We continue staring at each other long enough that it starts to get awkward. The men drinking inside the tavern go back to their games, cards, and cups. Noise swells, but I don’t even blink. It’s not illegal, what this tavern owner– no, what this whole town– is doing. I have no doubt that the other families living here will also refuse us bed and board for the night. Technically, they don’t have to provide us with services, with food and shelter, even if we have the coin to pay for it. It goes against everything I’ve been taught though, all the tenets of polite society!
I wouldn’t have minded nearly as much if they’d just informed Faladel and I ahead of time, sent us a flat ‘no’ as a response when I’d written to ask if we could pay them a visit on our way north. But instead, they toyed with us. This man, probably not the town leader, but at least their spokesperson for now, participated in the equivalent of a bait and switch, telling us in writing that the only problem might be in payment for goods, but now refusing to house us no matter how much we give him because of Faladel is the Prince. It is exactly the sort of thing that I was hoping to avoid, but now that it’s in my face, I can’t just back down and let it happen. But I can’t see any way to stop it either. Besides trying to take on everyone in this place, but even with all my training and Faladel and Myrddin at my side, I doubt we’d be able to get through the twenty men in the tavern. Considering the size of this town and how many men are in here, it looks like they were preparing for just that. A violent reaction.
Faladel suddenly places a hand on my shoulder. I’d forgotten that he’d gotten off his horse and approached us. “If there truly aren’t any rooms available for us, it’s no use scowling at the man.” He says, with good natured ease. “We can just camp outside of town, and move on in the morning. What’s one more night on the road after all?” Hand still holding my shoulder, gently but firmly, he steers me back towards the street.
“The beds probably have lice anyway.” I toss back over my shoulder, a lot less good naturedly. I notice, slightly surprised as I clamber on to Myrddin’s back, that Faladel doesn’t protest my cheap shot, which makes my still simmering anger flit to the back of my mind for a moment. What exactly is going on here? I think back on my memories, and yes, both Normal Faladel, and Prince Faladel would have protested that sort of response. Is there a third personality emerging? What should I call this one? I glance at the lone figure riding ahead of me out of the tiny town’s limits and into the quickly darkening woods. Unprotesting Faladel? Smoothing Faladel? I shake my head emphatically and frown. None of these names are good enough. They just don’t ring right. And I’m still to upset to give any ideas a proper thought, so I leave off there and jump to another train of thought, glaring at my horse.
“This is really all your fault.” I grumble down at him. Myrddin shakes his mane in disbelief– as if wondering how my brain jumped to that conclusion. But it is easy enough leap. “You were the one who dared me!” I accuse him. “If you hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have even touched the door. We would probably have continued through the town, and gone out the other side, easy as a lark!” He just rolls his eyes at me.
“Briareth?” Faladel asks, in evident confusion. “What were you saying? I don’t think I heard you right.”
“Oh, nothing.” I proclaim.”Just chatting with Myrddin.” He stares at me and my horse a bit longer, before urging his to continue onwards.
“I really don’t understand you sometimes.” He says quietly, probably not intending me to overhear him.
“Me too.” I mutter, meaning that I don’t understand him sometimes, not that I don’t understand me. I understand me perfectly well, but Faladel… Well, he gets so twisted up inside that I can’t make heads or tails of his outside!
Once it gets dark enough that it’s difficult to see the path before us, Faladel pulls his horse to a stop, and I stop behind him. We start up the quick routine of setting up camp for the night, and once we’re done I ask him the question that was left when all my anger had simmered away.
“Why did you just let them off easy?” I say, propping myself up against a nearby tree and popping my aching muscles. “I mean, we could have at least tried to make them respect us. Made it clear that they shouldn’t treat people like that. Shouldn’t treat you like that.”
“I can’t win every battle, Briareth.” Faladel says softly, and then turns to me, “But thank you for trying to fight for me.” There is a genuine smile on his face. I sigh, wanting to be mad at him for stopping me back there. Wanting to be mad at Myrddin for daring me. Wanting to be mad at myself for being mad enough to take a horse’s– even a very opinionated horse’s– dare. But I can’t be mad at any of us. It wouldn’t really be fair. The best I can do is be mad at the whole situation, and grumpily fall asleep.
A few more weeks pass slowly as the woods get less leafy and more needley. Eventually, we reach the river from last time, and use the large raft to bring us, the horses, and all of our supplies downstream. The water is cold, despite the summer warmth. Both of the horses are nervous, and we do our best to sooth them, but Myrddin distrusts both the rushing cold water beneath us and the flimsy looking raft. And it’s all Faladel can do to get his mare, Ethiel, back onto the raft after the first night off it. After a few hours of discussion, we decide to leave the raft at one of the small outposts along the river and continue on by horseback instead of unsettling our four-legged friends any further. Ethiel is a sweet creature, albeit one who is overly fond of red apples. Despite that, I don’t want to accidentally traumatize her or anything.
Faladel has been surprisingly quiet overall, slowly reverting from Prince Faladel to Normal Faladel the further we get away from the last town. The change is slow but steady. And at the end of it, at the base of the mountains that still have snow cresting their tops, he looks at me one evening and drops a minor mountain on me.
“I’m thinking of not running for Kingship, Briareth.” He says, as we both stare up at the stars through the needled branches. I’m so shocked, that I let him continue without comment. “I know you and my parents don’t really want me in the position. I’m not sure I understand why, I thought I was doing quite well.” At this nonsense my brain finally kicks back into motion and I jerk upright.
“Faladel–!” I begin to protest, but he holds up a hand, golden eyes not looking at me, but still reflecting the stars.
“Wait until I’m done, Briareth. Please. It’s not easy for me to lay bare my thoughts like this.” I clamp my jaw shut obediently, but it’s not easy to stay silent as he continues. “If you three, who know me best, don’t think I’m suited for the job, I found myself wondering if it was right to continue on. How long would it take until those who elected me felt disillusioned and disappointed in me? How long would it take me to fail so miserably that they wished I’d never taken the seat of power?” He sighed, and covered his eyes with his hands. “Being out here reminded me of something. Who I am back in the capital is just a persona. An act. Being like that for the rest of my life would be impossible. And if they elected that person, if I ever let the act fall, I would fail miserably to match up.” I gaped at him wordlessly. How did he get our thoughts so horribly horribly wrong, but with the right ending? It’s not that he would be bad for the country, it’s that the country would be bad for him!
“…So I’m thinking,” Faladel continues, and I realize belatedly, that I missed something. “That I just shouldn’t run at all. Say that I don’t wish to be King, so please don’t vote for me. I know it’s never been done before, and it might disgruntle people, but surely people won’t say ‘Yes, I want this person to take the throne.’ if they’ve already declared that they don’t want it. And it’s not like there aren’t plenty of other contenders.” He raises his hand from his eyes, to count them off on his fingers. “The heads of the Sarfina, Lorien, and the Magdove families to name a few, and of course the Erhorn family.” He glances at his fingers. “I’m sure there were more, but I can’t recall them just now, they’re not serious contenders at any rate.”
I’m aghast. “Adamar’s parents?” I say stupidly. “Those Erhorns?”
“Oh yes.” Faladel looks at me, confused by my sudden interjection. “I’m surprised you hadn’t caught on. They’ve been angling to be in the spotlight more for ages, trying to build up name recognition. It’s why they’ve been selling their inventions at a loss, so that they can reach more of the populace. And the fact that they wouldn’t allow their son to attend the peace anniversary celebration suggests that they’re either fully invested in his finals, or are working on something big and don’t want to risk anything messing it up.” He hesitates. “Although to me, Adamar never seemed like the type to accidentally spill secrets or act improperly. Perhaps he’s changed? It has been quite a while since we saw him last.”
“Nobody changes that much.” I mutter, as my mind whirls trying to absorb these new facts. “Faladel.” I finally break in through all the clutter, and cut straight back to the heart of the matter. “It’s not that your parents and I don’t think you would be a bad King–. ” I hesitate, and then just go for it. Better to betray his parents’ trust than to have him go on thinking they don’t approve. “Quite the opposite in fact. We just worry that being King might be bad for you.” I shift uncomfortably and lie back down. “It’s like you said, all acting, and you seemed less happy. Your parents and I got worried, so we talked together. And we came to a conclusion. Be selfish Faladel. Make the decision that you think is best for you. Not for the Kingdom, not for your people, what’s best for you. We’ll support you, whatever you choose.” I grin as I turn to face him. “I know this borders on treason, since I’m sworn to serve the country and all that, but I want you to be happy, more than I want someone I know to be good at the job on the throne. And” I drop my voice comically “I think your parents agree with me.”
“Be…” Faladel hesitates “Selfish?”
“Yep!” I confirm proudly. “Like me! Here’s an example; I really wanted to go on an adventure, so I convinced your parents that being away from the capital would be what’s best for you, in order to snag a vacation from the endless piles of paperwork!” Faladel snorts trying to suppress a laugh. He fails miserably as I continue breezily. “I mean, I had a good point there. But my main motivator was definitely adventure. You getting the time and space to learn your own mind was merely a convenient excuse to kidnap you.” I hesitate. “But is it really a kidnapping if you agreed to go with me? Even if it was under false pretenses?” I wonder aloud. “What do you think, Faladel?”
“Definitely a kidnapping.” Faladel gasps out between bouts of laughter.
“Well,” I say, self-righteously, “Let’s compromise and say I borrowed you without permission, since I always intended on returning you.” Faladel laughs so hard at this that I can see tears spilling down his face in the moonlight. Unable to hold back any longer, a grin splits my face and I join in his laughter. Myrddin snorts in annoyance, as if complaining to Ethiel about our disruptive behavior, and shakes his head disapprovingly. I only laugh harder.
We only stop when we are completely exhausted, and then Faladel says. “Thank you Briareth, I really think I needed that.”
“Anytime.” I reply, grinning up at the moon, quite proud of myself for how I handled that.
Just as I’m about to fall asleep, I think I hear Faladel murmur “be selfish?” And I feel sorry that it’s such a new concept to him.
The mountain trail is steep and rocky and, in some places, slippery, barely there, and quite sheer. Basically, it is quite difficult to navigate. But since we’ve come in summer, and have traversed this road before, we still make it to the Librarian’s hut without anyone suffering any serious injuries. Myrddin is more than a little upset by the lack of most grasses as we get higher up. The shrubbery up here isn’t to his liking at all, but Faladel and Ethiel seem quite content with their lot. I, for one, would be content if it wasn’t for something Faladel had said shortly after we hit the more barren sections of mountain.
“Briareth,” He had said. “I’ve been thinking things through, and I wanted to thank you again for what you said about me needing to be selfish. It really touched me.”
“No need to thank me.” I had grinned at him, “It’s just part of what I do, spout a lot of nonsense and a few gems when needed.”
“No,” Faladel had replied, giving the topic his normal serious consideration. “No, I don’t think you would have thought to say that in the past, Briareth. It used to be that you didn’t pick up on my emotions at all, let alone know the perfect thing to say.” I’d opened my mouth to protest but he continued hurriedly, “No offense meant, but you weren’t the person I’d go to if I needed emotional support. Lately however, it feels like you’re paying more attention to the people around you instead of to your crazy chains of thoughts.”
I’d stared at him in uncomprehending shock, and Myrddin had nearly stumbled on a stone. Faladel had turned to look at us. “Is everything alright Briareth?”
“Umm… Yep. Completely fine!” I’d replied as my brain was set awhirl in a new mess of thoughts.
That thought-filled hurricane had bugged me the rest of the trip up here. Surely I hadn’t changed that much. I would have noticed, right? Somebody else would have mentioned it to me before now. I mean, I know I would have mentioned it if I had noticed it. But does that just prove what Faladel had asked? That I’m becoming more observant, and less spontaneous?
I don’t want to be less spontaneous!
As I dismount Myrddin, I stroke his nose and whisper to him. “If I ever get too boring and predictable, you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?” Myrddin nickers, and I can’t tell if he’s assenting or laughing at me. I wrinkle my nose at him in response, and follow Faladel into the familiar, tiny ramshackle hut. The sign outside still reads “No Charlatans, but adventurers welcome” in scratchy handwriting. The driftwood exterior only looks marginally more stable than last time, but the interior has changed completely. Instead of being dusty and abandoned, with only a few signs of life, it is now warm and inviting. The bed is made; the floor is swept. There is a small dresser at the foot of the bed that balances a vase of flowers and a bowl of dice and small stones. A fire blazes away in the hearth, and the smell of baked potatoes fills the air. The hole that leads into the depths of the mountain with the actual library is covered by a magnificent tapestry depicting a group of people fighting an enormous creature that has a single large eye and extra eyes on the ends of its multiple tentacles. The table is set for three, as if expecting us. And, rocking in a small chair, is the librarian. His long hair is in an elaborate braid that leaves out only his bangs, his robes are red and purple with a silver embroidery that looks suspiciously like his hair color, and he’s crocheting a doily– doing a quite good job of it actually!
“I hope you brought your dice this time,” He says without looking up at us, “Because I need you both to roll strength saving throws.”
Faladel, quickly removes his dice from his pocket. We’d been expecting this, so I’d been sure to pack some, but mine are still in my backpack and while Faladel tosses his simple wooden die onto the floor between us and the Librarian, I fumble around in my bag and am knocked over by a curious Myrddin who stubbornly tries to follow me inside. Faladel manages to stand his ground however, and doesn’t fall over.
“Excuse you!” The Librarian says angrily, pointing his crocheting needle towards us– no, wait, past us., “didn’t you read the sign! It says, plain as day, no charlatans. So, go on, shoo! There’s nothing for your lot here!” Myrddin retreats glumly and I stare after him curiously. No way is he a charlatan, perhaps the Librarian has mistaken him for some other horse? The door slams right in front of me, causing me to jump slightly.
“Excellent, now that that nasty business is over with,” The Librarian’s silver eyes sparkle delightedly. “Would anyone like a cup of tea?”
After having us all sit down and pouring tea for Faladel, and himself– I had declined– the Librarian inspects our dice with a highly critical eye. He shaves the edges slightly with a far too sharp butter knife and re-carves the tiny little numbers in them, before dunking them all in his teacup and removing them one by one. Each emerges looking like it has had a lovely resin finish added. Faladel’s set now has a dark reddish tinge to the simple wood, and mine appears slightly greener. “So you can tell your sets apart.” The Librarian explains, handing them back to us and sipping from his teacup. I blink, trying and failing not to wonder if he’ll get splinters in his tongue.
He waves off my worries with a brisk flick of his hand. “Oh, I’ll be fine Briareth Herbalar. Now what are you and Faladel Mithrandir doing here? I saw what you did with the peace treaty, it was quite a nice kettle of fish, but I didn’t expect you back for at least another year. That’s when the fun is really supposed to begin.” He sips his tea, frowns, and clicks his fingers, sparking a flame that he holds underneath the cup.
“Wait– did you just read my mind?” I ask at the same time as Faladel says “Why, what happens next year?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out.” the Librarian says, and I’m not quite sure who he’s responding to. “Please, if you want anything more than tea, roll those D20s for persuasion. Don’t worry, I’ll calculate your new modifiers. You each have leveled up a bit since we last met.”
I roll, and Faladel rolls. The dice bounce and spin, clacking prettily against the solid oaken table. I remember that higher numbers are better and cross my fingers hopefully. When both dice finally stop, they each have twelves. I frown. This won’t be easy.
The Librarian raises an eyebrow. “Not great, but you both have acceptable modifiers, so it will be enough. Now, are either of you going to answer my question, or are you going to continue to focus on things you cannot change?” Faladel glances up at him, looking startled, and I jerk my disappointed gaze away from the dice.
“I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten the question.” Faladel says, “Could you remind me?”
The Librarian smiles, but with his teeth sharpened to points, it feels more threatening than kindly. “But of course, Princeling, I was asking why you are here.”
I break in, eager to tell my tale of woeful boredom and explain my brilliant thinking. “Well first, it was all my idea. You see, I remembered what you said about leading people to the outside world previously. It was Smay and HeadMaster Haulding that you guided, right? It took me ages to remember that you had said his first name– Morthose– and to also figure out that when you said he was dead you didn’t necessarily mean dead-dead, because Smay was ‘dead’ but wasn’t really dead because we met him after you all traveled together, and he was certainly alive then.”
The Librarian stares at me, sharp teeth still bared in a smile, and raises one eyebrow, and my chattering dies off for a second. That grin is really intimidating. “Back on topic though. I was terribly bored because peace means a lot less top secret super dangerous missions, so I started looking into traveling to the world outside our own. What it would take, how I could convince the King and Queen.” I am struck by a blast of brilliance and improvise. “I remembered what you said about both elves and dwarves running out of food and needing more land in previous times of peace and used that to convince them. Since Faladel also needed a break from court life, and it could help everyone as a whole, the King decided to fund the expedition.” Increase the importance of some facts, decrease the importance of others, lying really isn’t that difficult.
“Go on.” The Librarian prods, and, after a quick breath– goodness those baked potatoes smell good– I continue. “So Faladel and I set out to get back here. No robbers this time around, not a lot of trouble at all actually. And we were hoping you could show us the way to that outside world that both you and Smay spoke of.”
The Librarian sips his tea quietly, behind him the fire crackles and a log falls with a muffled thump. His silver eyes appear to be looking at me, but they don’t reflect me, they don’t reflect anything. “It is strange.” He begins, “That you should feel bored in times such as these. Please, roll me a Persuasion and a separate Deception check.
I flinch, but comply. How did he notice? Do I have a tick I don’t know about, or is this more of the mind reading?
My first roll is a respectable 17, and my second is an 8. The Librarian wrinkles his nose, but doesn’t call me out on my lie, which I suppose means I succeeded even with an 8. Looking up at us, he says “Your memory is impressive, Briareth Herbalar. I wasn’t expecting you to make the connection with Morthose Haulding all these years later. I just have one question for you. Why didn’t you ask him for help? You were one of his pupils, right?” From a pocket in his tunic, he pulls out a small pouch. It’s so tiny he can only fit a few fingers in the top. Reaching inside it, he pulls out a thin scroll that unravels to a paper nearly the length of my forearm. “Yes, that’s what it says here. Former student at Morthose’s school.”
I stare at him, flabbergasted both by the fact that he has a file on me, and by the fact that I didn’t think of that sooner.
“It doesn’t matter if you didn’t consider it.” The Librarian says airly. “It wouldn’t have worked anyway. He doesn’t do things like that anymore, being dead takes it’s toll on a player you see.”
“I thought we already established that he was still alive?” I ask, confused about the player bit, but putting that aside as a whole different conversation. I don’t think I want to know about his relationship habits.
“Alive to you doesn’t mean alive to me.” the Librarian explains. “And that’s all I’m allowed to say on the subject.” He pauses for a second, lifts his teacup to his lips again, freezes, and then exclaims “The Potatoes!” Leaping to his feet, he knocks over the chair in his haste to get to the fire. His purple robes stream and flutter out behind him as he runs over to the hearth and summoning tongs out of nowhere begins to pluck through the ashes.
“Hot! Hot! Hot!” He hisses softly as he juggles three potatoes, still wrapped in their skins and brings them over to the table. Placing one on each of our plates he succinctly dumps his fingers in his now cooled tea. “Ahh…” He sighs. “Much better.” Glancing up at us through his long silver bangs, he says “Go ahead, they don’t bite. You’re supposed to bite them instead.”
Faladel and I pick up our silverware and, after glancing at each other dubiously, cut open our potatoes. Mine has the normal potatoey goodness, but already has a pad of butter, and some mushrooms inside it. Faladel’s has what look to be peppers and onions with his, and the Librarians turns out to be not a potato at all– but a sweet potato. He adds something that smells like cinnamon to it, and hums happily as he bites down. Seeing how contented he is with his meal, I hesitantly put a bite of mine in my mouth, consider the strange taste carefully, then add a bit of salt and take another bite. Faladel doesn’t seem to feel the need to add condiments. Then he pulls a die from his own pack and rolls it. It is a strange die, bone white with numbers that look like they were burned on to it. His roll results in a 3, and his shoulders sag.
“Sorry about this Briareth Herbalar, but I need you to roll a constitution saving throw.” I glance at him, shocked. Another saving throw? Obligingly I reach to roll the dice, but my hands can’t quite seem to find them.
“Briareth?!” Faladel says worriedly. His voice sounds slightly distorted, and it’s rather funny how it echos. I hear my own broken giggle before I feel it come out and I blink to clear my eyes. Finally, I snag the die. But I can’t seem to put my hands together to shake it. Fumbling I feel it drop through my fingers.
“What have you done to him?!” Faladel shouts at the Librarian, but as my eyes go dark I only see his sheepish grin with those ominously pointed teeth on full display. I can’t even see his eyes. Something’s wrong with me. I realize, my foggy brain finally catching up as everything goes black.
The last thing I hear is the Librarian’s distorted, echo-ey voice saying. “I must have cooked the wrong mushrooms.”