Authors: Richard Baker
The day was clear and bright, by far the best day of the spring so far, but Jack hired a coach despite the fine walking weather. He had the coachman drive him six miles beyond the city walls to Woodenhall Manor, the home of the Fleetwood family. The ride took the better part of an hour, which Jack used to admire the scenery outside the city. As far as he could remember, he’d left the city no more than ten times during his entire life, and he’d never been farther away than Woodenhall. He was a Ravenaar, born and bred.
The coach turned into the lane leading to the Fleetwood Manor, rumbling to a stop in front of an impressive veranda before a palatial estate. Liveried guardsmen stood watch over beautiful grounds and hedged gardens, attending a great wooden manor house that was big enough for dozens of family members and three or four times their number of retainers, guards, servants, and guests.
Jack told the coachman to wait for him, then strode up the steps to the nearest servant and said, “Please inform Lady Illyth that the Landsgrave Jaer Kell Wildhame humbly requests an audience this morning.”
The servant bowed. “At once, sir. Would you care to wait in the study?”
Jack made a show of acquiescing. “That will do quite well, thank you.”
He allowed the servant to show him to a comfortably appointed drawing room and busied himself with examining the decor while he waited patiently. He noted several small items he might pocket and sell later but restrained his larcenous impulses. The Lord Jaer Kell Wildhame was no petty thief!
“Jack! What a surprise!”
Almost dancing in delight, Lady Illyth Fleetwood swept into the room and embraced Jack. Despite the fact that she was well past her schooling and into the years when a noblewoman was expected to be safely married and already raising a child or two of her own, Illyth had never lost the look of girlish enthusiasm and wide-eyed eagerness one might expect of a lady ten years younger. Where other ladies primped for hours over the exact set of their hair and fretted for days over which dress best suited them, Illyth absently kept her long, black hair in a shoulder-length cascade of soft midnight and favored simple, comfortable dresses more suited to a merchant’s wife than a nobleman’s daughter. Her fingers were habitually marked with faint ink stains instead of painted nails. Illyth was an accomplished scholar and prided herself on her personal library, assembled book by book as her interests carried her from one topic to the next.
Other than Ontrodes, she was the next best thing to a true sage he could consult with, and she would gladly work for nothing at allif Jack managed to pique her interest in the topic at hand.
“Hello, Illyth,” he said. He bowed deeply. “You are lovelier than ever! I find myself wondering how it is that I’ve allowed two months to pass since I saw you last.”
“Because you’re a fickle and flighty scoundrel,” Illyth said with a smile.
As far as she knew, Jack was the wandering son of a minor nobleman from the Vilhon Reach, seeking his fortune abroad since his older brother had inherited his father’s lands and exiled him into penury to keep him from marrying the woman he loved. Illyth thrived on stories just like that, and Jack had been carefully embroidering the tale of Jaer Kell Wildhame for Illyth’s benefit for the better part of a year now.
“Lovely, wise, and cruel, all at the same time,” Jack said. “How do your studies proceed, Illyth?”
“Well enough. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of months studying the natural environs of Woodenhallsketching the lay of the land, tracking just how many creatures of what sorts inhabit the manor, keeping records of the weather, things like that. It’s all quite fascinatingbut I can see that it would just bore you. How about you, Jack? Is the theater open yet?”
“Oh, I need to find another sponsor or two, and a play worth producing,” Jack replied. He’d met Illyth a couple of years ago, when he was occasionally employed by various theaters in the city. Many of the noble patrons of the arts enjoyed inviting actors, playwrights, and artists of note into their social circle for a time. The rich and powerful engaged in a subtle competition to attract the most interesting personages into their retinue, in the same way that they might bid against each other to own the most striking paintings or to stock the most outrageous menageries. Ingratiating himself among the well-to-do of the city was one of Jack’s favorite pastimes.
“In fact,” he said, “I was hoping you could help me on the matter of the play.”
“Help you? But how?” Illyth asked.
“I know that last year you became interested in the topic of heroes, adventurers, and freebooters who’d made their homes in Raven’s Bluff,” Jack began. “I’ve got an idea for a smashing production based on the deeds of one of these adventurous sorts, but I’d like to verify the details of the story and make sure that I get it all right. Historical accuracy is very important to me.”
“I’m glad to hear it!” Illyth exclaimed. “I can’t tell you how much it annoys me when a playwright doesn’t even bother to do a bit of research. Who did you have in mind?”
“A mage named Gerard. As I understand it, he passed
through the city and mysteriously vanished about six to ten years ago. Have you ever heard of him?”
She frowned prettily. “Hmmm… no, I don’t believe so, but I’ve got hundreds of names recorded in my papers. If not there, then I might dig up some information at the Wizard’s Guild, or at the Ministry of Art. What did Gerard supposedly do?”
Jack realized that he’d better tread carefully. He had to give Illyth a good reason for why he wanted to know about Gerard, one that would match his cover story. “I’m not really sure. My play is actually about a rival of his, and I wanted to cast Gerard as a villain. Supposedly, he owned a book called the Sarkonagael,” he said. “Can you look into it for me?”
Illyth thought about it for a moment, and then nodded her head. Td be happy to, Jack, on one condition.”
“I need a partner in the new Game of Masks. It’s going to start in just three days, and they say that the prize is a real Dragon’s Tear! You’re clever, and you’ve worked as a player before. I think you could be very good at it, if you just gave it a try!”
“The Game of Masks?” Jack tried not to wince. The Game was a noble diversion, an ongoing series of playacting events wherein the participants took on various roles and tried to solve puzzles, stumble through a plot, or play at great deeds. He supposed it was fun… but it would take a lot of time, probably one evening in every three or four for the next couple of months. More than that, if he played seriously, and Illyth would demand no less than a serious effort on his part. It would also cost a lot of money to stay in the game, more money than he could put his hands on.
Unless Anders came through with his share of the Kuldath ruby.
Or he and Illyth actually won the Game prize. A Dragon’s Tear would compensate him quite nicely for his time and trouble. And how hard could it be, really? Most of their competition would consist of foppish noblemen and bored ladies groping their way through a stale plot of some kind. Jack, on the other hand, was a professional. He lied, cheated, stole, and played at being someone he was not as a way of life. He’d cut through their silly Game like a shark in a barrel of codfish.
He looked up at Illyth, a little breathless, a little too fond of her books, but a charming and pretty girl who thought he was romantic, tragic, and entertaining all at the same time. If playing at the Game made her happy, why not?
“All right,” Jack said. “When do we start?”
it turned out, the Game was not scheduled to begin until the following night. Jack promised to pick up Illyth at sunset (yet another expensive carriage ride! he lamented), then returned to the city and dined at the Cracked Tankard. Following that, he called on Ontrodes to see if the sage had made any progress in the Sarkonagael riddle, but the old sot hadn’t even started to look into it yet he was too busy working on Zandria’s dwarven runes. When Jack complained, Ontrodes pointed out that she paid him in real coin, while Jack simply promised a flask of brandy and would undoubtedly deliver the cheapest and most miserable brew he could pour into a nice-looking flask. So Jack returned to his rooms in Burnt Gables and went to bed.
The next morning brought a cool, steady wind off the Inner Sea and a gentle rain that promised to last all day. Jack foraged through his larder for something to eat, discovering a wheel of cheese and a small barrel half full of last fall’s apples, now sweet and wrinkled. While he ate, he considered his next move. He decided to press forward with his investigations on Elana’s behalf. This time, he would go straight to the source.
When he finished his breakfast, Jack turned
his attention to his closets. His rooms comprised half of the loft of a warehouse stocking sail canvas, barrels of pitch, great reels of rope, and dozens of other items useful to the Ravenaar shipyards and provisioners. It was an odd arrangement; Jack paid nothing for the space, and in return he was obligated to guard the warehouse from others of his profession. Since no self-respecting thief would try to carry off loot such as planks or ballast stones, he didn’t have to work too hard to protect the place. Jack had furnished a fairly comfortable and well-appointed apartment in the building’s upper story, and if the place was stiflingly hot in the summertime and intolerably drafty in winter, it was free.
The warehouse offered one other virtue Jack enjoyedit provided ample storage for anything he stole and wanted to keep. He had almost a dozen closets stuffed full of various knickknacks and odds and ends he’d pilfered. Jack systematically searched through his closets for attire suitable for a visit to the Wizards’ Guild, and found a heavy rune-embroidered robe of dark blue brocade over fine cotton. He pulled the robe on over a pair of baggy red breeches and pointed Calimshite slippers, adding a simple red fez to complete the outfit.
“I need a dangerous-looking staff,” he muttered, critically examining his appearance in the mirror.
He settled for an iron rod about two feet in length, capped by a serpent’s head of copper. He formed a simple spell and placed an invisible rune on the serpent rod, so that it would seem to be magically enchanted if examined by anyone who could detect such things. Then, with one more adjustment to his fez, he trotted down the rickety stairs out into the streets.
“I am a formidable wizard,” he said aloud. “I have urgent business at the High House of the guild. Delay me at your peril!” No one was close enough to note his
words. Adopting an expression of stern determination, he stomped off toward the Uptown district.
The High House of Magic was a large building of black stone, designed to resemble a castle in strength and majesty despite its surroundings. It was simply a well-made hall with false turrets and a decorative parapet, but the structure loomed over its neighboring buildings, a stodgy old gaffer knee-deep in disrespectful children. Without hesitation, Jack bounded up the short flight of steps leading to the front door, taking them two at a time. Then he hammered his iron rod against the door in the most imperious fashion he could imagine.
“Open up at once!” he cried. “The Dread Delgath demands admittance this very instant!”
The door opened slowly, with a monotonous creaking of wood. A wizened old porter stood there, squinting up at him (quite a feat, considering Jack’s own modest stature). “Eh? What do you want here?”
“The Dread Delgath has come to grace your impoverished fellowship with a mage of the highest caliber and most impressive credentials,” Jack said.
“And who would that be?” said the old man.
Jack glared at the doorman. “Why, me, of course! Whom else could I possibly be referring to?”
“Ah, I see,” said the doorman. “Well, why don’t you come in, and I’ll summon Master Meritheus to discuss your potential for membership.”
” ‘Potential for membership’, indeed! Why, the Dread Delgath should”
“Right this way, sir,” the old man said.
He turned and scurried inside so quickly that Jack had to dart after him in a most undignified manner in order to make sure he was inside rather than out when the door creaked closed again. Jack found himself standing in a dark-paneled foyer, dim and dusty, the air thick
with dust and the faint, mysterious scents of exotic incense and alchemical experiments. The old man was nowhere in sight.
Jack waited a long moment, and then, just as he was about to strike off on his own, he was surprised by the sudden appearance of a tall, heavyset wizard in voluminous robes. The wizard was a young man with a round, sallow face and a drooping black mustache; he resembled nothing so much as an overfed house cat with a lazy inch-nation to toy with its prey.
“I am Meritheus. So, you’re interested in Guild membership?” he said in a bored voice.
“The Dread Delgath is indeed interested,” Jack said. “In fact, the Dread Delgath is so pleased by your magnificent guild house and your friendly porter that he shall refrain from charging you for the privilege of his company. Access to your library shall be sufficient for his compensation today.”
Meritheus merely raised an eyebrow. “Our thanks. Now might I see some small demonstration of your powers? We would like to ascertain whether or not you are really a wizard before we consider your application.”
“Under normal circumstances the Dread Delgath might incinerate you for your insolence, demonstrating his powers quite thoroughly!” boomed Jack. “However, the Dread Delgath is from time to time moved to small and compassionate acts, and thus he refrains from destroying you utterly. Attend, sir!” He reached out and seized the magic in the way he always had, shaping a spell of chaotic energy that swirled around him in a green spiral.
In the blink of an eye, Jack stood behind the wizard. He reached out and tapped the fellow on the shoulder; when the Guild wizard turned, he disappeared again, now standing back in his original spot. He tapped the wizard
on the other shoulder, and then magicked himself to the top of a nearby bookshelf, where he perched like a brightly colored bird.