“It’s been lovely, Lady…” Naeris fished around in their mind for the dwarf’s name. “… Argent. But I really must be leaving.”
“Nonsense!” Lady Argent shook her head. “You simply must stay for dinner, Miss Cellinel. It’s been ever so quiet here since my husband went off to fight.”
“I must object, Lady Argent. What will people think?” Naeris guestured to their viol, sitting on a sofa nearby. “I’m but a lowly musician, and you, a married noblewoman.”
“Just like all the best stories,” Lady Argent said with a knowing wink.
“You’ll stay, dear.” Lady Argent said firmly. “I command it.”
“Very well, your grace.”
Naeris sighed inwardly. So much for a quick recon mission. At least the dinner would be pleasant; it had been some time since they had eaten a decent meal. And it might give them a chance to dig a little deeper, find out more about Lady Argent’s concerns. Her name had been given to them by one of their contacts within the Thieves’ Guild as someone who might be amendable to their cause. Naeris was here to find out, and if she was, make contact on behalf of the rebellion.
The conversation had been enjoyable so far, and Lady Argent was definitely hiding a keen intellect behind the façade of a careless noble-woman, but she had given no indications that she was anything more than perfectly happy with the current state of government. Perhaps a more private conversation would be necessary…
It wasn’t until the servant handed them the plate that Naeris realised that something was terribly wrong–an entire platter of roast meats was set on the table, but none had been put on their plate. Lady Argent raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow. “Is something the matter, dear? You are a vegetarian, yes?”
“Yes, your grace,” Naeris blustered. “Though I’m not sure I ever mentioned that.”
“My dear,” Lady Argent said, “You don’t get to where I am without paying attention to the details. Especially when you’re dining with a fellow noble.”
“Are we expecting company?” Naeris asked glibly. A slight twitch of their lips betrayed their fear.
“Did you really expect me to not recognise you, my Lord Quirion?” Lady Argent asked with a sly smile.
“My Lady,” Naeris said with feigned confusion, “I am no Lord, and I do not know how you could accuse me of such a thing. Do all elf woman look like men to you?”
“Of course not,” Lady Argent chuckled. “But you are Lord Quirion none-the-less. Which raises even further questions, as there is no such person.”
Naeris took a gamble, and relaxed their concentration. Their features shifted subtly, sliding gently away from the feminine and settled somewhere in-between. “You’re the first person to ever notice, Lady Argent. The rumours of your keen insight are not unfounded.”
“A handy trick,” she said. “You must be Naeris Alleyborn, then. The elf touched by the Traveller.”
Naeris opened their mouth to speak, but closed it again. An intense fear had blossomed inside them as Lady Argent said their name—was this it? Had they finally been caught?
“I’m not sure what business you have with me,” Lady Argent continued, “But I’m flattered that whoever you’re working for thinks I’m worth sending one of the best spies in the country.”
“I’m not sure I deserve to be called that any more,” Naeris said wryly. “But tell me; how is it that you know who I am, but not who I work for?”
“I’m afraid the story is a simple one, really,” Lady Argent said. “I have a contact inside the Thieves’ Guild—I wasn’t always a noblewoman—who told me all about you a few years back. I had a need for a certain talent; someone adept at disguise and infiltration. You were named a possible candidate, though I was never able to pin you down to make an offer. As for making the other connections, that was really quite obvious. There is no nobleman from the border of the Green Plateau named Lord Quirion, though your papers are exquisitely forged. I was informed of your particular abilities vis-à-vis your gender by a spy I had follow you after a party, so I knew it was entirely possible that Lord Quirion and Miss Cellinel were actually the same person—which makes it easier to recognise the similarities. Cheekbones, eyes, hair, etc. And then, you made a fatal mistake at the party and I knew immediately that my suspicions were right.”
“I’m impressed,” Naeris said; and they were. “But what mistake?”
“You played a song that I recognised. You may not remember me, but I’ll never forget the young elf that stood on a street corner, playing a battered viol. I remember that particular tune quite well—I thought it was lovely, if a little sad, and stopped to listen. I was going to offer you a coin or two, but while I distracted, one of your friends had cut my purse.”
Naeris grinned sheepishly. “That sounds about right, yes.”
“So now it’s all come together, and here you are, asking me subtle questions about my loyalties to the throne.” Lady Argent expertly raised a single eyebrow. “I think it highly unlikely that you’re working for the Divine Regent, which means you’re not here to see if I’m loyal. No, quite the opposite, I’d wager.”
“Precisely so,” Naeris said boldly. “I’m a talent scout for the revolution.”
“Who’s revolution?” Lady Argent asked. “People have tried to rise up before; scattered pockets of resistance, loyalists, peasants who have had enough. All of them failed. All of them dead. I’m not going to back a horse that can’t finish the race.”
“You’re right to be sceptical, but this one’s different. We’ve got an army to rival his; our information network spans the entire country—most of the Guild are signed on to this, and thieves and smugglers hear a lot of interesting things. And, most importantly, we have a leader. One that knows what she’s doing. One that has a deeply personal stake in all of this. Someone who will see thing through to the end, one way or another.”
“Not here. Do you have somewhere… more private?”
The Argent Family Vault was deep under the city. Thick steel doors with a lead core barred the entrance, and an inky blackness obscured the doorway while they were open. Naeris was impressed; this was one of the most secure rooms they’d ever seen. There was no chance anyone could overhear their conversation here.
“Now,” Lady Argent said, “I believe you were about to tell me who’s running this circus?”
“If I tell you, it’s join or die,” Naeris said simply.
“I understand,” Lady Argent nodded. “If what you say is true, it would be very difficult for me to not be involved. The people of this country have suffered enough. So who is it that’s offering us hope?”
“Beryl?” Lady Argent was shocked. “The King’s daughter? The heir? She’s still alive?”
“Yes. And she is coming with an army. We need allies, Lady Argent. I know you have a network of informants and spies among the nobility here in the city. We need it. We need you.”
Lady Argent thought for a moment. “The rightful heir. That does throw a spanner into the works. She may well just be a legitimate threat to his rule.” She paused, and gave Naeris an appraising look. “Tell me, you’ve seen all of this playing out. Does she stand a chance of winning? Of reclaiming our country?”
“I believe so,” Naeris said firmly. “I wouldn’t be working for her if she didn’t.”
“Very well, Agent Alleyborn,” Lady Argent offered her hand. “Let’s take the bastard out.”