In the end, I don’t get Albert, or Albreth as I suppose he’s been named back. I bury my sorrow in busy work– preparations for our trip mostly. There’s plenty to do after all. Supplies and gifts have to be packed, along with our weapons. I have to plan our route, alert the larger towns along it that Faladel might want to stop at, and find the perfect balance between bringing too much food and not enough food.
I have new respect for Faladel’s competence after arguing with three different Town Heads via letter about resupplying stops and how and when payment for those supplies should be delivered. There are still some thieves active in the region, so I’m loath to send the money ahead, but they don’t want to put supplies aside for us without upfront payment. And I haven’t even tried convincing the cooks here in the palace to supply me yet!
Somehow I think they’ve gotten it into their heads that I’m not to be trusted. I wonder why. I mean, I always clean up after myself, and I even leave them little samples of my creations!
Technically, Faladel probably only had to deal with the cooks, because we didn’t stop by any towns on our last visit to the Librarian, still the planning that goes into an adventure is no joke.
I stop poring over our route on another map and stretch, feeling my muscles groan and pop in protest. I need to move. Grabbing more strongly worded letters to the various Town Heads, I leave my office, briefly glancing at the abandoned mongoose cage on my way out. I have to take care of it eventually, but some part of me hopes, that if I keep it up for long enough, Albreth will appear in it one day, squeaking in excitement as I walk back in to give him a snake or something that I found.
When I’m on my way back from the Postmaster’s Zydon alerts me that the King was looking for me, and I instantly revise my plans for the afternoon. Using my spectacular guesswork abilities, I quickly narrow down the places he and the Queen might be at this time.
My third try is my final one as well, as I walk in on them talking to Faladel.
“–Your Father, Briareth, and I came up with a small surprise for you.” The Queen was saying. “We know you’ve been working hard on your preparations for kingship, and we certainly appreciate your efforts, but we want you to know–” She breaks off, seeing me in the doorway.
“Uh… If you guys are busy, I can come back.” I say, pointing to the door.
“No, you can stay. You can share your plans with him.”
“Plans for what?” Faladel asks, seemingly half worried and half amused already.
I walk up to join them. The room isn’t large, just another sitting room in a palace full of rooms. It’s simultaneously cozy and airy because of an open ceiling to the warm sun above. The branches above have been trimmed and guided away to allow shafts of sunlight to permeate it throughout most of the afternoon. It’s one of the King’s favorite off-duty relaxation rooms, and an excellent nap spot.
“Well for the Faladel Fun-Plan Extravaganza of course.” I reply, having come up with the name on the spot. I glance at the King. “What does extravaganza mean again? It sounds right, so I used it, but now I’m having second thoughts.”
The King struggles to keep a straight face. “It’s like a party or a spectacle. So, not really the right word.”
I frown. “Well, then, we’ll just shorten it to Faladel Fun-plan. Although that doesn’t sound nearly as interesting. Basically–” I turn to my best friend. “We’re off on another adventure! No more paperwork for a few months at least! Think of it as a vacation.”
There is a flash of startled confusion and incomprehension in Faladel’s eyes, but he recovers quickly. “But what about the peace anniversary festival?” He asks, “What about the Diplomatic summit that was going to happen in two months? How long is this vacation going to last?” He glances at the King and Queen, “Are you okay with this? Did you help him plan it?”
“We approved it.” The Queen says diplomatically, watching Faladel for his reaction.
We all watch Faladel for his reaction. It takes a few seconds, and he isn’t looking at us while he thinks about it. His gaze darts around the room, and then above all of us. Eventually, he takes a breath, meets my eyes, and says, “As long as it won’t cause anyone too much trouble, I think I’d like that.” A small smile, tiny but true, forms on his face. “Where are we going?”
I grin at him “Let me go get my maps!”
Briareth chatters at me eagerly, showing off all the maps and notes in his office on how things are going to work out. It’s clear he’s proud of how far he’s thought ahead, but I can’t do much more than nod and smile. My head is too busy whirling with thoughts. First that strange, heart wrenching conversation I overheard, now a plan that gets me out of Heronmal for at least two months? Is there something I’m not seeing here? Their words and actions aren’t matching up. Something is going on here, but whether it is sinister, or sincere, I can’t tell for the life of me.
Eventually, as Briareth looks at me with expectant eyes, and I realize he actually wants a response, I come to a decision. I’ll probably regret this, but I just want everything to feel right again. The last time things felt right– that I felt I could smile wide and sincerely with everyone watching– was when Briareth and I arrived triumphantly in Heronmal, the peace treaty packed safely away in a sealed case, ready to be presented at court. So, I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth any further. I’ll just accept this vacation at face value. And if I come back in time to see my throne taken from me? My parents gift wrapping it and handing it to someone ‘responsible and levelheaded’? Well, I’ll deal with that then.
Briareth is still grinning at me, my decision having taken only a second or two. He’s still waiting for an answer. I smile back, as realistically as possible. “Hold your horses, Briareth, I still need to delegate my tasks and paperwork for when I’m away. There’s no way we can leave tomorrow. Perhaps next weekend though?”
“Oh, your parents can take care of that.” Briareth says, waving a hand dismissively. “And it really has to be tomorrow. That’s the only way we’ll deliver the money to the towns in time so that we can resupply properly. Unless of course, you’d rather hunt constantly like last time, and just skip the visits to the towns altogether. That could also work I’d suppose…” He trails off thoughtfully, and then snaps his fingers. “Oh, but then you wouldn’t be able to drum up support in the rural towns! And that was the whole point of taking this route!”
My answering chuckle hides a sigh. No looking a gift vacation in the mouth. I remind myself. Although it already is beginning to feel less like a vacation and more like yet another parade of bureaucracy. Nevertheless, I begin helping Briareth draft notices of departure and requests for supplies from the castle stores.
Throughout the next twenty-four hours of desperate planning and editing of said plans; letters, requests, and edits of said requests being sent; and far far too much binging of some delectable cheesecake; Faladel seems to display real excitement. Unfortunately for him, it still doesn’t convince me. He’s still not normal Faladel yet. Normal Faladel would have at least mentioned some of the flaws that his parents had pointed out. Normal Faladel would have stressed over things that couldn’t be fixed to the point of me teasing him mercilessly. Now that I’m looking for it, it’s kinda obvious that he’s putting on a second layer of acting. Normal Faladel is trying to behave like prince Faladel who is trying to behave like normal Faladel, and it’s not convincing at all. Just weird.
I have no clue what brought this change about, if it’s actually here, or if Faladel is just secretly infecting me with his overthinking-things-plague. But I will get down to the bottom of this. I will make Faladel feel better, whether he likes it or not.
But first, I have to finish my fifteenth slice of cake. And then get to that farewell feast thing. Although, I probably won’t have room to eat anything.
The party takes place in one of the largest halls in the palace. Long tables take up half the room, and the other half is a dance floor, swimming with floor length dresses and formal wear of every type. It was a rather last minute affair, but there is still lots of good food and a surprising number of people here to see their prince off. Of course, Faladel’s parents have labeled this as an official information gathering mission– only a few trusted council members and the dwarven ambassador knows the real truth. The rest think it is to scout the perimeter of our world to find a good spot to mine for a newly discovered mineral called Ayline. I think it’s being used in some of the magical gadgets that Adamar’s family keeps coming up with, but I don’t know the details.
However, since I’m playing the part of a mineral expert on this mission, I make up a lot of explanations for people on the spot.
“It is quite rare to find this ore in such a pure quality.”
“We believe we have found stones that contain innate magic, and the Prince’s talents make him uniquely suited to confirming such a suspicion.”
“We suspect they are not stones at all, but dragon eggs.”
When yet another young lady asks me why Faladel of all people has to go on this mission I finally catch on.
“You know, you’re the fifth person to ask me that tonight.” I tell her. “He has to go because he represents the interests of the crown. And, his presence signifies the crown’s great interest in gaining access and funding this project, so that one family doesn’t end up monopolizing it and selling it at obscenely high prices.” I push my fake glasses further up my nose in a studious and vaguely supercilious way. “Is there a special reason you and the others wish him to remain here?”
The girl colors and shakes her head, confirming my suspicions. Faladel must seem like quite the eligible bachelor right now. Mature and responsible heir apparent. I’m surprised I never noticed it earlier. No wonder all these ladies are disappointed he’s leaving.
I sip my cocktail slowly, trying for a scholarly vibe as I plot out how much I should tease him about this recent development.
The party finishes surprisingly quickly, and Faladel and I head out the morning after. I was delighted by the chaos and confusion of questions at the party that I could lie to with ease, but absolutely exuberant once we’re on the road again. The only thing keeping me from galloping on ahead is Myrddin’s tired plodding along. If anyone had to guess who went to a party last night between me and him, the answer definitely wouldn’t be me. He looks decidedly hungover for a horse. But time and tide wait for no man– err… mustang? Although I’m not quite convinced horses and tides go together, or that tides actually have anything to do at all with our departure for that matter, I let the thought go, sidling up to Faladel.
He is smiling as he waves back at the last few children following us out of Heronmal.
“You excited?” I ask him.
He turns to me, and my heart sinks slightly as I recognize the smile that he shoots me. “Is it that obvious?” He asks, tilting his head slightly. “It’s been quite a while since I’ve been able to visit the more rural towns. Not to mention, Ayline properties have been a research topic of mine for a few years now. It will be interesting to see the ore in its unrefined form.”
It takes me a few seconds to get what he’s implying with that wordage. And then a few more seconds to realize that that head tilt was supposed to direct my gaze to two golden orbs following us calmly.
I feel a rise of malicious spite, and calmly, after considering my actions and their potential consequences for exactly zero seconds, whip out a few arrows and shoot them down.
Bullseye! Well, annoying little golden orb eyes at any rate.
“Briareth!” Exclaims a shocked Faladel, but then he stutters, apparently unable to find the words to scold me with.
“Whoops!” I exclaim loudly, in case there are any more of those dratted things. “I missed the deer.”
Faladel opens and closes his mouth a few more times before just shaking his head, not willing to reveal that I actually shot the things on purpose when more could be watching. “You have to be more careful, Briareth.” he finally says, around thirty minutes or so later down the road.
“Oh I will be.” I say cheerily. I’ll be very careful to shoot all of them down. I could even make a game of it! Shoot the annoying orbs that I just realized have probably been responsible for ninety percent of Faladel’s stress the past few years! I was such an idiot to not realize that these things would be plaguing him constantly. It’s not like the King and Queen could teach him the spell that disrupts their enchantments, he can’t use magic after all! And I don’t know it because I never thought I’d need it. But I’ll make up for it. Whenever they follow us from the towns, I’ll simply get rid of them and make it look like an accident. Although I concede, staring at my friend as he lets his conflicted emotions finally play out over his face. I should probably do it where he can’t see it.
I grin to myself, accepting the self imposed addendum. A game isn’t fun without some challenges. Now I just need to make up a points system.
“You have been awfully inaccurate of late.” Faladel says, drinking some of our precious chamomile tea supply as he leans against one of the trees at our evening campsite. The stress on the word inaccurate immediately alerts me to his actual meaning. Being on the road for a few weeks together has really clued me in to some of his doublespeak.
“Oh, you don’t really mean that.” I say waving my hand dismissively. The fire is beginning to die down, and it’s nearly time for bed. I know I’m more than ready for it. We traveled pretty far today, Faladel had seemed to want to get as far away from the last town as possible. Was he trying to outpace the orbs? Clearly, he’s not sure if it worked or not. “You can talk normally.” I say, making a snap decision to clue him in. The game was getting boring anyway. “I got rid of all those annoying orb things earlier.”
“What?!” Faladel exclaims, instantly sitting upright. “Wait, when?” His brow is furrowed. “You did it while scouting?” He guesses, but it sounds more like an accusation. I shrug at him.
“There were only a few left, not many people rich enough in these parts to own one. It was easy.” I neither confirm or deny his suspicions, but that doesn’t really matter at this point.
“You can’t just destroy the watchers Briareth, they’re expensive pieces of equipment! They belong to someone! That’s vandalism!”
I shrug, and start setting up my pallet for bed. “If they didn’t send them to spy on us, I would totally agree with you Faladel. But…” I shoot him a grin “as any good intelligencer knows, spying missions can be dangerous. Any sort of accident could happen to them. Them all getting shot in the lens by arrows shouldn’t be too unexpected. And between you and me, I think my shots are actually getting better! Practice makes perfect after all!” I shoot him a cheeky wink, before laying down.
Faladel only sighs, but I can hear his smile in the sigh, and he puts out the fire.
After our next town visit, and my subsequent scouting operation, Faladel brings up the topic again. We’re sitting around another evening’s fire. This time, I’ve got the chamomile tea, but I’m nearly finished with it. He’s sharpening his sword, not like he’s had anything to use it on, but I suppose it’s always better to be prepared in Faladel’s book. When he opens his mouth to start, I’m expecting the protests this time, and I have my replies ready.
“It really isn’t right Briareth.” He says, running his whetstone over the blade in a smooth, practiced motion. “They have full legality to follow me around and record what I’m doing.”
“Yeah. I never granted them that right though.” I say, taking one last gulp of my tea. “And by following you around, they’re also following me around. Besides, the accident excuse is foolproof!”
“How many have you destroyed now?” Faladel asks, raising an eyebrow
“Twenty-four” I reply promptly. I definitely have been counting. “And not one got away! It’s honestly surprising that there were that many in the six towns we’ve been to. There have been less in the last two, but I suppose that’s only to be expected for more rural towns. Not a lot happens here to be documented.”
“Or, they are just getting better at hiding.” Faladel says, sheathing his sword. “And what happens to your ‘accident’ logic when you miss a few on your scouting trips and they record you saying things like that? There goes your alibi!” He throws his hands in the air in exasperation, and I watch in barely concealed delight. This is the Faladel I know and can get riled up so easily. He’s letting his guard down again, becoming normal Faladel.
“Actually.” I say, pleased to prove him wrong. “They are getting worse at hiding. I bet there handlers have never had to do true stealth missions before. Again, not much need to here I suppose.”
“Exactly.” Faladel snaps his fingers at me as if he’s won a point. “The people who own these watchers aren’t even the reporters really, just private citizens who are curious about my life. You’re destroying something they possibly spent months of savings on to procure.”
I snort at this logic. “And trained themselves how to use? Not likely.”
“Well, it would explain the drop in proficiency perfectly.” Faladel says, which is a surprisingly good point. “And,” He continues, as we both start setting up our pallets. “I’d assume they come with user manuals. The Erhorns are usually good about that sort of public communication. Or perhaps, some people are more talented with it, like how Adamar could use that little device of his to spy on people. In fact, I wonder if that technology was the prototype for the watchers.” He stops, staring off into the endless trees that surround us, but then dismisses whatever he thought he saw.
I think the idea that soon everyone will be able to do what Adamar does is a very disturbing thought, but as soon as I open my mouth to question him further on that topic, he moves on. “Anyways, my point still stands. You can’t keep destroying these willy-nilly Briareth, these are now months worth of savings that you waste with every arrow.” He stretches out into his now familiar watch position. We’re getting closer to the place where we were attacked by bandits last time, and we certainly aren’t keen to repeat the experience. So he takes the first watch, and I’ll take the second.
“Oh, I think I can.” I reply without hesitation “ And I will, Faladel. It’s not like the King can’t afford to replace them. He’s done it before without hesitation.” I shrug, remembering an incident that happened a few days after my secret meeting with their Majesties. The former owner of some of the orbs had been ready to pick a fight and had come with all the paperwork in hand. The King had just handed him the money and shooed him away without even looking at anything besides his reporter’s license. The memory of the befuddled look on the guy’s face still brings a smile to mine. Faladel’s shocked look only broadens it.
I put the final nail in my argument with my next words as I climb into my pallet.
“Besides Faladel. Your parents and I said we’d send you on vacation from Prince-ing. It’d wouldn’t really count as a vacation if you’re being watched constantly, now would it?”
Faladel doesn’t respond for a second. I grin and close my eyes, knowing somewhere inside he agrees with me. Shooting them down might not be completely in the right, but it’s the best defense we have against the– watchers was his name for them I think.
It’s a fitting name.
“If you’re not here to watch me constantly, then what are you here for?” Faladel asks suddenly, breaking into the near silence of the chirping crickets.
I groan and turn over. I can’t ever have the last word with him can I?
The next town we visit is one of the towns I was having trouble with in my letters. It is the last of the towns on our path, and really, more a group of houses in an empty glade in the forest than a real town. They only have one street, one tavern, and one general store.
Although strangers riding in should surely ring peoples mental alarms, nobody comes out to greet us. I’m sure it’s not because we look too frightening. We’re just two people! I’m nearly out of arrows and Faladel is skinny as a twig. Other options slowly occur to me. Something caused them to flee? But there’s no way these rural people would just give up and leave town without at least damaging some of their houses in a fight. Perhaps, if they were one of the ones with agreements with the bandits, someone broke the treaty? Still, there should be signs of a fight. At least one broken window or an arrow stuck in a door. Faladel slows his horse down, a mare named Ethiel, and Myrddin follows suit, sniffing at the air cautiously.
“An illusion town?” he asks.
I snort softly, crushing my own sense of foreboding. “Illusion towns are bedtime stories. Nobody’s skilled enough to make a whole illusion of a town anymore. And besides, this isn’t nearly big enough to get lost in for eternity. Here, I’ll go knock on a door to prove it’s real if you want.”
Faladel seems content to leave it at that. But Myrddin won’t leave well enough alone. He tilts his head back at me, meeting me eye to eye, and there is a challenge in his brown ones. “What?” I ask him. “Don’t think I’d do it?” Myrddin doesn’t say anything, but I can read him well enough.
“I accept your challenge!” I tell him, and hop off, heading towards the tavern that we’d been planning on spending the night at.
“Briareth?” Faladel calls after me in confusion. “What are you doing?!”
In between small cracks in the boarded up windows, I see something I hadn’t been able to from horseback. Light. Muffled voices drift out to me. There are people here, they’ve just been ignoring us. But why?
I rap soundly on the door, miffed that even for a second they had made Faladel and I wonder if this was an illusionary town. Nobody comes to the door, but I notice a sudden silence from inside the building. Waiting a few more seconds, I rap on the door again, conscious that both Faladel and Myrddin have halted and are watching me.
Slowly, the door creaks open, and a weathered, dirty looking Elf peers out at us. He surveys Faladel and I, practically glaring. “No rooms.” he spits, and makes to shut the door. I jam my boot in the gap, wincing slightly as the heavy oak collides with my foot. That will definitely bruise.
“You don’t look that busy to me.” I say peering around him and inside at the mostly drunken crowd that stares back. “No travelers at any rate, and surely none of the locals need rooms for the night.”
“No rooms.” The man only repeats.
I sigh. “Look, if it’s a matter of money–” I begin, ready to defend my reluctance to send coin ahead of us.
“Yer coin’s no good here.” The man shakes his head. “There’s just no rooms to be had.” I stare at him, more ready and willing to debate this as long as I need to. He’s obviously lying, which pisses me off, and he’s not even trying to make it a good lie, which is even more annoying, but what really infuriates me ist that I don’t know why!
Instead of meeting my gaze though, the man is staring past me, back towards the horses. Back towards Faladel. I feel my brows slant downwards, and my gaze turn to a glare.
“So you’re saying that even if I pay double for a single night, there’s not a room to be spared?” I ask, hefting my money bag. “Ahh well, I guess I’ll have to ask the other townsfolk if they have any spare beds.”
The dirty man’s eyes flick back to me immediately at the jingle of coins from the bag, and he shifts his feet, opening the door slightly wider. Faladel, finally seeing him, dismounts and comes over as I continue, “However, I am loath to sleep in a bed I don’t trust to be cleaned properly by a real establishment. Perhaps, would triple do?” I look at him, the greed is now clearly visible in his eyes, but I feign not to see it and sigh helplessly. “But I suppose, if there’s truly no beds to be had here…” I trail off invitingly, and the man doesn’t disappoint. “We might be able to fit yeh in here, but not your friend. His type ain’t welcome.”
Only now does it hit me, and my eyes narrow. This is a political statement. I glance over at Faladel, trying to gauge his reaction. A little ‘o’ of surprise rings his mouth. He clearly wasn’t expecting the man to be so blunt.
“We kinda come as a pair.” I retort, trying to stare the man down, but he stares back, unwavering. His desire for money can only be tempted so much. I curse all the eyes in the tavern that are watching us. Without them, I’m sure he would give in to his greed. But for now, we are at a standstill.