I was standing in the tavern in the Strangeways when I felt
Melanie put her ring on. I didn't have much time to puzzle about why she
had changed her mind, as I wanted to catch Bleys' attention before Brandle
and Niccolo got too far ahead of us. We headed out into the cool of the
gathering dusk. I felt a bit rusty tracking them, but I didn't lose the
Brandle and Niccolo didn't go far before they met up with another
man who was nondescript, in a soldierly sort of way. They met in a small
clearing, and Bleys and I hung back under cover in the surrounding woods.
The soldier didn't seem thrilled to see that Niccolo was along, or at
least I surmised so due to his body language. Brandle and the soldier
talked too softly for me to really understand what was being said.
Niccolo, on the other hand, could have been heard across a packed room.
Did Niccolo know we had followed, or did he just suspect? Either way, he
was making both me, and the soldier, nervous.
The soldier informed Niccolo that he would in no way, shape or
form discuss any of his plans with Niccolo. Wise man, but bad for me,
although thanks to Niccolo's big mouth, I at least knew that the soldier
was after the Jewel. I was contemplating shifting my weight to get away
from the stick that was grinding into my left knee, when I saw the soldier
test the wind. Damn. I knew that if that soldier was a shapeshifter, our
position was compromised. I didn't have a chance to have that verified,
however, as Niccolo suggested Bleys and I come out and join them. The
crossbow was conjured, cocked and aimed at Niccolo's throat before I got a
hold of my temper. There was a definite downside, other than the obvious
of being mortal, to having my soul back. I could see that now.
I rose slowly and walked out of the woods, my aim not shifting. I
told the Vertix that he would do well to learn when to keep his mouth
shut, and that he was lucky the only blood-poison I knew of was Halybard.
If the others reacted, I didn't notice, as I was concentrating on
Niccolo's throat, trying to find the faint, rhythmic flutter that would
give away his jugular. I didn't expect it would kill a shapeshifter, but
it ought to at least hurt. I'd settle for that. Then the soldier said
that his interests and mine more than likely overlapped. Given the part
of the conversation that Niccolo had parroted, I found that difficult to
believe. Niccolo still lost as the center of my attention after that
comment, and my eyes wandered over to the soldier. They added nothing new
to what I had already drawn from him. Niccolo, however, wouldn't shut up
long enough for me to form a cohesive question, so I dropped the crossbow
and pinned the bastard squealer's foot to the ground. Screaming, I can
Ah ha. That got a reaction out of the soldier, surprise, I
believe. Then it was my turn to be surprised, as he told Niccolo that the
quarrel was more than likely poisoned, and then lopped Niccolo's foot off.
It's not every day that I am surpassed, and I rather doubted that the man
had acted in Niccolo's best interest in removing the foot, especially
since I had already admitted to not having Vertix poison. Granted, I
could have been lying, I guess. Needless to say, the soldier once again
had my full attention. The man assumed, from my actions, apparently, that
I was indeed Archimedes, Crown Prince of Amber, and introduced himself as
Ragnar. He made a point of giving no house or title, and reiterated that
his interests coincided with mine. His employer wanted him to deliver the
Jewel to me. Quite frankly, I was shocked. I supposed, out loud, that he
more than likely wouldn't be at liberty to discuss who his employer was.
He smiled as he confirmed that thought, but said that he was interested in
the Halybard poison I had spoke of earlier.
Ragnar told us what he knew, then, that Finndo was currently in a
cave where he intended to hide the Jewel. Unbeknownst to Finndo, there
was currently no way out. All we had to do was convince the guardian to
let Finndo go, hide until he left, and then walk in and retrieve the
Jewel. It sounded a bit too easy, but what the hell. The road there was
uneventful, until we ran into Ulysses, Sky and Dakota. Apparently
Laughter had assumed that I needed rescuing. Ulysses was in fine form,
but Ragnar hurried us along to our goal, bless him.
Laughter would have found something beautifully symbolic in the
creature that was the guardian. I just found him hard to look at. He was
a small creature, standing in front of an enormous stone slab. His hair
was moving fire, his feet were roots, his right hand was stone and his
left was wood. He wept as he stood. We told our story to the guardian,
with Ragnar doing most of the telling. He explained that this land would
be far better off with Finndo out of it and the Jewel back in Amber's
hands. The guardian gave us his cooperation, but he was surprised that we
did not ask any questions of him. Apparently, that was the custom here.
Before the slab was opened, Ulysses blurted out, "How many kids will
Archimedes have?" "Fifteen," was the guardian's answer. Hopefully, that
was news that would take years to reach Laughter's ears, whether she was
to bear them or not.
We hid ourselves, and Finndo exited a small time after the slab
had been opened. He had a puzzled look on his face. We moved in a short
time later. I stood quietly in the entrance until the Jewel told me where
it was. It was deep inside a stalactite, and I had to free it with Song.
I apologized to the sword for making it perform such a mundane task. How
I would like to bury it in that bastard Finndo's black heart, some day.
As soon as I had the Jewel in my hand, Sky asked for the book of the
Strangeways that Bleys held. She had crossed Killian's trail while
looking for me, and wanted to go find him. I recognized her tone, and
panic rose within me at the thought of her killing him. In me, that was
clearly the wrong emotion. I stalled for as long as I could, hoping the
feeling would go away, but it didn't. I then looked at Bleys and nodded
my consent, so long as she did not kill him. Sky almost looked as
surprised as I felt. Ulysses volunteered to go with them, which gave me
great comfort. There rest of us returned to Amber, Ragnar, at his
request, joining us. I told him to do no harm while there, and hoped he
would fare better than Killian had.
I Trumped Random when we reached the main hall, and found him in a
tuxedo. I quickly broke the contact. A state dinner is one thing, but
tuxedos? I warned the others of their impending doom, and turned Ragnar
over to Florimel before heading to my room. As I expected, there was a
tuxedo waiting for me when I got there. Honestly, I'd rather wear tights.
As Laughter was helping me with the damned bow tie, she said, "Oh, by the
way, Killian has half of your soul. Let's go to dinner now?" Why is it
the stuff you want her to beat around the bush about, she never does?
But, when you ask, "So, what were you and Kaedric doing for two hours
alone together," you can't get a straight answer? At least I knew now why
I didn't want Killian dead.
Laughter was spared by an incoming Trump. It was Sky, and they
already had Killian. I stepped through and joined them in the main hall.
I glared at Killian. If he had known who and what I was, he would have
been more scared, I'm sure, or at least more cooperative. He had to be
punished, and I told him so. I called in a chancellor for a consultation.
He said that, historically, such things were usually settled with a trial
by combat, ordeal or quest. I gave Killian his choice and he picked all
three. Hell, if he was game, so was I. I just had to figure out how to
punish him without killing him. That was out of character by enough that
I knew I was going to have to come up with some creative answers to the
questions it would spawn.
Dinner was well attended. Melanie's and Claudio's children were
introduced. Things were pretty dull until Niccolo expired in his dessert,
and the dinner conversation died with him. As people were re-establishing
the party in the adjoining room, Ragnar scrambled over to assure me that
he had nothing to do with it. Hell, that was pretty funny, considering
Niccolo was giving us both paranoid looks all night long. I guess my
reputation precedes me somewhere.
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