I woke up regretting sleeping in a dress designed for appearance and not at all for comfort. It would have mattered less had I not been sleeping in an airless closet in the heat of summer with the door shut.
Feeling justified, and more than a little petty, I used the Captain’s fancy bath and left it a mess for a whole half an hour before my imagination tortured me. In fear of the punishing assignments he would think of, I cleaned the whole room, complaining to Avery the whole while.
The Captain himself was out, so I headed out, too, hoping to apologize to Sebastien.
First I had to pass through the kitchen where Mirelle was gossiping with the cook. By the time I left, well-fed and cheerful, it was much later then our normal meeting time. There was no sign of Sebastien in the garden. I watched the sun pass overhead before giving up and heading into town to the market square.
Though I was craving the buns from Reynold's bakery, I stayed outside when I saw him standing in his shop, watching everything with a miserly expression. He looked inclined to share his misery, so instead I wandered among the stalls of street food.
Ignoring the plain produce, I focused on the properly delicious options. Some were grilling meats while others prepared full stir fries in seconds. Perhaps it was the palace cook’s fault that none of them appealed. And the best vendors were missing. Even the cake woman who prided herself on her fifty-year record was nowhere to be seen. The fish vendor, who fried any fish he sold for an extra coin, was also not there.
After much deliberation, I bought a bowl of noodles with sauce. It was pre-prepared and disappointing, but I was hungry enough, and at least it was cold.
The marketplace was hectic with many new vendors and strangely dressed individuals of unusual appearance. Curious, I stepped into one of the alley arches and casually asked the resident padfoot for the news. There always was one resting in the shadowy places near the market vendors.
“There’s a festival. Lots of foreigners and new faces.”
“Looks rich,” I commented, admiring the colorful clothing. “What’s the scope?”
“What?” I almost turned to look at the boy, but one of the strangers was watching me. I made a good show of examining my noodles as though I had discovered something unexpected, and slowly took another taste. “Fleecing only?” I asked my creamy sauce.
“You not heard? Orders from UP. No filching, no cleaning, no touching, no thinking of touching. Eyes and ears only.” There was a girl there, too.
“From the guild?” I looked at my fork quizzically. It was unlike the Thieves Guild to care.
I swallowed my noodles and my words. Not the King, surely? I kicked the arch lightly. “Seems unlucky.”
“S’alright.” The boy was eating something, too. “’S paying.”
I almost kicked the arch again. “For fleece?”
“Mm.” Was it soup? He seemed to like his more than I liked mine.
“Some are even in the palace and the Houses. It’ll be a good season,” the girl was clearly pleased.
“Easy living, risk-free.”
It did not sound risk free to me, but I nodded into my bowl. “How long is the festival?” The snow-white skinned man was still watching me. How had he been living, to reflect the sun like that? Was it a special soap, or lotion?
“Ten days left now.”
Ten days? That was when the ball that Anna had been going on about was happening. What festival was in the last moon and lasted more than two phases?
“You really not heard?” The little girl was suspicious.
“I’ve been out sick.” I finished my noodles and moved on. The strange man had also left, so I slipped into Padfoot’s alley. Instead of passing through into moss and then into the tunnel, I walked into a dull brick wall. I tapped on it, but it was solid. Had they moved after all?
If there were any trees in Market Square… But there were none to ask, and I could hardly pop into a shop to inquire after the whereabouts of the local child criminals. Wandering padfoots would also not answer a question that so clearly demonstrated that I was not an active member.
Even if I couldn’t find out about Padfoot’s, I could at least find out about the festival. There were no holidays approaching, and in any case hardly anyone traveled for those. I did not like the idea of so many unknowns in town, especially after hearing about the Captain’s current case. Anyone could be in the Count’s pay.
I could ask Anna, but she was at the Woodcrafter’s Guild, and the risk of running into Master Thorne outweighed the possible benefits. Everyone in the palace probably knew the reason for the sudden festivities, but not why the Thieves and Padfoots Guilds had been put on probation.
But the Captain was sure to know. And I thought—that is, I had completed my latest assignment, so I doubted that the Captain would be displeased with me showing an interest in something that was important enough for the king, or more likely his Captain, to put a leash on the city’s thieves.
But first, I needed something I could say to the Captain to innocently introduce the subject. Leaving the crowds of the market square behind, I headed to the north guard tower, a purely decorative outpost.
Towering over the tower itself was a Redwood tree. Redwoods always have all the news. They make marvelous spies, redwoods. They enjoy deep conversations, though they can be terribly slow at times. This redwood was still young, only 200 years or so, and not too slow.
Conveniently, the guards at the gate were not looking towards the tower, and the guards in the tower room were not paying the slightest mind to their surroundings, so I was able to pass them all quietly and sneak onto the roof of the tower. When talking to a redwood, height was important. The higher the person stood, the more likely the redwood would listen.
“Fine sunshine, Red,” I greeted the tree softly to avoid disturbing the gamblers below. “How is your soil?”
“It is dry, Walker.”
“Oh no! Will it fill with moisture soon?”
“This I do not know, Walker.”
I grinned, remembering how Thorne had always said Redwoods were difficult to work with. “Oh,” I replied, as if disappointed that the Redwood could not predict the weather.
The Redwood did not disappoint. “I know many ideas, Walker,” it scolded. “When I was a small sapling…” Fortunately made it to more recent times before I fell asleep. “Through this place passed many leaves, new leaves and old leaves. Many leaves come and many go, smelling of sunshine and rain. Many leaves come and many go, sounding of sea and mountain. More come than go. These woods are full of other leaves.”
“But why do they come and go?” I asked thoughtfully, forgetting my audience.
“This I do not know, Walker.” The Redwood was irritated again, and shook its leaves.
I sighed, wishing trees could read minds, or at least eavesdrop, but they never did. Apparently they found the words of leaves to be meaningless.
“I know many ideas, Walker. Through this grove many leaves come and do not go, full soil and water.”
That was craftsman, probably, or traders.
“Many other leaves come and do not go, full of fire and decay.”
I looked at the Redwood. I could not remember a redwood every speaking so emotionally.
“These woods are full of other leaves.”
I felt cold. “You know many ideas, Red. Thank you for sharing them.”
The tree’s leaves rustled, pleased. “I know many ideas.”
“I must go. Enjoy the rain soon, Red.”
“Walker is much sunny. Be still, grow roots.”
I returned to the palace much quicker than I had left it. The guards were on a smoke break and spotted me on the tower stairs.
They were much better at running than they looked.
The Captain was not in his office, but the situation felt important enough for me to seek him out.
It was very nearly the end of me, as the Captain was meeting with the king and the king’s mage. It did not occur to me where I was, seeing as the servant I asked led me so swiftly, and the guard at the door opened it so obligingly.
The king did not turn from the window, but the mage turned his head. Even as the Captain grabbed my arm to push me out the door, the mage made eye-contact with me and my vision went fuzzy. He stopped glowing, and I felt the world growing dim around me.
The Captain half-dragged me all the way to his office, and I think he was muttering mean words, but my ears seemed to be broken. The sound of his voice echoed distantly.
By the time I found myself sitting in my usual chair before the Captain’s desk, I thought for certain that I must be dying. But then the world snapped back to normal.
Except that Avery was curled up in a ball on the floor, shivering uncontrollably.
“Who was that man?” I asked, still in shock. When he had looked at me, I had felt so exposed, like he could see through me.
“The king’s mage? He is Zaphar.”
“He’s very—” I tried to clear my thoughts.
“He tends to be a favorite with women.”
We blinked at each other, and my brain registered that the Captain had rolled his eyes. Surely not? “I suppose he is quite handsome,” I said, trying to recall what he had looked like.
At the same time, the Captain agreed, “He is very powerful.” Perhaps feeling as awkward as I, he sat down and changed the subject. “It will be interesting to hear what possessed you to interrupt a meeting in the king’s office.”
“It was very important,” I said defensively, trying to remember. His expression was dubious, so I added, “and time sensitive.”
“I am listening.” The Captain was unimpressed, but doing his best to give me a chance to redeem myself.
Fortunately, I had calmed enough to remember. “I spoke to—some friends of mine, in the city.” I could hardly say it was a tree.
The Captain must have been quite stressed, as he said, “I already know everything those little feet of Freddy’s know.”
“I am not speaking of them,” I said, annoyed that he knew my friends better than I did. He probably knew why the entrance had been bricked, and I was too irritated to admit that I did not by asking. “Though, it was from them that I learned of the crown’s unusual expenditures for the upcoming festival.”
He only ‘hmmed’ and waited for me to continue, clearly unimpressed.
As best as I could, I translated the redwood’s words into human terms. “It was suggested to me, by a most reliable source, that a good number of persons entered the city heavily armed and with suspicious attitudes.”
For as odd as it sounded, and I was wincing even as I finished, the Captain processed my statement quickly and seriously. “I will need to speak to this friend of yours.” He sounded sincere.
“My friend? Ehhh..very..shy.” There was no way I was introducing him to a tree. “I am sorry, but I really don’t think that would be possible.”
The Captain considered that and decided not to press, likely thinking he could find out through his other sources. “A good number is not very specific. It would be helpful to know more details, such as how many people, or from which direction they came, where they went, or a description of them.”
“’Many’, coming through the north gate. No description was provided.”
“Your friend saw many people with weapons and did not think to notice what they looked like.”
“My source is a little,” I hesitated, “hard of seeing.”
“A little hard of seeing.”
“Blind as a bricked wall.”
“If you used doors like a normal person…”
“Is there a door?” At his dismayed expression, I quickly found myself remembering that Bigfoot had set up shop in a literal shop. They would have an entrance to the cellars from inside, instead of needing the alley.
"It’s been less than two hours and he was in a meeting…how did he know?" Avery had recovered enough to sit up, and was leaning against his desk looking up at me.
“I was distracted.”
“Wait, you had me fleeced?”
“This source of yours is someone you trust.”
I looked darkly at the desk, “More than some trust their assistants, clearly.”
“Your source agrees with Zaphar’s assessment. During his late night meditation yesterday he felt that the city is thick with plots. I do not suppose there is anything else you would like to tell me.”
I glared at him. “Wouldn’t you know?”
His expression was oddly tired. “Recently you have been absent rather more than your contract warrants. After catching you leaving in the middle of such an auspicious night, I felt the need to look into your acquaintances.”
Surprised that he would explain himself to me, I offered more information. “They are visitors, newly come.” At his sarcastic expression, I clarified, “The people my source saw are people who have never entered the city before, in all their lives.”
“Your brick-blind friend saw this.”
“My friend has many talents,” I said a smugly, enjoying that he could not find out who my source was. Even if he knew everything else I had done that day. And probably every other day. My smugness faded. “Wait, how had you known—”
“Never, in their lives,” the Captain leaned forward and I sat back reflexively. “Never in all their lives…” He leaned back again and pulled a map out of his desk drawer, spreading it across the wooden surface.
It was the first time I had ever looked at a world map. Niare looked so small, surrounded by so many other places. Silently reading the names of all the foreign countries I had never heard of, I stopped on one that startled me. “Vior? As in, ‘de Vior’?”
I knew it was too good to be true!
A knock on the door prompted the Captain to stand. I watched, frozen, as he went to the door, opened it, and said calmly, “Ah, Guard Trent. I trust you brought the list of travelers that have arrived through the North Gate.”
My escort had caught up at last. I had only escaped him at the palace gates when the guards there recognized me as the Captain’s assistant and detained him. The others had fallen behind several streets away.
Avery also stood, pacing back and forth by the bookshelf. “I mean, remember how easily and quickly he liked you? What if he was a spy all along…wait, but what’s the plot?” She stopped and we both watched the Captain.
Taking the list, the Captain added, “I hope my assistant did not give you too much trouble.”
The guard stammered that I had not and beat a hasty retreat even as the Captain closed the door.
He resumed his seat and, as though nothing had happened, said, “Vior,” in a voice full of dismay.
“Not Vior!” I needed to focus on the present, but my mind and Avery were going back through every confusing thing Sebastien had said or done and mocking me for not realizing sooner that he was foreign. “Only, it came up in conversation, and I did not know where it was.” I looked at my hands. The Captain’s silence sounded like suspicion. “But how did the guard know to bring you a list? It’s not like he had time—”
“Woah, stop! If he doesn’t know…” Avery stopped, looking at the Captain. “Oh, no wait. He knows.”
Before I could say anything foolish, the Captain killed my misunderstanding of his strange expression. “You did not know where it was.” If I had told him that I did not know that there even were other countries, he probably would have died of shock right there. “Look at this map.” He knocked on the table. “Show me where Daerany is.”
I glanced at Avery.
“As if. I don’t like maps.”
“Or Umber. Or Lathes.” With each country name, his voice grew more dismayed. “Show me that you know where you are.”
“Saliz is the capital city of a county.”
“Niare.” At least I knew that.
“At least you know that.” He did not sound at all comforted. “I do not want to see you again until you can name all our border countries and Niare’s relationship with them. Get out of my office.”
I looked up, shocked. “And go where?”
His gaze was fastened determinedly on the guard’s list. “Anywhere.” Changing his mind, he said, “The library. The palace library will have information about the different countries. Read all of it.”