It was extremely difficult for a queen to discreetly disappear in the middle of tense negotiations without raising notice or concern, but Jaellin’s staff were very, very good at their jobs.
She knew the source of the message as soon as she saw the layered oilcloths. Centuries of war were not forgotten in months, and every communication from Jarek was still scrutinized, analyzed, disassembled, and reassembled before being allowed out of the artificer’s workshops. However, the fact that they had brought her the rough copies and not a recopied draft of the message spoke to its urgency.
“I didn’t hear an alert this time.” she commented as she unrolled and aligned the thin scrolls.
“There wasn’t one. Brightwing snatched the zombie just inside the wall. You don’t sneak past a rhy-owl the same way twice, your highness.”
“Good to know.” she commented, then stopped, and dragged her eyes back to the start of the note, reading it again carefully, and willing the words to change.
“To Queen Jaellin, Sovereign of Aldis:
According to my calculations, Nycillia should have returned with the citizens whose debts she chose to purchase within the past few days. I have waited until now to send this message, as I assume that without this show of the good faith of my word, this message would be likely ignored.
A ‘little bird’ has informed me that Nobles Ulrun of Westtarth and Meladra of Selvas are passing information to Jarzoni spies in your kingdom. I pass on this information for you to do with as you will, but please remember that Jarzon gaining influence in the court of Aldis benefits neither of us.
Signed and sealed,
Lich-King Jarek, Wizard of the Ninth Circle, Monarch of Kern.
P.S.: In retrospect, slamming the Black Gates in Nycillia’s face in a fit of pique was rather rude of me. Please pass on my apologies.
P.P.S.: In the interest of maintaining open and honest communication between us, I should point out that the aforementioned ‘little bird’ was a metaphor. The information was actually ripped out of the brain of a Jarzoni intelligence agent.”
“Melandra…” the queen breathed. It was damnably plausible. And with half the Jarzoni ambassadors here, negotiating and observing, it would be nigh impossible to investigate, quickly and quietly. But if Jarzon was suborning her nobles while pretending to negeotiate in good faith…
She sighed. “Contact Jorth, and have him contact Shari. Send them to investigate, carefully.”
Jorth lay back in his chair. It had been another long day. He’d had to split up his associates, to ensure that both estates were infiltrated at the same time, so that neither could warn the other. It had been a tense, difficult mission, but those were his specialties. That hadn’t been the worst of it. The worst had been the court case.
It would have been so much cleaner if they’d been Kernish spies (although, true to his word, neither he nor his contacts nor the Aldis Spymasters had found any sign of Kernish spies in the past few months.) Kernish spies were easy; they had all reported back to their dark master with sorcery and fell rituals. You could feel good about rooting them out.
But nobles of Aldis? He’d feared the worst when he’d broken into the sealed and scry-warded chamber beneath Lady Meladra’s bedchamber. And he’d found communications, some of which were very definitely sensitive, but nothing that was hard proof of anything illegal. And now it was going to be a matter for the courts. At least there’d be no chance he’d personally be called to testify-
There was a dismayed cry from Nycillia’s bedchamber, and Jorth was up and grabbing for his sword before he’d finished processing the sound. He sprinted, pivoted around Albus (who had neither weapon nor armor but was running in just the same), grabbed the door handle, pulled, found it locked, stepped back to get room to kick, tensed as Albus stepped forward, laid a hand on the lock, and blew it open with a flare of magic, rushed in, scanned for threats-
Shari was there, blades out and bedclothes off, and Nycillia was sitting upright in their bed, groaning and holding her head in her hands.
“It’s Jarek!” she shouted. “She shouted his name in her sleep and then-
“That bastard son of a darkspawn!” Nycillia said. “I am such a fool! How could I have been so blind!?”
Albus was already approaching, observing Nycillia for any sign of hostile magic.
“No, my friend.” said Nycillia, looking up. “I am not under attack. No, Jarek is far more subtle than that. Oh, he’s…”
Her voice trailed off and she let out a strangled squeak.
“He told me! He told me what he was doing! He told me and I laughed, and I ignored it! Augh!”
“Nycillia, what happened? Start at the beginning.” Ordinarily using sergeant-voice on Nycillia got you a raised eyebrow at best and toads in your underpants at worst, but now it seemed to focus her.
“The False Life Arcana.” she said, her voice now clipped and precise. “It’s what vampires and ghouls use to mute their auras of undeath, and let them dwell among the living undetected. You see, friends, living creatures give off a kind of energy, in accordance with their health, moods, natural rhythms, all of which I can sense. Undead creatures disturb this energy. I had been working with Jarek for the first week or so and I mentioned that trying to perform natural Arcana with him nearby was…distracting. Of course he knew about this Arcana, so he volunteered to peform it. And I laughed, as I said. He shone like a beacon of false-life, far more distracting than his fell presence had been before. Clearly he was not cut out to perform Arcana related to subtlety and deception. So I worked with him, and before long, he had learned to work the Arcana, and no longer distracted me. And it was not long after that that I noted that at times, I could almost sense perturbations in this false aura, this aura he told me was false, which was named for its falseness…gah! I am a fool.”
“And so I used these signals, and let them guide me. I thought I was sensing an opportunity when I felt Jarek think that he had figured out my stratagem. Of course he had! He was the one who got me thinking about price differentials and how to free the most people in the first place!”
“He tricked you…into freeing the slaves?” asked Albus. “Was there some trap there we did not identify? I examined most of them myself for any sign of curses or hidden magics-”
“Think, Albus! What did Jarek give up in our bargain? What did he lose, and what did he gain?”
“He gained your services to stop the decay of Kern. And he paid…no he didn’t. Yes! You’re right! He forgave a debt he himself claimed!”
“And now look what’s happening.” said Shari. “We’ve already got people wanting to go to Kern and trade with the Lich King.”
“Advertising.” spat Jorth. “Aye. Just like a pea-and-shell game. The confidant to win a few rounds to tempt in the marks, then the marks move in… Nycillia, are you sure?”
“I am.” she said. “I wondered, briefly, at the time…but I was very busy, and had very little sleep, and was seeing so much misery, and he was so damnably indifferent, so arrogant, so young and full of himself…I wanted to beat him. And he knew, and offered me a chance to. And so I put such thoughts out of my mind. It wasn’t until now that I managed to put them back together.”
Albus nodded. “And I am very glad that you did. This is…comforting, I suppose.”
“Comforting?” shouted Shari. “He tricked-”
“He did not lie. He did not deceive. The twists and turns of his methods still lead to the path he has claimed. He wants to trade with Aldis. And I am comforted to know that if he has enough cunning and wit to best Nycillia, then it is likely that he will be able to hold off Jarzon’s incursions, and not resort to whatever lies in his dark vaults.”
Now it was Jorth’s turn to hold his head. “Right, this diplomacy and economics is beyond me, mostly. But here’s what I do know. One: this diplomatic quagmire with the nobles and Jarzon is a distraction. The more we stay here, the more we’re going to get mired in it. Two: As for the Lich King’s lovely advertisment for his fair dealings…well, that ship’s sailed. We’ve got some people out and more incoming, and we have no way of stopping ’em, not while merchants smell a profit. And so this leads me to three: whatever Jarek’s up to, it’s going to be in Kern. And Aldis is going to need eyes on the ground there. And Nycillia…Jarek did invite you back, did he not?”
“That he did.” Nycillia smiled grimly. “And promised to pay very close attention to the details of any further contracts…augh. A dozen times! He had to have told me a dozen times, and I ignored them all! By the Gods, for all I know, he told me knowing that I’d figure it out later and come marching back in!”
“She’s right.” said Shari. “He’ll be expecting Nycillia to return.”
“Then that’s all the more reason for us to join her. Because, my friends, ancient lich-king economancer or no, there’s no stratagem that can trick all of us for long, not if we’re alert and working together. So, friends, who’s up for earning a quick fortune in brave new Kern?”