While it was difficult to write while sick due to headaches and lethargy, I've managed to almost finish another 4k words worth of story. Originally this was meant to be a single chapter, but character kept demanding more attention. I've decided to split it into two chapters, one I've posted now and another 2-part chapter I will be posting tomorrow!
Chapter 15: Tasks, Travels & Traitors
“Now if I can, I would have a few moments longer with you all to discuss other matters.”
Several tense moments passed as we waited for the Duchess to elaborate, until eventually to me it became clear that she was not going to continue without some sort of response.
Now I don’t know how El or Roxi felt, but in the background of my thoughts my brain had decided to play the sort of orchestral piece music you would expect from a game or movie. The type of piece that slowly built up with increasing drama, that signalled the start of a climactic boss fight, a nail biting discovery or plot twist that promised to ramp up the stakes to new levels or had the hairs on the back of your neck sticking up as you're waiting for the a killer shark or serial killer to appear.
“What other matters?” I asked, suspicion bubbling up within me as I waited for the catch.
Her eyes locking onto mine like an AI controlled railgun finding its target, boring into me and leaving me feeling exposed under her gaze’s sharp intensity. Maintaining eye contact, I fought down the urge to shiver.
Then a feminine chuckle of amusement escaped her lips and it was over.
It probably shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, especially me, that a shrewd political entity as Duchess Cerys Blaiddcalon would be adept at reading people and able to easily pick up on my suspicions. What she planned to do with that information I don’t know and at this point I was too thankful and relieved that my turn was over; to care.
Almost lazily, her head tilted sideways to rest on the wings of her armchair as she turned her attention to El.
"Elixatmael, in light of these documents I need you in Baron Redwood's vicinity as soon as you can manage. Take two days to recover, organize supplies and conduct any other preparation you need. Leaving after nightfall on the second day, one of Knight Commander Mair Beynon’s Blaidwyven riders will drop you outside Port Lum. Serve me as well as you have previously and I will reward you handsomely. That said, you really should allow me to make you a minister or grant you the rank of Baronet. I could use you here, just as much as I could out there," she said, the first commanded with an almost dismissive one handed wave, while her latter request was delivered in a softer tone.
Turning their charm up to max, El flashed the Duchess their most dazzling smile.
“As exciting as that sounds, I prefer to be able to look my enemies in the eyes and then stab them in the back in some memorable, dashing and heroic way. Not that I don’t enjoy your company Care, anything but. So with your leave, I’ll prepare for my trip?” El asked, draining the rest of their wine, then standing they bowed low. Somehow even lower than when they had first introduced themself to us and with at least twice as much flourish.
“As you will,” she replied, and I could almost feel the strain that keeping her eyes from rolling was causing.
Stopping at the door, El turned back to face us with their typical flourish and economy of movement.
“I’ll make sure to see you both tomorrow,” they said, then after glancing over their shoulder over their shoulder at the Duchess, El winked at us and before disappearing, whispered, “Good luck.”
With her friend gone, there was nothing to spare us the full force of her interest. For a few minutes she seemed content to quietly examine us as if she was puzzling over what to do with us.
“Two unknown qualities… They might prove to be… What to do?” she mused, quietly murmuring. If to use us and then how, or if to reward us and then send us on our way?
Coming to a decision, she straightened in her seat and leant forwards towards us.
"Now, as for you two... You've proven to be an unexpected, but most welcome late addition to the great game that is being played across my Duchy. Redwood's idea to use adventurers as unwitting couriers for his plans was a good one. Every player, every piece in this game, even common bandits would attack a military courier unless they're guarded strongly. In war, information has such value,” she cryptically elaborated, quietly tapping a manicured nail her chair’s soft armrest
“Adventurers however…” she mused, her eyes seeming to gleam. “To attack them is a high risk venture, especially considering the chance they might be blessed and with no guarantee there would be a reward worth the risk. Your kind can travel this Duchy with freedom and safety few others have," she explained, taking great care to make sure we were following along.
"With that in mind I was hoping you could do me another favor,” she voiced, before clarifying in a softer tone, “Before you answer… Please listen to all I have to say first. You will be entitled to appropriate rewards, as well as compensation for your time. And before you ask, you will of course be allowed time to recover from the burdens of your long and restless journey."
Like a true adventure Roxi’s eyes had lit up at the mention of rewards and going by that wistful smile, instead of listening she was already imagining the sorts of rewards this place offered.
Shiny rewards are nice I thought, thinking back to the butterfly hair clip I had been wearing, but a street cat who had survived as long as I had wanted to know the risks involved before I went for the bait. Rolling my hand, I signalled I was still paying attention and ready for her to continue.
“Now to provide you with some context. Soon my attention is going to be occupied dealing with the aggression of Redwood and his allies, as well as the potential planned attack on my city. Unfortunately my situation is not so gentle that I can afford to ignore the other braying upstarts on the board. Foremost among them Lord Haverhill to the Duchy’s far east, vacuous incompetent boor he may be,” the Duchess said, rolling her eyes as if her words weren’t already dripping with disdain.
“You’re not really selling him as a threat,” Roxi hesitantly interrupted. I mean at face value she wasn’t wrong, but there must be a reason he was ahead of the pack when it came to the threat he represented.
“Yes, well…” she said, clearing her throat, just the slightest tinge of pink showing in her pale cheeks. “Given the successes he has experienced recently and the amount of arms, soldiers and supplies flowing through his Barony, I have begun to suspect he has a powerful backer.”
“It’s always a powerful backer, someone with a lot of money to throw around,” Roxi grumbled, evidently thinking about something out in the real world. “They use it to screw us regular people over without us realising it.”
The duchess gave a dainty nod. “Precisely, and I have a few suspects in mind. It could be one of our neighbouring Duchies, but given the amount of support I suspect he must be receiving and the position of his lands, my thoughts tend towards it being the Pagutum Empire.”
“I see.” A puppet didn’t need to be competent if the foreign puppetmaster pulling their strings was skilled enough. I could totally see the danger and the potential for another long quest chain.
“If you deign to accept, I can afford to allow you a week and a day to recover, but no more. After which a pair of my knights can fly you under the cover of night to his Barony. Once there, I ask that you seek proof of his treason and try to uncover any movements they may have planned. I will supply you with one of a pair of mirrorstones, with which to contact me, if you discover anything or require support.”
Having finished explaining her favor, she fixed us a look of challenge. “So? What say you?”
Illegal Alien is a canon story in QuietValerie's Troubleverse setting. Make sure you read Quietvalerie's Trouble with Horns, her second Troubleverse story Witch of Chains and ChiriChiriChiri's Troubleverse story Snowbound.
The Troubleverse & Kammiverse have their own discord where you can talk to other readers and the various authors including myself and QuietValerie.