When I returned to the others, they had a bunch of questions for me. They hadn’t expected to see me walk out with the old frogman, and didn’t know what to do. Rush over and help? Cause a distraction so I could escape?
“You know,” said Claire, “I thought you might kill them, even the little baby.” She laughed like she was telling me some silly joke. “I was about to scream at you to leave them alone, but Maurice said we should see what you were planning.”
I could imagine the reaction if a crazy girl had suddenly started screaming at the top of her voice—frogman spear straight into my gut. Fortunately, they ended up doing what I would expect from them. Nothing.
We ate the fish for dinner, which was by far the best meal we’d had in days, and next morning we set off back to Fengarad. I explained the deal I had made exchanging goods for services and they let out a collective sigh of relief. More shopping was something they could handle.
It took us two days to get back. On the way, I showed them the hand movements for creating fire. There was no reason to keep it secret from them, and there was always the chance one of them had a knack for it.
They all very excitedly gave it a go, but no one managed to produce a flame. Although every few minutes Flossie would blurt out, “Ah think ah felt summit. No, really, this time, there were definitely a tingle in me fingers.”
They eventually got bored and gave up, but I kept at it. Maybe it was one of those things that just clicked one day and you could just do it.
We were out of food, exhausted and ready for a night in a cosy room with a proper bed as we reached the familiar city walls. The sight we were met with as we approached Fengarad’s main entrance, though, twisted my stomach so hard I nearly fell over.
The long line of people wishing to enter the city was there as usual, along with the guards on the gate. But stuck to the city wall were a number of posters. They were like the bounty posters in the Municipal Directory that told you which beasts to kill and how much money you’d receive for them. Only these posters didn’t have a picture of a beast on them, the drawing was very clearly of a man. Me.
And the rewards? 10,000 bits. Dead or alive. The ‘dead’ was in a much bigger font than the ‘alive’.
Of course, it was very flattering to be considered such a high value target for every killer out there. If my head hadn’t been spinning while I gasped for breath and flop sweat ran into my eyes, blurring my vision, I’m sure I would have felt immensely proud of the achievement.
The others quickly huddled around, propping me up as my legs gave out.
“Oh look,” said Dudley, “isn’t that one of those, er, what do you call them? Trees?”
“Yes!” agreed Maurice. “I’ve been wanting to have a closer look at one. Let’s go over there.”
All of them joined in this highly unsuspicious conversation as they carried-dragged me away from the line of people all watching the group of weirdos who apparently had never seen a tree before.
The drawing was of me when I had my scraggly beard and my hair wasn’t quite right either. The artist had also taken the liberty of thickening up my eyebrows and giving me a vicious scowl. Wanted-me definitely had the face of a criminal and was also, somewhat upsettingly, much more handsome than regular-me.
All these small changes, plus the hat I was wearing, helped me get away without being recognised. If I had been, I’m pretty sure every single person waiting to enter Fengarad would have abandoned their position in line to beat me to death with their bear hands, and split the money between them.
Shit, for 10,000 bits I considered surrendering to the authorities and claiming the reward myself.
We managed to get beyond the trees and out of sight.
“What the fuck did you do?” Claire yelled at me.
I’d been in daze up to this point, but her harridan screeching snapped me out of it. “What are you talking about, you dozy cow? I haven’t done anything. I’ve been with you the whole time.”
This undeniable bit of logic calmed her down. Slightly. “What about before you left?”
“Nothing. I did nothing. Someone’s obviously trying to fit me up. One of the people we pissed off.”
Thinking about who that someone could be, made me realise how long a list it was—we’d only been in this world a few weeks and we’d made a formidable number of enemies.
Grayson might have changed his mind about me. Or maybe the cut I gave him got infected and he died, making me his killer.
The farmboys could have decided to frame me for one of their crimes. That would certainly put me on the most wanted list. But for ten grand?
Then there was Sonny. He struck me as someone who’d make up a lie to get his revenge, and he probably had connections to the people in charge of putting up bounties.
But one person seemed much more likely than the rest. HRH Princess Laney. On the one hand she was just a young girl and this seemed quite an extreme response to our little tiff. On the other hand, she was mad as a bag of ferrets.
I told Maurice to go see Commander Ducane. “Tell him I left the group, but you know where to find me. You’ll bring me in but first you want to know what I’m accused of.”
He was a bit nervous about not fluffing his lines, but Claire agreed to go with him, for moral support.
They returned in about an hour with news of my crimes.
“It’s the Princess, like you thought,” said Maurice. “She’s put up her own money for your capture. Apparently, you committed an unspeakable act.”
“What?! I never touched her.”
“No,” said Claire, “it’s not that. She sent you an invitation to the Palace and you never turned up.”
“And now she wants me dead?” This seemed more than a little disproportional.
“Well,” said Flossie, “you stood her up. Ah’d be mad, too.”
“I wasn’t even in the city! And why did she even invite me? It’s not like we parted on good terms.”
“Actually,” said Maurice, “according to Ducane, before she sent the invite, she asked him about the differences between arsenic and cyanide, and which kind of pastry best disguised their taste. So, he reckons she was planning to poison you, but when you didn’t show, she decided to take a more direct route.”
“But there is some good news,” added Claire. “The King found out what she did and declared the bounty void. It’s just that it’ll be some time before they can take all the posters down.”
“Great. I guess we’ll have to make ourselves scarce for a couple of days.” It wasn’t ideal considering how tired and hungry we were, but it could have been a lot worse.
“The thing is…” began Maurice, in a tone I didn’t like at all. “Once we realised you weren’t really considered a criminal, we told Ducane you were here. And he thinks it would be best if you went to the Palace and sorted things out. Turns out the King is quite keen to meet you, and he can smooth things over with Princess Looney.”
“But I’ll be mobbed as soon as I’m recognised,” I said.
Claire took over. “That’s why he’s sending an armed escort to take you there.” She pointed at the six soldiers walking towards us.
It was inconvenient, but they were right. Best to deal with it now. “Okay. Let’s get it over with.”
“Yes…” said Maurice in that same tone. “I really need to get something to eat.”
“And I need a bath,” said Claire.
“Ah’m dead on me feet. Couldn’t make it to the Palace if I tried.”
“Let me take your bag for you, old boy,” offered Dudley. “Make it a little easier on you.”
“We’ll go grab our usual rooms and meet you later, yeah?” Maurice gave me an encouraging pat on the back. And by encouraging, I mean highly irritating.
The four bastards abandoned me just as Corporal Laffi arrived with his men, who had their swords drawn and carried large shields.
“Ah, hello again,” said Laffi. “Now, we’ll be moving quite quickly and if we do get attacked, please remember to keep your head down and your hands inside the shields at all times. It’s considered bad form to bleed in the Palace.”
Laffi took the lead, with two soldiers either side of me and one bringing up the rear. There were even more posters of me once we entered the city. The journey was more than little nerve-racking. Everywhere I looked, my face looked back.
We moved the way you do when you’re walking at night and you hear footsteps behind you, so you speed up while trying to make it look like you aren’t running scared. Which looks odd enough when it’s just one person. When it’s seven of you all doing it together, with heads bobbing around like paranoid pigeons as you check for assassins… well, we got some pretty strange looks as we zoomed through the streets of Fengarad.
The soldiers were nervous and the short one at the back kept diving behind me every time someone stepped out of a side street or alleyway. I suspected Ducane hadn’t assigned his most elite troops to this detail, although they did have nicely polished shields. I kept my hat pulled down low and hoped for the best.
We made it to the Palace in one piece. Once through the gates, my fearless guards regained some composure and we marched through the impressive Palace grounds at a more normal pace, stopping occasionally so Laffi could tell the sentries who we were and where we were going.
We entered the Palace through a side door, probably a tradesman’s entrance, and walked what must have been at least a mile along various red-carpeted corridors. Finally we reached large double doors with a bunch of chairs lined up outside.
“Just wait while I let them know we’re here,” said Laffi. “They should be expecting us.”
He went through the doors—from the glimpse I got, there seemed to be a man at a desk and another set of doors beyond him—and I was left standing with my escort. I didn’t know how long it would take and really fancied sitting down. As I looked around, I noticed there were six other people already seated. Three boys and three girls, one of whom was Jenny.
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