Robert de Long, but they call him Black Robert.” How original. Well, they’re peasants, not literary geniuses. Can’t expect too much from them. “They say back in Keliar and thereabouts, wizards are good people who help everyone, but out here… you best keep your distance.” He moved closer and dropped his voice even further, looking back and forth. “Why, I hear he even went and hired that Paul Twister fellow, to kidnap a maiden and bring him her still-beating heart with his black arts.”
So much for my sterling reputation.
“Oh, dear!” I said. “I’ll have to stay clear of there. Perhaps this afternoon, I’ll do my research in the woods to the east instead?”
He nodded. “That might be wise, Clark.” He wandered off to the kitchen to get something for me to eat.
Ah, rumors. They’d heard de Long wanted to hire me, but for obvious reasons he hadn’t said why, so human nature was left to fill in the rest. And apparently what they were filling it in with around here was none too complimentary. I’d have to do something about that.
* * *
The place was a bit livelier by the time I got back in the evening. (The downside to using a royal research patent as a cover story is that to pull it off, you actually have to have a royal research patent, and then you’re expected to produce results, even if you obtained it fraudulently. So I was out in the woods all afternoon, looking for interesting herbs and having no idea what I was doing. Fun.)
The common room of the local inn doubled as the local tavern, as many do. So I wandered in and found a fair number of people talking, eating, drinking, and, most importantly, listening to the performance of a bard. The guy was tall and slender–enough so to make me want to get a close look at his ears, just to be sure–with light skin and fair hair, and he was playing some sort of pipe-thing I wasn’t familiar with, in between singing. It sounded good, though, and he had a nice voice.
When there was a lull, I called out to George and tossed him a gold three-delin mark. “Everyone drinks free tonight for as long as this lasts, courtesy of the King and the Masters of the Royal Academy!” A raucous cheer went up, followed by good-natured calls for more ale, wine, mead or whatever else. When he asked what I’d be having, I shook my head. “I’m fine,” I said. “Quenched my thirst in a stream off in the forest not long ago. I could do with some roast potatoes and rabbit, though.”
You know how they say, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king?” Well, when you’re trying to get everyone in the room drunk, you usually also want to stay sober yourself.
“Ho! Sir Minstrel!” I called out to the bard as he rested. I tossed a silver coin across the room to him. Not too much, but not so little as to insult him.
He caught it out of the air with nimble fingers, and executed a slightly mocking bow. “And what would our generous patron wish to hear this evening?”
I grinned. “Just call me Clark.” I chewed on my lip for a few moments, thinking. “I’ve always been partial to the Lay of Paul Twister. Do you know that one?”
“Five versions of it, sir.”
I laughed and raised an eyebrow. “Is that so? Erm… the one where he sneaks into a dragon’s keep to rescue a princess, but finds that the dragon tricked him, and she was being held in another castle entirely.”
He blew across the pipes and twiddled his fingers, drawing a playful tunelet from the instrument. “That scene figures in three of them,” he said dryly, much to the amusement of the patrons.
They already wrote my favorite scene out of two versions of the song? That was one of the best parts! I should know; Peter Parker co-wrote the number with the bard who first popularized it!
“Bah! Just pick one and play!” I scowled, which made the other patrons laugh even more. I sat and waited for my meal while the minstrel played. It was a lighthearted tune, essentially casting Paul as a classic Trickster archetype who outwits corrupt nobility, greedy merchants, and scheming mages, but is in the end outwitted by a dragon. The poor princess ends up having to effect her own rescue, leaving her rather unimpressed and our poor protagonist with no reward! When writing it, I borrowed liberally from a variety of mythologies back home–from Loki and Coyote, to Puck and Robin Hood, to the Marx Brothers and Bugs Bunny–and mixed in distorted versions of a few of my actual exploits that had gone wrong enough to attract some notice, all set to proper Geiselian anapestic tetrameter for optimum whimsicality. And then, of course, the bards got at it and started adapting the tales to suit themselves, and their audiences of course.
This bard was good. By the last chorus he had the crowd laughing and singing along raucously, mostly off-time and off-key, but clearly enjoying it. I laughed as hearty as anyone by the time he was done, then applauded and tossed him another silver. “Bravo! Old Twister’s always good for a laugh. Go, wet your throat.” I gestured over at the bar to him. “And then…” I paused for a moment, hesitating a little, giving the crowd a few moments to quiet down and let the anticipation build. “I don’t suppose you know ‘Breeze over Eliaar Lake?'”
Guffaws went up around the room at my wildly inappropriate request for a haunting, tragic ballad of impossible love, far better suited to a concert hall than a beer hall. It only got louder when the minstrel tossed the coin back to me. I did my best to act surprised, fumbling the catch and dropping it awkwardly to the floor, to further laughter. “I suspect, good Clark, that you’ve had too much to drink… or not enough,” he replied dryly, before calling out for another glass of wine.
Another patron tossed him a coin, coupled with a request for a rather raunchy song about what a certain nobleman’s wife and the captain of the guard got up to while he was away on royal business. The minstrel took a drink, then pocketed the coin and started to play, breaking the awkwardness of the moment and getting everyone back into a good mood. I made sure to act suitably abashed, and tried to make up for it by singing along with the chorus just as loudly–and badly–as anyone else in the room.
After a few more requests, the bard begged off any more performing for the night, claiming his voice needed a rest. He wandered over to the bar after cleaning his pipes and wrapping the instrument in thick cloth for safe-keeping. After a few drinks and some chatting with the innkeeper, he dropped by my table next. “You’ve certainly put the crowd in a happy mood tonight, Mr. Kent.”
I ran my right thumb over the base of my middle finger reflexively, just making sure I had my ring on before he got too close. “If a town’s going to show me hospitality, I may as well return the favor,” I said nonchalantly. “What brings you by Brighton? I suppose George has already told you all about me.” I hadn’t been the one to give him the name “Kent,” at least.
He just smiled. “On my way to Millersford, to visit the baron about a possible patronage. This seemed a better place to rest for the night than at the side of the road.”
I nodded. “Fair enough.” Though really it wasn’t. Millersford was a few days’ journey from here, but if you were to draw a map of the kingdom, Brighton would be pretty close to the corner. It’s not really “on the way” from anywhere to Millersford, unless you’re coming from a border fort… or further. But I suppose we all have our secrets, don’t we? “I came in late,” I noted absently. “I never did catch your name.” I glanced over at him, checking the side of his face, but he was wearing his long, full, straight hair forward far enough to completely cover his ears.
The bard smiled amicably. “Patrick Hill,” he replied. Then he lowered his voice slightly. “I should say, you ought to be a bit more discreet. Paul Twister may be a bit of a folk hero back west, but out here he’s not nearly so well-liked. Stole from the wrong people a while back. And you’re not in the sort of genteel company you’re clearly used to keeping, though to your credit, you adapt quickly enough.” I smiled at him and was about to respond, when he looked straight into my eyes and shook his head slightly. “That is what I should say, isn’t it?” he continued dryly. “Instead, I’ll simply say, congratulations on your performance tonight. You’re a better actor than most, Mr. Kent. I’m not sure what you meant to do tonight, but I don’t doubt you accomplished it.” He gave me a little smirk and got up, heading over to other tables to converse with the patrons and swap gossip.
I just shook my head and fought back a wry half-smile at the mild rebuke. I probably should have known better than to try to pull a trained actor all unwitting into an act. If I’d known how good he was at the outset, I wouldn’t have done so in the first place. Ah well, even a great trickster gets outwitted every once in a while. He was wrong about one thing, though. I hadn’t accomplished what I’d meant to. Hadn’t got around to it yet, while he was still playing, and there was no way I was going to go gossiping and spreading new rumors about Paul Twister with an unusually observant bard who’d already “made” me hanging about! So I stuck around for a few minutes longer, then headed up to my room.
I spent a while counting out the money from de Long’s pouch, separating the coins from the gemstones, marking things down in a ledger book and checking various figures. After expenses, savings and a few important investments, I estimated I had enough left over to live on for about two months. Coincidentally, it was about two months until I had any major obligations to fulfill, back in the capital, and maybe two weeks’ travel time between here and there. So, what was I going to do with the next month and a half of my life?
I lay down and pulled the blanket up around my shoulders. I’d figure that part out tomorrow.