It was a long, quiet march to the Gallows. Prinin and Prag were escorted by a small contingent of human soldiers and gleaming metallic Reapers to the execution courtyard in the royal prison. As they passed out of the castle gates, there was a gust of wind as the dragon buffeted its massive wings and took off into the sky with Vestin and Cariolta’s imposter mounted on its back. On the entire trip to the executioner, they didn’t pass a soul. Apparently, neither the palace nor the prison were particularly popular destinations of late.
Prinin was rather disappointed with the turnout for their execu tion. All told, there were less than twenty disinterested human soldiers and a half-dozen Reapers, with no commoners at all. This wasn’t the sort of audience that royalty should expect in a formal execution. It was slightly offensive, but since he was still in a dress, he wasn’t as upset as he might have been.
He also saw opportunity.
The guards obviously hadn’t been told who they were executing. In fact, they had almost certainly been told that they were executing some common thieves impersonating royalty and in their complacency Prinin found hope. He concentrated his thoughts and focused a tiny portion of his stored of the magic to communicate with his fellow captive.
“Please stall them for a while.” A voice echoed strangely in the back of Prag’s mind “I have most of a plan.”
Prag looked over at his cross-dressed companion whose eyes had grown a little vacant. Prag didn’t have any plan at all so he decided that her… his half a plan was probably better than his current complete lack of one.
“Do you know who we are?” Prag demanded.
The executioner looked up from his paperwork; he was apparently trying to decide if they were meant to be beheaded, hanged, or flayed. “No, actually, and if you would be so kind as to tell me, I could get this sorted out much more quickly.”
Prag was unexpectedly pleased at not being recognized. “It’s okay,” he said cheerfully rocking on his heels. “We’ll wait.”
Minutes rolled by in silence as the burly executioner debated with a couple of soldiers that had been on escort duty and Prinin fell into a trance, muttering to himself.
The metal bodies of the Reapers were complex, and it was an uncomfortably cold maze to feel around inside with his mind. He quickly found the power core of the machine, but that wasn’t what he wanted. The guards would know that something was amiss if the machine just fell down. He needed the control centre. He knew that there must be something inside that housed the spirit of the Reaper, he just needed to find it fast enough.
“High treason!” the executioner announced victoriously. “You are to be flayed alive to be made examples of !” His eyes grinned beneath his dark leather cowl as he set about to prepare the barbed whips.
“Very well done!” Prag gave a little clap with his shackled hands. “But where’s the audience?” His tone changed to that of a lecturing school teacher. “If I were plotting against the throne, wouldn’t my execution be attended by hundreds as a way to rally support and strike fear into any who might do the same?” He smiled and waited for the executioner to process this.
Prinin had it. There was an icy globe deep in the pelvis of the Reaper: a little ghost, chained in servitude, trapped in the machine and making its decisions. With a little magical tug from his temple, he pulled the tubes connected to it and the spirit within washed away like mist in the wind. He left his trance and looked up at the machine. It was still standing motionless like all the others, only he knew that it would never move again. He closed his eyes and moved on to the next. It would go faster now that he knew what he was looking for.
“Murderers, then!” the executioner exclaimed and reached for his axe.
“Good guess.” Prag was being very supportive. “But aren’t you supposed to have a priest here to list the names of our victims and the next of kin to witness us getting our just rewards?”
The executioner did not like being told his business and was starting to get annoyed; less at Prag, and more at the damned royals that had sent him these prisoners without the proper paperwork. “Piracy, then?” he proposed cautiously.
“Kind of a stretch there,” Prag said, shaking his head. “Last I checked, pirates didn’t get private audiences with the entire royal family before they die. That, and you’ll notice that this girl still has all of her teeth.”
“Okay, I admit that it was a bad guess.” The executioner was running out of ideas. “What’s she doing, anyway?”
“I think she’s praying. She’s quite faithful, you know. She’s hoping for a good spot in heaven,” Prag lied casually.
“Which heaven, exactly?” the executioner posed, hoping for a hint as to her particular profession by her faith.
“The City of Teev,” he stated, pretending to be caught off guard by the question.
“So she’s praying to Teev, God of Masquerade and the Night? You’re thieves!” The executioner crossed his arms and puffed his chest up victoriously.
Prag’s shoulders slumped in defeat, though he grinned inwardly. He figured he could drag this on for another few minutes at least. He really wished he knew what he was aiming for, though. He pondered what she… he could possibly be doing.
Prinin was doing pretty well, by his thinking. Time lost a lot of meaning when his consciousness left his body, but he had disabled four machines and he could taste enough magic flowing through his veins to get the last two. Unfortunately, he wasn’t sure what he could do after that. He wiped that from his mind. Doubt was wasteful and time was short.
“You got us,” Prag said in defeat. “We’re thieves. So how do you want to kill us?”
The executioner’s victory washed away and he started to debate angrily with the guards before turning back to Prag. “You’re perfectly aware that thieves aren’t executed!” he shouted in frustration. “Do you think me a fool?”
“No, sir, I think that you’re being used, just like we were.” Prag was looking at the executioner with pity. “We were hired, and when we brought back what we were hired to steal, we were chained up and marched in here.”
The executioner debated for a moment with the guards who corroborated that Mercutian had taken Prag’s pack and that Prince Vestin had been given some kind of magical sword. Another piped up that they had been told to keep the two quiet and that they were probably breaking orders now by letting Prag talk. The sergeant shouted out an emphatic order for Prag to keep quiet.
“Or what?” Prag responded condescendingly. “You’ll have me arrested and executed?”
That comment left the group of uniforms looking a little bashful. “We could beat you first,” one suggested in a tone that failed entirely to be threatening.
“Go ahead, that will just make your punishment worse.” Prag had a good enough sense of the crowd to try a new angle. “You think the Vagabond is going to let you chop off our heads for fulfilling our contractual duties? You’ve got some nasty surprises coming.”
The entire escort blanched. The Vagabond. That name was used only in hushed tones amongst law-keepers. Everyone had heard the stories. Everyone knew better than to try to punish an Antiquer for a job well done. It was death. They had their own law and those that interfered met with terrible ends.
Prag was delighted at the effect his own reputation had. Admittedly, he had been credited with several more acts of retribution than he could have possibly accomplished, but it was now working in his favour— as long as they didn’t realize that they were in fact executing the man they were so afraid of.
“You’re lying!” accused the sergeant.
“That’s possible,” admitted Prag as he paused for effect. “I mean, I am being executed here. I’m likely to lie if I think it will save me.”
The sergeant somehow wasn’t comforted by the prisoner conceding that point to him. “But?” he asked cautiously.
Prag reeled in his catch, starting to really enjoy what might be his last battle of wits. “But I’m more likely to tell the truth if that will help me. I’d also like to point out what appears to be a distinct lack of due process and paperwork accompanying this rather hasty affair.”
The sergeant decided that all of his hard work for his recent promotion suddenly wasn’t worth it.
“What is your title?” demanded the executioner as he unlocked a sturdy cabinet and searched for something.
“Warlis Thatchman and Alan Coppersmith of the Shadow Thieves of Antiq.” Prag was pleasantly surprised by the large book that the executioner had retrieved. “Members eighty-six and one-twenty-sev-en,” Prag added helpfully, “on contract to one Mr. Mercury, also known as Master Mercutian.”
“Wait a minute there!” A private spoke up out of turn, having done some quick math and not liking the sum. “She’s a he?”
Prinin rejoined his body and his normal senses in time to see a rather distressed-looking private getting mocked by a small group of his peers.
“That’s what it says here.” The executioner had found the pages. “Alan Coppersmith: Shadow Thieves Member eighty-six. Available for disguise, impersonation and…courtly seduction?”
“He’s remarkably skilled at it, don’t you think?” Prag encouraged.
The executioner conceded and continued “And Warlis Thatchman: one-twenty-seven, long distance delivery and reconnaissance,” he said, slumping into a wooden chair that was set amongst his various files and folders.
“What is that thing?” demanded the sergeant to the executioner, gesturing to the thick leather-bound book in the executioner’s hands.
“It’s the Antiq Guild Registry. It’s what you use to order specific services,” he sighed, tossing it over. “I keep a current copy on hand to avoid situations like this.”
“What do you mean?” asked the sargeant, his face contorting as it tried to comprehend the services listed in the prostitution section.
“My predecessor executed a man that had been charged for murder. It turns out that the man had been hired as an assassin, to kill the man he’d killed by the same Lord that turned him in.” The executioner had his head in his hands.
“So whaaaa…?” The sergeant was trying to remain curious about the current situation, but he’d just found a full-page advertisement for the Carnival of Consensual Constraint and was trying to forget the rather detailed artwork depicting their services.
“You probably know the executioner better as Flagpole Billy, and the noble in question has been lovingly remembered as Limbless Lord Leonard.” The executioner was clearly nauseated at the memory.
The sergeant put down the book and and went pale again as he relived the stories he’d heard. “They say that the Vagabond made Leonard eat his own legs before nailing his tongue to his, um…”
“…and Bill’s skin was found flying at half mast.” The executioner looked completely defeated. “So what do we do?”
As the guards started to debate their fate loudly, Prinin risked an exchange with Prag. “Our metal friends have been turned off, but I don’t have enough left to get us out of these cuffs,” he whispered.
Prag replied without even moving his lips, “I slipped mine before we were out of the palace.” A tiny grin curled his lips as he started to look for a useful weapon.
The desperate group of soldiers had made up their minds. It was risky to execute them, but it was suicide to go against direct orders from the Prince. They would behead them and burn the bodies. They were comforted by the fact that there was no audience and that maybe the information about who was present wouldn’t leak, at least not quickly. They all agreed that Frederick, the executioner, would have to do the deed, but they could put together enough money for an early retirement for him.
He said that he’d been saving up just for such an event and with the extra cash from the boys, he’d be okay. He had always wanted to travel anyway so spending a few years on the run might not be so bad.
Agreed and satisfied, the sergeant went to grab the two prisoners. Instead of the usual pleading and sorrow, he encountered a bright smile and a set of leg irons across the jaw. As he stumbled, a delicate pair of hands grabbed his keys and scampered off towards one of the damnable machines while shackle chains wound painfully around his neck and his sword was unsheathed without his consent.
The soldiers immediately jumped back and waited for the Reapers to shred the prisoners. The soldiers didn’t like being replaced by mindless machines, but they knew better than to get in the way. They knew that the blades on those machines weren’t particularly discriminating and they’d had more than one comrade lose important bits by getting between them and their prey. They waited. They saw their sergeant struggling in the chains of their captive. They saw the transvestite scrambling awkwardly into an alcove and start fidgeting with her own restraints. Seconds passed and the sergeant’s struggles weakened.
A particularly brave private poked one of the Reapers with a stick. Instead of shredding it as expected, it wobbled and then fell to the ground with a clatter like a statue still frozen in its standing pose. “Damnit to all the hells! They’re broken.” He looked up at Prag accusingly.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways.” Prag shrugged innocently as the captive sergeant went limp.
Three soldiers drew swords and charged Prag hastily.
It was sad really, thought Prag. They were young, bright and full of promise. The blond one would have a hard time keeping his job without an arm; the short one was already ugly enough before he lost his nose; and the tall one was going to have to live with only one eye and the knowledge that he stuck his sergeant in the gut accidentally.
Prag took stock. He was down one hostage and three opponents and he was up one shield, once the dismembered arm slid free. A net gain, he thought as he kicked a fallen blade over to the Princess… Prince. He wasn’t quite comfortable with that yet. He’d been utterly fooled and he didn’t like that. Also, he was starting to wonder about her… his relationship with Kish and that was both distracting and depressing. A crossbow bolt punched through his shield and he threw his blade through the only soldier bright enough to grab a bow. He considered how he’d missed the deception and woefully discarded some closely kept fantasies as he grabbed the blade of a fallen soldier and darted to an exposed opponent on the left flank.
Prinin was free and he picked up the sword as it slid to him. He’d been ignored by the first wave and now he was ready for the second. Four men were bearing down on him. Unlike the first group’s haphazard and frantic attack on Prag, his opponents were organized and approaching quickly in a neat phalanx with their spears lowered and shields squared. Prinin wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the sword with which he’d been provided and saw the oncoming wall of shields and spears as an opportunity rather than a threat. He threw the sword down and it went skittering across the limestone floor. He threw up his hands in surrender.
The soldiers kept marching, not accepting the surrender for a moment. Prinin felt a moment of remorse. They were good soldiers. They were organized, loyal, well trained and they marched in perfect step. With a single word and a sweep of his hand, he released the last dregs of his borrowed magic and the sword spun like a windmill and shot across the ground severing the tendons in each of their right ankles. They dropped in unison and Prinin casually plucked a spear from one of his fallen captors as he strode past.
He checked on Prag as he advanced. He was covered in blood and, for once, it didn’t look like it was his own. He was cutting through the soldiers at a steady pace, but they were locked inside a prison courtyard and these brave dozen were surely not the only men in the prison. They needed an exit and Prinin saw that on the executioner’s belt.
The executioner himself wasn’t a fighter. He was a fine gaoler and exceptionally good with keeping records straight. In that area he had excelled. His exemplary performance had landed him a position as head executioner when his mentor had been skinned and run up a pole. He certainly looked the part, being a head taller than most men and hairy as a bear, but at heart he just wanted things to be neat and organized and orderly. He watched glumly as his last, best workers were cut down. He’d been short-staffed since the damned prince’s war effort had begun and there weren’t any competent men left around to call. Now he was going to be killed by a cross-dressing thief and he couldn’t figure out a way to escape.
The thief was bearing down on him. It was an odd sort of charge. He coiled and unwound his stolen spear around him like a striking viper. Each man was cut down with elegant precision, and then remorsefully apologized to as he moved on to the next. The cross-dresser was almost upon him when something started to happen that gave him a brief moment of hope.
Everyone in the courtyard felt every hair on their body stand on end. One private was again violently ill and Prinin dove for cover as he tasted the sickly sweet scent of music fill the area. A single white dot appeared, hovering in the middle of the court and it grew quickly filling the yard with a blinding light. There was a deafening pop and the light was gone.
The executioner was more than a little disappointed in what he saw as his eyes readjusted to the normal daylight. He had hoped that the fool wizard that had gotten him into this mess had popped by to clean it up. Instead, he found himself at the sharp end of a spear being held by a floating gauntlet apparently being controlled by a one-armed gentleman in a Haelund officer’s uniform.
Prag wasn’t any happier than the executioner. His former opponents were being ungraciously subdued by a mass of metal and stone. That would have been welcomed, but he recognized the stone bits from Irsank Fortress. The metal parts were new, replacements for the arms the kid had broken. He backed off and looked for escape; instead, he only found confusion.
Prinin had run for cover behind one of the deactivated Reapers when the spell had gone off. When his vision had cleared, he found himself face to face with the least likely rescuer that he could have thought of.
“Hi,” Syd said awkwardly. “You’re looking well… I mean… given the circumstances.” He fidgeted with the hem of his neat but wholly unwizardly tunic. “Sorry about that little thing… back then, I mean… trying to kill you and all… sorry.”
“Oy!” threatened a familiar voice from elsewhere in the courtyard. “Less moving, soldier boy!”
“Warlis?” Prag wheeled around to see his chronically unwashed partner in crime standing, well-dressed and groomed, on the gallows steps levelling a crossbow at one of the few standing guards. “What in the hells is going on?”
“You’re getting rescued, you ungrateful thug,” the one-armed man spoke up.
“Taimon?” Prinin jumped out of his nook and ran to his friend. “I thought you had certainly died. What are you doing here?” He swung his arms around the Baron joyfully.
“I was rescued…” Baron Taimon was happy to see the Princess, but a little taken aback. “Cari, what’s wrong with your voice?”
Before the awkward explanation could begin, an as yet unnoticed pair made themselves known. “May I have your attention, please?” the friendly lieutenant announced formally. “I would like to introduce…”
He was simultaneously cut off by three shocked and confused voices as he gestured to the silver-haired man beside him.
“Uncle Ash!” cried Prinin in delighted amazement. “Shawn?” blurted Prag in uncomfortable confusion. “The Vagabond!” moaned the executioner in horror.
The lieutenant cleared his throat politely and continued, “…introduce the great Sorcerer King Ashunar.”