Richard just Richard ducked into the Sword and Serpent Tavern, and, putting his back against the wall, he searched the dim room. Luckily, the dusky room matched the exterior twilight, and Richard needed no time for his eyes to adjust. He kept his hand on his cutlass all the same. Eel Harbor, on the shores of Duchy Northfield, was a dangerous place at night.
“Richard!” a voice called out, and Richard cursed himself although the voice was a known and friendly one. The bowmaster hated to be seen before he himself had seen. “Richard, come over and have a drink. Dinner’s on the way.”
After another moment’s quick survey, Richard located Captain Gaoel Fynystere of the Eclipse sitting in a corner table–the one Richard would have chosen himself, in fact. It was hardly visible from the doorway. Satisfied, Richard approached, then paused hostilely as he saw the other man at the table.
After a moment, Richard resumed his approach slowly, carefully observing the stranger as he came closer. The man was tall and elegantly slim in the dimness, and he held beside him a large, lumpy object which Richard could not identify at the distance. Another step and the object became a plump lute, and the glowing lamp on the table glittered suddenly on a metal chain hung with pendants. Two more paces showed the man’s face in the lamplight: handsome, dark, perhaps Richard’s age. Not taking his eyes off the stranger’s dark, pleasant ones, Richard sat in the chair Fynystere kicked to him, and observed final details: the colors and cut of the stranger’s clothes, the designs on the medallions, and the other side of his face.
The clothes were well made of fairly expensive and comfortable silk–the cloth Richard preferred for his own clothes, but Richard’s plain white blouse and close-cut breeches were not exquisitely embroidered with gold and silver threads. The stranger’s taste was excellent; his suit was elegant, colorful but not gaudy, and would look at home here in a tavern or in a nobleman’s hall.
Still, Richard felt wary, as he did with all strangers, and so he looked at the medallions to see what they could tell him. The first, a badge denoting the second-highest rank in the Baranurian Bardic College surprised him; Richard doubted that the seedy port town of Eel’s Harbor ever sheltered a bard of such high rank before. The second medallion, a gold coin depicting King Haralan’s head, seemed inconsequential to Richard, for he was familiar with the practice of bards wearing their first coins as trophies. The third medallion, however, intrigued him: it was a gold executioner’s hood.
The stranger smiled at him, and then Richard saw, with wonder, the unusual jagged scar, perhaps a burn, perhaps a cut, on the stranger’s face. Richard shook his head to clear sudden, disturbed feelings from it–there was no reason for them–and smiled back.
“Richard,” Fynystere began, and Richard could tell that the captain had already been in his cups, “this is Matteo.” A bard with no other name? Richard wondered. “Matteo, my bowmaster, Richard just Richard.”
“Pleased to know you, Bowmaster,” Matteo said, and Richard knew Matteo was from Magnus by his accent. Of course, Richard chided himself; the Bardic College was in Magnus, and many bards came from there.
Praying that Matteo had never seen him in Magnus, Richard answered formally, “And I you, sir. Tell me, what does a bard of such high skill as yourself do in Eel Harbor in a dump like this?”
“Ask no questions, Rich,” Fynystere growled one of the most important rules of the Eclipse.
“Do our rules apply off board, captain?” Richard wondered amiably.
“Do you want me to start asking *you* questions?” Fynystere snapped pointedly, and Richard felt a chill in his heart. His secrets were deep and dangerous, and the bowmaster guarded them jealously as a dragon. If he were asked–if anyone knew–
But Matteo laughed, and his eyes were shrewd. “I’m a bard; I’ll tell freely. I was at the battle of Oron’s Crossroads, sir. The Beinisons weren’t gentle with Lady Martis’ army.”
Richard abruptly suspected two things: the man was no bard, and he was a liar. No bard of such high distinction would mistake a Royal Officer’s rank and refer to a Knight Captain as merely “Lady.” As for the scar–
“Damn well healed for two months,” Richard muttered.
Matteo laughed, “Yes, and I have a good mage-healer, Hrina, to thank for it. Trained by Marcellon Equiville himself–have you heard of him, sir? The High Mage and Royal Physician. Hrina has been attendant on Lady Martis and myself since we were together in Magnus–I an aspirant to the Bardic College, Lady Martis an aspirant to Knighthood, and Hrina a student of the High Mage.”
That explained the scar and the familiarity with Dame Captain Westbrook, but Richard still wondered about some things. “Is it true, as I hear,” Richard began carefully, “that Dame Captain Westbrook may never fight again?”
Matteo nodded sadly. “My poor lady,” he rued, sighing. “A wound in the upper arm, Bowmaster, and a bad one. By the time my lady arrived back in Pyridain, Hrina could do but little for her.”
Richard found that odd, and odd too that such an old friend as Matteo claimed to be would leave Dame Captain Westbrook at such a time. “It’s a long way from Pyridain,” Richard commented.
“Indeed,” Matteo agreed, sipping from his goblet. “I work my way north to Magnus, but my business I cannot tell.”
Richard nodded, satisfied. The man probably bore some sort of message from Dame Martis to Magnus–probably to the Knight Commander or the King. Still, Richard felt unjustifiably uneasy. Something–Richard couldn’t tell what–bothered him about the way the man spoke.
“I hear you sing, Bowmaster,” Matteo continued. “Your captain has told me you have even written songs.”
Something was wrong with his accent. Oh, it sounded like Magnus’ voice, but something wasn’t quite right about it. Perhaps he grew up somewhere else first, Richard reasoned. More to keep the bard talking than anything else, Richard replied casually, “Oh, Bron of Beggar’s End writes the songs. I merely clean them up.”
“Clean them up,” the captain grumbled, reaching for his grog. “Clean them up. Why should you clean them up, Rich? A song can never be too bawdy.”
“I meant fixing the rhythm,” Richard explained, rolling his eyes in exasperation. He looked back at Matteo. “Bron has all the metrical skill of a blacksmith.”
“You would think,” Matteo replied smiling, “that seamen would take to rhythm naturally, what with knowing the tides and the rocking of the ship and all.”
“Not Bron. He’s about as much a poet as Donegal,” Richard replied, relaxing a little.
“Your leech, I believe?” Matteo wondered.
“The same,” Fynystere belched. “Where is that whoreson, anyhow, Rich? Wasn’t he to meet us here for dinner? And where is that damn cat of yours?”
Richard smiled at the reference to the Red Tiger, Richard and Donegal’s pet and the Eclipse’s mascot. “Damn cat” was what Fynystere called her when in a good mood. “Donegal and Cedric–the mate–” he added for Matteo’s benefit, “–are off somewhere getting wild, as usual. Kitty insisted on keeping an eye on them.”
“Kitty? Your lady?” Matteo wondered.
“You could call her that, I guess.”
“A lady on a pirate ship,” Matteo chuckled, pulling his lute out. The strap touched the medallions and moved them. Matteo plucked a string and adjusted its pin slightly. “I should put that into a song. Where did you find her, Bowmaster, this lady who dares sail with pirates?”
“The Islands of the Sun,” Richard answered, staring at the executioner’s hood medal to shake his preoccupation with the man’s accent. “She wouldn’t let us leave her.”
“Tell me about her,” Matteo said. “What does she look like?”
“I’ll tell,” Richard promised, leaning closer for a better look at the pendants, “if you’ll tell me where you got that medal.”
“What, the coin or the hood?” Matteo wondered. “Surely you know where I got the Bardic Medal.”
“Of course,” Richard retorted, and his voice was sharper than he had intended. The man’s not-quite Magnus accent grated on him inexplicably. “I meant the hood.”
“The hood was given to me by the Lord Executioner of Welspeare,” Matteo explained as he tuned another string. “I’ve been thinking of melting it into a ring. It’s rather gruesome.”
Richard couldn’t argue with that.
“And the coin I earned when singing for the Duchess of Narragan.” Matteo reached for it with his right hand and held it out for Richard’s inspection. “A gold sovereign, and my first performance before a noble, too.”
Richard knew that no bard whose singing was worth less than a sovereign even earned the right to perform before a noble. He said nothing, however, and stared at King Haralan’s head, stamped rigidly into the gold.
Matteo noticed Richard’s gaze and picked up the sovereign. He looked down at the King’s head, then at Richard. “Tell me, fellow-Magnan, does it look like the King? I’ve never seen him.”
He lived long enough in Magnus to go to the Bardic College and acquire the city’s accent, but had never seen the King? Richard’s stomach tightened. Something was wrong with this man, definitely. It didn’t make sense: Matteo had lived in Magnus long enough to acquire–perhaps *learn*?–Magnus’ accent, but had never seen the King, who appeared in parades and pageants and law courts?
Richard carefully kept his eyes calm despite the sudden quake in his heart and replied, “I really don’t know. I haven’t been to Magnus in fourteen years. King Arneth was still alive then, and King Haralan was a young man.”
Matteo again turned to coin so he could view the face. “I always wondered if this is what he looked like,” the bard mused. “I should like to know a King when I see him.”
The food came then, and Matteo returned to tuning the lute. The captain perked up slightly. “Where is that bloody Donegal?”
Richard rose smoothly and stilled his nervousness sternly. “I’ll go look for him, Captain.”
Suddenly, Matteo’s eyes widened in horror, and Richard felt a hand on his shoulder. Before Richard could attack, Donegal’s voice said, “Sit down.”
Richard nearly jumped despite the friendly voice. Why was he so edgy?
“‘Evenin’, Captain,” the leech greeted with his normal cheerful casualness. Suddenly, Donegal’s voice changed. “Good evening, sir.”
Richard’s hands tightened when Donegal’s tone did. The Red Tiger nudged beneath Richard’s palm but growled softly instead of purring. Suddenly, Richard wanted very badly to leave.
“What *is* that–that–” Matteo gasped, and Richard’s mood improved spitefully at the bard’s fear. Let *him* be uncomfortable!
“Damn cat,” said Fynystere.
“Hey, Rich,” Donegal began, and Richard could tell without looking that Donegal’s usual cheerfulness was now being feigned. “Hey, Rich, you’ve *got* to see this wench across the street. She’s just the kind you like–big and–”
“Let’s go,” Richard agreed quickly, and he left the tavern without turning.
“See you later, Captain,” Donegal ended the conversation, and Richard heard in the leech’s voice that he was under strict control.
“Something’s wrong with that bard,” Richard muttered when they had crossed the street. “Something’s wrong.”
“You’re damn right,” Donegal breathed, and Richard, for the first time that evening, looked at his good friend. Donegal’s white eyes were wide and wild in his dark face. “I don’t know who the hell he’s after, but I can’t risk being in there with him. If he knew I was a slave–”
Richard shook his head. “What are you babbling about? There’s no slavery in Baranur.”
“He’d drag me back to Beinison–”
“He’s from Magnus,” Richard corrected the leech, then, after a moment, he corrected himself: “He says he’s from Magnus, but I don’t believe it.”
After a moment of silence, Donegal asked quietly, “How did you know, Rich?”
“Something about his accent isn’t right.”
“He’s not from Magnus, Rich.”
Richard rubbed his arms; the midsummer night had suddenly chilled. “How do you know?”
“Did you see that scar on his cheek? The hood medal he wears?”
“Aye.” The bowmaster shivered, afraid of the answer to his next question. “What are they, Donegal?”
“They’re the signs of the Masked God, Rich. That so-called Magnus bard is a priest of Amante the Masked God. He’s an assassin.”