Read The City of Ravens Online

Authors: Richard Baker

The City of Ravens (8 page)

“Do I know you, sir?” she asked in a light voice.

“Lord Jaer Kell Wildhame of Chondath. My lady, a visitor in your fair city,” Jack replied. He’d seen the Lady Mayor at a distance on two or three previous occasions, but he hadn’t realized the beauty and strength she carried in person. Like Elana, but armed with weapons far sharper and more subtle than mere swords. “I shall on this instant declare Raven’s Bluff my home until the day I die, for how could I ever leave the enchanted place that wrought a beauty such as yours?”

He started to say more, but the Lady Mayor withdrew her hand and nodded graciously. “I suppose I must abide here as well, for how could I deny you the opportunity to weave words such as those? I hope you enjoy your stay, Lord Wildhame. I bid you goodnight.” Then she was gone, sweeping past Jack while the Lord Chancellor and Lord Swylythe briefly introduced themselves and followed

behind. Jack scarcely noticed, his eyes still on the Lady Mayor as she left.

Tour loveliness defies comparison?’” Illyth snorted and caught Jack’s arm. “It might be nice if you could spare a compliment or two for me, Jack!”

“I have long since given up hope of discovering a compliment that could do you credit, fair Illyth,” Jack replied. He caught her hand and kissed it as well. “If I were to call the sun a candle flame, I should shame both myself and the object of my praise. When I find the words to suit you, I shall never cease to give them voice!”

Illyth laughed and blushed. “That’s better, I suppose. Come on—we must get our masks for the Game!” She led him into the robing room, where a handful of attendants in blue and silver awaited. “Lady Illyth Fleetwood and Lord Jaer Kell Wildhame,” she told them.

“Lady Illyth,” the chief attendant said with a bow. He was a large man, with broad shoulders and a bearlike beard tempered by the twinkle of humor in his eyes. “Lord Jaer. We’re so very glad you could attend. I am the Master Crafter Randall Morran, and I will serve as the chief storyteller, moderator, judge, master of ceremonies, and facilitator of entertainment for this challenge of the Game of Masks.” He turned his attention to a large wardrobe nearby and searched it thoughtfully before handing two simple masks to them. “Please, try them on. If they are uncomfortable, we shall adjust them.”

Rolling his eyes, Jack doffed his splendid feathered cap and handed it to the footman. He pulled on the mask and turned to look at Illyth. A ghostly white crane with striking black plumage seemed to stand in her place, although he could vaguely glimpse the suggestion of a beautiful woman in an elegant gown through the illusion.

“Quite effective,” he admitted. “How do I seem to you, Illyth?”

The crane laughed softly. “I find myself addressing a rather sly-looking fox in a gentleman’s coat,” she said. “It’s curiously appropriate. And I?”

“A stately crane, very wise and beautiful,” Jack said, “also appropriate. So, what now? How is the game to be played?”

“Listen now to the tale of the Seven Faceless Lords,” intoned the Master Crafter. “A long time ago in a distant land, seven wise monarchs named Alcantar, Buriz, Carad, Dubhil, Erizum, Fatim, and Geciras ruled well and faithfully seven rich and prosperous kingdoms: Unen, Dues, Trile, Quarra, Pentar, Hexan, and Septun. In their wisdom, the seven monarchs placed the defense of their land in the hands of a great and powerful enchantment. The spell was bound to the monarchs’ lives, so that as long as one did live, the land would be unassailable.

“Then, to ensure that no foe undid the enchantment by striking down the monarchs, each of the seven kings went secretly to dwell in the lands held by another monarch, living humbly among the people. When they must perforce appear in public, the monarchs hid then-faces and names behind hoods: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple, and Black. Thus no one knew where each king dwelt or even what each king looked like, and the land was ruled well for many years.

“Alas, an enemy arose whom even the wise monarchs did not anticipate. One by one the descendants of the original Seven Lords turned to evil. Their peculiar arrangement made it impossible for the champions of the people to unseat the fallen lords, since even if one were exposed and defeated, any of the other six might loose the great enchantment upon the land to exact a terrible vengeance. And now, the only way in which the land may be freed of the rule of the Seven Faceless Lords is if each monarch’s identity and the kingdom in which he

dwells is learned by a true and faithful hero, so that all may be exposed and defeated in the very same stroke.

“So, my Lady Crane and my Lord Fox, you have begun the quest secretly to determine the identity of each of the Seven Faceless Lords. Over the next seven weeks, each lord will host a revel celebrating the seventh century of their houses joint rule. Tonight you are guests at the Red Lord’s Revel. May your search be fruitful, for all the land demands justice!”

Jack nodded. Seven lords, seven names, seven kingdoms. All one had to do was to hit upon the correct alignment out of the, just a moment, three hundred and forty-three possible combinations. Simple persistence should win the day.

“That doesn’t seem too hard,” he said aloud.

“Oh, and you should know,” Randall Morran added, “that you are entitled to make only one guess. Should you guess wrong, the Faceless Lords will destroy you at once, thus removing your characters from the game.”

“Is that all?” Illyth asked.

“No, my lady,” said a second attendant. “Each pair of participants begins with a clue as to the identity of one of the Faceless Lords. By carefully conversing with the other guests and exchanging clues, you should eventually identify each lord’s name and dwelling place.”

“And our clue is?” Jack asked.

Master Crafter Randall Morran consulted a large leather-bound tome. Then he opened a small locked chest sitting on the credenza and rifled through its contents, producing a small ivory token stamped with gold filigree and printed with small lettering. “Here it is, my lord.”

Jack took the token and glanced at it. Dubhil is not the Orange Lord, it read.

“If you are wise, you’ll ask to see the another player’s clue token when you exchange information,” the second

attendant said. “Some unsportsmanlike players might deliberately mislead you otherwise.”

“Perish the thought,” Jack muttered.

There was one strategy out the window. He passed the token to Illyth, thinking hard. It would be very difficult to get information out of another player without providing information of presumably equal value; that meant that any clever and thorough player would make progress at about the same speed as any other clever and thorough player. Of course, the tokens might be faked or stolen. Or, for that matter, that big leather book where the Game judges apparently kept a roster of players and clues might be borrowed for a time and then carefully replaced.

An unsportsmanlike player had a few options open to him, at least. Jack nodded to himself. It might not be so bad, after all.

“One more question,” Illyth asked. “What happens if a participant guesses wrong and removes himself—and therefore his clue as well—from the Game?”

“Good question,” Jack said.

Illyth was somewhat gullible and given to romantic nonsense, but there was nothing wrong with her reasoning. When she put her mind to it, there were few puzzles she couldn’t figure out. If he could possibly accept the notion of losing fairly, he might have even considered tackling the riddle without deceit, relying on nothing more than her logical powers and his own guile.

“Oh, we’ve already thought of that,” the Master Crafter said. “There are a handful of vital clues that we are watching out for. If a player with one of those clues faults out of the Game, we will reintroduce his clue by secretly reassigning it to a randomly determined player who is still in the Game. Never fear, my lady Crane; well make sure that a solution is possible for any who still choose to play.” He guided them over to the elegant doors leading into the

ballroom and bowed. The Red Lord’s Revel awaits, my lady!”

Thank you,” Illyth murmured. She took Jack’s arm, and together they descended the small flight of steps leading down and into the grand room. Figures merry and fierce thronged the floor, bears and leopards, dragons and serpents, falcons and sparrows and gulls. Some danced, while others conversed gaily, and still more sampled the various hors d’oeuvres spread out along the shining side table. Striding through the center of the throng, the Red Lord moved with grace, confidence, and an air of subtle cruelty, a tall man (or woman?) in a scarlet robe and a seamless, eyeless hood of the same color.

“Lord Fox, Lady Crane,” said a grinning satyr at Jack’s elbow. “I see that you have just arrived. Perhaps you might consent to an exchange of information in order to begin the evening’s riddle.”

Illyth shrugged. “It seems as good a place as any to start.” She started to hand her token over, but Jack deftly caught her hand.

“A moment,” he said with a smile. He winked at her and turned to the satyr. “Your strategy, sir, is simple. You wait here near the place where newcomers enter, and offer them a fair trade—your clue for theirs. Thus you gain dozens of clues at the expense of one.”

The satyr-masked man laughed. “I see you have no small instinct for gamesmanship. Well? How about it?”

“We would be parting with the entirety of our knowledge in exchange for a twentieth, perhaps a thirtieth, of yours,” Illyth said, catching Jack’s eye. That doesn’t seem quite so fair.”

“I can hardly be held responsible for your late start,” said the satyr. “Do you want my clue, or not?”

“Well show you our token if you show yours, and tell us three other things you have learned,” said Jack.

“My clue, plus one more,” the satyr said.

“Make it two, and you’ll have a deal,” said Illyth.

The man grimaced—a difficult expression through the horned mask—and agreed with a nod. “Very well, then.” They exchanged tokens; the satyr’s read The Black Lord is the brother of Geciras. “Here are two clues more that I have learned: Alcantar does not dwell in Septun, and the Blue Lord does not dwell in Dues.” He offered a shallow bow and moved on into the party.

“This is going to be very difficult to keep straight,” Illyth said quietly to Jack. “I should have brought a journal and a pen.”

“A sound idea. Well do so next time, although I suspect that everyone else will have the same idea. In the meantime, I suggest this division of labor: You commit the confirmed clues to memory, while I’ll memorize the unreliable ones.”

“Confirmed and unreliable?”

“Clue tokens we have seen, and clue tokens we have heard about secondhand. I don’t doubt that our satyr friend made up the two clues he told us, but on occasion, someone may deal with us in good faith. And if we have unreliable clues that don’t contradict each other, there’s a chance they might be the truth.”

“Do you think that he was really lying to us?”

Jack simply laughed. “I would have, had I been him. Come on—let’s see what clues we can learn and what deceits we can spread.” Arm in arm, they moved on into the Game of Masks.

***Ś

By the time midnight drew near, Jack had learned three important things.

First of all, he’d learned that many of the players were

not interested in rushing willy-nilly toward the collection of every clue at hand. In fact, there weren’t more than a dozen or so serious competitors who were trying to hound out clues as quickly as possible. For the majority of the Game players, the entertainment of the evening lay not in solving the puzzle but in playing the Game itself. It boggled Jack. Many players made small talk or thought up stories to tell about other players or the Red Lord, weaving a complex plot around the rather trite story that the Game coordinators had invented to justify the riddle. Players refused to trade clues, offered to trade clues if Illyth and he would do something to forward their own little plots and efforts, or just casually dismissed Lord Fox and Lady Crane outright, telling them to come back later.

Secondly, Jack learned that it was possible to deftly pickpocket clue-tokens from passersby, especially on the crowded dance floor. He managed to pull off the feat three times during the course of the night. Of course, he couldn’t figure out how to let Illyth know that these clues were reliable, but he figured that he’d solve that problem later.

Finally, Jack learned that it was extremely inadvisable to be caught at filching tokens. Near the end of the evening, Jack found himself standing near a man concealed beneath a panther mask as black as coal. The fellow was engaged in a conversation with a pretty serving girl next to the buffet sideboard. Jack sidled up behind him, filled a plate with food, and casually bumped the man as if by accident. The panther jumped and whirled on him, at which point Jack “accidentally” spilled his plate.

“Oh, please excuse me,” Jack said. “How clumsy of me.”

“No apology needed,” the panther said, examining his clothes to see if any food had been spilled on him. He swayed a little, apparently a little in his cups. “No harm done—here, what’s this?” Quicker than Jack would have believed, the drunken man reached out to seize his wrist

with the abrupt celerity that strong wine sometimes imparts. Lord Panther twisted Jack’s wrist, staring at his own clue token. “Huh? In a hurry to see my clue, eh?”

Jack winced. He shouldn’t have pressed his luck—a good pickpocket worked with an accessory or two to help pass off loot quickly, just so this sort of thing didn’t happen. “Ah, I’ll agree that this looks bad,” he said. “I assure you, sir, that this is completely accidental, a freakish coincidence. I would never deliberately stoop to such a crass tactic.” He began to gain confidence in his bluster. “In fact, your accusation is unjust and undeserved. The Red Lord’s vintages have fuddled your wits.”

“How dare you deny your guilt when my token is in your hands!” Lord Panther growled. He seemed to be sobering quickly.

At that moment, Illyth disentangled herself from a nearby conversation and made her way over. “Hello, Jack. What’s the trouble?”

“Ah, my Lady Crane. I sincerely hope that you adhere to higher standards than your companion here, or do you intend to seduce me in order to gain access to my token?”

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