What had started as a rescue mission had quickly degenerated into a harassment session for Prinin.
King Ashunar had left the others behind at his palace as he went to recover Kish from Mercutian’s tower. He believed that there was a good chance that the old wizard would try to fight back and that the non-wizards in the crowd would likely get in the way.
That left Prinin feeling very exposed as Prag, Taimon, and Verena grilled him with Warlis, Syd, Georg and the friendly lieutenant watching in amusement.
“So why exactly are you pretending to be your sister?” asked Taimon, while trying to hide his amusement behind a cup of tea.
“I told you when we were at your place. There had been assassination attempts on Prinin. I mean me. Someone was trying to kill me and capture Cariolta. I figured that I’d live longer if they never knew that they’d killed the wrong person. You said it yourself, Taimon, I wasn’t a popular choice for king.”
“Well, why didn’t you tell us when you were safely at our place?” Baroness Verena purred comfortingly as she lounged on a well-stuffed velvet couch stroking a young black panther.
“Because your guards and Prag here saw me in a dress. How long would it have taken for news of that to cross the country? Besides, it didn’t turn out to be all that safe anyway. How did you survive?” Prinin desperately tried to change the subject.
Taimon winced a bit as he remembered the events. “Those ravids were supposed to be a scouting party for King Ashunar. They were out looking for some escaped prisoners when somebody apparently ate one of their comrades. So they attacked.”
“Ate?” Prinin grimaced as he realized what must have happened and what grizzly ire that would have raised in the little beasts. “What about the troll and the gremlins?”
“We don’t know. They weren’t working with the ravids.” The friendly lieutenant decided to join in. “Gremlins and ravids are like oil and water. As long as the ravids stay in the trees and the gremlins on the ground they get along okay, but they don’t mix well, and nothing mixes well with trolls. We suspect that they were hypnotized.”
“Hypnotized by whom?” Prinin was happy to have the focus of the conversation drawn away from his choice of attire.
“Probably the same person who was orchestrating your murder and your sister’s kidnapping,” said Baron Taimon between sips. “They might not have even known that you were there. I was pretty much the only person left alive who might have recognized the new Cariolta as an imposter. Killing me off and blaming Ashunian monsters was a pretty easy setup.”
“But how did you survive?” Prinin pressed.
“The same way that you did.” Baroness Verena smiled. “King Ashunar popped in, sent the ravids on their way and patched up Taimon and myself.” She nuzzled up against Taimon’s missing arm and a floating gauntlet rested lovingly on her shoulder, apparently under Taimon’s command. “He even found me a new familiar. But enough about me, what were you doing out and about with Cariolta’s wardrobe anyway?”
Prinin slumped. He’d hoped that he’d managed to avoid this for a while longer. “Dad wouldn’t let me out of the palace after the threats to my life, so Cari and I traded places for a while. She got to play prince while I got some freedom.”
“And nobody noticed?” laughed Prag.
“Nobody ever did,” Prinin responded dejectedly. “We’d been doing it all our lives. We both took after our mother and we were so similar that we could fake each other’s voices. In loose clothing and without make-up, I couldn’t tell us apart.” He sighed as he remembered his beloved sister.
“You’re dodging the point,” Taimon prodded him. “Why did you leave in the first place?”
“He was going to negotiate with Prince Ulrat,” Prag cut in. “Trying to negotiate peace before war broke out again, right?”
“Well… that’s mostly true.” Prinin shifted awkwardly. “It was supposed to be a wedding.”
Every eye in the room lit up as the story suddenly became one of delightful scandal instead of international relations.
“Kish and I were supposed to be wed at the Temple of the Emperor and Ulrat was supposed to be the witness. Since Ulrat had recently been exiled, Kazé came in his stead. Kish and I had been meeting privately for some time… Ulrat and Cariolta had been covering for us. We knew that our fathers would never approve of it, but once it was done, our countries would be joined and war between them would be a lot more difficult. Besides, Kish was everything that Haelund needed and I lacked. She’s strong and decisive and brave and a great leader of men… Where in the hells are they? How can you all be so calm?”
Prag was laughing himself silly. “You and Kish. That’s adorable. You can braid her hair hair and she can teach you to fight. So did you do it? Did you tame the wild woman of the east?”
Prinin failed to conceal his awkwardness. “That depends…”
“Depends on what?” Verena leaned in close to the Prince, making him even more uncomfortable.
“On your definition of marriage,” Prinin mumbled, avoiding eye contact.
Prag wailed with laughter. “You scoundrel! You absolute beast!” he shouted before composing himself enough to explain to the other less travelled members of the audience. “In Haelund, marriage is only recognized by the completion of a formal ceremony, presided over by priests of the God Emperor and witnessed by at least one relative or close friend; the wedded couple are then free to consummate the marriage as they see fit.” He choked back some laughter as he continued his lecture. “As has been discovered by more than one unfortunate mercenary, the act of consummating the marriage is all that is needed in Desidan for the marriage to be official and binding. The ceremony is just…. ceremonial.”
A dozen accusing eyes turned back to Prinin who was dodging each one. “Well, it was very stressful and when we got to Taimon’s it was so nice to feel safe and in a real bed…”
“In my house?” Taimon feigned fury. “You filthy hound!”
There was a brief uproar of laughter and jokes at Prinin’s expense before Ashunar’s presence was felt and the room fell silent.
He entered the room casually, yet with the grace of a man who’d been practising his movements for a thousand years. He sat and crossed one leg over the other as the lieutenant poured him a cup of tea.
“Uncle Ash! Did you find her?” Prinin said hopefully.
“Sorry, Prin,” the Dread Lord of the Dark Lands said apologetically, “I found a pile of blood and ash on the first floor and there was no sign of Mercutian. It looks as though he did what he wanted and then left.”
“It might not be her though, right?” Prinin pleaded.
The Sorcerous Lord of the Cursed North tried to comfort him. “That’s true, there’s no way to know if that mess really was her. Rest assured, we have eyes everywhere. If she’s alive, we’ll find her, just like we found you. Now, let’s get you cleaned up. You have a war to stop.”
Prag watched as King Ashunar and his lieutenant escorted Prinin out of the room. He wasn’t yet at ease having tea in the inner chambers of Crater Fortress, elegant and tastefully arranged as they were. Prinin had latched onto King Ashunar right away, recognizing him as his childhood magic teacher, Uncle Ash. Prag rolled this absurdity over in his mind. The Haelund elite had been sending their daughters for generations to this guy for magical schooling. He wondered how many knew the true nature of their trusted tutor — or if anything about the Sorcerer King was true.
Prag knew him personally. To him, the Sorcerer King had been Shawn Delroix, a regular customer. He was very reliable with payment and understanding about delays. He was the one who had hired Prag to kill Lord Cailo in the first place. Prag had decided it best not to share that particular fact with anyone until he’d had a chance to sort everything out for himself.
Even though he was in his castle in the charred crater of a volcano, Prag still couldn’t believe that this was the black sorcerer of legend. He was polite, friendly, and soft-spoken. The darkest thing about him was his clothes. He always seemed to dress in black with silver highlights. Even so, he didn’t dress at all like a wizard. He wore collared tunics and neat waistcoats. Prag was starting to think that the ‘Dark Lord of the North’ was the disguise and this amiable silver-haired gentleman was the real Ashunar.
Prag pondered this as he shared some well-steeped lemon tea with what he considered to be the least likely company he’d ever had. Warlis and his smell were familiar, and Taimon and Verena were pleasant enough. Sitting next to Syd and not trying to kill him was a nice change, if a bit uncanny. What really set him on edge, though, was how well they all got on with each other and with the lieutenant and the golem from Irsank Fortress. For a man convinced that he held no illusions about the world, this whole situation seemed contrived to shatter any he might have left.
Finally, Prinin re-entered. Prag was dreadfully disappointed. He had been expecting a near magical transformation from a dainty porcelain-faced princess into a chiselled Prince Charming. As it turned out, even after a wash and a haircut and a change of clothes, he still looked like the same person that Prag had been travelling with for the past few months. He thought carefully and tried to express his feelings as succinctly and courteously as possible. “You still look like a girl.”
Prinin sneered and tried to ignore him. He ran his fingers uncomfortably through his now short blond hair and collected himself as best he could. “What now, Uncle Ash?”
“Now we retire for the evening, I think.” King Ashunar set his delicate china teacup down and stood. “The servants will show you to your room.”
“I’ll show Prinin the way, Your Majesty.” Taimon stretched his one arm as he stood and grinned maliciously. “I’d like to spend some time with my old friend anyway.”
Prag hesitated and finished his drink, slowly letting everyone else leave the room. He was just starting to get suspicious at the lack of servants coming to show him the way when Ashunar spoke up.
“Now, you wanted to speak to me?” he said, suddenly wearing a silk-lined smoking jacket and matching sleepwear.
“Um… yes,” stumbled Prag. He certainly hadn’t indicated that to anyone and he didn’t much like being caught off guard. He mentally searched his own body and the room for weapons but found none. “How have you been keeping, Shawn?”
“Well enough, I suppose.” The Demon King smiled pleasantly. “Though I’ve been frightfully busy tracking down a group of very destructive fugitives.”
Prag shifted awkwardly. “About that.” Prag collected himself again and put on his business posture. “I believe that payment is due for services rendered. If payment cannot be made immediately, you can arrange for a loan from the Collections and Bonds Bureau in Antiq.”
“Oh no, I can pay in full,” Ashunar chuckled. “Though, in hindsight, I should have included a collateral damage clause in the contract. But that would have been a bit suspicious, wouldn’t it?”
“Somewhat, yes,” Prag said, maintaining his businesslike tone.
“On a related note, do you know of a place where I can purchase supplies for the return trip to Antiq?”
“Oh come now, Pragmethion.” Ashunar reclined in his well-stuffed velour armchair and crossed his legs. “Aren’t you the least bit curious why I hired you?”
“It’s against policy to enquire,” said Prag politely.
“How long have we been friends now, Prag? Don’t you think we’re close enough to share?”
“Seeing as until earlier today, I thought you to be a Canerian noble with a taste for exotic goods?” Prag raised an eyebrow.
“Oh I see, I’ve hurt your feelings, haven’t I?” He waved his hand dismissively. “You always were so sensitive.”
“Alright!” Prag gave up his act and settled into his more familiar relationship with Shawn, the collector of rare goods and wizards’ heads. “Why in the hells did you hire me to kill Cailo?”
“Appearances.” King Ashunar was purposely playing with his friend’s patience. “Whiskey?”
“Yes,” Prag said firmly, and a bottle older than the history of his city uncorked itself and poured two glasses. “Going to elaborate on that or do I have to beat it out of you?”
“No! No!” The Dark Lord of the Northern Wastes shrunk back into his seat as he pleaded for mercy and then laughed. “I’ll tell. I’ll tell.”
He savoured his drink for a moment and then began his explana-tion. “You see, I spend a lot of time keeping up appearances. It’s not easy being the thing of nightmares, you know. I have to maintain a certain air of mystery and terror to keep the less pleasant residents of my lands in line, as well as any upstart neighbours that might get ideas.”
He indulged in another sip and went on. “My generals are my trusted heirs. I raised them all and gave them their lands. They share my secrets and understand my motivations. Unfortunately, one of them strayed.” He looked sad for a moment. “He was an unusually talented wizard that was cast out of his tribe for witchcraft. I took him in. I taught him the ways of magic—and he became the ‘Dread Lord Cailo’.” Ashunar waved his hands and deepened his voice dramatically as he said the name. “He did his job well for a time, but he had some tastes that I could not abide. I learned that he was doing unspeakable things to some of his prisoners. I had to put a stop to that. I could have killed him myself, I suppose, but a battle between the two of us would have left a scar on the earth to rival this crater that we’re in. Besides, he was at one time like a son to me. I’m not sure I could have brought myself to actually kill him. I even had him visit me once more before you arrived in hopes of redeeming him.” The Sorcerer King looked sadly into his liquor as he seemed to deflate.
“So why me?” Prag asked doubtfully.
“Because you aren’t a wizard. You wouldn’t set off his alarms and you’re the best at what you do. You would do it quickly, cleanly and probably in his sleep.” Ashunar glared at him accusingly. “Unless you got picked up for poaching like an amateur.”
Prag twiddled his thumbs a little. “And how about all the other jobs you’ve had me do?”
“That was mostly honest work,” said Ashunar with a dismissive gesture.
“It was mostly theft and murder,” Prag retorted.
“True,” conceded the King. “You’re a valuable asset, Pragmethion. You are skilled and versatile, and your reputation makes you useful. You keep organized crime honest which keeps assassins and thieves on my payroll and off my doorstep. ”
“You know as well as I do that my reputation is rampantly exaggerated. I wasn’t even in the right country for half of the things I’m supposed to have done. Hells, half the time I was out on a job for yo…” Prag stopped and glared at the Dark Lord accusingly.
Ashunar shrugged innocently. “Like I said, your reputation keeps bad people honest. I’m not the only one who thinks that the myth is more important than the man. I had nothing to do with Skinless Lord Nuna or the crucifixion of Sir Dellins. There are others out there making the Vagabond legend.”
Prag, feeling a little bit used, decided to change the subject to something less personal. “So how does Prinin know you so well?”
“In all honesty, he shouldn’t,” Ashun admitted. “I was his sisters’ magic teacher. I’ve been teaching the Royal Haelund women magic since Hael’s first daughter came of age.”
“Did they know?” Prag interjected. “About you, I mean.”
“The kings always knew. That’s why I taught the girls under an alias and never really met the boys until they were old enough to understand the truth.”
“What in the hells are you on about, Shawn?” Prag felt as though he had missed something. “You’re practically a god, what kind of bad influence could you be?”
King Ashunar half-grinned and repeated a piece of a common sermon. “… and each son was gifted with an aspect of the God Emperor. Desidor was given the great strength of his body; Canifor was given the great intellect of his mind; Ashunar was given the terrible sorcery of his spirit; and Hael was given the temperance and wisdom of his heart.” He dropped the sermon voice. “That’s a load of pig feed. The fact is we inherited a lot more than that from Daddy. Desidor was also a bloodthirsty warmonger; Canifor was a hedonistic twit; and Hael was a hopeless romantic. All these things work fine for gods, but primitive tribes don’t quite see them as noble traits, so they twisted them round to fit their image of what their gods should be.”
“And what about you, then?” asked Prag, poking fun at his demigod friend and business partner. “You got the thirst for power and immortality like the song says?”
“No, Prag.” Ashun sounded slightly distant. “I just wrote that part of the song to support my image. It’s not the real reason that I never took a wife or sired any children. I just wasn’t interested in women the way my brothers were. Humans, in general, seem to have trouble with that idea so I don’t advertise it.”
He finished his drink, stood up and yawned. “Well, I’m ready for bed. We have a long day tomorrow of scheming for Prinin’s triumphant return. Goodnight, Prag.”
In a blink, Prag was alone and the sitting room was a bedchamber. He tried to be furious at having been so utterly deceived for so long but the whiskey had been very good and the bed was extremely inviting. He quickly found himself drifting off into dreams of peace and freedom.