When we finally have explained everything to Faladel and Briareth– Istere ending with, “So now everyone believes that my Dad is insane, and I’m some sort of hero for trying to stop him.” Briareth is the first to reply.
“Well, your dad kinda is insane.”
“And you are a hero.” I mutter under my breath. I feel my face heat up as Istere turns her golden eyes on me.
“Did you say something, Balderk?” She asks, and I feel relieved. She hadn’t heard my muttering.
“Errmm… Nothing much. I was just wondering who exactly wrote all this.” I say. And it isn’t a lie, that question has been bugging me. “There’s very few people who would know all this information. I mean, lots of it isn’t exactly secret, the lowering of the conscription age is a recently passed policy, but not one that’s being put into action yet. I can totally believe that the King’s murder plots and the Queen’s addiction are open secrets in the castle. And even I could find out about the super weapon. But it takes a dedicated mind to connect it all and weave a story like this.”
“True.” Istere says, considering. “It would probably have to be a noble, and one high enough to have the sorcery training to pull off the spells to send copies of this all over the city.”
“Or maybe there are multiple authors and they’re working together.” Faladel says. “That would make it easier. One to gather information, one to write it up, and one or two to perform the sorcery necessary to spread the word. We need to figure this out. If someone on the King’s side finds them first, they could be in grave danger.”
“You think he’d go so low as to get revenge on the people who published this?” Briareth asks, picking up the pamphlet for another read-through.
“I wouldn’t put it past him.” Istere says darkly. “Faladel’s right, we need to find these people as soon as we can, hopefully they can find someplace to hide themselves in the meantime though, because we also need to go confront my father.”
“Cut off the head of the chicken, and hope the body stops flailing soon?” Briareth offers.
Istere snaps her fingers, “Exactly. Strike while the Iron is hot.”
“If this scandal can turn around the public,” Faladel muses. “We might not even have to murder him, you can just oust him with the public and nobles’ support, and then put him on trial and in jail for the rest of his life. Just because there isn’t a history of it, doesn’t mean it has to fail. Especially if the reaction to this is as big as we’re expecting.”
I share a glance with Istere, I thought he had gotten over this already.
“E–Excuse my I–Interruption.” Uggard breaks the silence that had fallen after Faladel’s suggestion, his gaze jumping nervously between the four of us. “Bu–But wouldn’t this be a perfect time to rescue the other PPG members as well? I–I mean, we don’t have to… But I’m w–worried about the repercussions they might face. What if the King decides to make an example of them anyways? To try and cow Your Highness?”
Istere’s eyes narrow as she considers this. “You’re right, we can’t just leave them there… wherever there is.” She glances at the nervous young dwarf, who’s fiddling with his scabbard self consciously.
“Do you happen to know where they’re being held, Uggard?” She asks. Uggard nods, and Istere grabs an old book from one of the multitudes on the study shelves, riffling through the pages to find a map.
“Where?” She asks, and Uggard points out their location. Unsurprisingly, it’s in the same prison we were being held in. “Of course he’d keep them in the simplest place.” Istere mutters, “He never did have any imagination.”
“Will that be a problem?” Faladel asks, “You managed to break us out of there quite nicely.”
“That was with weeks of preparation and an excellent team.” Istere says, “No insult intended, but you haven’t prepared for this at all. Last time, I snuck sleeping powder into the guards’ food to make them drowsy, then Blix went in with specially trained members of the PPG to incapacitate but not kill the guards. We had started planning that extraction pretty much as soon as you were sentenced.”
“And you still took months to get us out.” Briareth remembers. Istere nods.
“Currently the castle is probably in chaos though. I can’t imagine most of the public is receiving this well, and I doubt the nobles like it either.” Faladel says.
“Yes, that would make a rescue attempt easier.” I admit, “But I doubt the guards would desert their posts, these papers only just started raining from the sky, so the one’s in the underground prison probably haven’t even heard anything about it yet.” I try to think back to when we were rescued from the prison. Blix had taken the key off his belt, right?
“You wouldn’t happen to still have the key to those cells?” I ask.
“Blix had taken it off the head of the guards in a different part of the castle, we had to return it inconspicuously later on.” Istere says, “However,” She grins, “I did make a copy, just in case.” Reaching into one of the hidden pockets in her rumpled formal outfit– obviously it had suffered from the chaos of the past few days– she retrieves a key ring. “Luckily I kept it with my other important keys instead of storing it in my rooms like most of my unused items with potential.” She removes an inconspicuous looking silver key from the chain of about twelve, handing it to Faladel. “Can you hold onto this?” Faladel nods, pocketing the key somewhere on his person.
Turning back to stare at the map on the table in front of us, Istere taps her fingers, considering something.
“There’s only five of us, and so much to do. I need to request a meeting with my Father, we need to rescue Blix, and we need to figure out who wrote this pamphlet.” She frowns, delegating tasks in her head. “Uggard, you’ll have to be the one to go request the meeting, I suppose you could guide Faladel down to the prisons first though so he can rescue Blix…” She trails off.
“Wait, I’m going to rescue Blix with only Uggard?” Faladel asks, more than a little surprised. I’m confused as well. Faladel and Briareth and Uggard, I can understand. Briareth is good at subterfuge, good at disguises, decent at magic, and quick witted. When we were captured he was brilliant and took out more people than I did. Uggard knows the way and has a vested interest in seeing us succeed. If he’s gone through training to become a PPG member, he’s probably decent at combat as well. However, Faladel is better suited for the planning stages. He says he’s good with a sword, but I’ve never seen him actually use one. He’s quick to analyze, but he has a tendency to second guess himself. Maybe Istere saw something in him though, when they went to rescue the Queen together. I give her a questioning glance, and she shoots me a significant look in response. I don’t know why she chose to send only those two out together, but it seems she has a reason for it.
“Yes, you and Uggard.” Istere says, not meeting Faladel’s eyes. “Briareth, Balderk and I will search through the noble families to find out who sent the message. When you have Blix, return, and we can divide again so some of us can go and try to find and help the authors of the pamphlet, and Uggard can go arrange a meeting with my dad. If we manage to agree on a meeting, I doubt he’ll allow more than one or two companions, so we’ll have people to spare to go help the authors.”
Faladel frowns, probably guessing something is going on in Istere’s head. But he doesn’t say anything. Instead he nods, and, turning to Uggard, smiles. “Let’s go then. No point in wasting daylight.” He says, and they exit together.
“What was that about?” I ask Istere.
“I don’t want to deal with his morals right now.” Istere says. “Was it obvious?”
“Rather.” I say grimacing. “He almost certainly caught on to something.”
“You were trying to get rid of Faladel?” Briareth says, completely oblivious to what just went down.
“Why did you keep Briareth here then? They would have been a lot safer if he had gone with them. And he’ll probably tell Faladel anything that goes down here anyways.” I glance at Briareth, “No offense meant. It’s just that you owe your loyalties to him.”
Briareth shrugs. “If you wanted to talk about killing the King, I don’t think I will tell Faladel.”
Istere and I both stare at him, a little shocked. Briareth blinks calmly at us, enjoying our confusion. He doesn’t elaborate until I ask for it.
“But– But why not?”
“Hmm…” Briareth considers the question. “Well, first off, I agree with your point of view more than I agree with Faladel. I can see why he doesn’t want to murder the fellow, and I can respect that. However, he isn’t considering the fact that even if he is imprisoned and will ‘never see the light of day again’ someone sympathetic to his cause or who just wants a figurehead they can control on the throne, can break him out quite easily and make all the people who are upset at the current ruler– presumably yourself Istere– have someone they can rally behind. Even if the man does go even more senile, he’s still dangerous because people can make him dangerous. Faladel is used to elvish politics, which have a bit more subtle maneuvering and rules against insane people coming into power, even if they are figureheads, so he probably didn’t consider the option that someone could try and take the throne again through the soon-to-be-dead King. And even if we explained it to him and he somehow accepted it, it would still weigh on his conscience as a wrong that he authorized.” Briareth shrugs, “Besides, I’m an Elf of my word, we said we’d help you, so I’m going to help.” He grins, the brief glimpse of seriousness disappearing again. “If you can’t believe that, then think of it this way. What about the poisons? It took ages to make the first one, and hours of bookwork and a little taste testing to identify the one I found on the high priest! It’s made of ground up Belladonna root, and kills in about five minutes at its current concentration. It would really be awful if I’d done all that boring work for nothing!”
“Won’t Faladel be upset at you for hiding things?” Istere asks, steering him back to the earlier subject.
“Better him be upset than have his conscience clouded by this forever. If he sided with you all, he’d never really forgive himself. If he didn’t know about it, at least he might be able to forgive me.” Briareth grins. “So, what’s the plan?”
“We’re going to send Uggard in to request a meeting,” Istere says, and I can see her coming up with the plan seconds before she says it. “We’ll say each of us should be allowed to bring two witnesses, just to prevent any last ditch murdering attempts on his part. And then we’ll try to explain to him– no, let’s just demand that he hand over the reigns of power. Say that the people won’t stand for his continued rule, and threaten to lead a revolt. This will activate all of his suspicions, but he can’t throw me out that easily, so we’ll go into a lengthy negotiating cycle. He’ll try to talk me down so he can get rid of me later, but I’ll just be stubborn. Eventually, we’ll need some sort of food, so refreshments will be called for. Briareth– you can be dressed as a dwarf this entire time, a servant, who will bring in the refreshments. Dump some of that poison you got off the high priest into his wine. Belladonna mixes well with alcohol, right?”
“The flavors blend right in.” Briareth confirms.
“Then there shouldn’t be any problem. He always drinks wine with dinner, so poisoning it before it’s brought in shouldn’t be that hard.”
“Wait, what if he asks Briareth to taste test the wine? To check for poison?” I ask, suddenly worried for my friend.
“I’ve built up a tolerance for Belladonna, along with most other poisons.” Briareth says. “All a part of training. As long as I only take a small sip, and make it look like I drank more, this should work.” He actually looks excited to drink poison.
It is surprisingly easy to get past the guards. Uggard and I find regular guard uniforms in a handily placed disguise room in a secret corridor. Apparently, the PPG members have a system of these running all around the castle. Eventually he and I both frown at my appearance in a mirror.
“You’re still too–”
“Too tall, I know.” I say, trying to slouch a little more to disguise it. Even during my twenty-two years of imprisonment, I’d never cursed my extra finger length of elvish height as much as I’ve done in these past two months. It’s kept me out of so much of the action, forced me to stay hidden in the back while everyone else does all the hard work.
We soon give up on making me smaller, and decide that as long as I stay in the shadows and don’t draw attention to myself, we should be alright. This means Uggard will have to do most of the talking, which he obviously isn’t looking forward to, but, as I said, it goes surprisingly smoothly.
Apparently, things have heated up faster than we expected. There’s barely anyone out on the castle grounds, and when Uggard says that the King sent us to interrogate the prisoners as to the Prince’s whereabouts, they’re too busy to question us further. Something about missing soldiers. I want to stop to listen in some more, but Uggard is desperate, and I can understand his worries without him having to say a word. With things going crazy like this, it’s more and more likely that the King will decide to just get rid of anyone that could be a problem. That includes all his captive friends.
When we arrive at their cell, cell 17Q, I’m surprised to realize that it’s the exact cell we were trapped in for two months. Of course, the cells around it have also been utilized since there are around thirty men in here, but Blix and four other men are in the one we’d been in, and they’re taking turns trying to leverage an old belt buckle against the slightly filed through bar.
“Faladel?” Blix says, “and Talk? What are you doing here?”
“We’re breaking you out.” I say before Uggard can stutter out an answer. If Briareth was here, he’d probably say something like ‘returning the favor.’ I think ironically to myself. As I take out the key and help unlock all the cells, I wonder about why Istere was trying to separate Briareth and I like that. He would have been much more suited to a mission like this, and it looks like she knew it. He’ll tell me if anything important happens. I reassure myself.
We slowly send the guards out, twos and threes, just a few more soldiers moving around in the chaos. It was my idea, and Blix was able to set up an emergency signal in case one of them gets noticed as a PPG member. Almost none of them were in their uniforms when they were captured, they were taken from their barracks, dressed in their nightclothes. Blix and I decided to hold all the uniformed ones back until the end. Better a few dwarves who looked like they slept-in wandering around then a couple obviously escaped prisoners walking out.
Once most of the dwarves have left, he taps me on the shoulder, and leads me off to one corner of the room.
“We have a problem.” He says
“Yes, a lot of problems.” I confirm.
“No, a more serious problem.” He says, “Lord Yamat has summoned all soldiers that secretly bear allegiance to him instead of to the king, that’s why so many are missing, that’s why the castle’s all freaked out.”
“There’s a bit more that the castle’s freaking out about, you missed quite a bit while you were locked up in here.” I say, and then frown, the full weight of what he just said hitting me. “Why would Lord Yamat want all his soldiers?”
My brain races in the background as Blix says something about him not knowing, big things going on, and I tune him out.
Yamat, Agnark, the church finding out about Istere’s identity. That all made sense, but there were new pieces now. I’d done research while stuck in the study behind the library. I’d figured out most of the major players on the dwarven political chessboard. Yamat, although they had branches pretty much everywhere, were the only ones who ran the news and the propaganda stream for the throne.
My brain jumps to another topic, getting ahead of itself. Ludgera would never have betrayed us, she had no reason. But she must have been upset. After all, because of her boyfriend’s betrayal, she lost out on a very nice deal that would have seated her neatly as one of the richest ladies in dwarven territory in a very short amount of time. If she’d guilt-tripped him, or tried to get back on our good side somehow, so that Istere would keep up her end of the bargain, how would she go about doing it?
My thoughts finally catch up to where my gut knew they were going. What if, they’d done something? Ludgera turned Agnark around. They could probably get the information on the paper, some of it they would already know. Agnark had all the information his father was privy to, especially since his father would trust him after he betrayed his secret sweetheart to rat us out. And now, right after the paper rains down all over the area, incriminating both the King and the church, who are allies with Yamat…
If Lord Yamat’s brain has any function other than controlling his body, he’d either be using this chaos to stage a revolt and grab the crown for himself, or getting revenge on his traitorous child, or both. Depending on his priorities.
Agnark and Ludgera could be in danger right now and not know it.
“We need to go tell them.” I say aloud.
“Tell who?” Blix asks, not following my trail of reasoning.
“Agnark, Ludgera, they’re trying to make it up to us, gave us a golden opportunity to stage a coup. Cast the King in such a bad light that he’ll never recover completely. Lord Yamat has probably figured out that they’re the ones behind it. He may try for revenge.”
“Why is that our problem?” Blix asks.
“Because we owe them. We can’t just let them die.” I say. Blix hesitates, thinking it over. I hope I’ve convinced him. It would be awfully hard to find Ludgera Tirade’s house on my own. Especially without getting noticed.
Uggard Talk must have been listening in silently again. That seems to be a particular talent of his, disappearing in plain sight.
“His Highness wanted some people to go and help the author of the pamphlet anyway, and I was supposed to go to the King next and request an audience. We can save time by splitting up here.” He suggests. “You go warn the author, this Agnark Ludgera fellow. I’ll report back to His Highness once I’ve successfully set up a meeting with the King.” I’m flummoxed for a brief second, and then remember that not everybody knows that Istere is a female, and Uggard probably misheard and didn’t realize that there were two authors. Probably. I could be wrong about Agnark and Ludgera being the authors, but my gut and brain say I’m right.
Blix makes his decision, and I smile, seeing in his eyes the answer before his mouth even opens. “If His Highness says we should go to the authors, let’s go to the authors.”
“Wait, authors, plural? That wasn’t one name?” Uggard says, finally catching on.
We wait. Briareth paces. Istere stews. I try to concentrate on a book. This study is simply full of them, but I’m too wired up. Where are Faladel, Uggard and Blix? They should have been back by now. We should have heard something.
All heads twist towards the door as there’s a timid knock on the other side. Istere goes and opens it. “Your Highness, there you are, we’ve been looking for you all over the place.” A voice says. Briareth and I head over as well. It’s not Faladel, Blix, and Uggard, but it’s someone.
“Weren’t most of you captured?” Istere asks, suspicious, despite the fact that the person is wearing the PPG uniform and looks vaguely familiar.
“We were Your Highness.” The man confirms. “Uggard, and a strange guy– I didn’t recognize him but he was oddly tall. They rescued us, talked with Blix for a bit, and then the tall guy and Blix took off. Uggard disappeared after that, and well…” His voice trails off. I see his adam’s apple bob as he swallows. “One of Your Father’s personal guards left this for you. The man said to make sure you received it.”
He holds out an oddly shaped package, wrapped in a brown leather bag with ominous stains on it. Istere’s gaze hardens, and with a swift order to “Stand guard here until I call for you.” She takes the package, and closes the door in his face.
Through the door we hear a muffled, “Yes Your Highness.”
Istere swiftly carries the package to the table and rips off the leather bag. Beneath it lies Uggard’s severed head, his face twisted in a painful scream for all of eternity. A note slips out and starts drifting to the floor, but Istere snatches it and reads it aloud.
“We will meet, and on the terms you suggested, but never forget who holds the real power in this castle. See you in thirty minutes in the Throne Room.” She crumples the note in one fist, hatred rising in her face. “Very soon that power you hold dear will be stripped from you, Dad.” She hisses, practically spitting the final word.
The city streets are a mess. People are shouting, things are being thrown at anyone who looks associated with the guard. Riots. Mobs. More than a few fires are burning. The normally smoggy air is made even worse by the smoke. It’s difficult to breathe, and the crowds make it impossible to run. We can’t even take to the roofs, the risk is too great. Upset people do crazy things, and these people are more than upset, they’re furious, they’re scared, and they’re armed.
I just consider it lucky enough that Blix had the bright idea to change us into commoner’s clothes and out of our uniforms before we left. Otherwise we’d be like the soldiers in these streets, either running around, desperately trying to regroup, or dead like the dwarf I just stepped on. I feel my facial muscles twist in disgust and fight the urge to retch. Normally, violence like this wouldn’t faze me at all. I’ve fought on the front lines. I’ve seen my share of death and blood. I’ve felt my share of loss.
But the stench of blood, combined with the smoke and the ever-constant smog of Abahak, along with the knowledge that this death was probably useless? Now that’s sickening.
It takes hours to get to the townhouse of Ludgera Tirade’s parents. Luckily for Ludgera and Agnark, the Tirades aren’t a large noble family, which means the mobs have bigger, wealthier houses to focus on looting and burning. It also helps that they are on the very edge of the city, right next to its wall and main gate, most of the violence is in the center, nearer to the castle. If they could get past the castle walls and the soldiers which have probably gathered to guard them, I daresay the mobs would already be in the castle itself.
However, the Tirades have other problems to worry about. Like I feared, and like I suspected, Lord Yamat wants to make good on his revenge. Troops surround the small manor, and although they’re dressed like castle guards, one of them, a dwarf on horseback, carries the insignia of house Yamat on a flag nearby. The Unending Eyes. The servants are corralled in one section, being watched by a large portion of the fifty or so soldiers here. One of them has had to be physically restrained, but she’s still kicking and screaming through the hand over her mouth, and only gets louder and more violent when she sees us.
But the main attraction of this display of power is Lord Valdkin Yamat himself, sitting tall and proud on horseback. In front of his horse, on bended knees, arms tied behind their backs, but with fire still lit in their eyes are Agnark and Ludgera.