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Chapter 10: King’s Highway

So, let’s see. Ryell manipulated me into thinking that stealing back the missing dragon scale would be the best way to preserve peace in the kingdom, and by “preserve peace” she basically meant “that’s a nice kingdom you have there; it would be a shame if something were to happen to it.” Then Fiona tells me that she obtained the scale to ensure that nothing would happen to it, and now I went and got myself manipulated into screwing that up, so now she gets to manipulate me into fixing the situation, with some help from Aylwyn. Apparently she doesn’t know that Aylwyn and I have already met, nor that she had a hand in helping me escape once the scale had been returned. Three distinct players, all hiding things from each other. (And from me, of course.) And now I had a special delivery to make to Ken’tu Kel, who’s pretty much the most powerful mage around. I kinda wondered if he had his own agenda as well.

He did, of course, but I didn’t find out about that until later. (Not to mention what Ryell really turned out to be up to!) For the moment, though, all I had to worry about were three distinct agendas, all trying to manipulate me. And I was pretty sure I had gotten neither “the whole truth” nor “nothing but the truth” from any of them. Except possibly Aylwyn, simply because she hadn’t actually had the opportunity to say anything deceptive to me yet.

Oh well. We were about to have plenty of time to talk. At least a month in close quarters, and that’s if everything went well. So I wondered how long the pristine state of not-being-deceived-by-her would last. I already knew she wasn’t a perfect little angel (so to speak) who was incapable of deception, because of what she’d done at the manor.

But for the moment, I had to put all that out of my head and prepare for a journey. I spent the bulk of the day buying provisions, making arrangement for even more money to be sent out to cover expenses if this ended up taking longer than expected, and most important of all, seeing to my horses.

The world I’d found myself in was a lot like something you’d read in a fantasy story in many respects, but one thing that authors tend to get wrong a lot is horses. They treat them basically like a car, except it eats oats instead of gasoline, and occasionally poops at comedically appropriate moments, or startles or throws its rider at dramatically appropriate moments. But even so, it’s essentially a living car.

There are a couple problems with the horse-as-living-car theory. First, the “car” part. Even if it was a car, it would by definition only have a one horsepower engine. Sure, it’s not hauling around nearly as much chassis weight–the average adult horse weighs about one-half to one-third what a car does–but even so, it’s not nearly as strong as an automobile. And second, the “living” part. A horse is a mammal, like you and me. It isn’t powered by a one horsepower engine; it’s powered by muscles, lungs and a heart, like you and me. And that means that, just like you and me, it gets worn out pretty easily by physical exertion, such as continuous walking and running, and having to carry a heavy load wears it out even faster. Sure, those muscles, lungs and hearts are a lot bigger and tougher than a human’s, which gives them better strength and endurance, but they still get plenty worn out after a hard day’s work.

Anyway, the upshot is that it’s nothing for a car to do 60 miles per hour, and keep it up all day for several days in a row, from one end of the continent to the other, as long as you keep it fueled. A horse, on the other hand, has to be specially bred and trained for strength, speed and endurance to get you 60 miles in one day, and even then you’re not gonna get much use out of it the next day if you do. A sustainable pace over a long journey is closer to 30 miles per day. I had two, so I could ride one and let the other rest, (sort of; it still had to keep up with the one I was riding,) and that, plus the good roads that I’d been trying to get set up from my work at Stark Academy, could stretch my sustainable pace to about 40 miles per day… at the price of twice the food. A horse can get most of its food by grazing, but it still needs a fair amount of grain, maybe four or five pounds, every day in order to stay healthy. In other words, enough food to feed two horses for a month’s journey would weigh twice what I do, which means the one I’m not riding really doesn’t get much relief, at least not at the start of the journey. So instead of packing all the provisions, I’d need to get a small amount of them instead, and resupply at towns along the way. (Which is sort of like stopping for gas, I guess, but slower and heavier.)

So it’s not hard to see why cars ended up winning out over horses back home. I know I’d rather have one!  (Yeah, technically I did have one.  But without any gas stations, it may as well not exist.  And it wasn’t in Keliar anyway.)

I couldn’t help but wonder how we were supposed to transport this dragon skull and whatever other loot we picked up. A dragon skull could easily be about as big as my whole body, if not larger. And a considerable amount of a skull’s volume is open space, but other bones and scales don’t have that problem, to say nothing of the other contents of a dragon’s hoard. So we would need a cart eventually. Maybe more than one, plus additional horses. But for now, just my two horses would be fine.

I consulted a few cartographers, and there didn’t seem to be any stretches of more than 50 miles or so between towns along the route from Keliar to Declan, so I decided to keep a stock of 20 pounds of grain on hand, which was good for two days for two horses, giving me a bit of a margin of error to work with. I had no idea what preparations Aylwyn would make, (did angels even ride horses?) but since she was being presented as the one who knew what was going on, I figured she could handle her end of things. I was just a guy being dragged along for the ride in case we ran across any magic that needed breaking.

So I got provisions for myself and my horses, made a few arrangements, and ran across one very welcome piece of news amid all the work. A few days earlier, I’d sent an inquiry to the circle of Magi, regarding the identity of the archmagus who would have jurisdiction in Brighton. I’d had my back turned when I delivered my message regarding Robert de Long’s unsavory activities and subsequent death, but now I was starting to wonder who it was I had talked to. I found a message waiting for Mr. Stark at a Royal Post station, informing me that it was a wizard by the name of Gerald Wolf, and providing some brief directions on how to reach his tower, should I wish to.

That put a grin on my face. Gerald was probably the only wizard who I could call a friend without hesitation, equivocation or qualification. Back before the Circle, when I was still new to being Paul Twister, he’d found some good uses to put my talent to, helping a fair number of people in various ways, and he’d been the one who created my counter-Twist ring. It was good to hear that he’d risen to prominence among the Magi; if anyone deserved it, he did. I made up my mind to try to visit him sometime soon; his tower should only be a day or two out of our way, assuming we kept to a reasonably direct route, and it had been several years since I’d seen him. Plus I was sure he’d have some questions about my rather brief message to him the day de Long died, and having Aylwyn along to provide her perspective on what had happened certainly wouldn’t hurt.

So that was my day. Getting ready for a long trip, taking care of several details which took pretty much the whole day, then lying awake for several hours trying to get some rest. The night passed way too quickly once I finally got to sleep, and suddenly there was a firm knock on the door to my inn room, jolting me awake. I checked the window, and the sky was still plenty dark, with just the faintest hints of twilight beginning to mark the oncoming day. Ugh. When Fiona said Aylwyn would be here “at first light,” I wasn’t expecting it to be literal!

“Give me a moment,” I groaned out in a voice that was hopefully loud enough to be heard through the door. I rolled out of bed, quickly got dressed, then walked over and opened the door.

I’m not going to bother with any silly cliches about how the mere sight of the tall, winged Celestial standing outside my room took my breath away or anything like that. Instead, I’ll simply say that she was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, and still is, and there she was just a few feet away. She was tall, a few inches taller than me, and I stand at a pretty respectable six feet. (As I understand it, that actually makes her rather petite for a Celestial, but among humans, she was a freaking Amazon.) She had long, silver hair, not like gray hair that old people have, but shimmering silver-white, as if someone had taken moonbeams and starlight and woven them into strands of hair, and they literally shimmered, in her own light.

She’d lit up pretty brightly the last time I met her, but right now she seemed to have the juice turned way down on that particular effect. She was glowing like a night-light, just barely enough that I could clearly see her despite the darkness of the early morning. And her face was just… perfect. I’ve seen a few girls whose features, carefully cared for and made-up, were sultry and seductive and better at inspiring desire, but for pure, sweet, achingly perfect beauty, nothing beats an angel. (Or at least this angel. She’s the only one I’ve ever met, so… not much of a basis for comparison.) And just barely peeking out from behind her back were two large, very soft-looking wings, covered from base to tip with long feathers that were mostly white with just a hint of creamy light yellow. She was wearing was a long, white robe that made her look more like a mage than a paladin, and there were no weapons visible on her person anywhere, but I’d seen her conjure up a flaming sword just by holding out her hand before, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if she could produce armor on demand as well.

The sight of her had the expected and predictable effects on both my 19-year-old body and my 29-year-old mind, and even though we were in a situation in which we were being forced to work together, which essentially cast her in at least somewhat of an adversarial role, I couldn’t think of anything snarky or witty to say. I just stood there, in silence, staring like an idiot for a few seconds.

“Are you ready?” she asked, before things could get too awkward.

And suddenly things clicked in my head. Now that I had a starting point, it was like being handed a script. I could converse again. “Another hour’s sleep would be nice,” I groaned, injecting a little bit more whiny weariness into my tone than was strictly honest. But only a little; I really was tired!

Another hour’s “sleep,” the baser part of my brain interjected, would certainly be welcome if I had something soft and warm to snuggle up to. Rawr!

Grr. Stupid teenage body! Stupid raging hormones! I told the baser part of my brain to shut up and leave me alone. It didn’t listen, of course.

“We have a long journey ahead of us,” she said, with a hint of an apologetic smile. “It’s best to be off quickly. If you needed more rest, you should have retired earlier.”

Figures. Hottest girl around, and she’s already picking on me and making me not like her. Just like freaking high school all over again. I sighed, my shoulders slumping. “All right, let’s go.”

We headed out of the inn, and over to the stables just outside, where I retrieved my horses. Aylwyn didn’t have any horses to retrieve. “You plan to walk to Declan with me?” I asked as I led the horses out and got them ready to go. “Or are you gonna fly? Because I’m riding.”

She shook her head, a touch of amusement in her eyes. “I plan to walk as far as the King’s Highway.” And that was all she had to say on the subject. She was not a woman of many words, apparently.

When the horses were ready, I took the reins and walked beside Aylwyn. Neither of us had much to say. The inn was near the edge of the city, and the highway was less than half a mile away, so it wasn’t too bad. And once we reached the cement-paved road, the angel smiled and held up her hands, high over her head. “Close your eyes,” she said, and that as all the warning I got. About a second later, there was a bright flash of light. I’m sure glad I had my eyes closed, or I’d have been blinded from it! When I opened them again… she had a horse.

OK, remember all that stuff I said about horses being frail mortal creatures just like you and me? Most of the time, it would be right. But I could immediately tell that the enormous beast at her side was anything but frail or mortal, at least not in quite the same way as my horses were. It was a huge mare, the color of her owner’s wings, a soft, creamy white from head to tail. She stood a good three hands taller than any horse I’d seen since coming here. (What’s up with horses being measured in “hands” anyway, and not in feet like people are, when we have hands and they don’t?) Her skin was tight over powerful muscles, and like Aylwyn, her horse shone faintly with its own light.

Figures. She had a celestial horse, one that could probably hold its own against a car. Once I realized what I was looking at, I was a bit surprised to notice that there were not a big pair of Pegasus wings on its back. I just sighed as we both mounted up. “Try and rein her in, so I can keep pace without wearing mine out?” I asked.

She nodded. “Wyntaf will behave herself. She’s very gentle and considerate, when I do not need her not to be.” That threw me for a few moments, until I wrapped my head around what she was saying. Hooray for double negatives!

The King’s Highway ran east-west, and our destination was off to the northeast, so we headed toward the rising sun at a moderate pace. Aylwyn seemed perfectly content to keep to herself, so we mostly rode in silence, except for the rhythmic beating of hooves against the pavement. For the first few hours, things were pretty calm. We’d gotten off to an early start, and we were still in the heart of the kingdom, where there were a lot of towns and villages spaced about a day’s journey apart, so we didn’t run into many travelers, either on the road or camped beside it. With no streetlights and no headlights, nighttime traffic wasn’t really a thing around here. (I’d had light bulbs on my to-do list at the Academy for a while, but first we needed to improve our ability to generate electric power a little bit further before they’d become practical.)

Once the sun was rising in the sky, we started seeing the occasional traveler, mostly merchants with carts. Seeing them, I asked Aylwyn, “so what’s the plan? Once we retrieve what we’re looking for… it’s going to be big and heavy and bulky; too much for horses, even yours I’d wager. Are we going to get some carts at some point?”

“When they are needed,” she said with a slight nod of her head.

Well. That explains everything! I tried not to grumble too noticeably. “So are you going to buy them, or just…” I waved my hands in the air, “summon something up? Because the advance that Lady Khal provided for expenses-“

“-will be more than sufficient to cover the cost of even a large cart, and two draft horses or other beasts of burden to pull it.”

I shook my head. “Only if you really skimp on the beasts of burden. And then you end up getting what you pay for. I’m not about to take a couple discount horses up into the mountains, and then back down and over a trip of… what will it be? Three hundred miles, something like that? Likely as not, I’d end up with two lamed or dead horses.”

She just gave me an infuriatingly calm smile. “You would, if you did not have a companion along who is well-versed in both animal husbandry and the healing arts.”

I opened my mouth to object, then closed it again as my brain realized I had no good objection to make. She had a surprisingly good point. That didn’t mean I liked it; it felt like cheating. Like when she’d shown up just in time to distract the guard at the manor; it just seemed a little bit too good to be true. “So just to be clear, when you say healing arts, you’re talking about Celestial power, laying-on-of-hands, miraculous healing type stuff, right? Not ‘bind its wounds, give it some herbs and hope it gets better’?”

“I am,” she confirmed with another little nod. “There is little I can do to help a dead horse–or a dead person, for that matter–but if I reach it before that point, my power can maintain and strengthen both the spiritual force of life and the physical processes of health and wellness.”

Hmm. That’s an interesting distinction to draw. “Unless it’s me,” I said pensively. “Try and heal me, and I’m not sure what would happen. Most likely nothing at all, but every now and then the Twist goes chaotic and magic backfires in crazy ways. You might end up with one of your wings turning green or something.” Then I gave her my cheekiest grin. “Not that that would be a bad color on you…”

She just sighed and looked away in silence, but I was watching carefully, and I could see her torso shaking slightly in what could only be laughter. Once she’d had a few moments to compose herself, she turned back to me. “You would be unable to do many of the things you do, if you did not have some way to suppress the Twist when it is inconvenient.”

That made me wonder if she knew about the ring. Afterall, Fiona Khal could easily have found out from her fellow archmage, Gerald Wolf. “You make a good point,” I said cautiously, “but many of the situations in which I’d be likely to be injured are ones in which you wouldn’t want me to be holding it back, right?”

Apparently that was the wrong thing to say. She turned in the saddle and looked directly into my eyes. “I do not want you to use your power around me at all. The last two times you did, it ruined months of hard work each time! When I said I hoped not to see you again, I was not exaggerating, and I was not joking. I am working with the Magi because they use their magic to build things, to raise people up and help them to improve. But your Twist, it does not build, and it does not improve. All it does is ruin and break things. Chaos follows in your wake, and now I am caught up in it, because you used your power yet again. I go along with it because I must, because it is the least bad option available, but that does not make it a good option. So do not think that I want anything that happens while we are working together on this quest.”

Ouch! I’d been getting all bored with her not talking much. That’ll teach me to be careful what I wish for! But still, there was something that didn’t add up. “Then why did you help me escape?”

“I knew that what was done, was done, and that it could not be undone. I knew that you had been deceived, and I knew that Fiona Khal would return soon. I did not want anyone to take any further hasty actions that could not be undone, before having time to think.”

“So… you don’t like me, but you still didn’t want to see me get hurt?”

“Is that such a strange idea?”

I chuckled a little. “Sometimes, it seems like it is. Though personally, I’m all for it. Seems to me, the idea that you should permit, and even defend, someone’s right to say or do things you don’t personally like or agree with ought to be regarded as the first principle of civilized society, if for no other reason than that the next time around, you might be the one doing something someone doesn’t like, and you’d want them backing you up. Right?”

“Your high-minded talk of principles would sound much less self-serving were we not discussing an act of thievery.” Hmph. So much for introducing the concept of the First Amendment.

“From what I’d been told, this was supposed to be an act of retrieval, not thievery. Technically, I think it still was; deciding whether or not it would have been better for the kingdom had Lady Khal remained in possession of the stolen property, rather than having it returned to its legitimate owner, is a utilitarian question, not a moral one.”

“If that is how you justify yourself…” she sighed.

“OK, look. You’re not the only one who thinks this whole business sucks. At least you know what’s going on, you know who you’re working for and what side you’re on. Fiona compared me to a gray chess piece, being moved around by both players, and you know what? She’s right, and I’m starting to get sick of it already. I don’t want to be here any more than you do!”

The angel looked a little bit surprised by this. She turned to face me again, looking into my eyes with a strangely intense gaze. “And where do you want to be?”

On some beach, far away from dragons and wizards and kingdoms and magic, rubbing coconut oil all over you and finding out if those sexy wings really are as soft as they look! I opened my mouth, then suddenly shut it when I realized what I was about to say. And I really was right about to say that. It just… came out, except it didn’t come out because I caught it in time. But I shouldn’t have even had to. “What did you just do to me?” I asked, glowering at her. “I’ve already had a dragon try to mess with my head; I don’t need you to as well!”

She just smirked at me and turned away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Paul Twister. And I would certainly not use my powers to attempt to compel you to speak, if that’s what you are implying.” She floofed her wings just a little. “Green is not a good color on me, your tastes notwithstanding.”

Hoo boy. It was going to be a long journey.

* * *

Turns out it was going to be a significantly shorter journey than I’d expected. Aylwyn wasn’t kidding about being handy with horses; she was able to do something to my horses that kept them fresh and strong far longer than they normally would have been. I changed mounts about as often as I would have anyway, but they held up admirably and we made almost fifty miles that day, which is pretty amazing. If we could keep up a pace like that, it would trim an entire week off our trip, maybe even more.

That didn’t mean it wasn’t still going to be a long journey!

She never had to change mounts, of course. Wyntaf just kept on going and going and going, like some sort of Energizer Horse. We finally stopped for the evening at the local inn for some little village. The sun was on its way down. We could probably have gotten another hour in, maybe a bit more, before dark, but we wouldn’t have gotten as far as the next town. We took our mounts to the stables and spent the better part of the remaining daylight getting them properly cooled down and cared for–yes, even Wyntaf, and unlike me, Aylwyn wouldn’t allow the stable-boys to help out with her horse–before going inside. She did tip them and ask that all three be fed extra tonight, though, as they’d had a long, hard day and needed their strength. I figured that was actually pretty decent of her, seeing as how she’d been the one drawing all that extra strength forth.

We each got a room. She insisted on having hers be next to mine, which I found a little bit flattering until I realized it was probably so she could keep tabs on me. That was kind of flattering too, but in a different way. She did sit with me to eat, though. I asked the innkeeper for some stew and a leg of rabbit, but I was a bit surprised when she asked for a big steak, if they had any. Turns out they did, plus boiled potatoes and vegetables. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that someone larger than me and living a physically active lifestyle would eat a lot of high-energy food, but I kind of was.

The night and the next morning passed pretty uneventfully, and then we were on our way.

* * *

The next few days were all like that. We didn’t talk too much, what with all the tension between us, and our horses ate up the miles at a good pace. We passed plenty of travelers, and a few bands of royal knights on patrol, and we’d rest at an inn each night. It was pretty exhausting, and not just physically. The only thing worse than being all alone is being all alone while you’re with someone, if that makes any sense. Finally, on the fourth night, I asked the question that had been on my mind for the last several days. “So what were you doing in that dungeon anyway?”

She looked at me oddly. “What do you mean, specifically?” She knew I already knew the general idea of what had been going on.

“If you’re a liaison to the Circle, at a high enough level that you’re working with the Archmagi, surely De Long would have known about you.”

She nodded. “That’s not a question…”

“Yeah. I’m thinking it through. You said that you had allowed yourself to be captured. But why was he trying? If nothing else, he must have known that your absence would be noticed after some time…”

“Do you know why I am working with the Magi?”

“Yeah, you said. You like what they’re doing. You like how they’re trying to build up civilization. It jibes well with the Celestial agenda, so you figured you’d lend a hand. Or someone sent you to. I’m not too clear on the organizational details of the Celestial Paladins.”

She nodded, but didn’t elaborate on that part of things. “That is half of it. The other half is the agenda, as you put it, that I oppose: that of the dragons. They see your world and your people in much the same way that a farmer views his land and livestock. The past century has been a time of unprecedented peace for the human lands, and certainly that is a good thing, but a good deal of the reason behind it is draconic meddling. Having their livestock kill each other is regarded as undesirable.”

“And how does that end up with you in a dungeon?”

She chuckled a little. “Fiona Khal said you spoke like this. Very well, if you must know so impatiently… I had reason to believe that there is a renegade faction within the Magi, who are working with the dragons to undermine the gains that they are beginning to produce. My investigation led me to Robert de Long, but he was not acting alone. Before I could determine who he was working with, he confronted me. He used a great deal of magic to attempt to capture me, and I allowed him to succeed, or to think he was succeeding.”

“Why?”

“So that he would capture me and interrogate me. Knowing the questions that a person wants answered can teach you quite a bit about that person.”

I grinned at her. “Reverse interrogation! That’s… almost devious of you, Aylwyn.”

“I do not find your approval a mark of honor,” she replied dryly.

“Of course not. So unfortunately, that’s about when I showed up, under etheric contract to remove a seal from what he had me believing was a magical item of some sort.”

“Again, you seek to justify you disastrous misdeeds at every turn.”

“What was it you said to me earlier? ‘I go along with it because I must, because it is the least bad option available, but that does not make it a good option.’ It’s kinda like that with me, all the time.”

She just scoffed. “With the fees from the work you are hired to do, you could retire entirely from your career of crime and live in comfort for the rest of your days.”

I shook my head. “I don’t do it to get rich. I do it for two reasons. First, because a lot of it’s already spoken for. Most of that money doesn’t actually end up being spent on me, believe it or not, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to to keep coming in. And second, setting a high price keeps out people who aren’t serious. I don’t actually enjoy putting my life on the line so some wizard can have a shiny new toy to play with, you know…”

Aylwyn sighed. “I will not even ask what it is that ‘speaks for’ your vast wealth. With the fortunes you are reputed to have earned, you could actually be a force for good in the kingdom.” She paused, then asked, “did you know that the Magi are working to produce magic mirrors in great quantities? Eventually, they wish for every town hall and village square, every inn and every keep, to have one, that knowledge and information may be shared more easily, and that people in distress may call for aid from their neighbors.”

Hoo boy. She could not have given me a more perfect set-up line if she’d tried. I wanted so badly to throw it back in her face and tell her I was the guy behind those nice, hard, smooth roads we’d been making such good time on. But that would bring me more trouble than it’s worth. Instead, I just said the first flippant, irreverent thing that came to mind. “Well, unless you find out the project’s being run by someone who goes by the name of Alexander Bell, that’s really got nothing to do with me.”

She blinked. “Who is Alexander Bell? An enemy of yours?”

I shook my head. “Guy from far away, who died long ago. Nevermind. It was just a joke.”

“You have a strange sense of humor,” she said, looking all bemused.

It was an interesting piece of knowledge, though. I’d known the Circle of Magi were into promoting civilization, but all I had really known about their work was more on the negative side: the sorts of impediments to civilized society that they were working on diminishing or eliminating entirely. This was the first I’d heard of them trying to add something new to the equation and directly promote progress among non-magical society. I’d thought Stark Academy was the only real force for progress around, but here are these guys working to set up a magical telephone network!

I filed it away for future reference. When I got back to the Academy, I’d speak to the wizards in Magical Research. The Magi may have some visionary who came up with the idea of something like this, but I had actual, practical experience with the end product. I might be able to contribute some useful ideas.

Then something occurred to me. “Is it possible,” I asked, “for an uninvited third party with a mirror of his own to eavesdrop on an etheric conversation? If it was, I’d definitely be wary of whoever controlled the mirrors…”

She actually looked disturbed by this, as if it had never occurred to her before. “I… not that I know of,” she said. “I have no training in etheric theory, but I would like to think that, if such a thing were possible, I would have at least heard rumors about it.”

“Unless whoever discovered it wanted to keep it a closely-guarded secret, so as not to lose their advantage.” I flashed her a crooked grin when I saw her thinking it over. “Welcome to my world, m’lady.”

“Harrumph. Your world is shadowy and chaotic. I will remain in the world that is civilized.”

I chewed on my lip a little. This might be a useful opening. “I can tell that this idea bugs you, though. I actually know someone who might be able to get some solid answers.”

She shook her head. “We are already on one quest. Let’s not invent new ones to distract us.”

“It actually wouldn’t be very far out of our way at all. Maybe an extra day or so. I’ve got a friend in the Circle, an Archmage by the name of Gerald Wolf. We’re passing not too far from–hey, what’s wrong?”

Aylwyn had always been fairly guarded around me, but when I mentioned Gerald, she went positively stone-faced, as if she were exerting a huge amount of willpower to avoid some sort of emotional outburst. When I questioned her, she took a few slow, deep breaths, then said, as levelly as she could, “Gerald Wolf was the Archmagus that Robert De Long reported to in the Circle. Bad blood is known to run deep between him and Ken’tu Kel, and were it not for his exceptional skill and potency in the magical arts, he would never have even been considered for the position he holds. He was foremost of the people I was searching for evidence against when I was captured by De Long.” She paused, and took another deep breath, then continued. “And you count him as a friend.”

Oh, she did not just go there! “Yeah, I count him as a friend because he’s a good person, and I don’t have to be a particularly good person myself to recognize that. You guessed earlier that I have some way to deal with the Twist, so it doesn’t affect things at inopportune moments. Well, you were right, but I’d never have been able to do that if it wasn’t for him. You talk about chaos following in my wake? Well, the only reason I have a wake at all, instead of being the eye of a freaking storm, is my friend, Gerald Wolf! And I’ll thank you to remain civil when you speak of him! Simply because he has personal disagreements with someone good doesn’t make him evil, and he’d hardly be the first powerful person in history with a treacherous underling.”

She bore my little outburst with remarkable patience. In retrospect, I’m really glad we were the only patrons in the common room that night. That was kind of dumb of me, to go shouting about the Twist in a public place like that. “Are you finished?” she asked once I stopped ranting.

I thought about it for a moment, taking a few deep breaths of my own and composing myself. “Almost,” I said. “Now, it’s been a few years since I’ve seen my friend. And I think I’m going to rectify that. I’m going to visit him when we get close enough. You’re free to come along, if you’d like. Maybe you can look for some sort of evidence against him, if that’s what you really want to do. But I’m going to visit my friend and spend some time catching up. Maybe even learn a few interesting things about etheric communication. All right?”

The angel sighed and shook her head. “It really isn’t all right,” she said. “Somehow I know that this will bring trouble. But I also know that you will bring trouble if I attempt to stop you when you are so determined. So, we will visit your friend, and then deal with the consequences, whatever they may be.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said, and that was that. I quickly finished up my dinner, then headed up to my room. It was the best night’s sleep I’d had since this stupid journey began.

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