The Etherial Tower occupied the southernmost side of the Imperial Palace complex, straddling a short section of the wall that separated the Emperor and his affairs from the rest of Loningel. The only entrance was on the inside, past the palace's main gate, and through at least twenty heavily armed Imperial Guardsmen.
You didn't get close unless you had a reason. Fortunately, my little gold-dipped fairy had bought me one.
The corporal on duty at the main gate scrutinized the paperwork. He took his time. The seals and signatures looked official, because they were. The only bogus thing was my job description.
There was a difference of opinion about whether or not to let me through, so I was sent into a small gatehouse to see the duty sergeant. "Small" being a relative term. The place was bigger than my last three apartments combined.
"I wasn't informed about any of this, Mr. Cross."
"That's the idea," I said. "Anyone who knows I'm coming can hide the evidence."
The sergeant hemmed and hawed. "And the Imperial Assessor's Office really thinks there is evidence?"
"We have an anonymous tip."
He folded his hands. "Doesn't sound reliable."
"Listen, sergeant. This 'accident' led to a payout of several thousand gold pieces for repairs. Now, maybe you don't care about the Imperial coffers, but some of us do. If there's even a hint of fraud or malappropriation of funds in there, we need to find it."
The sergeant sighed. He clearly didn't give a rat's ass about my problems, but they were also above his pay grade. He stamped my papers and signed off, granting me official pass.
I thanked him, and made my way along the south end of the palace courtyard.
The Etherial Tower itself was covered in scaffolding. There were black soot stains around the upper windows, where the fire had broken out. A section of wall around halfway up had been blown out, making a ragged hole around ten or twelve feet in diameter. Thick, wooden beams supported the remaining stone, while a crew of masons patiently worked to repair it.
My papers got me through the tower's entrance. An hour or so of bluffing, bullshit, and bullying got me all the way to the top. No one ever wants to be the guy dealing with an angry beurocrat. Everyone always wants to pass him off to the next guy up the chain.
Eventually, there was nobody left to pass me to but the Twin Magi. I was told to wait outside their personal quarters.
While I waited, a curvy redhead in a sheer gown entertained me. The girl was around twenty or so. She didn't say much, but she provided me with warm chai, hors d'oeuvres, and the opportunity to admire her charms. There was plenty to admire, so I didn't mind. I'd just finished the chai when the large double doors opened.
About the only thing the Twin Magi had in common was that they were ancient. Both appeared to be in their mid eighties or older.
Grewaldt was around six-foot-five and rail thin. His robes hung off limbs that weren't much more than frail twigs. With his sunken eyes and jaundiced skin, he reminded you of a living scarecrow.
Balada was short, dusky-skinned, and morbidly obese. One arm dragged uselessly at his side. The other clutched a thorn wood staff like his life depended on it.
Grewaldt turned to the girl. "Thank you, Lyse. That will be all."
What happened next was the last thing I expected. The girl went to each of the old wizards and kissed them. And not a peck on the cheek, either. It was a full-on lovers' kiss.
My surprise must have registered on my face. The fat one smirked. "Our young wife is quite a fetching creature. Is she not, Mr. Cross?"
"Wha— You mean both of you?"
The jaundiced scarecrow tilted his head in a half-shrug. "She handles her duties in a way that pleases both of us. It's far more efficient than each of us needing to get a wife. It allows us to give our attention to more important matters."
I worked hard to drive the mental image out of my head. Although at their age, I couldn't imagine Lyse's "duties" amounted to much more than cooking, cleaning, and changing the bed pans.
I decided to get down to business. "Okay. So which of you wants to tell me why you're lying about the assassination attempt?"
The amused smirk left Balada's face. He kept his voice even, but his knuckles whitened on his staff. "Who said anything about an assassin?"
"Let's can it, shall we? I know you're lying, just like you both know I'm not really an assessor. You let me get this close because you wanted to know what my angle is."
Balada tapped his staff once against the ground. "We're wizards, boy. We could peel your mind like an onion, and see your 'angle' for ourselves."
"But you won't," I told him.
His partner spoke up this time, shuffling and straightening his too-big robes around his bundled-stick torso. "Oh? Why is that?"
"Because you've got someone gunning for you. And despite your best efforts, it's not a secret. If an outlander like me knows, you can bet your books a lot of other folks in Loningel know. You can also bet a good number of them are enemies. Or at least people who'd like to see the two of you taken down a peg. What you guys need is a friend. And I can be real friendly. Provided a couple of wizards don't go scrambling my brain for laughs."
The two wizards consulted one another in silence. I had no idea if they were having some kind of telepathic conversation, or if they just knew each other so well they could anticipate each others' thoughts.
"You first," Balada said. "Tell us who you are and why you're here."
I gave them the short version.
"And you believe this young man was behind recent... ah... events... here at the Etherial Tower?" Gewaldt asked.
"Not behind them," I corrected. "But probably involved. And almost certainly against his will."
Again, a moment of silent communication. "Explain."
"It doesn't take much for a wizard to convince a naive kid from my world that he's on some kind of noble quest. They don't know the local politics, and they tend to believe whatever you tell them. A little hocus-pocus and some carefully chosen propaganda, and you can make any local schmuck look like a Demon Lord. Do it right, and you have a perfectly disposable, perfectly deniable assassin. One who earnestly believes he's a knight in shining armor."
I wasn't just blowing smoke, either.
The "Hero/Savior of the Kingdom" scam was one of the most prevalent ones in the multiverse. It was kind of like those "modeling" scams on Earth, the ones that were really fronts for trafficking girls into prostitution. It worked because it preyed on the same basic desire. Both scams targeted kids with big dreams, and made them feel special, uplifted, and chosen.
Of course, the "Heroic quest" was about as real as the "modeling contracts."
"So what is it you want from us?" They spoke in unison that time. It was unsettling.
"I want to know what this assassin looked like. I want a timeline of the attempt. And I want to know who has it in for you guys. Specifically, anyone who might have the power to go crossworlds and hijack some talent from my world."
Balada contemplated his huge, round stomach. "And in exchange?"
"Like I said, I can be real friendly. If I were to learn who tried to hurt my friends, I might just take it in my head to do something about it. Quietly. Without involving them."
Again, they spoke in unison. "This is an... acceptable arrangement."