After scouting the clothing store, the Knights did a bit of sightseeing, discussing innocuous matters until they were safely back on the Sky Hawk. Once onboard they posted a double watch and retreated to the Captain’s quarters.
“Is he gone?” Horace asked.
Katrina and Jon shrugged together. “I lost sight of him when we came down the dock,” the bard answered. “But he might have friends spying on us that I didn’t catch.”
“You can count on it,” Jon added darkly. “It’s a dead cinch that halfling is working for Blanrus. Who knows how many other people he might have watching us by now?”
“How long has he been following us?” Mira wanted to know.
Katrina struck a plaintive chord on her lute. “Since the bar at least, maybe longer.”
“Which means he knows about our meeting with Sithfarith,” Aaren warned them. “And it wouldn’t take any great genius to figure out what he told us. Which means Blanrus knows that one; we’re here, and two; we know where he is.”
“If he doesn’t by now, he will as soon as his little spy reports back,” Jon agreed. “And bye-bye secrecy.”
Horace stripped his sword belt off and hung it up. “What makes you think we ever had any chance of secrecy, to begin with?”
They turned to him in surprise. “You didn’t think we would?”
He shrugged. “It would have been nice I guess, but I never really counted on it, especially after Ryal told us about all the traps Blanrus had set for us.”
Katrina smacked herself in the forehead. “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Don’t worry about it,” the big fighter told her. “I wasn’t expecting secrecy because I was thinking in terms of a field battle where it’s impossible to hide your troops. I hadn’t considered what a small fight in a city would be like.” He shrugged deprecatingly. “Just luck really.”
Aaren grinned at him. “I’m surprised to hear you admit it. Gratified, but surprised.”
Horace returned his grin. “I’m learning.”
“So what do we do now?” Elric put in. “We still need to figure out how to get in there without getting our heads handed to us on a platter.”
Katrina pulled out the map of the tunnels and spread it out on the table. “You said you could plan an assault for us, big guy,” she told Horace. “It’s time to get started.”
“Sure. But first, there’s something I want to know.”
“Remember those boots we found in the hydra’s lair? They were supposed to be magic. But we never stopped to find out what they do.”
A murmur of surprise ran around the table.
Elric’s eyes widened. “You know, we were so busy getting out of the swamp then launching the Egg Nest, I totally forgot about them! Hang on a minute, I’ll go get them.” He jumped up and ran out of the room.
They sat back to wait for his return.
“Why did you want to know about the boots?” Mira asked Horace. “What does that have to do with our assault?”
The fighter stroked his beard for a moment before answering her. “Look at the enemy forces we’re going to be fighting,” he told all of them. “An evil wizard, a vampire, Altman, and a military brotherhood. The priest that put the finger on Illene might still be around and who knows about what the halfling might do.” Somebody snickered and he glanced around sharply but didn’t see who it was. “Don’t underestimate them. I’ve heard too many stories about people doing that and regretting it.”
“Stories from who?” Katrina challenged him.
“The mercenaries my father used to take me to see,” he shot back. “They said halflings were better fighters than most people gave them credit for. They’re so small and quick they’re hard to hit. Plus, they have more luck than any three people put together. It’s uncanny.”
“Okay,” Aaren placated him, “we’ll be careful around the halfling. But what about the boots?”
Horace nodded and resumed his lecturing tone. “We’re fighting a military brotherhood on their own territory, which means dug-in positions, killing grounds, barricades, and all kinds of nasty surprises. That’s in addition to whatever magical traps Blanrus set up for us.” He indicated the map spread out on the table. “It’s a tough nut to crack. Then add Blanrus himself to the equation. We’re also facing Altman and the vampire. Altman is a lousy fighter but with all his magical toys he’s practically a one-man army, and the vampire, well, we all know about them.”
“And wish we didn’t,” Mira quipped.
“And wish we didn’t,” he agreed. “Now, what do we have against all that? Number one is me and my sword.” He saw some raised eyebrows and hurried to explain. “I’m not being arrogant, I’m just running down the list, I’m the best fighter we have. Am I wrong?”
They shook their heads. “No, you’re not wrong,” Aaren said.
He nodded briefly and continued. “Thanks. And don’t forget, my sword has some heavy-duty magic on it.”
“So does Aaren’s new hammer and Elric’s dagger,” Katrina added.
“I was just coming to that. Aaren’s hammer is pretty hefty, plus he’s got some spells and those healing potions we found. Elric’s dagger is magic too, but not much. His spells are his biggest weapon. So, that leaves the three vampire arrows for Mira, the necklace of fireballs and Jon’s ring.” He ticked each item off on his fingers. “Those things have to be considered before we go blindly plunging in. How can we use them to our best advantage? I was thinking about that when I realized we still hadn’t figured out what the boots do, so I thought I’d ask in case they might come in handy.”
At that moment Elric came flying into the room with the answer to his question.
Horace ducked as the slender mage whizzed by overhead. “What in the world?” The rest of them dove out their seats, scrambling to get out of his way.
Elric laughed merrily as he spun around in midair. “Hey! This is great!” His booted feet missed Mira’s head by scant inches. She ducked with a startled yelp.
“What are you doing? Come down from there!” Aaren thundered.
Elric did a fast flip then dropped to the deck directly in front of the irate priest. “Your wish is my command, O Great One,” he saluted. He turned and tossed two daggers to Jon. “Here, I think you’ll like these.”
The rogue snatched them out of the air and inspected them. “Why?”
“They’re magic,” Elric told him happily. “They were in with the boots, I’d forgotten about them too!” He leaned forward conspiratorially, “They’re for throwing. The magic helps you hit your target then brings them back to you, right to your hand.”
Jon’s eyes lit up. “Oh really?” he breathed. He cradled them fondly. “You’re right, I do like them.”
Mira straightened up. “Wonderful, but next time could you be more careful? You almost kicked me in the head when you came in,” she said reproachfully to the slender mage.
“Sorry. I guess I got carried away. Flying is fun!”
“This is great!” enthused Horace. “Flying boots and throwing knives that come back!”
“Daggers,” Jon corrected him gently.
“Whatever. It’s great! It gives us a better edge.” For Elric’s benefit, he quickly repeated his lecture, concluding, “This increases our chances tremendously. All we have to do now is figure out the best way of using them.” He was champing at the bit to get started.
“Slow down, big guy,” Mira laughed at him. “We’ve got a whole month before Illene is in any danger. Let’s take our time and make sure we know what we’re doing.”
A knock on the door cut short his reply.
Katrina opened it. “Hi, Garrick. What’s up?”
“There’s a gentleman outside who wants to talk to you.”
“Sorry. ‘You’ as in, the Knights of Gaia,” Garrick said apologetically.
“Who is it?” Mira asked.
“Uh, I think you’d better come take a look yourself,” he said nervously.
The Knights traded quizzical looks.
“Alright, bosun. Have him wait, we’ll be right up.”
“Aye.” He turned and left.
“That was interesting,” Aaren commented.
Mira glanced sideways at him. “Any hunches?”
He made a seesawing motion with his hand. “No danger of a fight, but I think we ought to be careful.”
Horace caught up his sword belt and buckled it on. “Just in case you’re wrong,” he explained.
They rose and trouped out of the Aaren’s cabin, emerged on the main deck, and looked around. They saw him instantly.
For a moment they thought Altman had come back. The man standing by the gangplank was dressed in the most outlandish outfit any of them had ever seen. Garish colors clashed with ornate jewelry and enough rings to stock an entire store. His hair was done up in a bizarre topknot, his face was heavily rouged and painted, and he carried a white handkerchief pressed delicately to his nose to shut out the odors of the dock. Limpid brown eyes regarded them from behind long, fluttering eyelashes.
“Who’s this guy?” Jon whispered. “Altman’s sister?”
Mira stifled the urge to giggle.
Aaren inclined his head at him. “We’re the Knights of Gaia. You wanted to see us?”
“Yes,” the man lisped in a sultry voice. “I’m Rontoffer, at your service. I have news for you about one of my fellow fancy fops. I believe you knew him; Altman Reeves?”
All Mira’s humor at the man’s strange appearance vanished like water on a hot day.
Aaren eyed the man with narrowed eyes. “We’re not really familiar with the term ‘fancy fops’.”
Rontoffer smiled faintly. “It’s reserved for those of of us who’ve lived long enough to acquire more refined and civilized tastes than the great unwashed masses of humanity.”
Horace grunted with distaste. “Whatever.” He shook his head.
Aaren shushed him. “I see. And to answer your question, yes, we know Altman. What about him?”
Rontoffer bowed slightly. “Then perhaps we could find someplace a little more, private to discuss matters . . .” He trailed off suggestively.
Aaren could feel the antipathy rolling off his companions. If this Rontoffer guy was anything like Altman, he didn’t trust him as far as he could spit. His Sight showed him magic all over the man’s jewelry and weapons. “We’ll have to ask you to surrender your weapons,” he said bluntly. “And your jewelry as well.”
He was disappointed. “Oh, I’m afraid I couldn’t do that. Terribly sorry to have bothered you. Have a good day.” He turned and started down the gangplank.
“Wait!” he shouted after him.
He stopped and turned expectantly.
“We had a bad time with Altman and it’s made us a little jumpy. If you and he are both ‘fancy fops’, we really can’t let you onto the ship when you might be carrying dangerous magic.” He paused, thinking furiously. “What if we sent the crew below decks and talked out here?”
Rontoffer pouted. “Awfully uncivilized of you, you know. Still, it’s not the first time I’ve been misjudged because of Altman’s bad manners.” He sighed heavily. “Oh, very well. But couldn’t you at least get us some chairs to sit on? Standing is so hard on my knees and back. Why I might actually pass out from the strain at any minute.”
“Just like Altman,” Horace muttered beneath his breath.
“Only worse,” Katrina agreed quietly.
Mira shushed them so Aaren could talk.
“That’ll be fine. Garrick! Bring some chairs up here, then you and the rest of the crew go below for a while.”
Garrick started to protest then thought better of it. “Aye, Captain.” He issued a quick flurry of orders and soon chairs had been brought up for all of them.
When the last of the crew had vanished below, Mira leaned forward in her chair. “Now, what do you have to tell us about Altman? And why are you telling us?”
“Don’t you trust my good nature?” he asked sorrowfully.
“No,” she said candidly, “we don’t. Nobody gives anything away for free in a city like this.”
“That’s right,” Jon echoed feelingly. “What’s your angle?”
Rontoffer’s voice lost some of its bedroom quality and he took on a more business-like air. “Have it your way. Your second question first; I’m doing this because Altman and I are rivals. I don’t particularly feel like initiating a Fortune Feud against him, but I would like to see him publicly embarrassed. It would take him down a peg or two.”
“Revenge, huh?” muttered Elric.
The fancy fop shrugged. “You can call it that if you like.”
Katrina was frowning. “What’s a Fortune Feud?”
“Never mind,” Aaren said shortly. “How about answering Mira’s first question now.”
Rontoffer’s voice lost all traces of its former sultry quality and became hard and brisk, almost military. “You hurt his feelings so he’s temporarily allied himself with Klee Blanrus and his pet priest. It’s his petty way of trying to even the score.”
Aaren saw Horace nodding to himself and remembered the fighter’s concern that Bashaak might still be around. Now they had confirmation.
Rontoffer was still talking. “They’re getting ready to come for you if you haven’t come for them before the ceremony tomorrow. Only by then, they’ll have the entire city guard on their side–”
“WHOA!” Aaren shouted. “The ceremony is tomorrow? We thought Urdan’s birthday wasn’t until next month!”
Rontoffer was puzzled for a moment, then his face cleared. “Oh, that old dodge. I thought everybody knew about that by now.”
“What old dodge?”
“Urdan has always been paranoid. Years ago he published a fake date for his birthday to keep people from taking advantage of it the way Blanrus is going to.” He paused suddenly. “You mean you didn’t know? Oh dear, oh dear me.”
There was a sudden babble of noise as everyone tried to talk at once. “SHUT UP!” Aaren shouted. “Everyone hold it! Just hold it!” When they had settled down he asked Rontoffer, “How do you know all this? Surely Blanrus and Altman didn’t tell you.”
He smiled slowly. “They didn’t have to. I’m older than Altman and I was here when this place was nothing but a half-wild hideout for pirates. I know Harpel inside and out. I even helped dig some of the tunnels under this place. Besides, I was here when Urdan was born and I can read a calendar.” He sat back in his chair with a self-satisfied smirk on his face.
There was a long silence.
Aaren glanced over at the sun, it was starting to set. “Any other surprises for us?” he asked sarcastically.
Rontoffer stood up. “Just one.”
They glared at him. “What’s that?”
“I killed all the spies that were watching you before I came on board. It’ll be at least midnight or tomorrow morning before Blanrus realizes anything is wrong. If you attack now you’ll be able to catch him off-guard, Altman will be embarrassed, and best of all, the Knife will owe me a considerable amount of money.” He brushed himself off with a self-satisfied smile and resumed his dainty affections. “Do have a fun drenched stay, won’t you? Ta ta.” He pranced down the gangplank and vanished up the dock.