"On your feet, Rangers!" shouted Hector Gorash.
Valeria awakened. It was not quite dawn. Across the path, Gorash stood outside the men's pen. There were more people in the men's pen than in the women's pen, and Valeria recognized a number of them. Alchemist Zhar was curled up asleep in one corner, an odd smile on his face. Tommy Farnham lay sprawled in the middle of the pen, snoring loudly. Wirt was sitting on a rock, watching Gorash address the three Rangers who had picked a fight with the Barbarian at the tavern the night before. The three Rangers looked like they had fallen off a cliff.
Gorash shook his head. "Pathetic. Just pathetic. Were you possessed by demons or just plain stupid?"
There was an uncomfortable silence among the jailed Rangers. "The Barbarian started it," accused one lamely.
"Excuse me," shouted Gorash. "You people are supposed to know better than to get involved in barroom brawls! And if you do get into one, you're supposed to win! That Barbarian gave you three such a sound thrashing that he was happy to pony up his share of the damages to Ogden and be on his way. You're lucky I wasn't able to find him because I would have given him your jobs if he hadn't left town!"
The three Rangers studied their boots silently.
"Do you have any idea how much I love having one of the Town Guards come tell me in the middle of the night that three of my men are in jail?" continued Gorash. "Do you have any idea how long I'm going to be hearing about the lax discipline among the Rangers from Captain Wet Blanket? I'll give you a hint: Get your high boots and see Pepin for some bug repellent, because it's almost as long as you three are going to be on swamp patrol!"
This time there were moans and groans from the Rangers.
|Wirt called to Valeria after Gorash
left. "Did you get it?"
Gorash called to a Town Guard who was standing some distance away and ordered him to release the three Rangers. The white-armored guard made a Herculean effort to hide how much he enjoyed watching Rangers receive a dressing-down. The effort was a colossal failure.
"Report to me at the North Bridge for inspection in two hours," Gorash told his men. "Dismissed!" Gorash watched his men trudge off and shook his head. "Of all the damned silliness," he muttered and then left.
"Psst! Over here," Wirt called to Valeria after Gorash left. "Did you get it?"
Valeria reached inside her shirt for the lump of clay. It had hardened slightly during the night, but still bore the imprint of Lachdanan's ring. She held it up for Wirt to see.
"Pay up. Five hundred gold pieces," she said. Her voice was starting to return. The sentence still came out as a hoarse whisper, but without the embarrassing squeaks and squeals that had plagued her the last couple of days.
Wirt sighed. "Yeah, yeah. As soon as we get out of here."
"And when is that?" Valeria wanted to know.
Wirt shrugged. "When somebody comes to get us."
"Why are you in jail?" asked Valeria.
"Captain Wet Blanket had me picked up after he caught you," said Wirt, "on the grounds that I must have had something to do with it."
Once the sun came up, people began showing up to get their friends and relations out of the pen. It was a simple and informal procedure. The Town Guards released prisoners into the custody of just about anyone who seemed willing and able to be responsible for them for awhile.
Farnham's brother showed up to secure his release. Tommy Farnham staggered to the gate, clutching his head and whimpering a little.
"Hey, Bill," Wirt called to him. "Could you vouch for me too?"
Bill Farnham shook his head. "Toby, you're trouble and you know it," he replied. "Ordinarily, I can respect that, but I've got my hands full with my little brother here." He looked at Tommy and shook his head sympathetically. "Tommy, you've got to stop drinking so much. They say you tried to impress Glorianna Lester by picking a fight with Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt."
Tommy groaned. "I don't remember. Can we go home?"
Bill sighed and retrieved Tommy's sword and other belongings from the Town Guard on duty. "Let's go get you cleaned up and dried out."
Valeria watched the Farnham brothers leave. Bill Farnham was every bit as dashing as Tommy wasn't. He wore a neatly trimmed beard and mustache, and his blond hair in a ponytail. Shaggy would have been the kindest way to describe Tommy, though mangy might have been a little more accurate. Bill's clothes were clean and colorful; Tommy's, not surprisingly, were filthy and stank. Tommy's weapon was a short sword; a soldier's weapon, and a low-ranking one at that. A sabre hung from Bill's waist; a gentleman's weapon. Bill had a lute slung over his shoulder. The only thing over Tommy's shoulder was a damp smear of vomit. Valeria wondered briefly how he'd managed to barf down his own back.
A short time later, Conjurer Ichabod showed up to collect Zhar. Alchemist Zhar greeted his fellow Robed Wonder with a broad grin on his face.
"What in the name of Mana happened to you?" asked Ichabod.
"That Adria is an amazing, and flexible, woman," grinned Zhar. "What a night. You would not believe some of the things she can..."
Ichabod cut him off and changed the subject. "Why are you in jail?"
"Well," smiled Zhar. "While we were resting, we got to talking shop and it turned out that she had some interesting ideas about some of the potions I've been working on, so I ran out to get them for her. I was on my way back to her house when someone leaped out from behind some crates, hit me and robbed me. Next thing I knew, one of the Town Guards was shaking me awake."
"And they put you in jail for getting mugged? Boy, Captain Lachdanan gets stricter every day," said Ichabod.
Zhar just grinned and limped out the gate to his friend. "Well, it's not entirely their fault," explained Zhar. "Ever since I was with Adria, I can't seem to stop smiling. I guess they thought I was drunk. What a woman though. There's this thing that she does..." He gestured vaguely.
|"You know, I never knew what the studs on studded leather armor were for..."|
"I don't want to hear it, Bryon. What did you lose when you were mugged?" asked Ichabod.
"Just a few gold coins," smiled Zhar, "and, let's see, there was an experimental batch of growth serum, a flask of Oil of Duplication, some mutagenic compounds, an Oil of Hardness and a bunch of Mana potions. I suppose the Oil of Hardness and the blue potions have some resale value, but the rest of it's pretty unstable and useless, unless you have a fully equipped alchemy lab. I just hope whoever has them has the good sense not to mix them together." Alchemist Zhar grinned. "You know, I never knew what the studs on studded leather armor were for..."
Conjurer Ichabod sighed. "Will you please wipe that smile off your face?"
"I can't," grinned Zhar.
By late afternoon, Wirt and Valeria were the only two people unclaimed. Realizing early on that she had nowhere to go and nothing to do anyway, Valeria did not spend as much time brooding over her incarceration as she might have otherwise. Besides, it was finally beginning to dawn on her that she was no longer in Riparia and wasn't entitled to special treatment. All she could do was wait and see what happened.
Aside from periodically reminding Wirt that he owed her a fortune (watching the boy's mood darken each time she mentioned the money never failed to brighten Valeria's own spirits), Valeria did something she rarely did back home: She sat and thought. Maybe there was something to Lord Halla's banishing her. The Lachdanan episode was probably a little over the line even for her. On the other hand, what harm was really done? In the grand scheme of things: none.
Then again, there was the matter of those star melons. She remembered the man with the Riparian accent pleading for more time to pay his debt. She and the Ladies in Waiting had damaged the crop of star melons he had been counting on. Granted, at least part of the problem seemed to be of the man's own making. The House of Halla had reimbursed the farms involved for their loss, and there had been the suggestion that the Riparian man had actually gambled away the money he owed Farmer Lester. Nonetheless, Valeria felt a certain responsibility. She shrugged. There wasn't much she could do about it from jail.
Valeria had been napping near the side of the pen when Captain Lachdanan, Prince Albrecht and a third Town Guard arrived. She awakened when a shadow passed over her face and then let out a startled yelp when she saw Lachdanan glowering down at her. "All right," he said. "Feel free to explain yourself. What were you doing in my house last night?"
Now that her voice was coming back, Valeria felt at a loss for words.
"Apparently," volunteered Albrecht, "she had a bet with our good friend, Toby Wirt."
Valeria looked across the path and saw that the Prince had already ordered Wirt's release. Albrecht caught her eye and the instructions on his face were clear: It would be best if you were to apologize to Lachdanan immediately and sincerely.
The number of times in her life Valeria had apologized to anyone could have been counted on the fingers of one hand. She sighed. There probably wasn't any other way she'd be getting out of jail.
|"Now, Michael," the Prince told him gently. "If we imprisoned every girl who did something foolish for you or because of you, we'd have to dig another dungeon."|
"I meant no harm," she told Lachdanan.
"Nevertheless," accused Lachdanan, "you violated my home and my privacy like a common thief! Why should we not treat you like one?"
What rankled Valeria the most was being called "common." "I apologize," she said.
"This time, that's all we need," said Albrecht. He nodded to the guard on duty to release her.
"My Prince," began Lachdanan, not eager to let Valeria off the hook so easily.
"Now, Michael," the Prince told him gently. "If we imprisoned every girl who did something foolish for you or because of you, we'd have to dig another dungeon. I'm afraid your good looks and the strength of your character are twin curses that you'll just have to continue to bear."
Lachdanan sighed and shot Valeria a warning glare. Valeria smiled, turning on all the charm she could muster up. "Just think what a great story this will be to tell our grandchildren."
When so inclined, Valeria was more than capable of charming the boots off any ordinary man. Unfortunately, Michael Lachdanan was no ordinary man. He didn't even crack a smile. "There will be no grandchildren," he said icily, and turned his back to leave.
Valeria bit her lip, annoyed at the rebuff. "Captain Lachdanan?" she called.
"You have the most magnificent ass I've ever seen on a man," she deadpanned.
His face flushed and he turned and stiffly walked away.
Prince Albrecht sighed and shook his head. "I wish you hadn't needed to get that last dig in. Captain Lachdanan is a proud man, and that pride is justified. As the Captain of the Town Guard, he sees it as his duty to set an example of honor and decency for all the people under his protection. In his mind, when people fail to live up to a certain standard, it's not because of flaws in their characters, but rather because he somehow failed to be an adequate role model." Albrecht paused and glanced over at Wirt to make sure he was paying attention too. "It hurts him very deeply when people call him 'Captain Wet Blanket.'"
The Prince allowed his words to sink in and Valeria was surprised to realize that she felt a little bad for the Captain and how she had behaved toward him.
"Now then," continued Albrecht, "what I really want to know, Toby, is just how you came up with 500 gold pieces to lose on this ill-advised wager."
"I had a run of good luck shooting dice with some rivermen down at the docks," explained Wirt.
"Toby," warned the Prince.
"I swear, My Prince," said Wirt. "You know I would never tell you a lie."
Albrecht smiled. "I know," he agreed, "but you're not telling me everything either."
"I won 500 pieces of gold and a few odd magic items," said Wirt, and then hesitated. "Ahh, some coin pouches got separated from their owners during the brawl at the tavern last night."
The Prince nodded. "Very well then. Pay Val what you owe her. I want you to donate anything that might have come your way last night to Lazarus," he instructed the boy. "Understand?"
Wirt bowed low. "Yes, My Prince." He turned and obediently handed Valeria a sack of gold coins.
Valeria was startled. Wirt was like an entirely different person in the presence of Prince Albrecht. There was no trace of the smug, obnoxious little schemer.
Albrecht seemed to have a way with his subjects-to-be that that lay far outside any experience she had ever had with the citizens of Riparia. What made the people of Khanduras adore him while the people of Riparia barely tolerated her? She had to know.
Valeria wasn't even quite sure how to address him. 'My Prince' would not have been appropriate since he wasn't actually her prince. Technically, they were equals, so she could have called him 'Albrecht' or 'Prince Albrecht.' A number of the townsfolk seemed comfortable calling him 'Al,' but that certainly didn't seem right. Valeria decided to go with the other extreme. "Your Majesty?" she began. Besides, he had no way of knowing that she was the heir to the Riparian throne.
"Please," smiled Albrecht. "My father's 'Your Majesty.' Call me Al."
Valeria couldn't help smiling herself. Then it occurred to her that if anyone back home had dared to address her as 'Val,' she would have made it her personal mission to bring grief of epic proportions to the offending party's life.
"Al, it is then," she said. She went on to explain briefly her situation. By the time she finished, her recovering voice was barely a whisper.
Albrecht listened attentively. "It sounds like you've had a challenging few days," he said. "I'd very much like to compare notes with you about our respective kingdoms. Would it be all right with you if we were to meet this evening by the fountain? I've promised Torvan here that I would join him and his family for dinner." He indicated the Town Guard who had accompanied him and Lachdanan to the pens. The guard's stout build and curly red hair identified him as a member of the Griswold family even more effectively than a sign around his neck would have.
Valeria overcame a momentary urge to demand that Albrecht break his appointment with his lackey. "That would be fine," she agreed.
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