Magician’s Apprentice Chapter X

The story so far: Tollon, apprentice to Court Magician Sarton, found himself bespelled and drugged by Sarton’s ex-wife, Lady Vorana. She obviously doesn’t mean him any good. On the other hand, he is a charming fellow. (If you want to catch up on the entire story, go here.) Now read on . . .

I wake up. I’m still in the tent where Lady Vorana was. But she, the table, Mia, the other furnishings of the tent, they are all gone. All that is left is a lantern, which is the sole source of light in the tent. And it’s otherwise so dark that it can’t still be day out. How long have I been asleep? Or whatever it was that happened to me?

I try to remember what happened. I took the second sip of wine. Lady Vorana told me to stand up and follow her. And then it was like I lost all power of rational thought as waves of raw emotion erupted in my brain with frightening intensity.

My memories of everything that happened after are very confused. I’m not sure the human mind is made to remember exactly what we are doing when we have only strong emotions, no intellect. And that’s all I was experiencing, apparently. Experiencing with Vorana and Mia.

I have to shut down thinking about it. It’s too disturbing.

I shake my head and sit up. I check my wallet and bag. Everything is intact. Me, I’m not so sure about. I grab the lantern and head for the door.

I’m out the door. It’s twilight out. Good, I’m not out past curfew. I turn to look at the tent, to see what it looks like. There is no tent there. In fact, there is no land there. That’s the Unswondus Canal where the tent was. More magic, clearly.

I’m not going to get anything done here. So I make my way back to the palace, have my usual unpleasant encounter with the guards, and make a beeline for Sarton’s workshop. If he’s been waiting for the phoenix feathers all days, he is going to be enraged at the delay. Even though it is not my fault.

Sarton is just closing up. He’s coming out the door. I begin to compose an apology to him, but I don’t get a chance to say it. A torrent of words burst out of me, beyond my control, repeating what Lady Vorana told me about the assassination plot.

Sarton at first is baffled. And then he drags me back into the workshop, sits me down, and makes me tell him everything. Well, everything about the assassination plot. I leave the rest out of it.

How Tollon felt at that moment.
(Painted by August Natterer (1868 – 1933))

Once I’ve told him often enough that he’s understood me, it’s as if I’m suddenly drained of energy. I sit back in my chair and close my eyes. And almost immediately jerk them open. Because in the moment my eyes were closed, it was as if I were reliving one of those memories I’m trying not to recall.

Sarton is looking at me, a bit puzzled. “What’s the matter with you, Tollon?”

I shrug. “Tired, I guess. Lapsed into a bad dream.”

Sarton still isn’t satisfied, but he switches the subject. “You got the phoenix feathers?”

I grab my bag, open it, hand it over to him. “Seven of the best.”

That pleases him, for a moment. Then he looks at me quite narrowly. “Vorana doesn’t do things without exacting a price. I would have expected her to take a phoenix feather. So what did she take from you?”

I try to think how to explain what happened, but can’t think of a way to put it that isn’t embarrassing. So I fudge. “I don’t remember very well.”

Sarton’s face turns grave. “She offered you wine.”

I nod.

“Are your memories of what happened afterward clear or confused? Truly now, Tollon.”

“Confused,” I say with some relief. Sarton knows what happened. I hope he tells me!

“Good.” Sarton is looking me straight in the eye. “If they were clear, you’d never escape Vorana’s influence over you. Confused memories mean you’ll eventually be yourself again. Now listen to me, Tollon, man to man: avoid your girl for a few days. And don’t panic if you find yourself having disturbing visions. They will pass.”

“What kind of disturbing visions? I ask.

“Visions of things you did, memories, my boy. I’m sorry I can’t put it any more gently. It doesn’t matter if she made you do those things, you actually did them. And you’re going to find them very troubling, even the ones that would normally be enjoyable.

“Now, that’s an experience no one should have to deal with, as part of a job. So you get the evening off. Tomorrow, too. Go back to your room, or do whatever you want to do. Don’t let the visions disturb you. And if it gets too much for you, come back here and knock on the door. I’ll come get you.”

From Sarton, this is almost an unprecedented level of concern. So I thank him, tell him I will be careful, and leave.

I’m fine until I reach the servants’ dining hall.

(To be continued . . .)

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Magician’s Apprentice Chapter IX

The story so far: Tollon, apprentice to Court Magician Sarton, has gone to the market to get some phoenix feathers for his master. While there, he is ensorcelled by a powerful magician acting through a girl. (You can catch up on all the previous chapters here.) Now read on . . .

I’m still under Lady Vorana’s spell, whatever “still” means when I have no sense of time. With nothing else to do, I try to figure out what else her appearance here tells me. Well, she hasn’t aged much, if at all. And since they must have divorced decades ago, she’s one of those age-defying witches. That’s consistent with her ability to mesmerize me through another person. Both require a lot of power. And Sarton hasn’t said anything about her, so presumably he doesn’t know she’s here. But the converse is definitely not true, else she’d not know who I am.

Abruptly, I am back to normal. I’m in a large tent, presumably still in the Great Market. The girl is standing beside Lady Vorana, who is dressed entirely in black.

I take some of that back. I’m not entirely normal. I can’t move any body part voluntarily. The woman comes over to me, strokes my chin with her finger. “So you’re Sarton’s apprentice. You’re a cute one. Maybe I’ll keep you.” She turns away, walks back to where she was standing, puts her arm around the girl. She looks at me with amusement. “Is Sarton into boys these days?”

I can talk. “No, Lady Vorana. At least not with me.” Always be careful with what you say around a witch.

“What a pity,” she says with evident humor. “Because someone wants Sarton dead, and wants you to do the deed. And it would be all the more piquant if you were his lover.”

The smile departs from Lady Vorana’s face. She turns to the girl. “Get us some wine.” To me, she says, “Take a seat. We have things to discuss once the wine is poured.”

I can move. So I take a seat at the table she’s indicated and wait. There is no point in irritating this woman. Just keep calm, keep quiet, and look for a way to satisfy her and put an end to this meeting.

The girl comes back with wine and glasses, sets them out for each, and pours. I’m paying attention to the girl now, more than before, and can sense the girl is under some sort of control. Presumably, she’s a slave of Vorana’s.

I hear an irritated cough from Lady Vorana. She’s looking at me with disapproval. “Mind your business, apprentice,” she says in a severe voice. “You know nothing about Mia.” She waits until Mia has finished pouring her wine, lifts her glass, and gestures that I should do the same.

Be careful accepting drink from a witch!

I take a sip. It’s a very good wine. In fact, it tastes like a very fortified wine. I put it down after just one sip. I can’t believe it, but I’m already feeling drunk.

Lady Vorana is smiling at me. It’s a knowing smile. It means me little good. She says, “I see you enjoy the wine. It’s a very good wine, a . . . magical wine, you might say. So listen carefully, apprentice. I was offered a considerable sum of money to arrange Sarton’s death at your hands. The man said he came from the Earl of Haulloran. Not being of a trusting disposition, I tried to use a truth spell to verify that. The man died before he could say another word. When you see Sarton, you will tell him exactly what I just told you.”

I nod.

Lady Vorana says, “What did Sarton tell you about me?”

Despite myself, I hear myself say, “You use people.”

Lady Vorana’s smile widens. “He’s right, you know. Take the wine you’ve just been drinking. One sip dulls the will, making you passive and suggestible. Two sips? You’ll have no thoughts of your own. You’ll feel only what I tell you to feel, think only what I tell you to think, do only what I tell you to do, without any question, without any doubt, without even the slightest qualm”

She’s going to enslave me. I need to get out of here, now. I start to rise up, oh, so slowly. And then I hear Vorana say, “Sit down, apprentice,” and I sit down.

I know I have to escape, now. And yet I can’t think of any way to do it that doesn’t involve standing up, and I’ve just been told to sit down. I’m trapped. Again.

Lady Vorana is enjoying this. “You look frightened, apprentice. There’s no need for that. I’m not going to hurt you. Well, not much. You’re cute. Do you like me?”

I know it’s the wrong thing to say, but “No.”

She looks a trifle less happy, but continues. “What about Mia? I rescued her, you know. She was an idiot child who was abandoned by her parents. She’s sweet. Do you think you could love her?”

I think of Paviara. “No.”

Lady Vorana sighs. “No matter. What you think is of no importance. It’s time for you to take another sip of wine.”

I do.

(To be continued . . .)

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Magician’s Apprentice Chapter VIII

The story so far: Tollon, apprentice to the Court Magician, is running errands for his master while trying to avoid the intrigues of court, the hazards of being a slight but attractive man, and still getting in time with his beloved, Paviara. (You can read the previous chapters here.) Now read on . . .

Get Sarton phoenix feathers. Dragons at least are indigenous, even if they’ve been driven back into the mountains. Phoenix feathers come from some very distant land where the bird lives, and dies, and lives, and, well, you get the idea. Some of the stories are not true. There is more than one phoenix, and they reproduce sexually, which is to say couples go up in a ball of flame together. I’m told it’s quite spectacular. Supposedly our method of executing witches with a fire was modeled on it. That, at least, I’ve seen. Amazing what kerosene can do.

Fortunately, the phoenix has been domesticated, or so I hear. There’s usually a supply of feathers, admittedly never very large, in the Great Market. And I remembered to get Sarton to write a requisition slip for the funds I’ll need. So first stop is the Royal Treasury.

In their usual stingy fashion, the Royal Treasury doesn’t hand over the money until they’ve asked me about fifteen times who I am and what it’s for. (Tollon of Velgard, and none of your business, unless you want Sarton to turn you into a toad.)

And then I’m off to the Great Market, which is wedged between town and the river. It’s a huge, open-air market. Goods come right off the docks along the river. Farmers come in from the country and set up their booths. Various swindlers set up their booths to fleece the unwary. And wandering through the market, bards play their instruments and sing epic songs of old. Some of them even sound more melodious than cats.

The marketplace is not just a commercial establishment, but a social space as well

A trip to the Great Market always means a good meal to me. And armed as I am with fresh silver from the Royal Treasury, I soon conclude my business, getting seven good phoenix feathers at a decent price. Decent price means I can splurge a bit on lunch.

I’d noticed a young woman, well, really just a girl, watching me while I bought the feathers. She was shorter even than me, and looked as if she’d barely begun the transition into womanhood. Nice tightly curled green hair on tan skin, though. That’s not a combination that usually looks good, but on her, young as she was, it was pretty.

Now as I am thinking about where to go for a good meal, she accosts me. “Kind sir, I know a place that serves meals fit for such a gentleman such as yourself. I could even serve you myself.”

Immediately I am sorry I have to deal with her at all. A child sold into slavery, clearly, selling her services and her body, and at that young age. I try to be polite as I try to shake her off. “Thanks, but I have pressing business elsewhere.”

“My Lord of Tyznar Heights,” she says to me. That surprises me. I turn to take another good look at her. I look into her eyes, and I realize to my horror that there are another pair of eyes behind hers. I’m being bespelled, and by someone quite powerful. And there is not a thing I can do to stop it.

Sarton may be old and forgetful, of changeable humor, and not always the best master, but he’s not stupid. He told me once, “Being a magician is difficult. It’s not just learning the means. One must master the self. Never let yourself blind you to what is happening to you.”

This is one of those times I have to put those words to use. All I see is eyes. I don’t know what’s happening to my body. Nothing good, I suspect. So I concentrate on trying to see what those eyes are. What color are they? Gray. Male or female? The make-up says female. Skin tone? Pale-gray. The rest of the face? I can see it if I strain. I don’t know it. But I can describe it. I’ll know this one when I see her. Whether I can do anything about it, well, that’s another story.

I try feeling what’s happening to my body. I can’t properly feel it, but I know it’s there. It’s moving, I presume walking.

Something in my brain shifts, and I realize just whose face I’m seeing. It’s Lady Vorana, Sarton’s second wife. He’s had five of them. Two, he tells me, are dead. One is traveling and may not return in my lifetime. And I should avoid the other two if I ever meet them. One of those two is Vorana.

I recall his precise words. “Vorana is a selfish voluptuary. She gives nothing away for free. She will use you as she sees fit. Your best bet, if you run into her, is to say little, make a deal with her as quickly as possible, and then get away from her.” It’s good advice. Unfortunately, I am not in any position to follow it.

(To be continued . . .)

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Magician’s Apprentice Chapter VII

If you missed chapter VI: Due to a glitch, chapter VI did not show up in everyone’s reader, although it was posted yesterday. You can still find it here. Chapters I – V can be found here. And to quickly summarize: Tollon is supposed to find three dragon’s teeth for his master, Court Magician Sarton. He just told his sweetheart Paviara about this while they were in bed last night. Now read on . . .

It is morning. Paviara left just before dawn. She has to “sneak” past the chaperones of the unmarried male servants’ wing and of the unmarried female servants’ wing. I say “sneak,” because what’s involved is a bribe, and not a very big one. Chaperones who demand too much end up having fatal accidents.

I hear most of my fellows, whether servants or apprentices, getting up and going to the wash room. I don’t bother, not just yet. Sarton likes to read early in the morning, and won’t mind if I take my time. And I most definitely need time to think.

Paviara confirmed that the Earl of Haulloran did indeed father a child on the queen. She is fairly sure Lady Gwella made this happen, by bespelling one or both of them. Why, Paviara isn’t so sure. She thinks Lady Gwella is pursuing several paths to greater power. Having her husband’s child on the throne might be one of them. But Lady Gwella’s a deep one, and it might be something more indirect that she’s aiming for.

Torture can take many forms

And Paviara seems set on stealing dragon’s teeth from that woman! How, she wouldn’t tell me. She said she had to check into a few things first. And she jokingly said that the less I knew, the less I’d reveal under torture.

Which is a real threat, not so much for the theft, for which it’s more likely Lady Gwella will simply kill us if she catches us. No, the problem is what the earl has done. If the earl’s enemies can accuse him of treason for seducing the queen, and make it stick, then the earl will no doubt be tortured and executed. And so will his secretary, his family, his friends, his servants, and however many degrees out the king decides the inquiry and punishment must go. Paviara, as a niece of his employed at the palace, would be an obvious suspect. And that would lead straight to me.

With a sigh, I get up and head down toward the washroom. It’s a trial for me. You see, the current ideal of beauty is copper-colored skin and hair. Which I’ve got. Even my eyes are copper-brown. And because I’m short and slight, I invariably get teased by my peers, and sometimes propositioned. Sometimes that propositioning can be rather forceful. Which is why the very first spell I requested Sarton to teach me was one to hurt anyone who laid hands on me without my consent.

I get the usual amount of ribbing, mixed in with some winks. A few of them know about Paviara, and while her golden skin and locks are not so fashionable, they still envy me for her. No one tries anything stupid, there or at breakfast in the servants’ dining hall. I notice that talk of the queen’s bastard is not yet circulating. I don’t start any.

Paviara wants me to ask Sarton what the dragon’s teeth are for. I’m not going to do that. Sarton wants them, he has a reason, and he’ll get upset if I don’t get some, but all in due time. If he doesn’t ask, I don’t take flack for not getting them yet.

The first question out of his mouth when I get to his workshop is, “So, is the child really Haulloran’s?”

I nod. “Definitely.”

Sarton leans back in the chair behind his desk and gives me a faint smile. “Learn that from your playmate?” He then breaks out into laughter upon seeing the look on my face. “My boy, I was young once myself. I know what young men do. And young women, too. If I’m going to the trouble to train an apprentice, I don’t want to lose him simply because he’s gone plowing the wrong field.”

I’m caught between embarrassment and resenting his agricultural metaphor. I drop into my chair. I mutter, “I suppose I should have told you.”

“And I would have forbidden it, and you would have gone ahead anyhow, if not with her then with someone else.”

“So now what?” I ask.

Sarton grimaces. “She’s a dangerous girl to know, with the earl’s position being what it is. Which is why I’m talking to you about it now. I don’t expect you to give her up, but watch your back, boy. And come to me at a whiff of trouble.” And with a short laugh, he adds, “Worse comes to worse, I can kill you quickly and save you being tortured.”

And that is Sarton. Kindly old guy one moment, grimmer than a hangman the next. He doesn’t hold to a mood.

And then he casually says, “Lesson later today. Right now, you need to go out and get me six or seven phoenix feathers. And don’t forget the dragon’s teeth.”

“I won’t,” I promise. I just wish I could. I guess I’m going to have to steal them, after all.

(to be continued)

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Magician’s Apprentice Chapter VI

The story so far: Tollon is contemplating desperate measures or wild schemes to secure some dragon’s teeth for his master, Court Magician Sarton. The last thing he needs is for a surprise in his own room. Or maybe it’s the first thing he needs. (For all the previous chapters, you can go here.) Now read on . . .

Remember I said there was one person in the Palace Kitchen who didn’t give me an ill look as I walked past them? That’s who’s in my bed. Naked. And I couldn’t be happier.

She knows better than to complain that I sort of sat on her. Instead, she gets right to helping me out of my clothes. You can guess what happens next.

No, we are not married. As an apprentice, I am not legally allowed to marry anyone. Let alone the Earl of Haulloran’s niece, even if she’s a dirt-poor relation who works as kitchen staff. (“Cook” is a title only the more experienced staff have earned. Not that it’s an entire blessing. It was only the cooks and chefs who were hanged after the incident with the tainted troll meat.)

This will be a very improper introduction, as she’s not wearing any clothes and it’s dark so you can’t see her, but meet my sweetie, Paviara. Paint a picture of her in your mind, and it will not do her justice. She’s beautiful, she’s sweet, and she’s kind. And we’re in love. Oh, and we’re careful: she’s not gotten pregnant yet.

Paviara’s mother was the most unworthy of the Earl of Haulloran’s siblings, having disgraced her family in several ways, including her marriage to a third-rate bard. When she died, the Earl had to find something to do with her two children. He wasn’t very generous, which is why Paviara works in the kitchen. But she’s still family, so she does see him regularly and keeps up with family gossip.

Which I now need to find out about. So, in between casual chit-chat and compliments to each other, I ask, “Is it true the Earl’s fathered a bastard on the queen?”

Paviara doesn’t answer immediately. When she does, there’s a suspicious note in her voice. “Just what are you up to, Tollon?”

“Oh, about five-foot-two, same as you,” I joke.

She gives me a jab with her elbow, and then sits up. “C’mon, out with it. You know I dislike talking about my family.”

“To say nothing of how your family would dislike talk of me.” When that doesn’t get a laugh, I drop the pretense. “I heard the rumor, and I’m worried about you. And the Earl may have something I want.”

“What?” Her voice turns from suspicious to concerned. Good.

“Dragon’s teeth.”

There are times my love is just a little too clever, sort of like Lady Macbeth

There is a long silence. My darling is thinking. This is dangerous, because I have this needling suspicion that she’s actually smarter than I am. Just like she’s just barely taller than me. Another reason, incidentally, why Katrina’s not in my bed: she’s the better part of a foot taller.

“When you say you want the dragon’s teeth, you mean Sarton does, don’t you?” My lady is nothing if not careful.

I assent. “Yeah, I don’t know why, but he wants three.”

“Find out,” Paviara speaks decisively. “Getting them isn’t going to be easy. Lady Gwella has them. But if the price is right, I think I could get them from her.”

“She’s not going to give them to Sarton at any price,” I caution her.

She laughs. “Then we don’t tell her. In fact, we don’t tell her anything at all. She’s not going to know how they disappeared.”

My jaw drops. “You’re talking about stealing them?”

“No, I’m going to go to Lady Gwella, confess I’m sleeping with Sarton’s apprentice, and ask her to give them to me.” Paviara’s voice can sound charming to me, even when she’s being sarcastic. “Of course I’m going to steal them. Or, to be precise, we are going to steal them.”

(To be continued . . . here!)

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Chapter V of Magician’s Apprentice

The story so far: Tollon is hunting for dragon’s teeth on behalf of his master, Court Magician Sarton. He’s met up with famed mercenary captain Katrina, who advises him to blackmail the Earl of Haulloran to get some. If you want to read the previous chapters, go here. Otherwise, read on . . .

Aye, blackmail one of the most powerful nobles in the land, whose wife is probably the most dangerous noble in the land. I shake my head and in a low voice tell her, “I’m not suicidal.”

She pitches her voice low, too. “You don’t have to be. Sarton should be able to protect you from her, and the Earl has his hands full.”

I shake my head. “Still, no.” And I am not going to explain why.

Katrina starts to get exasperated. But then we’re interrupted. Behind her, a shape looms, belches, and says, “If you’re going to bed a wee lad like him, Captain, you might as well sleep with a pretty woman.”

I recognize that voice. It’s dear old Corporal Wayne.  And he is drunk. Katrina turns in her seat to look at him, and I get a good view of him. He’s drunk, but it doesn’t show much, him being a big guy. He must have been ending his shift when I went in the main gate, and has been hanging out here, or someplace like this, ever since.

I can’t see Katrina’s face from this angle, but the fact that’s she’s in the process of standing up does not bode well for the corporal. In a no-nonsense tone, she says, “You just insulted a captain, corporal, while drunk. You know what that is called?”

Give the corporal some credit. He manages to say, “Insubordination,” fairly clearly.

Katrina shakes her brown, wooly head. “No, corporal, it’s called stupid.” And she jabs him hard in the belly.

Corporal Wayne goes down. He rolls on his side to vomit up his last few drinks. And he stays there, sobbing.

Katrina turns to me. Still keeping her voice low, she says, “Well, it’s up to you. Find Jerrod, or blackmail the other.” She leans closer and drops her voice even more. “And if you want some company in bed tonight, let me know.” She plants a kiss on my cheek, gives me a wink, and returns to her beer.

I smile, weakly, before turning away from her and leaving the bar. Because weak is how I felt the one time I took her up on such an invitation. Katrina does indeed have a soft spot for guys like me. But she’s also got the musculature of a successful warrior. Oh, I enjoyed our time together. I just don’t think I could survive a second time.

So I start going from pub to bar, bar to beer hall, trying to find Jarrod. He’s another mercenary, gambles a lot, rarely wins. Katrina tells me he’s actually brilliant on the battlefield, she’s served with him, but at cards, dice, or pool? He’s a sucker. The only reason I’ve never tried to win anything off him is that he might decide I’m not honorable enough to be allowed to win money from him. Some mercs are touchy that way.

But my mind keeps going back to Haulloran. Could I blackmail him? On the face of it, the idea still seems ridiculous, on many counts. But it keeps nagging at me.

You’re probably wondering just how I could blackmail him. It’s simple. I’m allowed at Court with Sarton. Once there, all I have to do is publicly accuse Haulloran of fathering the queen’s child. Assuming he is, he would not be able to escape execution, not even if Lady Gwella pulled a flightless parrot out of her purse. Of course, there’s a high chance I’d also be executed, but I’d be counting on the Earl being sensible. Which, except for marrying Lady Gwella, he typically is.

And that’s the rub. I have to find a way to get at the earl when he’s alone, without his lady at his side. Oh, and be sure he’s actually the father of the queen’s next child. But I think the latter will be easy. And might even give me a way to get to the earl on his own.

I have no luck turning up Jerrod. I go back to Sarton’s workshop for a lengthy lesson on properly sacrificing a lamb. Like most such magical activities, it varies by the nature of the creature you’re trying to summon. Demons like pain-filled deaths. Angels like perfect specimens. Ghosts want blood, And so on.

It’s late when Sarton finishes instructing me. He still hasn’t mentioned the dragon teeth again. So I shuffle off to my room on the fifth floor. The corridors are lighted with torches, so I don’t bother carrying a candle. My room’s completely dark when I enter. I’m so tired, I just drop onto the bed.

Which turns out to be occupied.

This painting was done by one of Rembrandt’s teachers, Pieter Lastman (1583 – 1633)

(It better be continued . . .)

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Magician’s Apprentice Chapter IV

The story so far (and a link to the previous chapters): Tollon, apprentice to Court Magician Sarton, is tasked with acquiring dragon’s teeth by Sarton. But palace life and intrigue are making what could already be a dangerous chore even more difficult. Now read on . . .

Sarton’s head is buried in a horoscope chart he’s drawing up for the next royal bastard when I leave to go get lunch. How he can construct a horoscope for a child that isn’t even born yet, and whose due date he doesn’t know, I don’t know. Astrology is not one of the sciences he has taught me. But Sarton’s good at it. He even predicted King Neucron’s death. He just couldn’t explain how the king was going to die.

I could take lunch in one of the palace’s several dining halls. But I need dragon’s teeth. Time to go pub crawling.

The nearest tavern in town is The Flayed Thief. Supposedly the tavern was erected on the site of an old gallows. It attracts an appropriately disreputable crowd: palace guards, their whores, minor tax farmers, pig inspectors, and in the evening the only singing group in the kingdom made up of eunuchs. The place smells of beer, vomit, and urine, except when it’s been cleaned, once a tenday.

It’s day eight. One drinks beer in self-defense in The Flayed Thief, to keep the smells away from one’s nose.

Definitely NOT The Flayed Thief, but it gives you an idea of the atmosphere

And I am in luck. Sitting alone at the bar is Katrina of Moss, famed mercenary, dreaded duelist, and a gal with a soft spot for village country boys like me. You have to turn in your weapons at the door. Katrina has an exemption, because letting her kill people with weapons causes less destruction than forcing her to smash chairs, rip up the bar, and turn its liquor into fire bombs. Besides, if you leave her alone, she will never start a fight. “People pay me to fight,” she once explained to me. “Why should I give it away for free?”

I actually do carry a concealed dagger, which I don’t check. I’m regarded as so physically unimposing that no one would consider me a threat, so they never search me for weapons. Odds are we are the only two armed people in the room, except for the bouncer and the bartender.

I grab a seat beside Katrina, greet her as “Captain,” and order a beer. She turns to look at me with a perfectly neutral expression on her face. Then she sees it’s me, and she breaks out into a smile. “Lord Tyznar,” she says. And she means it seriously.

I should explain. I’m not noble by birth. But as Sarton’s apprentice, I have to have a title so I can accompany him at Court functions. So I’ve been ennobled as part of my job. Tyznar Heights is a fortress that used to be the seat of Ovallessi dukes, until the last of the dukes overreached himself and the castle was bombarded into a ruin. The lordship brings in 50 ducats a year, mostly from wool. I’ve been there twice. To most people, it’s a bit of a joke, a fig leaf for protocol’s sake.

Katrina takes my title seriously because it’s good business for a merc not to argue or question such things, unless the noble is on the other side in a war. And, as I said, she has a soft spot for guys like me.

We chat of indifferent things: how the war against the mountain tribes in the East is going nowhere, the struggle among the Six Kingdoms, Sarton’s latest error of omission. When that topic comes up, I see my chance. “Got any dragon’s teeth?”

“Sarton?”

I nod.

Katrina stares into her beer for a bit. Without looking up, she says, “If you can find Jerrod, he should have some. Killed a dragon last fall. Can’t have pawned all the teeth yet. And the Earl of Haulloran has quite a set.”

I shake my head long enough for her to look up and see. “Haulloran’s out.”

That piques her interest. “Why?”

That is not something I want to discuss in public. So I lean over and whisper in her ear, “He’s fathered a bastard on the queen.”

For that I get a stare. A serious, eyes-wide, “O my dead mother” stare. And then Katrina break out laughing. In between laughs, she says to me, “You are a perfect fool!”

Oh, I’ve been called that a few times. But it hurts getting it from Katrina, because she’s not one to say such things unless they’re true. So I remonstrate, “I’ve been aiming for perfection, but didn’t think I’d achieved it. Want to explain how?”

That stops her laughing. She gives me a good look-over, leans forward, and whispers in my era, “Blackmail him.”

(to be continued . . . tomorrow!)

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