The outside of the room Yaluda and the Prince’s Private Guard confined us to looks very different in the daytime than it did at night. Instead of being lit by torches, tall glass windows on the outer wall let in light, completely changing the ambience of the place. The gloomy atmosphere, the musty forgotten books, it all feels different. Dust motes swirl in the air around me as I step forward, trying to remember the way to the exit. Instead of being abandoned, this space feels… almost like a sanctuary. A hidden place where no one else comes.
A soft cough interrupts my musing. I jerk around. I had been sure no one was here! But behind me, right next to the tapestry hiding the door to our room, leans a stern looking Smedigan Blix.
“You’re not supposed to leave. His Highness did explain that to you, right?” He asks rhetorically. “You’re too much of a liability, too recognizable. If anyone so much as suspects that you are still in the castle, we’ll have a manhunt on our hands.”
“Ahh…” I have an explanation, but with his stern gaze on me it slips my grasp. So instead I ask. “What are you doing right outside our secret hideaway then? If someone were to notice you just hanging here all day, they’d surely have questions. Like ‘what exactly is the head of the PPGs guarding in the library of all places, when Yaluda is all the way in the Great Hall eating breakfast?’” My stomach rumbles, and I glance out the windows to try and guess the position of the sun. “It is breakfast time right? Maybe slightly afterwards?”
I think Smedigan may have snorted, but when I glance back at his face, it’s perfectly blank. “It’s not always me here,” he explains. “I and a few of the other guards of the Prince take shifts. Nobody notices if one of us goes missing for an hour or two. And nobody comes nearly this far back in the library, unless they’re looking for his Highness anyways. After all, this ‘secret hideaway’ as you call it, is known to the nobles and palace guards as his private study. He uses this room when he is trying to work away from disturbances. Nobody has been or ever will be allowed in without his personal invitation.”
“Oh.” I feel a little awkward. We’re bedding down in his study? “Wait, I was a guard here. Why did I never hear of his private study?”
“Guard in training or actual guard?” Smedigan asks, rhetorical again, “If you were just being trained for the warfront, there was a lot of stuff you didn’t actually hear about.” He explains “No need to teach the newbies stuff they’d never need to use after all.”
I can sorta see the logic in that, but that doesn’t help me contain my disappointment. “So you mean there’s a whole lot about this place that I never learned?” So all that time when I thought I could help Faladel and Briareth a lot, I was really just kidding myself?
“Yes.” Smedigan replies. “But now isn’t a good time to learn any of it. So why don’t you just go back into your room?”
“Does Prince Yaluda know that you’re doing this?” I shoot back, still unable to remember my excuse for why I should be allowed out here. However, my randomly thrown out words hit home. Smedigan Blix’s face looks superbly guilty, he can’t even meet my eyes. “He doesn’t know, does he?” I ask, surprised and slightly delighted that I have something to hold over him. “You didn’t tell Yaluda that you were forcing us to stay in?”
“Prince Yaluda is reckless. My job is to protect him however I see fit. Including keeping his new allies under guard to make sure they don’t do anything dumb, like trying to sneak out around the castle.” Smedigan claims stiffly.
“Surely he wouldn’t approve of you going behind his back like this.” I needle, enjoying my newfound power.
“Perhaps not,” Smedigan replies, still avoiding my eyes. “but that is my problem to deal with, not yours. All you need to do is work on convincing that morally righteous friend of yours that killing the king is the only real option we have here.”
“You know,” I say ignoring his comment, as I suddenly remember my excuse for going out. “Yaluda did mention that we should probably stay in, as we were too recognizable. Elves in a dwarven castle and whatnot; those extra couple inches of height would be a dead giveaway for Briareth and Faladel. However, I have perfectly average height for a dwarf. I can disguise myself as just another servant, and get to places even your precious PPG can’t.”
“People saw you in the courtroom.” Smedigan says warningly. “They’re unlikely to forget the face of a traitor.”
“After three weeks? While I’m in a disguise?” I ask incredulously. “Come on, you know how unlikely that is just as well as I do. Few people here actually bother to look at the faces of anyone they consider lesser. To go so far as to observe a busy manservant, mentally compare him with a traitor they saw once, and then look past the outfit to realize they are one and the same? Come on, it’s more believable that the King is secretly a cleric and practices sorcery to extend his life. As long as I’m properly disguised, nobody will notice me.”
Smedigan snorts. “I hadn’t heard that rumor before.” is his only reply.
“It was one of the many that flew around when I was in training.” I explain. “Someone went so far as to suggest the King had a secret room somewhere where he performs his rituals. Not quite sure how that person actually finished training, I was sure one of us would end up reporting him for treason.”
“What an interesting group of newbies you must have been.” Smedigan actually grins slightly. “Heretics and traitors the lot of you, and not one informer! I mean, you even ended up working with elves!” I get the feeling he isn’t a fan of the church on top of his ill intentions towards the King. I never said anything about heretics, he’s drawing his own conclusions there. But considering my group, his conclusions aren’t actually that far off…
“We had our moments.” I allow. “So, am I granted permission to wander around in disguise to see what I can hear, Sir Smedigan?”
“Just call me Blix,” The Captain of the Prince’s Private Guards smiles openly at me. “And I think we can arrange a disguise for you. “
About an hour and-a-half later, my hair and beard are neatly trimmed, my clothes that I’ve had since I deserted are burning somewhere, and I’m dressed in a simple yet elegant black set of tunic, belt, pants, and boots– the traditional garb of a manservant.
Blix’s last words to me before I stepped out, basket of laundry in my arms, ready to face whatever this castle has to throw at me, ring in my ears.
“Hang around the nobles that I and the other PPGs can’t, look like you’re doing something important, and don’t be stupid.” Simple enough that I already knew it myself, but smart enough that it bears repeating. Although he’s more than a little uptight, I guess it’s because he has to protect the prince. Once he decided I wasn’t a threat, he was more than generous with his help, and suggested specific individuals to tail, but said that if I ever felt in danger I should leave. Right as I was about to head out, he added on if people start questioning me, to just say I was on an errand for Master Malin, an ally of the Prince, but not someone close enough to him that it would raise suspicions. It felt like he was really worried for me.
Now I’m just wandering around the endless hallways of the castle, trying to find interesting conversations to listen in on. It’s not been so long that I’ve forgotten the names and faces of the important people at the castle. I still remember all the important faces, and even if I don’t know the faces of the lesser nobility, I still know the house symbols that almost all of them wear, cleverly stitched into their clothing or on elaborate pins just like current fashion demands. There isn’t a lack of nobles either, quite the opposite really. Groups of them hang around, gossiping in dining halls or out at the fields watching young dwarves– some nobles, some soldiers– train. The palace is quite the popular hangout region after all, it’s the best place to create connections and find some drama.
No, the problem isn’t finding nobles to tail, it’s finding the right nobles. Blix had mentioned three houses that Yaluda and he would love to gain information on; the house of Joar, the house of Letland, and– of course – the house of Yamat. And although Yamat is the largest, and has the most allies, it’s also notoriously private. It controls the news outlets, Valdkin Yamat, the leader of the house, knows just how well loose lips can sink ships. No one associated with the house would dare gossip about anything that could be used against them. The repercussions would be swift and severe.
Joar and Letland are a little easier to find though. On my third trip around the west dining hall, I finally spot a member of the immediate Letland household. Their youngest son, aptly named Hark, is conversing with a large group of friends. Relying on his rumored nature as a relentless blabbermouth, I decide it might be worth it to try and linger nearby to find out what exactly has his audience so enraptured.
It’s five, no, closer to ten loops of the dining hall before I give up on him. His story that has everyone enraptured? It’s literally the rumors surrounding Briareth, Faladel, and my escape. Apparently it hasn’t been announced publicly, but everyone knows about it, and once the King does own up to it, it’s going to be a huge scandal. After all, no one’s ever escaped the royal dungeons before, and now the elf prince has managed to escape dwarven prisons twice! Hark Letland’s take on it is that apparently the High Priest is weakening, his powers fading, the spell he cast on Briareth and Faladel broke and the elf prince turned all three of us into shadows that escaped into the night sky and flew back to elven territories. He claims to have a first hand source among the clerics, and says that even the guards noticed a strange ‘blackening of the face of the moon’ that night.
I’m not sure whether we should be flattered or worried that the other nobles seem to think we’re capable of such feats, but either way Hark Letland is just spouting nonsense, so I leave, taking my laundry basket with me.
I wander all over the place again for a bit. Up to the guest towers, down to the laundromat, back to the guest towers again. I even hang around the great hall for a bit before I start getting questioning looks from one of the scribes on duty. Eventually I end up passing by the soldiers quarters. I try to hurry on by, leery of getting caught and questioned by people who are far more likely to have drawn images of my face being passed around. But suddenly I hear weeping, and, curiosity getting the better of me, I loiter around a doorway to one of the barracks, dropping the laundry so I can pretend to pick it up again.
“It’s going to be okay.” I hear a gentle voice say. It’s masculine and a bit gruff, but obviously well intentioned. “He might be gone, but he went out fighting the elves. He’d be proud of a death like that, right Jittik?
There is the loud sound of someone blowing their nose, Jitik I presume.
“He wouldn’t be proud of dying at all.” A new voice says, rough and rasping, the owner has probably been crying. “He had a wife, two kids at home. Who’s going to support them now?”
My heart aches with empathy for Jitik and the family of the deceased. What is my family doing right now? Their son is a traitor, or maybe they think I’m dead. I’m not sure which would be better, honestly. At least if I’m dead, my mother will get a small payment from the army. If news reached the town that I’m a traitor though, conditions for them could have gotten worse. I lean over, intending to pick up my dropped laundry and leave. I don’t need to hear more of this.
“I wish this war would end! I don’t even care who wins anymore, I just want it to stop taking lives!” Grieving Jitik wails.
I flinch. That’s treason.
“Don’t say that!” His friend echoes my sentiments. “You could be killed if someone overhears you!” I guiltily start picking up the clothes faster, hurrying away from the grieving pair as soon as I can afford to. I don’t want to interrupt their moment any longer.
As soon as I’m out of hearing distance I slow down and try to think more objectively about what I just heard. Admitting to not caring who wins this war, inside the soldiers’ barracks of all places. Maybe the people around here will be more receptive to Yaluda’s coup and a peace treaty than I thought. After all, even the nobles have lost people they care about. Maybe some of them, like Jitik, are ready for the deaths to end.
I shake my head and start to move quicker again. This information is valuable to me, and may be a moral booster, but it isn’t what I’m out here looking for. I should get back to work.
I wander back towards the main building, the light green grass bending under my boots and then springing back up once I’ve passed. I cut back onto the pathway, following a gaggle of young nobles. They’re heading towards one of the fields, gossiping along the way. Following them, I learn a few things. Apparently Lady Ulvarka’s dress at a ball held at the Yamat household last weekend was quite daring. It was embarrassingly obvious to everyone there that she was trying to catch the unmarried Yamat heir, Agnark Yamat’s, attention, but he didn’t even dance with her once! On another note, Lord Gangolf’s son, Camack, told his father in his letters that he was doing very well for himself in cleric training, but according to letters from his ‘friends’ he was at the bottom of their class. And, apparently, Prince Yaluda would finally be attending one of this season’s balls because the King kept telling him to find a wife and settle down already. There were a lot of excited titters when this rumor was shared, and I nearly dropped my load of laundry. Yaluda? At a ball? He hadn’t mentioned anything about that to us. Then again, it could be just rumors. There’s no reason to think that he, at forty, would be taking a wife. Not while he’s busy trying to kill his father at any rate. He has too much on his hands right now.
After thinking it through, I calm down a bit. There’s no way all these rumors are true, that one’s certainly not, and the likelihood of this group moving on to more substantial rumors is quite low. When the pathway splits up ahead and they go left, I go right, hoping to find a new group to tail. But, in the heat of the day, all of the nobles have retreated inside or back to their house in town. Almost all of them, that is.
While wandering around under the hot sun, one figure catches my eye, a young man in fancy clothes all by himself. What’s even stranger than him being alone though, is that he’s apparently in quite a hurry, almost running down the stone pathways towards the chapel in the corner of the castle grounds. As he scrambles past me, I catch a glimpse of a shiny house symbol on his belt, Hammer and Sickle, he’s from house Joar. Jackpot! I smile, and turn to follow him, silently tracing his steps with a lot less haste.
He hurries into the chapel area, and I arrive just in time to see him pass through a side door into the castle wall. Strange, not many people would use the chapel as a shortcut, they’d be too afraid of angering the gods. I glance around, the area appears to be entirely deserted, and since I’ve probably already angered the gods as much as possible by becoming a ‘traitor’, I decide to follow him further.
I move quickly through the chapel, still clutching my basket of laundry to me, and duck out the same side door. The corridor before me is long and empty. I move along it, trying to appear confident even though I’m sweating like a pig. Where did he go? This hallway is long and straight, it doesn’t have any doors. Did he realize I was following him?
“What are you doing here?” A harsh voice says. I freeze, tensing up. It had come from behind me. I slowly turn around, but no one is there.
“I’m here to deliver a message.” Another voice replies, and I’m able to pinpoint their location more accurately. Behind me, but also off to my left.
“Unless it’s something important, get out. You can’t be seen here, you’re tied too closely to Him.” I follow the voices, and find myself at a tapestry. Maybe it hides a secret room, after all, Yaluda’s study is covered by a tapestry as well.
“I wouldn’t be here unless He sent me. We both know that.”
“Out with it then!” The first voice commands. “What is it this time? Some little detail I’ve already caught on to?! Or a scrap of information that will ultimately be useless in the end!” The voice gets louder and more frustrated as it continues. “I swear, if you don’t have a good reason for being here, I’m cursing you so bad you’ll wish you were a toadstool, because at least they would have more pride!” I flinch, is one of these people a cleric? This could get dangerous. Maybe I should leave…
“Woah! Woah! Don’t take it out on me, I’m just His messenger boy! I like having to do these missions even less than you! Please don’t curse me!” the second voice begs.
“Tell me. Then I’ll decide.” The first voice says flatly, still sounding like he really wants to curse the second guy. I hesitate. Staying a little longer could get me information worth more than anything else I’ve gathered today.
“Yes, yes!” The second voice says immediately, desperate to please. Decision made, I press my ear gently to the tapestry. At the first sign that they’re finishing up, I need to be out of here. But hearing a conversation between what’s probably a noble of house Joar and either a priest or a cleric is worth the risk.
“He wants you to know that the Prince is definitely up to something, sources within his guard confirm it, although they can’t find out what. Smedigan Blix is too perceptive, he’d catch on if they pushed any more. Because of this we may have to move plans up. He wants you to confirm you’re ready to start putting it into motion at any time.” There are traitors in the guard? I lean slightly closer to the tapestry. Come on, give me more details. Names. Something– anything –useful.
“Of course I’m ready.” the first voice snaps. “I’ve been ready for years! All I need is for that narcissistic lunkhead to die, and the plan will be set in motion.”
There’s a brief hesitation, and then the second voice says. “Maybe you shouldn’t call him that. He’s still alive, you know. You could get in serious trouble.”
“Well, it’s not like you’d be brave enough to tell on me.” The first voice says, snorting. “You’d be getting yourself in trouble too after all.” His tone is dismissive, I think they’re done here. I wish they’d given me more details to work with, but this will have to be enough. I quickly, quietly, start scuttling for the door back into the chapel. I speed up as I get closer, and then halt at the side door, quietly easing it open, and then closed behind me, and then I zip out of the church back out into the sunlight.
Eager to get as far away from the church as possible, I continue running, laundry basket squeezed half to death in my arms. I could continue spying till this evening, but I’d rather get back to the library and our secret room as soon as possible. I need to tell Blix and Yaluda that there are spies within the PPG. I slow my pace a bit, but just a bit. Everyone is still inside, it’s too hot out right now for all the nobles in their heavy embroidered tunics and dresses.
Just as I think that though, a female voice chirrups from right next to me, “What makes you in such a hurry on such a lovely afternoon?”I stop dead in my tracks, and glance over at the source. Both the voices in the secret room were male, so she can’t be one of them. I gulp, she is however, a noble. And at her side is a young gentleman. I don’t know his face or his voice, but he’s also dressed like a noble.
“Master Malin told me to get these laundered.” I say, just like Blix told me to. I lift up my basket of clothes slightly for them to inspect. I don’t even have to fake my surprise and slight fear at being questioned by a noble duo.
The young man next to the lady who’d stopped me grins, “Funny. I don’t remember ever sending you on any trip, and I know all my manservants’ faces by heart.” I pale, suddenly recognizing the pattern on his shoulder pad, it’s a house symbol. The house symbol of Malin.