As soon as I left the Palace grounds, the difference was immediately noticeable.The posters with my face on them had all gone and I felt anonymous again. Just the way I liked it.
Still, I didn’t want to take unnecessary risks, so I put my hat on and kept to the side streets on my way back to the inn.
The others were in the courtyard, waiting for the dinner service to start. I could hear them laughing and chatting even from outside, and they irritated me more once I saw them smiling and full of beans. They looked well-rested and well-fed.
I, on the other hand, had only had a couple of sandwiches all day and was barely able to walk.
“Hey! You’re back!” shouted Maurice as I walked in, although they were all having such a good time, I’m surprised he noticed.
“You were gone a long time,” said Claire. “We were starting to worry you’d been thrown in the dungeons.”
“You didn’t sound very worried,” I said rather more bitterly than I intended. The smiles fell from their faces, replaced by guilty embarrassment. Even when they were feeling happy and smug, they were only ever one cruel word away from sad and miserable. I really couldn’t stay mad at them.
I burst out laughing. “I’m kidding. It was fine. The King says he wants to meet all of you.” I sat down at the wooden table. “I’m starving.”
“What’s he like?” asked Flossie.
“Surprisingly young, but reasonable. Our friends, The Avengers—” even without looking I could sense Maurice bristling “—were there too.”
I told them about Tin’s plan to ask for the marshlands and my request to the King for them instead. This development took them by surprise and they pelted me with a barrage of questions about Tin’s intentions for the marshlands (which I didn’t really have much knowledge about) and my own intentions (which I had even less knowledge about).
“Do you really think he’ll give us the whole of the marshlands?” said Claire.
“No,” I said, “probably not. But as long as he doesn’t give it to those twats, I don’t care.”
They all agreed with this sentiment, but they were also aware that there would probably be some blowback if Tin found out what I’d done, which was inevitable. The mood around the table was very different now. When I had arrived, they were happy and laughing. Half an hour later, they were edgy and worried. What a ray of sunshine I was.
Dinner was finally served and I spent the next twenty minutes stuffing my face while the others continued to discuss the finer points of what a bunch of evil bastards Tin and company were. The general consensus was that the quicker we left the city the better, and I certainly agreed.
“You and Flosse should buy all the kitchen stuff tomorrow,” I said to Claire. “Just get a couple of pots and some basic utensils. Get food supplies too, and jerky. Lots of jerky. I’ll go get the spear made.”
“I could come with you,” said Maurice eagerly.
This drew a scornful look from Claire. “We’ll need help carrying everything.”
“Oh, sure,” said Maurice. “Of course.”
Both Maurice and Dudley seemed less than enthusiastic about yet more shopping with the girls, but I preferred that to them hanging out with me. I hadn’t mentioned my arrangement with the Princess and I didn’t want them tagging along to the Palace. Being trained in swordfighting by the person who put a price on my head didn’t make much sense even to me, so I didn’t know how I was going to explain it to them.
Once I had learned the basics, I could teach them. But for now, I wanted to limit our exposure to Princess Looney Tunes.
“You and Dudley should stick with the girls,” I said to Maurice. “Make sure they don’t run into any trouble.”
“If you think it best,” said Dudley, somewhat resignedly. He was usually at his happiest when he was around Flossie, but there’s something about following a girl around as she goes shopping that sucks the will to live out of a guy.
After eating, I made my excuses and went to my room. Perhaps they’d regain their good mood, but more likely I’d ruined the evening for them. Serve them right for abandoning me earlier. I was too tired to worry about it, and was asleep within a few seconds of getting in bed.
The following morning, I visited the blacksmith and explained what I wanted. A normal spear would consist of the head and a wooden shaft which would be fitted together. However, the frogmen would have difficulty repairing the spear if it got broken. They were used to making the best of whatever bits of wood they found lying around. Crafting and shaping a replacement shaft to fit perfectly would be very difficult for them. My solution was to have the whole spear made out of metal. No separate parts, nothing to fix.
He was confident he could make it, but there was a problem. All the blacksmiths in the city had received large orders from the army for weapons and armour. There was a major offensive planned and the orders were to be filled as soon as possible. He just didn’t have the time for my job.
Someone like me, who isn’t interested in other people, can be quite unobservant. I don’t see what’s going on around me because I don’t care. But even I had noticed the change in the city. There was a tension in the air, and a lot more soldiers in the streets. Something was up.
Whatever was going on, it had nothing to do with me. My only concern was getting the blacksmith to make my spear. I got around his reluctance the old fashioned way—I offered him more money. A lot more. He agreed to do it, but it wouldn’t be ready until tomorrow. He’d have to do it on the downlow to avoid getting caught.
I paid him half up front and set off for the Palace, my bruises throbbing just at the thought of going a few more rounds with Laney.
As promised, my name had been left at the Palace gates and I was allowed through with no fuss. I used the same side-entrance as before and made my way to the library. No one stopped me or asked what I was doing there.
I was a little early for my appointment, so I spent the time reading. The book on beasts was the most useful I’d found, and I figured the more I knew about what was out there the better. I started with frogmen, in particular their ability to use magic.
Unfortunately, there was very little about this, although there was a whole page on how older frogmen started producing toxic waste and defecated on land to avoid contaminating the water. It explained why old Nabbo had to regularly go on land to take a dump, and also made me think the guy who wrote this book had far too much free time on his hands.
Laney announced her arrival by sneaking up behind me and putting her hands over my eyes.
“Guess who? Get it wrong and I’ll cut out your liver.”
Since I only knew one psychotic teenage girl who sounded like Hannibal Lecter on helium, I was fairly sure of the answer. Didn’t stop my heart beating like a jackhammer, though.
The soldiers were once again thrown out of their training hall, and we spent the afternoon practising footwork, which was a relief. My body couldn’t have handled any more punishment. It was a bit like dancing, and I’m crap at dancing, so there was a lot of stumbling around and tripping over my own feet. It was complicated but the sort of thing I could practise on my own so I was eager to learn.
“This is the basis for everything else,” said Laney as we glided around the training hall like ballroom dancers, although the aim of this dance was to try and stamp on each other’s feet. Within a few minutes, my toes were severely flattened.
“Eventually, you’ll move without thinking,” said Laney, crushing an already squished toe with the heel of her boot.
I hopped around in excruciating pain. “How long will that take?”
“Usually at least two or three years. For you, more like five.”
I wasn’t even sure I’d be alive that long. What I’d give for a quick montage scene and a title on the screen that said ‘Five years later…’ Sadly, real life only happens in real time.
“I suppose you’ll be leaving soon,” said Laney.
We did plan to leave soon, to go back to the frogmen, but the way she said it made me think her reasoning wasn’t the same as mine.
“Why do you say that?” I asked her.
“Because war is on the horizon, and all men of adventure will be heading to the frontlines to claim valour and glory.”
She really read too many romance novels.
“War isn’t really my thing. I don’t really like being in large crowds. Especially crowds of corpses.”
She looked confused. “But everyone goes to war when the time comes. We are in battle to secure the fate of humanity. All those loyal to the Crown are expected to fight. You know, if you ask me nicely, I could get you a juicy commission. You’d be fighting right up front where the action is.” Her eyes filled with wonder and delight. “I wish Daddy would let me go.”
It was easy to forget the pint-sized nutjob was certifiable. She had moments of normality (or something close to it) but she was still two slices short of a cucumber sandwich
“And those who shine on the battlefield can ask the King for his favour. He will grant a true hero his heart’s desire.” She waggled her eyebrows suggestively.
I had planned to leave soon, now I planned to leave even sooner. We ended the session with some swordplay, and by play I mean a ruthless beating. I made arrangements to meet her again the following day, but I had no intention of being there.
When I got back to the inn, the others had returned with all the goods. Claire and Flossie were discussing their purchases, while Maurice and Dudley looked bored out of their minds. I told them we’d be leaving the next day and not to mention it to anyone.
The following morning was warm and bright. Perfect departure weather. First stop was the Municipal Directory where we emptied our accounts. Then we went to collect the spear. As we approached the smithy, I could see some sort of commotion going on.
There were two soldiers shouting at the blacksmith who looked pretty scared. I couldn’t hear everything being said, but there was lots of swearing and questions about his parentage. My first instinct was to turn around and walk away. When you play enough RPGs you learn not to pull aggro when you don’t need to.
But I needed that spear.
I walked up with my little crew backing me up. Kind of. Somehow, the closer we got to the shouting soldiers, the bigger the gap between me and the fearless four behind me became. You couldn’t fault them on their consistency.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Will you be long? I have some business with the blacksmith.”
Their uniforms told me these were Palace guards, and higher than the sentries posted around the place. The one doing all the shouting was some kind of officer. He looked me up and down and quickly sussed I wasn’t a local. I hoped this would buy me a little tolerance.
“This is city business, nothing to do with you, visitor.” He looked at the cowering blacksmith and then back to me. “Wait, are you the one responsible for this one failing to meet his army quota? Your actions won’t be looked on favourably by the Palace if you’re found to be involved.”
The other soldier had been staring at me intently all this time, which was making me uncomfortable. Now he leaned towards his colleague and whispered in his ear. Shouty McShoutsen’s eyes widened. Suddenly his attitude did a one-eighty.
“Er, we’ll overlook it this time, but don’t let it happen again.” They both hurried off.
I hadn’t heard what the soldier had whispered, but I had caught one word, ‘boyfriend’. I assumed the soldier had seen me with Laney at the Palace and had jumped to the wrong conclusion. Not that I planned to correct him. If thinking I had a special relationship with the Princess got them to leave me alone, I was happy to let them believe it. The tiny tyrant had her uses.
“What did you say to them?” said Maurice. The others had gathered around me once the danger had passed—their timing as impeccable as ever—and were miffed by the way the soldiers had run away.
“It’s like they were scared of you,” said Flossie.
Of course, it wasn’t me they were scared of, they just knew their lives wouldn’t be worth living if they pissed off the Princess.
“Where exactly is it you go when you aren’t with us?” asked Claire.
“Fight Club,” I said. “Can’t talk about it. Rules are rules.”
The blacksmith was also impressed by how the soldiers had reacted and only took half the money for the spear. I have to say, I did enjoy being seen as a badass, but I was careful not to get carried away. The trouble with being a fake badass is that once your bluff gets called, the beating you take is very real.
I decided not to hang around and push my luck, so we headed out of the city. We were stopped at the gates.
“No one leaves the city, by order of the King,” a soldier informed us.
The atmosphere felt very different to how it was before. The line of people that was usually outside wasn’t there any more. Not a single person was waiting to come inside the city walls.
I took out the Key to the City and showed it to him. “We’re on a special mission. We can wait while you confirm with the Palace, if you like.”
Bluff. Sweat. Wait. Panic rising…
The soldiers exchanged looks with each other. “No, that’s fine.”
They let us through. As we reached the road to the marshlands, there was a loud metallic scraping noise. I turned to see the portcullis over the city entrance come down.
Something was definitely going on. Something I wanted no part of. We picked up the pace and kept going north.