The palace grounds were breathtaking, even under the blanket of night. Light spilled from windows and doorways, falling on a dizzying array of flowers that bloomed year-round. The frosty chill of winter refused to touch their delicate petals, and the grass inside the walls was free from the ice that covered most of the city. As pretty as it was, Naeris thought the enchanted gardens a wasteful display of power. They had often wondered why nobody had done something similar with the food-crops. One of the guild, more knowledgeable about nature-magic, had told them that such magic suspended the plants in eternal bloom; rendering them incapable of fruiting. But that was of no matter, now. Wasteful or not, it suited Naeris just fine: it was a lot easier to avoid leaving tracks without any snow or frost.
With a quick prayer to their divine patron, Naeris dropped from the wall and landed silently among the lilacs below. Around them, the shadows seemed deeper and the air heavier, muffling the sounds of their passage. With an urgent grace, Naeris slipped from shadow to shadow, moving ever closer to the main building. Here, if everything had gone to plan, Naeris would find an unlatched window into the library. They spared a thought for the maid they had wooed in the guise of Lord Quirion. She would be upstairs in her quarters, awaiting another visit from the elven nobleman who had promised to save her from this life. It hadn’t been a lie, Naeris rationalised to themself. If their mission tonight was successful, it would mean a swifter end to the tyranny of the Divine Regent, and freedom for all the people of the kingdom. But only if it was successful. Only if everything fell into place, exactly as planned. Naeris shook their head. There was no point thinking about what might go wrong until it happened. They hated having to rely on plans with so many moving parts–too many people involved, too many points of failure–but they were good at improvising. If things did go wrong, Naeris would be able to find a way out. They always had.
Across the garden, a light spilled out of the library window. Naeris paused behind a conifer and watched intently. The maid, Naeris realised and breathed a sigh of relief, and then froze as someone nearby asked “did you say something?”
“No,” a gruffer, older man responded. “Think we should check it out?”
There was a long, painful pause. “Probably,” the younger guard said finally.
There was another pause. “Well?”
“Can’t hear anything now.”
“Right you are,” the older guard chuckled. “Probably just the wind anyway.”
Naeris took a moment to slow their racing heartbeat. It sounded like the guards were only a few feet away; how had they not seem them!? After an interminable moment of unbearable silence, the faint scuff of a boot on the grass came like sweet music, and the guards moved away on their rounds. Naeris withdrew a small mirror from a pocket and use it to chance a quick look around the conifer. In the light spilling from the building, they watched as the guards turned a corner and disappeared from view. Much more quietly than before, Naeris exhaled in relief. Stepping lightly, they hurried over the last distance to the library window. No light was visible within; the maid had been and gone. Another prayer, and then Naeris slipped a thin dagger into the crack between the frames and, with an oiled smoothness, the window swung open. Naeris thought of the maid again, and hoped that her part in all of this would go unnoticed–the fate that would await her otherwise didn’t bear thinking about.
The interior of the library was cool, and smelled of old books. Naeris had been here only once before, as Lord Quirion, to attend a soiree. The Divine Regent, praise the Traveller, had not been present. Naeris had never actually met him in person, though they had come dangerously close on at least one occasion. It was not an event they ever wanted to repeat. Thankfully, according to the rebellion’s Spymaster, the Divine Regent had been away for some time. Where, nobody was sure, but it was enough for Naeris to know that he wasn’t waiting upstairs. Naeris ascended to the library’s mezzanine, and listened at the doorway. Nothing. They quietly turned the handle, but it refused to give. Swearing softly, Naeris crouched down and inspected the lock. With a graceful movement, they produced a soft leather package from a pouch on their belt and set it down next to them. It unrolled with a nudge, revealing a wide array of thin metal implements.
Carefully, with a well-practiced hand, Naeris picked the lock. There was an audible click, and Naeris’ breath caught in their throat. When no sound of alarm was forthcoming, the elf slipped their tools back into the pouch and quietly opened the door. The hallway beyond was empty, which gave Naeris pause; according to the report from one of the spies in the palace, it was guarded at all times. Suspicious, they proceeded with caution, ears and eyes strained for danger. Left at the next hallway, up a flight of stairs, then rig-
Naeris ducked left instead of going right. They had long since learned to trust their gut instincts in situations like this, and this was no different. Taking cover under an end-table, Naeris listened intently. Footsteps, coming from the right passage and low conversation.
“I’ve really got to get to my post,” a dwarf said, her voice filled with a quiet urgency. “If they find out I left it…” she let the sentence hang in the air.
“I know, love” another woman replied. “Thank you for coming to see me. It means a lot.”
“How could I not?” the first woman said. “Your poor brother… we’ve lost too many good people to this damn war. I hope it ends soon, one way or another.”
“I hope so too,” the second agreed. “But…”
“But what, love?”
“Which side should we be on?”
“I’m not sure,” the first dwarf said seriously. “She is the rightful heir to the throne, if you believe the rumours. But come, we shouldn’t talk about this here. Not in these walls.”
The conversation faded off as the two dwarves moved out of earshot, though Naeris waited a while longer before emerging from their hiding place. Despite the seriousness of their mission, they couldn’t help but smile faintly–even here, in the cold heart of the kingdom, people were busy being people. Naeris made a mental note to try to get the guard a message once the job was finished, telling her to take her lover and flee the city. The war would be upon the capital soon enough, and Naeris did not like to dwell on the number of everyday people who would get caught up in it. With any luck, they would be able to lure the Regent out into open battle and avoid having to siege the city, but Naeris wondered if they would be able to find any bait enticing enough.
Ahead, the corridors lay silent. The first guard’s absence had been luck, drawn away as she was by a lover’s grief. It was the sort of double-edged luck, Naeris noted, that often came from the touch of the divine. Naeris offered up a quiet prayer of thanks, and hoped that the brother’s soul had made the journey peacefully with little pain. The rest of the guards, though? Naeris wasn’t so sure. This corridor lead directly to their goal and for it not to be guarded was unthinkable.
Sensing that something wasn’t quite right, Naeris paused mid-step. At the very limits of their hearing, they could hear the faintest humming noise. They looked down at the floor where they had been about to step–nothing. They stepped backward and looked more carefully at the floor and walls of the hallway ahead of them. It was difficult in the dim torchlight, but–there! A tiny, almost invisible glyph inscribed on one of the decorative pillars. That certainly explained the lack of guards, at least, but it presented a problem. Guards could be distracted, lured away from their posts, tricked, or killed if necessary. Magical traps were a very different sort of obstacle, and not one that Naeris was usually equipped to deal with. Usually.
Naeris fished around in their pack, and pulled out a plain-looking scroll case. Inside was a random-seeming assortment of parchment and paper, covered in runes; the rebellion had been more than happy to provide Naeris with what they needed, given who they were stealing from. With a graceful, unnecessary flourish, Naeris fully unrolled a scroll and squinted in the dim light, trying to make out the spidery runes. The magic flowed like air, runes moving from the scroll and taking flight around them. The runes streamed towards the glyph, taking hold of its magic and trying to unravel it. For a tense moment, the two spells struggled against each other before, finally, the glyph evaporated into nothingness. Naeris inched along the corridor towards the door. Another glyph. The spell involved was beyond Naeris’ own limited faculty with magic, and the first scroll crumbled away without effect. Still, that’s why they had requested more than they needed. Hopefully. Grumbling slightly, Naeris removed a second scroll from the case.
The quiet at the far end of the corridor was unsettling. This deep into the enemy’s main stronghold, Naeris had expected more resistance. More guards, more people. All of their intelligence reports indicated that the palace should have been crawling with guards–so where were they? Not that they were complaining of course, but they had anticipated having to deal with at least two guards in this corridor alone. Yet… the entire journey this far had been almost too easy. When was the cage going to drop? With a slowly mounting sense of dread, Naeris gently pushed the door open; beyond, the Divine Regent’s study lay quiet and, blessedly empty.
“Thanks,” Naeris prayed softly. Somehow, things had worked out. They moved quickly to the Regent’s desk, checking every inch of it before even thinking of touching it. There was a secret compartment, of course, but Naeris thought it looked much too obvious. There had to be… wait, down in the leg, the grain there looked suspiciously like… Naeris pressed the button. There was a soft click, and a small section of the wall slid aside to reveal a compartment filled with documents. Naeris grabbed them, and started scanning them. And then, three things happened at all once.
Naeris found something far more important than what they’d been sent to find: a letter from one of the Divine Regent’s spies within the Rebellion.
Their gut instinct screamed at them with an intensity Naeris had only ever felt once before. RUN.
There was a soft pop a few feet away, and the Divine Regent appeared in his study. Their gazes met, and Naeris saw their own death reflected in his eyes. “Hello Turnip,” the Divine Regent’s voice was smooth and urbane.
“For one so young,” the Divine Regent continued, “you’ve managed to become quite the thorn in my Spymaster’s side.”
“Thank you, your majesty,” Naeris bowed with a fixed, frozen smile. Every inch of their being was screaming at them to run, to get away from this horror that stood before them. “I see that you were expecting me,” they waved the letter. “I’m rather honoured that you thought enough of me to come in person.”
“Yes, well,” the Regent made a non-committal gesture. “I take great pleasure in personally destroying those who irk me.”
“Why, my lord,” Naeris smirked despite themself, “if I’d known that was what you had in mind, I would have worn my finest silks.”
The Divine Regent didn’t seem amused, and began to in intone arcane words. An overwhelming force assailed Naeris’ mind; a simple, overwhelming idea: “be mine and you will live”. Naeris began to relax. Everything would be fine. The Regent would help. NO! Deep within, some core of Naeris’ being cried out that this was a lie. Resist, it screamed at them. These are not your thoughts! Naeris struggled against the molasses of the spell. It would be so easy to give in, to sink into the warm embrace of the mind-magic. But not here. Not now.
Naeris blinked and shook their head slightly as the spell faded. “Sorry,” they said, “I really don’t like being told what to do.”
“Elves,” the Divine Regent sighed in disappointment. “Well, if I cannot own you, then you will die.”
Naeris sprinted as fast as they could towards the small window as the Divine Regent filled the space between them with lightning. Naeris deftly tried to avoid the brunt of the spell, but the raw untamed energy slammed into them as they dove through the glass. For one infinite instant, pain filled their world as their every nerve lit up at once. And then it was over. They were falling, almost dead, barely thinking. Adrenaline hit them almost as hard as the ground did, and Naeris was over the palace wall before the alarm even sounded.
The city passed in a blur of pain and terror as Naeris ran, not really paying attention to where they were going. All they knew was that they had to get to ground, and fast. Where was safe? The Regent had eyes and ears anywhere that mattered, and probably tracking spells. It had to be somewhere deep, with thick walls of stone and steel.
Minutes later, though it felt like an instant, Naeris burst through Lady Argent’s window. Blood-soaked, exhausted, and terrified, Naeris was almost unrecognisable. Lady Argent pulled a hammer from under her pillow and then paused. “Lord Quirion?” she asked, incredulous.
“He’s after me,” Naeris choked, and then collapsed into the cold embrace of unconsciousness.
* * *
Not yet, little Nightingale. You have songs yet to sing.
* * *
Naeris galloped into the camp at full speed, ignoring the cries and protests of the perimeter guards. “Sorry!” they yelled as they nearly ran down a Lieutenant who had moved to intercept them, “I have an urgent message for the Spymaster!” Dismounting even as the horse continued forward, Naeris landed gracefully before the Spymaster’s lodgings. The guard drew her axe.
“What the fuck,” she asked incredulously, while moving to block the entrance, “do you think you are doing?”
“It’s a matter of utmost urgency,” Naeris whispered dramatically. “And I really must ask you to stand aside! The spymaster needs to know at once!”
“Well, he’s busy,” the guard said. “In a meeting with the commander.”
“Oh!” Naeris said, delighted. “Excellent! She needs to hear this too.”
“No can do, Naeris,” the guard said firmly. “It’s a private meeting, and,” she added, looking past Naeris, “I think the Lieutenant wants to have a chat to you about how proper camp entry procedure.”
“I really don’t have time for this,” Naeris said, a touch of anxiety leaking into their voice. They wove a quick spell, and laced their next word with magic. “FLEE.”
The guard ran. Naeris barreled through the door, drawing a dagger as they went. It preceded them into the room, flashing past the surprised faces of Her Highness, Princess Beryl and her seneschal, before embedding itself into the throat of Spymaster Slate. He looked momentarily shocked, before slumping over his desk. Naeris slammed the door behind them, and dropped the bar into place. Princess Beryl and her seneschal were on their feet, weapons drawn and poised to attack. Naeris held up a hand, and pointed at the body, still draped over the desk. All eyes in the room turned towards it in horror as it began to shift and change, swelling to human-like proportions. Its skin became a smooth mottled grey, and its face lost all features except for a pair of huge, bulbous eyes.
“Doppelganger,” Naeris said, breaking the stunned silence.
“So it would seem,” Princess Beryl said carefully, as she lowered her weapon.
“The real Reggie should be around here somewhere,” Naeris said. “They can’t read the memories of dead people, so he’s probably been drugged and hidden in a barrel or something.”
“Who-” the Princess started.
“Naeris,” the seneschal, having regained his composure, answered her question pre-emptively. “One of our counter-intelligence operatives. Their alias is Lord Quirion.”
Naeris curtsied, “A pleasure to finally meet you, your highness.”
“Agent,” the seneschal said sharply, “Explain. Now. What in Moradin’s name is going on here?”
Before Naeris could answer, there was a hammering at the door. The seneschal sighed, and moved past Naeris to remove the bar. He opened the door slightly, and shot the door-guard a withering look. A small crowd had gathered at this point, attracted by the chaos. “We are,” he said, looking sternly at the assembled soldiers, “in the middle of an important meeting and do not wish to be disturbed.”
“Sorry sir,” the guard squeaked.
“Now, I believe you were about to explain this mess,” he said to Naeris as he re-barred the door.
“Well,” Naeris turned to address the princess, “Your uncle played us like a well-tuned lute. I don’t know when he got back, but he knew I was coming, what I was after, and when I’d be in his study. His plan, near as I can guess, was to lure one of your best agents into a trap, and then use his sorcery to control them.”
“One of our best agents?” the seneschal scoffed. “That’s a bit a presumptuous, Naeris. And how do we know he’s not controlling you?”
“Seneschal,” Beryl said quietly, “Their mission was to break into my uncle’s private study–I doubt we would send our worst agent.”
“Thank you for your kind words, your highness. Your seneschal and I merely have differing opinions about what qualifies as good attributes for a spy. As to the second question, well,” Naeris jerked a thumb towards the corpse on the desk, “that’d be you right now. Thankfully though, I detest being told what to do, or how to feel.”
“Yes,” the seneschal muttered, “we all know that well enough. But that doesn’t explain how you knew about the Spymaster.”
“Oh, well that one’s pretty easily explained actually,” Naeris said, and produced a letter from their pocket. “I found this in your uncle’s study. Details of our plans that could have only come from Reggie.”
The Princess snatched the letter from Naeris and read it. “Hmm. But how did you know he was a doppelganger, and not just working for my uncle?”
“I didn’t,” Naeris grinned. “Not entirely.”
“Not entirely?!” the seneschal fumed. “So you just barged in here and killed him on a hunch?”
“It was a bit more than just a hunch,” Naeris sighed. “Look, the signature is a little off. Reggie would never use that word in an official communication, though he’d probably think it. And,” Naeris shrugged slightly, “I followed Reggie around for a year when I started working for you. I’d suspect your seneschal of being a turn-coat before I’d even consider Reggie.”
“How dar-” the seneschal began, but Beryl interrupted him.
“What my seneschal is trying to say, Agent Alleyborn, is thank you. Can I trust you to find my real Spymaster?”
“I’ll have him back in his chair by sundown.”
“Best do. We’ll stay here and pretend the meeting is dragging on. Can’t have anyone finding out about this now, we?”
Naeris grinned, and left the room.