Chapter 23 – Good-Natured Subterfuge

Fifteenth of Learning 1142

The evening had gone as expected. Striker had answered countless questions, often with intentionally contradictory answers. She expected that some of the nobles would compare notes, but since she wasn’t working with a fixed story, answering every question differently was easier than trying to keep her story straight. It wouldn’t be long before people realized she was making things up, but that was the beauty about nobles. No one was going to call a princess on it. It would just feed the frenzy, and people would remain curious.

Merck Vanderoth had been absolutely certain that none of the boys he had met that night was the one he was looking for. Not surprising, considering it was only their


first outing. They had another set for the next day, a lunch this time, less formal and hopefully shorter. It may have been fun, but it was exhausting.

Striker had returned to the Wanderer’s Rest quite late but, in spite of that, couldn’t sleep. She was too wound up. They had accomplished their goal, and she’d had a lot of fun but could see this wearing on her after a few weeks, maybe even sooner. Yet they couldn’t afford to slow down. It was a big world. After they toured Karmenon, they’d have to swing south to Twyl, unless Andara had rich looking nobles. She hoped not. Andara was huge. And it could take months to get even that far. If the boy they were looking for was in Death’s Doorstep or gods forbid Loralei, it could take years. Was she really up for that?

What if the boy they were looking for was in the Fellowship? No one went there. Well, no one with an expectation of returning. She’d heard all sorts of mad stories about the place and didn’t believe any of them. Of course it was unlikely that would be the culmination of their long search. After all, it was a very small area with a tiny population. No, the Fellowship was unlikely to be their final destination.

They were searching for one small boy in a very large world and, while there were admittedly less nobles than other people, there would still be hundreds if not thousands of potential targets. Surely there had to be a way to narrow down the search.

She wracked her brain but couldn’t think of anything. She found herself thinking of the paintings she has seen at Lord Morlitz’s mansion. She really did like art. She wondered why they kept running through her mind. A room filled with paintings. Landscapes, seascapes, there were all sorts of paintings in that room. Everything except portraits.

She had been lying in bed but now sat up. Portraits. Nobles and rich people commissioned portraits. There were guild chapters in most major cities and there were mages in those guilds that could cast spells such as Far Sight, allowing others to see through their eyes. She had to talk to Aranya. It could cut down the travel time immensely. The question was, did she want to do that?

As of now the Misfits had steady employ. This was a paying job. But what would happen when they found the boy? There was no way to know. She didn’t believe that even Merck knew what would happen. And she still wasn’t convinced the boy existed.

It would be far faster and cheaper to search portraits rather than travel all over the world. And if they found a portrait that matched, they could then just travel to that one place. It was perfect.

Having gotten that far, she felt she might be able to relax enough to get to sleep, but it wasn’t the case. She kept going through the thought process over and over again. She tried to consider every variable; what could happen, what could go wrong, what affect any given path would have on the team and her place in it. With so many unknowns, it was all just guess work, and that was the real problem.

The Undead King had already cost her so much more than she had been willing to pay, and going back to Death’s Doorstep, if that was in fact where they were to end up, terrified her. She would do what she had to, because she had no choice, but there would be a price. There was always a price, and she’d already paid so much. She felt tears sting her eyes for the first time in years and there, alone in her room, she let them come. She had been so alone for so long, and she’d finally found a home with the Misfits. She had come this far to get away from her past, but her current mission might take her right back to where it began, and that she couldn’t risk. And yet, for so many reasons, she couldn’t abandon her role in this. If there was even a chance that Merck Vanderoth was the genuine article, she’d have to see it through. And if her team found out about her? No matter how much they liked her, and she had no doubt they did, there were some sins even the Misfits of Karmenon wouldn’t be able to forgive.


Sixteenth of Learning 1142

Chari had been dreaming, but something had woken her. Someone had knocked on the door, probably for the second time. It felt too early. She clambered out of bed, pulled on a robe, wiped the sleep from her eyes, and opened it. Outside stood a matronly lady she had never seen before.

“Good morning, Princess Chari. I’m here to measure you for your dress.”

“My dress?”

“Your wedding dress.”

Chari looked at her incredulously. “What time is it?”

“It’s just about six, but I was instructed to wake you before your practice begins, though honestly I don’t know why a princess would need to practice as much as you…”

“There will be no dress.”

Chari shut the door, resisting the temptation to slam it. Still, she was too angry to go back to sleep. A dress? A royal wedding? There was no time for that. There was no energy for that. She fumed and paced for a while, then pulled on some clothes.

Several minutes later, there was a knock on the door.

“Come in, mother,” said Chari.

Queen Rhea opened the door and entered, closing it behind her. She stared at Chari for a moment, opened her mouth to speak, but Chari cut her off.

“No royal wedding, mother. A small wedding. Private. Preferably today.”

“Today! Chari, this is your wedding. It’s the biggest day of your life. If you don’t have a full royal wedding, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

“No, mother. If I don’t have a full royal wedding, you’ll regret it. Do you know what I’ll regret? If I don’t train hard enough and something happens to Eric or Dahr. Why are the kids the only ones who seem to be taking this threat seriously?”

“Honestly, Chari, you’re just a low level warrior. How big a threat do you think the gods will have you face.”

“Most likely? We’ll be fighting undead.”

“Undead? Chari, what makes you think that?”

“Because that’s what the gods have been training us to do.”

Her mother started to talk and stopped. For a long moment, she stood there, dumbfounded. But Queen Rhea wasn’t one to remain mute for long. “Then I forbid you to be involved. If I’d known. Chari, you can’t fight undead.”

“I’ve already fought undead, mom. I’ve killed them in the Other Realm. So many that I thought they would never stop coming. We’re being trained for something and only that training is going to keep me alive.”

Chari watched the transformation as she had so many times before. Concerned mom became implacable mother, whose refusal to allow a specific course of action became something more akin to law than just something she shouldn’t do. But this time, her mother wasn’t in control of this situation. Chari was, by every metric, an adult now, about to be married. Her mother’s wishes were no longer her boundaries. More to the point, her mother wasn’t just going up against her this time, she was attempting to bend the will of the gods.

“Chari, you’re a Level 1 Warrior. You can’t fight undead, and that’s the end of it.”

“First of all, I’m a Level 4 Warrior. Secondly, I’m pretty sure that if Sheba wants me to do something, and you want me to do something different, Sheba is going to win. This isn’t about protecting me. This is about protecting everybody.”

“Tell me why? Why does it have to be you?”

“Because my goddess said it was so. Are you wiser than her? Do you know more? If not, then there’s not much else to say, is there?”

Her mother’s expression relaxed, but only a bit. She wasn’t giving up, just changing tactics. She’d have made a good warrior.

“Chari, I understand what you’re saying, but this is your wedding. Whatever else happens in the days to come, we’re talking about the rest of your life. If you miss out on this now, you’ll never get a chance to do it again. At least that’s the hope. Protocol exists for a reason…”

Chari cut her off. “There is no protocol for what’s going on here. That means regular customs and protocols don’t apply or at least they shouldn’t. I’m not celebrating a marriage. I’m doing what my goddess instructed me to do. Fortunately she instructed me to marry Eric and not someone I don’t like and respect, but if she had, I’d be doing that too, because Sheba knows more about the situation than I do, so I’m forced to trust her.”

Her mother looked surprised. “Forced to trust her? Your own goddess?”

“Only a fool trusts blindly, mother. Whatever her agenda, keeping me alive isn’t the end game. It’s something she’ll do if she can. Keeping me alive is up to me, Eric, Dahr and Kalutu. And that means training is all I have time for. I’ll make time to walk to the temple to marry Eric, and then, we’re not going to have a honeymoon. We’re not going to stop and consummate the marriage. We’re not going to go and have a party and invite the nobility. We’re going to pick up our weapons, and we’re going to start training. And we’re going to keep training every day, every hour we possibly can. And when we’re not training with weapons, we’ll be learning other things that might keep us alive. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

Her mother nodded.

“Good, because if I see another dress maker walk through that door, I’ll be practicing combat on her. To be clear, there will be no party, no feast, no celebration. There will be a wedding, preferably today, so I can get on with training, so I can stay alive and maybe, just maybe, bear you a grandchild one day.”

“I’d like that.”

“Then let me get on with it.”

“Your father isn’t going to be happy.”

“Is that something that can happen? I hadn’t noticed.”

Her mother chuckled, reluctantly it seemed to Chari. Her face was pale and her blue eyes showed concern, but she pushed that aside to support her daughter. “Train then. As hard as you can. And whatever we can do to support you, your father and I will do.”

Chari smiled. “Thanks, mom. I really do want to survive this. I finally feel like I’m doing something important. Something I was meant to do.”

“Don’t go taking foolish risks.”

“When have I ever…never mind. Don’t answer that. I’m going to go wake Eric. He has a wedding to prepare for.”

Her mother shook her head, hugged her tight, and then pulled back to study her.

“You’ve changed.”

“You’ve noticed.”

“It took a while, but I got there. Go with Sheba, my daughter.”

“Like I have a choice,” replied Chari, but she was grinning when she said it.


Aranya Freesh sat in a secure room with the Misfits of Karmenon. For once, she was without her companions.

“It’s just not feasible,” she was saying to Striker. “There’s so much that could go wrong. First of all, if we’re trying to keep this secret, I’ll need a reason to have guild personnel infiltrate noble houses to send back images of portraits. It’s not my chapter so I’d have to convince guild masters in other jurisdictions to do this. How do you suppose I do that?”

Before anyone could answer she continued.

“The cost of a mage capable of casting the spells you’re describing would be quite high and there aren’t that many of them. And of course, portraits might not be displayed in public areas and some nobles might not commission portraits of their children at all. The best we can do is that if you could narrow down the location of where the boy is, even to just one kingdom, but preferably to one city, that could help us speed up the search.”

Striker sighed. “We have no idea of where he is.”

“Then we proceed as planned.”

Striker shook her head. “Do you realize how much time it will take to go to every single country in the world hoping to find one boy?”

“Of course I do, because I’ve thought this through. You’re the one not thinking.”

Striker looked like she was going to retort, but Aranya held up a hand, heading off whatever she was going to say.

“The Undead problem is something that’s been with us for fifteen years, and there’s no end in sight. The vast majority of kingdoms are forced to keep a garrison at Final Hope, soldiers and commanders that could otherwise be deployed elsewhere. Those garrisons have to be commanded, fed, housed and they need medical supplies. And then there are the soldiers stationed there. Many of the countries they represent are sworn enemies. There’s often political fall out from events that occur in Final Hope. Do you have any idea what that kind of garrison costs annually? It’s an expense that’s been going on since the Undead War, with no end in sight. Yet we can’t afford to remove that deterrent lest the Undead King attack again. It’s a never ending headache. If it takes five years to solve, or even start to solve, it’s nothing. The tiny bit of gold and resources we’ve spent thus far are all but meaningless when taken in context. Every ruler in the world is going to back us if this is real.”

“Every ruler except the Undead King you mean,” Striker replied. “Out of curiosity, has anyone actually tried negotiating an end to the hostilities?”

Aranya nodded. “Many messengers have been sent into the Plains of Xarinos under a flag of truce.”


“They came back, having been unable to locate the Undead King, or anyone who represents him. At least, that was what we thought, until we realized they were all dead and had returned to spy on us for the Undead King.”

Striker looked perplexed. “How is that possible? Surely if someone was undead, you’d know it. If not casual acquaintances, then family members, spouses, friends… surely someone would have noticed.”

“Not really. They act the same as they did before they left. They don’t look or act like undead.”

“Creepy. So, if we run into one, how do we kill it?”

“The standard response is to burn them or cut off their heads, but the truth is, everything is just a guess. We know so little. Which is why your claims of solving the undead problem, as unlikely as that sounds, are being taken so seriously by the guild. Admittedly, I had my doubts, but when the High Priestess of Iorana for all of Karmenon shows up to vouch for you, it has to be taken seriously.”

Striker looked thoughtful. “And how does anyone know she isn’t undead?”

“That’s ludicrous. Even if we didn’t know, Iorana would. We can pretty much guarantee that our priests are still themselves, if nothing else.”

“That’s not nothing. Having someone you know you can trust is pretty big when you consider the implications of what you’ve said. But it doesn’t really help us immediately.”

“The real issue,” said Ressssen “is narrowing down where this boy might be.” She looked at Merck. “Do you, or your god, have any ideas?”

Merck took on a pained expression. “I have no idea how to begin. I’ve never spoken to my god.”

“Maybe now would be a good time to start,” said Striker.

Merck looked at her uncertainly. “I have no idea how to even begin.”

“Just talk to your god. Gods are everywhere. They hear everything.”

Aranya knew that the room was so well protected, it would even prevent a priest from contacting his god, but she didn’t say anything. She didn’t believe that anything would come of the attempt anyway, and she wanted to hear specifically what the Priest would ask for. Of all the elements in this story, he was the one that she understood the least. She was hoping that perhaps she would gain some insight into him from what he said.

Merck nodded, then straightened up in his seat and closed his eyes. “Oh great whoever you are, help us. You want me to find this boy in a very large world. At least let us know in which country this boy is located. I will do as you ask, I only ask for a small bit of aid, so I may fulfill your wish sooner.”

Merck opened his eyes and looked around expectantly. For a moment nothing happened. Then a parrot composed entirely of flame flew into the room through the wall opposite the door. It landed on the table in front of him. He sat frozen as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The parrot shifted from foot to foot, turning its head to stare at him through its left eye.

He stared back, confused and startled, but not as startled as Aranya.

“That shouldn’t be able to happen. This room is sealed.”

“Well whoever did it didn’t do a very good job,” said the parrot. “You should see if you can get a refund.”

Every eye in the room was on the parrot, but it was Merck who spoke.

“You can tell us where to find the boy we’re searching for?”

“That’s why I’m here. Try Rish in the Kingdom of Twyl.”

“Why would my god tell me this now and not when he asked me to find the boy in the first place?”

The parrot cocked his head to one side, as if considering the question, then answered. “The boy wasn’t yet ready. Now he is. It’s time. Prepare yourselves for the world to change.”

Before anyone could say anything else, the parrot took off and flew back through the wall. No one spoke for a minute after it was gone, then everyone started talking at once. Aranya again held up her hand and every conversation ground to a halt.

“What in the name of the gods was that?”

“It appeared to be a flaming parrot,” said Merck.

“Aranya,” said Striker, “you said if we knew where to look, we could use magic to find a portrait of the boy. Against all the odds we know where to look.”

Aranya nodded. “I’ll have to contact the guild master in Rish. I’ll explain what I can of the situation. It’ll cost me, but I’m willing to pay for that now that I know where we’re looking.”

“And after that?” asked Ressssen.

“Then we will have your team portaled to Rish. Because even mounted it’ll take too long to get there. A part of me still had doubts until today, but that parrot did what nothing should have been able to. Even gods can’t hear us talking when the door is closed.”

“Wait,” asked Striker. “How did the High Priest of Iorana know to come here that first day if the goddess wasn’t privy to our conversation? And if you knew that the shielding on this room would even block out the gods, why didn’t you say something before Merck started praying?”

Aranya nodded as if she had anticipated someone asking those questions. “When you went out to summon Stalker, you were no longer in the room and the goddess knew what you knew. Iorana’s Temple is very close and the High Priestess doesn’t have to walk. She has a portal tome to get her here if she needs to be here quickly. As to your second question, I wanted to see what Merck would say. He’s the biggest unknown in this entire situation. If it didn’t work, I could have always suggested you try praying in a room that’s not shielded.”

Striker seemed dissatisfied with her answer about Merck, but let the matter drop. Instead she focused on the other issue. “So this room isn’t really proof against the gods.”

“It doesn’t have to be. The gods seldom meddle in the affairs of the sentient races. When they do, it’s because their own interests are being challenged, usually by other gods.”

“Wait, are you saying that we’re likely involved in a contest between gods.”

Aranya shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

Everyone stared at her, but she ignored them and stood up.

“Everyone prepare what you need to travel, but don’t expect this to happen today. Getting the right people in place and wrangling an invite to the palace and other nobles homes could still take a while. Rish is a sizable city.”

They all watched as Aranya, without waiting for a reply, made her way past the table and out the door.

“You heard her,” said Ressssen. “Whatever business you have here, finish it up. We don’t know how much longer we have.”

Striker nodded. “I have a lot of appointments to cancel. We’re going to leave behind some very pissed off nobles.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” said Garne.

Striker grinned at him, then stood and gave a mental command to Stalker to follow.

“See you guys later.”

Merck remained staring at the table where the flaming parrot had sat just a short time before.

“It worked. It really worked.”

“Well, you are a Priest,” said Borin. “Prayer is a part of the job.”

“Yeah, maybe. But most priests know who they’re praying to.”

No one had an answer for that.


King Terrence and Queen Treya sat on their thrones, eyes locked on Queen Rhea who stood before them, clearly upset. Her words came in a rush of emotion that neither had witnessed before.

“Chari wants a wedding today. No dresses. No formality. Just a simple ceremony in the Temple of Sheba with no party after. And she told me they’d been training on undead in the Other Realm. What is a Level 4 Warrior doing fighting the undead? For that matter, how did she manage to level so fast? She’s going to get herself killed. You’re parents. You understand. Surely there is something you can do to stop this. You rule here. They’ll listen to you.”

King Terrence started to respond, but his wife raised a single finger without removing her hand from the arm of her throne. He stopped and half nodded for her to answer.

“I’m so sorry, Queen Rhea, truly I am. But we serve Sheba here, and Sheba requires this sacrifice of us. Our sons, Eric and Dahr will do what is necessary because Sheba has asked it of us. We need no other reason. She has graced this room with her presence. She has told me what to do. I can not think that she means to sacrifice our children, but if she does, as our goddess, then I will have to live with that consequence. Being sworn to Sheba doesn’t mean obeying her only when it’s easy. It means obeying when it’s difficult too. I wish there was something we could do, but our hands are tied. Great good still might come of this. I have to believe that.”

Queen Rhea stared at Queen Treya as if she could not believe her ears. “They’re your sons!”

Treya nodded. “They are. And Sheba is my goddess. When my sons see our actions, they will learn to do right even when it is hard. And Sheba willing, they will return to us. I have to believe they will.”


“Truly. Sheba would not allow our sons to walk to their death without a fighting chance.”

“And the wedding?” asked Queen Rhea.

King Terrence answered this time. “If they want the wedding today, let us have it today. It was foreordained anyway. There is nothing we could do to stop it. Let it be done and over with, with no celebration and no fanfare. Perhaps, when whatever task set out for them ends, we can celebrate without the weight we’ve been asked to carry.”

Queen Rhea looked from the queen to the king and nodded. “Again you surprise me, King Terrence.”

He looked amused. “How so?”

“You are thoughtful in your actions. You lead by reason, not force. After so many years with my husband, I had forgotten that was possible.”

“Reason, in its own way, is a kind of force. If people can see the way clearly, you don’t have to force them forward. They will come to it on their own and be grateful you allowed them to make the choice.”

“And if they choose otherwise, despite reason?”

“I find the gods have a way of punishing those that ignore them. That’s the real issue here. If you do not do what the goddess asks, it’s not just disobeying Sheba. You’re risking your children, for the gods see what we do not. The gods know what is coming. We do not. And it may yet be that following Sheba’s will is the only way to save Princess Chari, where disobeying her might lead to her death. If the undead are stirring, none of us are safe. Not here, not anywhere. Perhaps the only wisdom we have now is to surrender our will to those who know more. Because I am only a man.”

“You are a king.”

“Kings are only men. Men with metal on their head, but men nonetheless. We bleed. We sweat. We worry about our children. We make mistakes. And we die. Being a king is just being a man who is responsible for other men. I’m still just a man. A fallible man. I will never know as much as my goddess does, so I can not contradict her. Well I can, but it would be foolish.”

“I understand. I guess I need to go talk to Leonid.”

“Good luck with that,” said Queen Treya. “If there’s anything I can do to help, just ask.”

“You know. I think I might have an idea.”


King Leonid was on a palace balcony looking out over the courtyard. His wife joined him, looking agitated.

“Leonid, Chari wants to move up the wedding, and I think it’s a good idea. It’s what the goddess wants, but I don’t think King Terrence and Queen Treya will allow it.”

“What do you mean they won’t allow it?”

“It’s their oldest son. They want a royal ceremony which takes time to plan. But the truth is, I think the children would be safer if they got married and got back to training. Sheba wants this and she knows more about the situation than we do. I’m worried if we start setting a ceremony and go through rehearsals and dress fittings it will disrupt the training schedule.”

“And King Terrence thinks that he can just ignore the goddess? After she visited his throne room?”

“I knew you’d see the wisdom. But what can we do?”

“Don’t you worry, my dear. I’ll handle this. Those kids will be married today and that’s final.”

Without waiting for a reply, King Leonid stormed out the door.

Jerish had been standing off to the side through the entire encounter, though he had said not a word…until now.

“That was deftly done.”

Queen Rhea whirled, not having noticed him, then chuckled. “Today isn’t the day for conflict. My daughter marries today.”

Jerish bowed low. “Congratulations, My Queen. I’m sure it will be a lovely wedding.”

“It will be a simple, short ceremony. Nothing more.”

Jerish smiled. “Milady, a lovely wedding has nothing to do with fancy dress, or dancing, or good food. It has to do with raw emotion. The feelings of those watching. The party is for others. The ceremony is for those who truly care, and it’s all that’s really important.”

“How are you only a servant?”

“Am I only a servant?”

The queen laughed. “I’m going to have to keep an eye on you.”

Jerish smiled and went to the railing to look down at the courtyard below. For a long time the two stood there in companionable silence… a welcome moment of respite in what was soon to be a sea of activity. Even a small wedding required some preparation, and they didn’t have much time. It wasn’t long before King Leonid returned.

“The wedding will be today.”

“You convinced him.”

“I did. He’s not an unreasonable fellow once you understand what he’s about. I just appealed to his better judgment. He’s a fine king. He just needs to learn to think things through.”

Queen Rhea and Jerish exchanged a smile before she turned to the king and embraced him.

“Thank you, my love. I knew I could depend on you.”

When they separated and returned inside to begin the wedding preparations, she stole a glance at Jerish, who was looking at her speculatively. For a moment, only a moment, she wondered what it would be like to be with the servant on a more intimate level, but then she came to her senses. Jerish was far too close to her husband for her to even consider opening that particular door.


Forward to Chapter 24 – Information Revealed

Return to Chapter 22 – Two Good Eyes





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