As the young man entered the Rogue and Quiver, bright Yuli sunlight streamed in. The common room was mostly empty, not surprising since it was still three bells until nightfall. A few early drinkers, sailors by their salt-stained garb, eyed him like wolves regarding a fat hen. Even in his traveling clothes, he was too well dressed for this place. There was nothing he could do about that, though. His other clothes, tucked away in his saddlebags, were finer than those he wore. And he could not leave the tavern; he had business here.
He was looking for a man — no, not just a man: a wizard, although he had no idea why a wizard that was powerful enough to help him would be in such a disreputable place. He scanned the room, until he found a likely candidate. Toward the back, away from the other patrons and in a corner that the afternoon sun didn’t reach, sat an old man. He was hunched over the table, studying something intently.
“Probably some ancient tome,” thought the young man. Hope rose in him that he had found his wizard. As the young man approached the table, though, his hope began to dwindle again. The old man was hardly the picture of a wizard from the tales he had read in his father’s library. Instead of rich robes, he wore a simple tunic and breeches. His hair, not silver or lustrous black, was merely brown, touched with gray. It was no tome that held the focus of the man’s attention, only a King’s Key board.
Crestfallen, the young man stopped short of the table, wondering what to do. He had been told that the man who could help him would be in this tavern, just past the seventh bell of day. Could he be this shabby old man? Or one of the sailors? Or had the information been wrong?
As he stood watching, a strange thing happened. Something furry emerged from the shadows on the opposite side of the table and moved one of the pieces on the King’s Key board. The young man blinked, wondering what he had just seen. The afternoon was too warm for someone to be wearing fur gloves, and he could only see one set of feet beneath the table. Had the old man conjured some strange hairy creature as an opponent? Confident once again that he had found his wizard, he approached the table.
“I –” he began, and then the words stuck in is throat. Both the old man and his opponent were looking up at him. The “opponent” was a longhaired cat, with silver-shaded white fur, and a short snout that gave its face the appearance of being pushed in. The cat blinked its golden eyes once and moved to the corner of the table closest to the young man, who realized his mistake immediately. The cat had not been playing King’s Key, but only batting at one of the pieces.
“Yes? Do you need something, boy?”
The youth turned his gaze from the cat back to the old man. He was certain that a wizard would have known his business, or at least his name. That was the way it had always happened in his father’s books. Still, there was no harm in asking.
“I am Ashe Leavenfell,” he said. When the old man failed to react, he continued. “I am the rightful heir of the Leavenfell Barony. My place was stolen from me through the use of magic, and I hope to use magic to regain it. I am seeking a wizard named Tasrein. Are you he?”
The old man turned away, but not before Ashe saw his eyes widen slightly. “I know of no one named Tasrein. My name is Greymoor.”
The cat chose that moment to nudge Ashe’s hand. He absently began to pet the creature while he considered what to say next. Clearly, the old man was lying, but he did not think it wise to call a wizard a liar directly. He decided instead to appeal to the man’s sense of honor.
“Please, my lord, I’ve nowhere else to turn. I spoke to a gypsy woman named Madame Zeefra, and she told me to seek the help of a wizard named Tasrein, and that he would be here at this day and time.”
The old man looked back up at Ashe. “Did she, now? Well, Sefera always did have a sense of humor. Did she charge you much? Don’t answer that. You might as well sit down, since it looks like you aren’t going to go away until we talk this through.”
Ashe pulled out the chair opposite the old man and sat down. “So, you are the wizard Tasrein?”
The old man grumbled. “I go by Greymoor now. And I’m retired. I don’t do magic any more, particularly not if politics are involved. It seems that someone always thinks he’s been cheated out of a barony or a kingdom. I’ve found that it’s best to stay out of such disputes.”
“But sir,” Ashe said, “I think when you hear my tale you will see that I am in the right and feel compelled to help me.”
Greymoor barked a short laugh. “Boy, what did ‘Madame Zeefra’ actually say to you? That I can help you, or that I will? It’s not like her to lie, but she can twist words with the best.”
Ashe felt cold in the pit of his stomach. Had the fortune teller tricked him, and led him to someone who was able to help him but unwilling? As he struggled to remember the gypsy’s words, the cat nudged his hand again and he began to stroke its fur, which was quite soft. The cat began to purr loudly. Ashe felt his tension ease, and he thought back to his meeting with the fortune teller. He remembered her words clearly.
“She said … she said that ‘Tasrein will solve your problem’.” When Greymoor just glared at him, he decided to try to get on the wizard’s good side and added, “Your cat is beautiful, lord wizard. What is her name?”
Greymoor’s scowl only deepened. “His name is Bastien, and believe me, he knows how pretty he is. Don’t feel too honored by his affection, boy. He’ll rub up against anyone who will pet him.
“So, Sefera said that I will help you, eh? Not like her to lie.” He put his finger to his lips in thought for a moment. “Perhaps you should tell me your story. But you’re buying the beer.” He motioned for the barkeep, who brought over two mugs. Ashe paid him and took a sip of his beer. It was bitter and watery. Greymoor drank as well and then set his mug down and looked at Ashe expectantly.
“As I said,” Ashe began, “I am the heir to the Barony of Leavenfell. My half-brother, Roderick, stole the barony from me through magical means –”
“Half-brother?” interrupted the wizard. “Is he older or younger?”
“Older, by two years.”
“Older? He’s the son of your mother, then?”
“No, my father, but he –”
“So your mother was married to the baron, and Roderick was a bastard?”
“No, sir, that’s not it at all. You see –”
The old man interrupted him with a harrumphing noise. “It’s quite clear, boy. He is the eldest legitimate son of the late baron’s bloodline, and therefore heir to the barony. Perhaps the problem Sefera referred to is that you don’t realize you’re an idiot. So, I’ll tell you: you’re an idiot. There. Problem solved.”
Ashe felt his cheeks reddening. “There’s more to it than that, sir.”
Greymoor just glared at him expectantly.
“My father was married twice. His first wife was cousin to the Baron of Shipbrook. She died giving birth to my half-brother. My father never loved her, though. He loved my mother, who was a maid in the keep. Father wed her not long after the baroness died.”
Ashe took a swig of beer to ease the lump that was forming in his throat before continuing. “My mother fell ill with the Red Plague during the epidemic. My father tried to keep me away from her so I wouldn’t catch it, but … well, he took the risk himself, too. I was in her room the night she died, hiding in a closet. My father was with her. Her only thoughts were for him and for me. She made him promise to make me his heir. He swore to her that I would have the life that she wanted for me — those were his words — and then he wrote two letters. One he gave to my mother. The other was for Duke Clifton: the father of Clifton that rules Dargon now.
“When my mother passed later that night, I took her letter. My father never knew I had it.” The hand that had been petting Bastien went to Ashe’s shirt pocket, where he felt the reassuring crinkle of parchment. The cat glared at him angrily until Ashe resumed petting him.
“In the years that followed, my father taught me many things: hunting, riding, swordsmanship, reading, and writing. I knew that he was preparing me to be the baron, even though he didn’t know that I knew. We particularly loved to spend time in the library, reading heroic stories and histories. His favorite was always the Knights’ Charge at Balkura, because it combined both.”
Greymoor snorted. “Apocrypha. So few could never stand against so many. Where was your brother during all of this?”
Ashe had been expecting this question. He smiled. “Father sent him away shortly after my mother died. Roderick came here to Dargon to study at the duke’s court.”
“Did he, now?” Greymoor motioned for him to continue.
“Father and I spent twelve happy years together. A month ago, he fell ill. A fortnight later, he was dead. Malthus, his castellan, took charge after his death and sent word to Dargon. I bided my time, waiting for a messenger from the duke to confirm me as the baron. A messenger came: no less than Lansing Bartol, the bard. I was not surprised that Roderick was with him. After all, he was father’s son as well. I was surprised, though, when Bartol named Roderick the new baron of Leavenfell. I asked about my father’s letter to the previous duke, but the bard knew nothing of it. So, I produced the letter that father had given to my mother.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of parchment. “This letter. Only it was still sealed. I showed Bartol the seal before I broke it — he confirmed that it was father’s — but when I opened the letter, it was –”
“Blank?” asked Greymoor.
Ashe felt a surge of joy. Finally someone would believe him. “Yes! You know the spell, then? I knew then that Roderick had somehow intercepted father’s letter to Duke Clifton, and had paid someone to magically erase my mother’s letter. I did a foolish thing, then. I attacked Roderick. Knocked him down and started punching and kicking him. It took Bartol and two guards to restrain me.
“When it was all done, Roderick left me only my sword, my horse, and whatever I could carry. He gave me a purse of coins and promised to pay me three Crowns a month as long as I stayed away from the barony. My barony!”
Greymoor nodded. “I begin to understand. Remarkable man, your brother.”
“Half-brother,” Ashe spat. “And if he were not my blood …” Visions of horrible suffering inflicted upon Roderick went through his mind. Then he considered Greymoor’s words. “You said you understood. Does that mean you will help?”
“I may be able to help you,” the wizard said, “but first you need to understand why I think that anyone who mixes magic and politics is a fool.”
“But Roderick used magic to take the barony from me. Surely it’s not wrong to use magic to set things right.”
Greymoor shook his head. “It’s not about right or wrong, Ashe. It’s about wisdom or folly. I’ll have to tell you about the last time I got involved in succession for you to understand.”
Before I retired, I was reckoned a powerful magus. That is the correct term, Ashe, not ‘wizard’ or ‘mage’. Like many of my brethren, I sought knowledge rather than wealth or power. Unlike most, though, I did not spend my time only in musty books. I traveled and studied the magical places in the world. Few who claim to have walked half of ‘diar have traveled as widely as I have.
There are many such places, hidden away from where men dwell. Why, there is a place, not far from here, where time moves so quickly that an oak will rise from an acorn, grow to a towering height, and then fall to the ground and rot to nothing in the time that it takes the sun to rise halfway to midday.
Several years ago, I was in a distant land, studying a place called the Marshes of Madness. The locals called it the Grey Moors, in their language, and they called me the Madman of the Grey Moors when they spoke to me, which was rarely. It is said that if a man spends the night in the Grey Moors, he will lose his mind. I spent many nights there, with no effect, though some might argue that I was mad when I arrived.
As I said, the locals mostly left me alone. So, I was very surprised when a half-dozen young men and women approached me. They were dressed in fine clothes, finer than yours, in fact, but not made for traveling. They certainly looked like they would be more comfortable at court than in a swamp, but in a swamp they were, and looking for me. Fool that I am, I decided to hear them out.
A tall young man with dark hair separated from the group. “My lord magus,” he said, “My name is Reynaldo. My companions and I, we seek your help in undoing a great evil.”
Of course, I was flattered, but I asked, “How do you know that I am a magus? And even if I am, how do you know that I will help you?”
“We heard tales of the Madman of the Grey Moors, and how you come and go from the swamps as you please. Only a magus who is truly mighty could accomplish such a feat. And if you do not help us,” he bowed his head, “then we are lost, and our beloved land will fall into darkness.”
He had my interest, right then, and he knew it. “What darkness threatens your land?” I asked him.
“An evil magus, my lord, named Sirnon. He has taken our city as his own. He transformed our prince into a horrible beast and locked him away in the dungeons, where he practices unspeakable tortures. The noble families he either executed or cast out. Now our fair city is a pit of despair, and all the surrounding region suffers under his foul yoke.”
I didn’t know much about the local culture, but I did know that it centered around large cities, each ruled by a prince. If one of those cities had fallen into evil hands, I knew that the suffering would be great. The idea of helping a band of brave heroes rescue their prince and restore order appealed to me.
“Very well, Reynaldo,” I said, “but I will need time to prepare. And I will need you to find a way to take Sirnon by surprise.”
“That is easily done, my lord magus. We all grew up at the palace, and we know its secret ways. We would have confronted Sirnon already, but we know that steel is useless against a magus.”
Of course, that’s not true. Anyone is vulnerable to a sword or a knife, but I didn’t tell them that. They seemed like such idealists that I was worried they’d run off and attack Sirnon immediately. If they didn’t take him by surprise, he quite likely would have killed them. Besides, I had my own plans for him.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard tales of duels between magi, but they are ugly, unpleasant, and dangerous to the magi and those nearby. It’s even worse if the magi are dueling to the death. Even the victor of such a conflict is often severely wounded in body, mind, or spirit. I was concerned about the outcome if Sirnon and I met face to face. That is why I needed to surprise him, and why I needed to prepare. I decided to use my new allies to help me.
“Reynaldo?” I called.
“Yes, lord magus?”
I’d had about enough of that. “Look, we’re going to be spending quite a bit of time together, and I can’t have all of you lord-magusing me all the time. My name is Tasrein.”
“Tasri — Tasray –” Reynaldo was an eloquent speaker, but try as he might, he just couldn’t get my name right. None of them could. I think the sounds just didn’t go together that way in their language. We needed something for them to call me. They’d been referring to me as the “Madman of the Grey Moors” while they searched for me, but that wouldn’t do. I didn’t much care for just “Madman”, so we settled on “Greymoor”. I decided that I liked it, so I translated it into Baranurian when I came back here to retire. “Greymoor” in their language sounds vulgar here.
I set my band of worthies to collecting what I needed, while I started meditating to prepare my mind for the spell I was going to cast. This served a double purpose. Preparing for a powerful spell always gives me a headache, and the spell I was planning to use was quite potent. I knew I had to keep them away from the camp during the day and too tired to disturb me in the evenings. Noise always makes the headaches worse.
I will give those young nobles credit, they worked hard for a sennight collecting what I needed and weaving it together. Finally, they were done. They were covered in dirt and scratched up from crawling through thick undergrowth; some of them even had bite wounds. They were far better off than I was. I had spent the sennight concentrating on a single phrase, burning it into my brain and instilling it with power. My head was throbbing in agony, and the pain increased whenever I moved. I was ready.
We stole into the city after nightfall, and true to Reynaldo’s word, they knew a secret way into the palace. We found no guards within the walls. There was a magical warding upon one door, but even in my impaired state I was able to see it and defeat it. We found Sirnon snoring peacefully in his bed. Reynaldo and another of the young nobles fell upon him and wrapped him in the cloak they had woven for him. I had actually been surprised that they found that much tree rat hair in a sennight, but as I said, they were motivated.
I spoke my words of power, and Sirnon changed. I don’t know if he was even awake enough to know what was going on. One moment, he was a man, the next he was a tree rat. Reynaldo scooped him up in his fist.
“What do you think of that, Sirnon?” he demanded. I was puzzled.
“He can’t understand you, Reynaldo,” I said. “He is a tree rat, body and mind.”
“But our prince could talk after he was transformed.”
I shrugged. “Must be a different spell.” Actually I was more than a little surprised. True, I was on the other side of the continent from Baranur, where the study of magic is very different. Still it was hard to fathom why Sirnon would go through the extra effort to enable Bastien to talk. I wondered if Sirnon had to endure a headache for a sennight before casting his spell.
“Where’s the fun in that?” Reynaldo demanded, sounding like a petulant child. As if to reinforce that image in my mind, he cast the tree rat aside in disgust. The terrified creature scampered out the door.
“We’ve won!” exclaimed a young noble named Kayli, while she jumped up and down and clapped.
Reynaldo turned his disgusted look on her. “Not quite yet. We have to find the prince and have Greymoor transform him back before anyone discovers what’s happening.”
At the mention of turning the prince back to himself, I groaned. I was just getting over the headache of preparing my spell for Sirnon. Undoing another magi’s work always makes me nauseous.
“Fan out!” said Reynaldo to his companions. “Find the prince. He must be in one of these rooms!”
As they scampered off to do his bidding, I turned to Reynaldo. “I thought you said your prince was locked in the dungeon.”
He looked away from me, embarrassed. “Well, er, the palace doesn’t have any dungeons, really. But I am sure he was enduring unspeakable torture.”
It was Kayli who found the prince. She returned bearing him on a pillow. It turned out that the “horrible beast” he had been turned into was a cat, of all things. And he didn’t show any signs of “unspeakable torture”. In fact, his coat was quite sleek and he looked well-fed. She set the pillow down before Reynaldo and me. Prince Bastien stared at us for a moment before he stretched and –
“Prince Bastien?” Ashe interrupted. “Did you name this cat after the prince, then?” The cat in question had his head cocked to one side, obviously enjoying the feeling of Ashe rubbing his left ear.
“No,” said Greymoor, shaking his head. “That cat is the prince.”
Ashe blinked in disbelief. His hand stopped petting the cat, who ceased purring and looked at him in annoyance. “This cat … is the prince? So, couldn’t you change him back into a man?”
“He changed me back, alright,” said a soft voice near Ashe’s hand. It took him a moment to realize the source.
“Cephas’ boot!” he shouted as he leaped to his feet, his chair clattering to the floor behind him. “You can –”
He cut himself short as he realized the spectacle he was making of himself. The few customers in the Rogue and Quiver were staring at him as he talked to a cat. Red-faced, he picked up his chair and sat back down.
“He can talk?” he asked Greymoor in a loud whisper.
“Of course I can talk,” said Bastien.
“I don’t believe it,” said Ashe, still looking at the magus, who was wearing an amused grin. “It’s a trick. You’re using magic to make this cat talk, just to make a fool of me. This story is all a lie for your amusement.”
Greymoor’s smile faded. “Nothing of the sort, boy. I am telling this story to make a point. If anything, the fact that my cat can talk should make it more believable, not less.”
“But you — he — said that you changed him back. So why is he still a cat?”
“I’m not still a cat, Ashe,” said Bastien. “I am a cat again. And I would appreciate it if you would stop talking about me as if I’m not sitting right here. It will all make sense when you hear the rest of the story.”
“Would you like to tell it?” Greymoor asked the cat.
“No, you go ahead,” said Bastien, lying down and crossing one forepaw over the other. “This next part is a little embarrassing. Oh, and Ashe? There’s a spot under my chin that needs scratching, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Now that he knew the cat was really a prince, Ashe was hesitant to touch Bastien, but both the magus and the cat were staring at him, so he began to scratch beneath Bastien’s chin. As the cat began to purr happily, Greymoor continued his story.
I studied the spell that Sirnon had placed upon Bastien. It was quite elegant, really. Much more complicated than my spell, yet undoing it was pure simplicity. To put it in terms you can understand, it was like untying a slipknot. I wondered why Sirnon had made the spell so easy to break, but there was no way to find an answer while the magus was a tree rat. Within menes the spell was removed, and Bastien was restored.
“You are as handsome as I remembered, your majesty!” squealed Kayli. She wrapped a robe from the closet around him, and then began to caress him.
“Thank you, Kayli,” the prince responded absently. He was still in a daze from his transformation. He pressed against the young lady for a moment, clearly enjoying the attention. Then Reynaldo cleared his throat. Bastien blinked a few times and his blank expression melted away. He focused his eyes on me. “And thank you, lord magus. You have saved me, and my city, from a horrible fate. You shall be rewarded, of course. For now, we must …” the dazed look returned.
“Gather together the others, and alert the palace guards that you have been restored, majesty?” Reynaldo ventured.
“Yes! By all means, gather the others and inform the guards,” said Bastien.
“You are most wise, your majesty,” Reynaldo replied, with a bow. “I shall see to that immediately. And then, perhaps, a celebration?”
“Oh, yes! A celebration!” Kayli gushed. She turned to me. “Oh, Greymoor, we used to have the most wonderful celebrations after Bastien became the prince. Until that horrible Sirnon came along, anyway.”
“Certainly we shall have a celebration,” said Bastien. “The people need to know that their prince has been freed.”
I’ve never been one for celebrations, though, so I made my excuses and departed while Bastien and his friends were still restoring order. I was eager to return to my work in the Marshes of Madness, and, although my headache was gone, casting the spell on Sirnon had left me feeling drained.
Reynaldo, astride a magnificent grey stallion, found me several days later on the edge of the marsh. He had also been transformed by the prince’s restoration. His tattered finery had been replaced with elegant silk. He was clean-shaven, and jewels sparkled from his fingers, belt, and left ear. It was hard to believe he was the same man I had met in the marshes a few sennights previously.
“Lord Greymoor,” he said, “you left without receiving your payment. Prince Bastien insisted that I find you and ensure that you are rewarded properly.” From his belt he produced a small pouch filled with coins, which he tossed down to me. I argued with him, or at least I tried to. He wouldn’t hear of it, and rode off on his fine new horse without saying another word.
I didn’t need the money, but I wasn’t fool enough to leave it. The coins were gold. I added them to my own, and didn’t think of it further until a month later, when I went into a nearby town for supplies. The coin I pulled out to pay for my goods was one of the gold ones I’d received from Reynaldo. The shopkeeper’s eyes went wide at the sight of it.
“I can’t give you change for that, my lord.” A tone of respect, or perhaps fear, crept into his voice. “Times are hard now. I’m sure there isn’t enough coin in the village to give you change for that.”
I was surprised. “Surely things have gotten better since Prince Bastien was restored.”
He scowled at me then. “His lordship is making a joke, I suppose. I’m sure it’s funny, too, if you’re a man walking around with gold in your pocket.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, but I was afraid I already knew.
He explained to me about the depredation that had been occurring since Bastien had been returned to the throne: new tax levies, nobles coming into villages demanding goods and services but paying nothing, and celebrations at the palace while the surrounding country was devastated.
I thanked him and paid him in silver. He had told me that the gold coin was worthless to him. There was nowhere he could spend it, and he would doubtless have been charged with a crime and the coin taken from him if he tried.
I did confirm what he said with others before taking any action. Everywhere the story was the same. Bastien and his nobles were stripping the country bare. Sirnon’s rule had been a blessing to the population. He had thrown down the regime of a ruler who cared nothing for his people, and only loved the praise and attention of his sycophants. Bastien’s return was actually worse for the population than when the prince had ruled before. It seemed that his noble followers — whom I’d thought brave heroes, ha! — now sought to strip the land of all its wealth, presumably to prepare for Bastien’s eventual dethroning, either by an angry mob or one of his neighboring city-states.
My course was clear, but difficult. Have you ever tried to find a tree rat? Not just a tree rat, either, but a particular one who thinks you are an enemy? I searched for over a fortnight, using every spell I could think of with no luck. Finally, he found me. Must have retained just enough of his mind to know that I was his enemy. Bit my hand, and would have done worse except that I managed to pop him in a bag. A right fool I must have looked, too, trying to calm a wriggling sack. He settled down eventually, and I was able to turn him back. I apologized profusely and explained the situation. We spent the night planning, and the following day in deep concentration, preparing.
So I found myself, once again, with a throbbing headache, stealing into the palace through Reynaldo’s secret door. The arrogant fools hadn’t even posted a guard. Apart from them, I was the only one who knew where it was, and I had been paid and sent on my way. Most of the guards actually joined our little coup once they saw Sirnon. A few, officers mostly, fled when they figured out what was going on. I later learned that they had been lining their pockets since Bastien had come back.
When we found Prince Bastien, he seemed relieved, almost grateful –
“But how did he become a cat again?” Ashe asked.
“At his request,” Greymoor replied.
“He asked you to do it?”
Bastien shrugged under Ashe’s hand. “Some people are better suited to rule than others. I made a better cat than I did a prince. Besides, it was really my only way out of the city alive. There were — are a lot of angry people there who want to boil me alive. It was a gift, really. I’ve enjoyed myself much more traveling with Greymoor than I ever did on my throne.”
Ashe shuddered, remembering tales of whole villages being boiled in oil by the insurrectionists during the Great Houses War. “What of the others?”
“I left them to Sirnon’s justice,” said Greymoor. “It was his city again. Their fate is not the important part of the story.”
“Straight. I can see why you might want to think before mixing magic and politics.”
“More than that. I simply won’t do it. But what I really need you to understand is that like Bastien, you’ve been given a gift –”
Ashe started at Greymoor’s words. “What? You think that I’m unfit to rule? My father –”
Greymoor raised his voice above Ashe’s, drawing some stares from the sailors in the bar. “Your father never intended you to rule!”
Ashe lowered his own voice again, hoping to avoid unwanted attention, and suddenly aware that he was arguing with a powerful magus. “But he told my mother that I would become baron, and he trained me.”
Greymoor waved a dismissive hand. “Swordcraft and horsemanship. Heroic stories. Where was the statecraft and strategy? Did you ever attend him while he met with delegates from neighboring baronies, or from the duke? Did he ever teach you how to dispense justice to the peasants, or how to determine what taxes to levy?”
“No, but –”
“Why, he didn’t even send you off to train as a page in another noble’s court!”
Ashe almost raised his voice again. He could feel his face beginning to flush. “But what of his oath to my mother? He would never have lied to her.”
Greymoor pointed a finger at Ashe. “Ah, but what were his words? ‘The life that she wanted for you’, you said. She was a peasant girl married to a backwoods baron. She knew nothing more of being a baron than — than you do! When she was with your father, he was engaged in his pleasures: hunting, riding, and reading. That was the life that she truly desired for you. He knew it, and gave it to you.”
Ashe sat, mouth agape, unsure of what to say. He had lived almost his whole life thinking that he would be Baron Leavenfell once his father passed. Now this wizard, and his cat, were telling him that this was not so. His first impulse was to lash out, as he had done with Roderick. He restrained himself, though. Greymoor might not be as forgiving as Roderick had been. Ashe wondered, not for the first time, why Roderick had allowed him to leave, even paid him, rather than having him imprisoned or executed. It didn’t make sense after all the difficulty he had gone through to steal the barony.
A new thought came to Ashe. Was the wizard perhaps an agent of Roderick’s? Perhaps the very same one who had magically erased his father’s letter? Roderick could have paid Madame Zeefra to send Ashe to Greymoor, in order to have the wizard trick him into believing that his father had lied to his mother. An image of his father came to mind, and with it, some advice his father had given him on more than one occasion. “Seek not for complicated answers when simple ones will do.”
Ashe dwelled on these words for a moment, while Greymoor and Bastien gazed at him in silence. His father had often called himself a “simple country baron”. His joys had come not from ruling his barony, but from riding through the forests of Leavenfell, and spending time with his wife and son. That would have been the life that Ashe’s mother saw, and the one that she wished for her son. His father had truly kept his promise.
Finally, Ashe nodded slowly, realizing the truth of Greymoor’s words. His father had always sent him off to his studies whenever “some boring twit from the capital” came to visit. He had learned nothing of taxation or peasant justice. His father hadn’t taught Ashe the slightest thing about ruling a barony.
“What am I to do now?” Ashe asked the wizard.
It was Bastien who answered him. “Whatever you want to do, you dolt! You have a horse and a sword, and an income! Travel! Or stay here in Dargon. Find something that suits you, and do it. Greymoor’s right. You have been given an incredible gift.”
Ashe smiled, stroking the cat’s silvery white fur once more before he rose from the table. “I suppose you’re right. I was always a little unsure of what father actually did as a baron. I’d just assumed that what he was teaching me would prepare me for it. I’ve no real desire to dispense justice and levy taxes, though. It will be strange living outside of Leavenfell, but I’ve a whole city — a whole world! — to explore and no obligations. Thank you, Greymoor.”
Seeing the cat’s irritated glare, he added, “And thank you, Bastien.”