There was a nervous cough, and Ser Robert looked up wearily to see Duke Edmond backing out of Robert’s room, an embarrassed expression on his face. “I am sorry, m’lord,” the Duke muttered. “I saw the light in here, and thought perhaps…” his voice trailed off, as though he wasn’t entirely sure what he thought about the light.
“It’s all right, Edmond,” said Ser Robert. “It is late, and you are unused to seeing lights on in your castle at this time. I have just been studying High Physician Idriys’s journal, trying to make some sense of all this. It appears that he was investigating some sort of strange disease, perhaps one brought on by a new strain of Tao. Though how he could get from there to high treason, I have yet to ascertain. Do you have any ideas, Duke Edmond?”
The Duke shook his head nervously; the last few days had not been kind to him. “No, Ser Robert, I’m afraid I cannot help you.”
Ser Robert yawned deeply. It was quite late. “Very well, Edmond. I appreciate you checking in on me; I should like to do a bit more reading, and then perhaps I shall rest. Tomorrow morning, I think, it is time that I pay our prisoners a visit.”
“Of course, m’Lord,” said the Duke, and he bowed awkwardly, turned, and left the room.
Ser Robert picked up Idriys’s journal. Just a few more entries, he thought to himself, and then I will rest. There must be an answer, a clue contained within these pages! He resumed reading from where he was:
30 Dorde 535. Tonight I paid a visit to the Coach and Wagon. While not the seediest of bars in the city, it certainly has its share of drunks and lowlifes. I disguised myself as best I could, so as not to draw undue attention to myself, and sat down in a booth on the far end of the bar, where I could observe all the patrons. If the stranger I met in my clinic was going to appear this evening, he had not yet arrived, as far as I could tell.
I sat and sipped thoughtfully at my mead, and waited. I had been there for nearly three hours, and was about ready to leave (the bartender was becoming annoyed that I had not drunk more during my stay), when a voice said from behind me, “There you are! I was beginning to think you would never show up.”
Startled, I looked over my shoulder to see the man that had approached me in my clinic two weeks ago, with a large grin smeared across his face. He looked quite pleased to see me. I am unsure that I could say I felt the same way.
The man slid into the booth across from me, and waved the bartender over. “I’ll take a martini, dirty as they come,” he said, “and bring the same for my friend.” I made attempts at protest, but they were ignored. “Tonight is a night for drinking,” the man said enthusiastically.
I said nothing. As we waited for the bartender to return with our drinks, the man made several attempts at conversation, to which I made minimal replies. “You don’t talk much anymore, do you, Idriys?” he said finally; I could tell that my continued silence was beginning to irritate him, a fact I am not ashamed to say gave me a small sense of satisfaction.
I looked at him passively before responding. “I’d be more inclined to talk with you if you told me your name,” I finally answered, “and where you acquired this.” I pulled out the last leaf of the mysterious Tao that he had provided me with.
A smirk glimmered on the man’s face. “Not so fast,” he said. “You’ve forgotten our deal. And as for my name… well, you can call me Corwin.”
I hope that I gave no outward expression of surprise at his response, but my heart started beating a little faster at that name. Nine years ago, I had the dubious privilege of treating a man severely injured by some sort of magical explosion in Gavin’s Wold. When the man was well enough to talk, he told me that the explosion was caused by a man who claimed his name was Corwin. It was later shown that the Eagle was definitively behind the attacks. Was this man before me the same Corwin? It was not an uncommon name, but neither was it especially popular.
“We never had a deal,” I responded. “You came to me implying that you had some information that would be valuable to me. I did not say that I would assist you in any way,” I paused for a minute. “Why do you need me to steal your Tao, anyway? It appears that you are perfectly capable of acquiring your own.”
“Why make things hard on myself?” Corwin said. “I went to great trouble to acquire those leaves, and you can get leaves much more easily than I, and of a much greater variety.”
I sipped slowly on my drink, unsure of how to proceed. This man had information I needed, but I was not prepared to break the law to get it. Perhaps I should have come with the militia to arrest this man; it was clear he was not an upstanding citizen of the Kingdom, and then the Truthsayers could get the information I need.
As if reading my mind, Corwin said, “You are wondering what to do next; there is no point in going to the militia. I will be long gone before they could catch me.”
“It appears that we are at an impasse, then,” said I. “You have information for me, or so you claim, but the terms of your ‘deal’ are odious to me.”
“Would it perhaps change your mind if I told you where I got the leaves of Tao I gave you last time?” the man asked. When I made no reply, he said, “That Tao was taken from the White King’s private store.”
“The White King’s…” I repeated, dumbfounded. “If you have access to the Kingdom’s Tao stockpile, why do you need me to steal for you? Clearly you must be out of your mind.” He tried to interrupt me, but I continued talking. “Furthermore, I know that you are lying – there is no such strain of Tao in the storehouse; I have personally catalogued all strains therein.”
He took advantage of my momentary silence to cut me off. “You misunderstand my meaning,” he said. “I did not take this from the White Kingdom’s storehouse. I took it from the White King’s personal collection.”
Angry now, I said, “You’re a fool and a rabble-rouser! Everybody knows that the White King is Tao-barren. He has no personal collection.”
Corwin raised his eyebrows, and simply replied, “Is that so.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes, it is. And I of all people should know that; I have been High Physician for eleven years now.” I stood up and said, “You’re playing a dangerous game, friend. I don’t know what your ends are, but I promise you this. If I ever see your face again, it will be because Ser Robert is accompanying me to throw your ass in prison for the rest of your miserable life.”
Corwin’s face darkened slightly at the mention of Ser Robert’s name. “I’d like to see him try,” he muttered grimly. I paid no attention; I threw some change at the bartender, and he glowered at me as I strode out of the bar, slamming the door behind me.
The journal entry continued, but Ser Robert’s lack of sleep finally caught up with him. He slumped over the table, snoring softly, head cradled in his arms. The lone candle on the table, burned low, flickered and went out. Ser Robert slept deeply, dreams haunted by spirits and demons and Chimerae, and the head of Josiah Burroughs laughing at him and mocking him. Thus, he did not see the lithe figure dressed in black cautiously step into the room. Nor did he feel the figure slowly and carefully slide the High Physician’s journal out from underneath his arm, and he definitely did not notice the faint snik as the figure cut Ser Robert’s pouch of Tao from his side, and slipped back out of the room. And he may perhaps have finally become aware for a brief instant when the person buried a dagger in his back, slowly twisting it to make sure the wound was fatal, but then it was too late.
Slowly the dawn crept through his window as the sun rose yet again over the Cedarbrook mountains, casting a long, pale beam of light across Ser Robert’s body as Evelyn Diamadre slipped out of the room the same way she had come.