Aylwyn made me perform “the song you wrote of your own deeds” for her the next morning, as we got back out on the road. Once I did, she actually seemed more amused by it than anything else. The fact that I had written it, though, was apparently a bit less amusing. “You created this,” she mused, “to spread around false rumors of yourself? To make people think that you are some sort of hero, an itinerant righter-of-wrongs?”
I shook my head. “Mostly I just wrote it to entertain people. Most of the stuff in there, there’s no truth to it at all, but it’s not supposed to be understood as a true story, the way your songs are. It’s a bunch of tall tales, intended to make people laugh, and I stuck the name of a mysterious figure that a lot of people were talking about at the time on the whole thing. I’d have probably done the same even if I wasn’t the guy behind the titular mysterious figure; it just makes for a good song.” There was another purpose to it, of course, the same one that the names I had chosen for my cover identities served, but I wasn’t about to go into that with her.
She didn’t really seem satisfied by that answer, but that was the best she was going to get. Things were pretty quiet the rest of the way to Declan.
Ken’tu Kel didn’t actually live in the city; his tower was a few miles out of town, so we went around and made our way to the seat of authority for the circle. Apparently the Archmagus actually had two towers, each about ten miles outside the city. To the south was a tower that was his personally, and to the north was one that officially belonged to the Circle where they cared for administrative business. Aylwyn knew of this, and she led me to the northern tower. She announced to the guards on duty that she was a liaison of the Celestial Paladins to the Circle of Magi, and she was here on official business, with an important delivery that Ken’tu Kel was personally expecting.
To my annoyance, we were sent in immediately. Bah! Why is it important people responded quickly when she makes a grandiose claim like that, when it never seemed to work for me lately? Life just isn’t fair sometimes!
We did end up having to wait for several minutes in a lower room of the tower until the Archmage could be located. I couldn’t help but be a little bit nervous; here I was in what Hill had facetiously referred to as a lion’s den, and even having an angel around to watch my back didn’t necessarily make me feel any less nervous seeing as how I was in the headquarters for a bunch of guys who had every reason to hate Paul Twister, about to come face to face with the chief lion himself.
With all that building up all morning, actually meeting Mr. Head Lion was really a bit anticlimactic. He walked in, impeccably dressed in a deep blue wizard’s robe, and smiled as he saw Aylwyn. I’d seen him briefly in Fiona Khal’s mirror, but in person he was, well, about the same. Short, bald, with a thick mustache and a rich, deep voice. I was sort of expecting there would be something more to him, some sort of presence, some sort of power or personal charisma, as befits the leader of the most powerful group of wizards around, but being there with him was just like… being there with some guy. I was a bit disappointed, actually.
He spent most of the time speaking with Aylwyn. She gave him an account of our climbing the mountain and penetrating the dragon’s lair, getting past the traps and the illusions, fighting the dead dragon, and recovering as much loot as we could easily bring with us, to be brought to the Circle and put to good use. Interestingly enough, she didn’t mention the aluminum at all; she simply stated that the fake treasure turned out to be made of “a metal that Paul judged to be valueless, and as he made no attempt to surreptitiously gather any, I defer to his judgment in the matter, as an expert on the subject of items of worth.”
That was actually kind of cool of her, between that and the way she refrained from giving away any of the more personal details of our journey, the ones that could be used to give the Circle some sort of leverage against me. It kind of made me wonder whose side she was really on; wasn’t she supposed to be acting as an agent of the Circle this whole time?
The three of us went out to examine the cart together. I made sure to ask Ken’tu Kel specifically if this fulfilled the terms of my contract to deliver the dragon skull to his tower, as I understood that this tower was not his, personally, and pointed out that if it did not, I’d be more than happy to haul it around to the other side of the city. He laughed and said that that would not be necessary; that the tower was the Circle’s but he was the administrator and steward in possession of the tower, and between that and being the head of the Circle, he considered it good enough to fulfill the contract. And, more to the point, good enough to be bound to pay me for it.
We unloaded the dragon bones and scales, the magical artifacts, the gems and the gold, and brought the whole load in to a room on the ground floor of the tower. The Archmage was actually more than generous with me, saying that per the agreement we had reached, half of it was mine, the other half going to the Circle. He took the skull off to one side of the room, and handed me a pouch bulging with gold and a second, smaller one filled with gemstones, in exchange, and then said I was free to take half of what remained, though he would prefer if I left the draconic remains in the Circle’s care, as they were of particular value. He cast a few spells of measurement and worked some calculations, and gave me an estimate of a fair value for my half of the dragon bones and scales would be, and offered twelve per cent above that, payable in gold, to leave them behind.
I ended up mostly going for things of immediate value, the gold and gems. I did take the lute, of course, and after Aylwyn gave me a few significant looks, I picked the puzzle box for my own as well. I picked out several of the smaller dragon bones–vertebrae, mostly, and a few teeth and claws–and a few scales, much to Ken’tu Kel’s chagrin. I figured I could find some useful things to do with them, particularly with Gerald’s help, but in front of the Archmage I just stayed in character as the simple mercenary thief. Anything he valued more than gold had to be worthwhile, afterall!
He surprised me with one thing, though, once we were done dividing the loot and arranging payments. “Paul,” the Archmage said in his obnoxiously perfect Prince Charming voice. “I recently received a message from an associate of mine, Gerald Wolf. He told me that he had a brief encounter with you, and found that you were in possession of a very troublesome artifact, a gemstone bearing draconic influence.”
I nodded slowly, not wanting to give too much away. It made sense that Gerald would warn Ken’tu Kel of this, but I didn’t know what else he might have said, so it was best to play this one close to the chest. “He found a way to neutralize it, so Ryell couldn’t use it to project magic against us on the remainder of our journey,” I said, “but he seemed convinced that she would already know about our quest. I suspect that foreknowledge was directly responsible for several of the dangers we encountered while upon the mountain.”
The Archmagus nodded slowly. “Yes, he said as much to me. He also said that he only considered his enchantment to be a temporary solution at best, and he warned me that I may find it prudent to attempt to revitalize, or even improve upon, his work.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. “Did he?”
“He did. But actually, I believe I may be able to go one step further.”
That intrigued me. “What did you have in mind?” I asked cautiously. I wasn’t about to completely let my guard down around him, but so far he’d dealt fairly with me, and that counted for something at least.
“Archmagus Wolf also mentioned that you offered to leave the stone in his keeping, but he declined, as he believed that such an act would provoke the dragon to anger, and he did not possess the means to effectively mount a defense against any retaliation.” Then he grinned at me. “With these dragon bones, I believe that now, here… we do.”
“So you’d be willing to take the stone off my hands?”
He nodded. “It would be interesting to study such a thing. If it is personally attuned to Ryell herself, as you and Archmagus Wolf both assume to be the case, it is possible that we could actually use it as a further link to the dragoness, to defend against her directly.” He paused for a moment, as if considering something. “I understand that the stone is a quite large, uncut sapphire. Would you be willing to show it to me?”
I retrieved it from my pack, a bit hesitantly. I was glad Aylwyn was still around, watching. “Here it is,” I said, taking the stone from my pack, still wrapped in the fine netting that gave form to Gerald’s containment spell.
The archmage was impressed. “That is truly a magnificent stone,” he said. I could almost see the wheels turning in his head. “With this, we could not only form a link against the dragon, but store an immense amount of magical energy within.” He looked me in the eyes. “This could be an exceptional weapon against Ryell, Paul Twister, and I would pay handsomely for it in trade.”
I chewed on my lip a little. “How handsomely?”
Ken’tu Kel beckoned. “Come…” He led the two of us out and down a hallway, into a heavily warded room that it took him nearly a minute to open the door to. “I hope you appreciate the level of trust I’m extending, simply by revealing the existence of this room,” he said to me.
Once I stepped inside, I could see why! The room was a vault! There were artifacts scattered throughout, incredibly valuable-looking things, none of which would have looked out of place along the back wall of the dragon’s hoard. “Pick one,” Ken’tu Kel said. “The sapphire is worth any of these.”
I looked over various things, ignoring whatever appeared to be magical or enchanted, which cut things down quite a bit. I saw Aylwyn looking over the items as well, and after a minute her attention was drawn to one in particular. So I walked over. She was looking at a golden statuette, about two feet high and extremely realistic-looking, of an angelic warrior with his wings, which appeared to be made of silver, spread wide, a shiny silvery sword in his hand. “What’s the story behind the statue of this angel?”
Ken’tu Kel looked between me and Aylwyn curiously before responding. “As I’m sure Aylwyn could tell you, this is a likeness of Terelon, the legendary founder of the order of Celestial Paladins. The statuette is one of a series of ten legendary heroes fashioned by James Povent, considered to be his greatest work.” That was interesting. I’d heard the name of James Povent a few times before, a sculptor from about two hundred years ago, one of the Great Masters. “The body is solid gold to a great degree of purity. The wings are silver and the blade is aluminum. It’s a priceless work of art, which makes it worth exactly the same as your sapphire. It is yours if you want it, but you’d have difficulty carrying it out of here.” He was right, of course. The little statuette probably weighed a good bit more than I did! You ever see someone in a movie rob a vault filled with gold bars, carrying them or even tossing them around like they were clay bricks? A real gold bar about the size of a brick would weigh around 30 pounds, and this was several bricks worth of gold.
I frowned slightly at the Archmage’s description. “I hadn’t heard that Povent worked in gold,” I said.
The wizard nodded slowly. “Not ordinarily, but the heroes were a special commission by King Geoffrey III. Most of them still reside in the Royal Treasury of Anduin, but three of them, including this one, have had to be sold to cover various debts over the years.”
It almost seemed too good to be true. A treasure like this was worth several times what the sapphire was on the base metal value alone, and much more if you consider the value of the artwork. Then again, the sapphire had quite a bit of “unique object value” as well on its side of the balance sheet, and my life back home had shown me quite vividly the emotional extremes people will go to, considering no price too high in the name of securing themselves against a vast and scary threat. Basic economics, I suppose. We both figured we were getting a great value out of the deal. “Would you be able to procure for me a wooden box that would hold this, filled with sawdust?” That’s the other tricky thing about gold and silver: not only are they incredibly heavy, they’re also extremely soft and need to be handled with care.
A slow smile curled the Archmage’s lips upward. “I believe I could arrange for that.”
“And with that, I will have your leave to depart, free and safe?”
He gave me a ever-so-slightly patronizing look. “You have done a great service to the Circle and to me, more than you know. Whatever you may have done against our interests in the past, consider it expunged.” A brief pause, then he seemed to think of something. “Though if I were you, I would not consider that a license to act against us in the future.” A wry grin quirked at the corners of his mouth.
I nodded, trying to appear sufficiently contrite and appropriately grateful. “Thank you, Archmage. And if I could ask one last thing? A simple question?”
He nodded. “Yes?”
“On a completely unrelated matter, I have some business to conduct with April O’Neil. I passed her manor on the way here, and was told that she was here, meeting with you, and was likely to remain for several days still. Would you be able to tell me where I could find her?”
Ken’tu Kel winced slightly at the mention of April’s name. “It would seem fate conspires against you,” he sighed. “We received word a few days ago that there had been a terrible magical accident involving a member of her family, and she cut short her visit and rushed home immediately. If you wish to find her, you’ll have to make your way back to Tary.”
You know, I really should have expected that.
I sighed. “Very well. As soon as I have this statuette packed safely in a crate, in the back of my cart, the sapphire is yours.” And good riddance to the accursed thing! Of course, I’d have the same basic problem selling the statuette as I would have had trying to sell the sapphire. You can’t easily find a buyer for something that valuable and unique, and if I tried to do so under the name of one of my aliases, some of whom might actually have the connections to pull it off, I’d be blowing their cover.
Then again, there are plenty of things you can get in exchange for something valuable, other than money, if you have a good enough imagination…
* * *
“So,” I asked Aylwyn once we got outside and started heading towards the city of Declan, still on foot for the moment. “What are you going to do now?” As much as I might enjoy further traveling with her, the quest was the only thing keeping the two of us together and deep inside, I knew that.
She smiled gently. “I’ll be returning to the Celestial Realm for a few days of rest. After that, I have more to do in my work with the Circle. My investigation into a faction of renegade wizards dealing in dark powers was never resolved satisfactorily.”
That made me think. “When I made the contract with Robert De Long, the witness was a man named Brian Eckart, who seemed to know about the situation.”
She nodded. “I suspected he was involved somehow, but what I was truly searching for was the person in charge. For a good length of time I suspected Gerald Wolf, though having met him–and having spent some of the time we passed at his residence investigating various matters–I believe that suspicion can be laid to rest. Unfortunately, that leaves me back where I began.”
Hmph. And here I’d thought that that suggestion would be helpful. “Well,” I thought for a moment. “I suppose this is where we part ways, then?” She nodded wordlessly. “All right. But first, I have three gifts for you.”
She looked at me, a bit surprised. “There’s really only one thing–“
“The box. I know.” I climbed up into the cart and handed it to her. She’d found it quite the worthwhile pastime, and she’d managed to find at least four carvings that did something, though she still didn’t have much of an idea as to how it all fit together. “That’s the first one. The second…” I rooted around in my pack, gathering a few things up, then wrapping them in a handkerchief. “Here, this is the rest of the chocolate I picked up. Take it; it seems like you enjoyed it more than I did anyway.”
She looked a bit taken aback by the unexpected gift. “…and the third?”
I hopped down off the cart and patted the crate. “I saw you eying the statue of Terelon. I’d like to give it over into the care of the Celestial Paladins for safekeeping, to be cared for and displayed as they see fit.” Her eyes widened at that, and I held up a hand to keep her from saying anything just yet. “With the understanding that it remains my rightful property, to be returned should I call for it.” I figured as long as I had a priceless work of art that I couldn’t do much of anything with, why not get an appreciative museum to care for it for me, and make myself a few friends in high places while I’m at it?
Aylwyn looked a little bit overwhelmed as she realized the implications. “This is something you’re not likely to have the opportunity to sell,” she said slowly, thinking it through, “and it does not seem within your character to destroy something like this, simply to render it into the component metals…”
I nodded. “Your hero’s got a good long career ahead of him, inspiring the Paladins. Would you be able to arrange that?”
The angel nodded. “It would be an honor,” she said. Then, she took a slow, deep breath. “And I… have three gifts to give you in return.”
I blinked a little, wondering just what she had in mind. She was almost certainly making the gifts up on the spot, as part of some desire for reciprocity. “You do?”
She smiled warmly and stepped forward, placing her hands on my shoulders, and then leaning in. “First,” she whispered, “a kiss.” She placed a soft kiss on my cheek, as she had the first time we met, again just before she departed. And again, it made me shiver and my heart started beating faster.
“Second,” she murmured in my ear, then slowly stepped away. Then she did something I never expected: she reached one hand around behind her back, and after a moment a brief wince of pain crossed her face. She composed herself quickly enough, though, and when she brought her hand back around, it was holding a single creamy white feather. “A remembrance.” She gently took my hand in hers, pressing the feather into my palm. It was pretty small; about as large as it could get without being too big for me to close my hand around. I kind of got the impression that there was some special significance to it, though she didn’t see fit to provide any explanation.
“And third,” she smiled, “a favor owed, should our paths cross again at a later date.”
I smiled back, but I couldn’t resist the urge to tease her a little, at the disproportionate nature of what she’d offered in return. “All that,” I grinned playfully, “and it’s only worth one kiss?” I leaned forwards and wiggled my eyebrows at her.
She just smirked and stepped away. “You have been very fortunate today, Paul Twister. Do not press your luck.” She moved around to the back of the cart and picked up the crate containing the statue–it was heavy enough that even the angel had a bit of trouble lifting it, but that’s still a lot more than I could have done, picking up something that big and heavy by herself–and placing it gently across Wyntaf’s back. She used some rope to tie it securely to her horse, then turned to me, flashing me one last lovely, brilliant smile. “I will see that this is cared for well. Thank you, for some most memorable days. You did not prove at all to be what I had been expecting.”
I nodded, fighting to keep my expression neutral. “Safe journeys,” I said. “And I hope our paths do cross again, some day soon.”
She began to shine, brighter and brighter, until I had to look away. And then the lights went out, and she and her horse were gone.
And I was missing her already.