The Potioneer’s Ploy
As usual, Danver had no idea what on earth he was doing.
He poked his pointy nose around each corner of the cell, examining every last crumb of moldy bread and every crack in the wall for some sign, any sign, that might give an indication of where the princess had escaped to. None was forthcoming. Only one thing to do: stall.
“I’ll need to see the grounds outside her window,” Danver said, with as much authority as he could muster.
The slovenly jailer scratched himself and gave a thick, lungful cough into the back of his hand. He frowned as he inspected his wrist before wiping it on his grubby pants, leaving a faint yellowish smear behind. “That’ll help, then?” His lips did not form words so much as secrete them.
Danver winked and nodded at the man, hoping to convey a sense that he had some idea what he was up to.
“Window’s twelve feet off the ground, ay?”
Danver looked back behind him. This was true. He hadn’t noticed its height, particularly. It was rather high.
“Iron bars and all,” the jailer continued.
Also true. Sturdy-looking ones, at that. Damn.
“Bit difficult to climb that wall, unfix the bars, slither through that tiny gap, and put the bars back,” here he scratched his third chin peevishly, “all without attracting no attention, is what I mean.”
Danver felt the situation was getting away from him.
“Not to mention the forty foot drop outside.”
Danver clapped the man on the shoulder and fixed him with a reassuring look. “All the same, I’d like to see outside.”
The jailer merely rolled his eyes and then rolled his bulk off his strained stool, and began the long trek through the twisting hallways under the prison of Karth. It took them ten minutes of climbing up stairs, shuttling down rickety lifts, and choosing between identical paths in the dank depths of the dungeon before they came to the exit. Before them stood a great portcullis, which groaned in protest as it was hoisted open at a bark from the jailer.
Outside, Perry and three of the queen’s guard lounged, leaning on their pikes or sharpening their blackened steel blades, waiting for the order. They, like Danver, had no idea how Danver had ended up in charge of their little band. Danver hooked his thumbs in his belt and straightened his shoulders. Perry did not like him, and indicated his position by hawking a substantial gob of phlegm on the ground at his feet.
“Well?” Perry’s voice was lazy and bored, and it somehow communicated all his disdain for both Danver and the fact that Perry was, for the moment at least, obligated to follow Danver’s orders.
“Well,” said Danver, “she didn’t escape this way, that’s for certain.” He looked to the jailer, who shrugged in a noncommittal way and led them off the hard-packed road leading into the keep, back toward the forty-foot drop from the princess’s window.
Eleda’s icy blue eyes flicked across the small girl with some measure of distaste. “She doesn’t look at all like me.”
They stood in a shallow cave a mile outside the city: Eleda, recently escaped from prison; the old hermit, her unlikely alchemist assistant; and Fal, the girl who was supposed to be Eleda’s double. The hermit had provided Fal with an outfit identical to Eleda’s — simple tanned breeches and a bloused blue camisole cinched into a leather vest — but aside from that, they could not look less alike. His rubbermaker potion had worked a charm — the bars had parted like grass and her legs had had enough bounce to get her to the window and survive the fall without a hitch in her stride — but he had blown this one.
“True enough,” said the old man, his thin, spidery fingers pouring the contents of one tiny glass tube into another with a care that suggested the danger of his work. Eleda knew that his concoctions were potent at the least and deadly at their worst, but she did not know the half of his ability. “But consider this way: all they will see of her are the back of her head and her heels as she leads them away.”
“Even her hair’s wrong.” Eleda’s hair was raven and fell down her back in a cascading braid. Fal’s was pale blonde, cropped short and sparkling in the sunlight. The tiny girl looked back at Eleda, her nervous green eyes dancing from side to side. “Where’d you find her, anyway?”
“Thieving.” His eyes never left his work. “She stole successfully from three different carts. When she got caught, she ran — that is her art.”
Why did the old man have to speak in rhyme? Eleda rolled her eyes and tried to take stock of the little girl, who stared back at her. Eleda couldn’t tell whether Fal was about to punch her in the face or run like hell. She addressed Fal directly for the first time. “And how much is he paying you?”
The little girl’s eyes narrowed. “Enough to eat for a month. Or two.”
“And that’s enough for treason?”
Fal shrugged and laughed, a carefree sprinkle of sunshine despite her dirt-smudged face. “Anything’s better than stealing. Besides, it won’t be treason if your plan works, will it?”
The hermit stepped up to them, a single vial in his hand, filled with a dark, viscous fluid. “It’s ready now, so have a care.” He beckoned to Fal with a crook of one long finger. “Just a bit here, on your hair.”
Eleda watched as Fal bowed her head before the old man and he emptied the vial on the crown of her head. For a moment, all she saw was the dark goop running down the girl’s hair in a thick blob, but then the stuff took on a life of its own, infusing the platinum strands, flowing down some and up others, and then the hair was growing before her eyes, swirling and bubbling and transforming with some strange witchcraft. In the space of a few moments, Fal’s hair was just as dark and as long as Eleda’s.
Eleda stepped around her with the hermit, appraising and admiring the change. “Not bad.”
Just as inside, there were no markings at all to give away the girl’s egress on the wall of the castle or the grass at its foot. For all Danver could tell, the girl had vanished into thin air.
“Well?” Perry sneered. He and the other guards were growing restless.
What to do? He was no tracker. Admit he had nothing, and they might kill him on the spot. He wouldn’t put that past Perry. Lie? Surely they would know.
“There she is!” One of the guards pointed with the end of his spear.
Five heads swiveled to look in unison. There, her black hair gleaming in the sun, a defiant smirk on her face, was Eleda, the princess who had tried to kill the queen.
“I’m sorry, were you looking for me?” She laughed as she turned to run, and the men gave chase. One of them blew a horn; its call would rouse every guard in the castle. They dashed after her, losing sight for only a moment as they followed her around the corner of the gatehouse. As they cleared the corner, they saw a legion of guards pouring forth from the gate, following the tiny girl with the black-as-night braid bouncing at her back as she flew down the dirt trail into the city.
The tiny girl, Danver thought, bringing up the rear. Too tiny. He slowed his steps, pondering the ludicrous sight of an army chasing after a little girl. It didn’t make sense. Why would she —
The knife at his throat cut his thoughts short. “Hands up,” Eleda whispered in his ear, “and tell me if you want to live under this queen or die for the old one.”
“L — live!” Danver squeaked.
“Good choice.” Her tiny hand spun him around with surprising strength, and he found himself looking into the ice-blue eyes of the princess, her knifepoint pricking at his adam’s apple. “Rumor has it that you’re not much of a tracker. Is that true?”
Danver nodded as much as he could with the knife jabbing him in the neck. “T — terrible.”
“That’s why I arranged for you to have this command before I staged my first attack on the queen,” she said, smiling, a trapper who’s just seen a rabbit walk into her snare.
“F — first?” He couldn’t stop stuttering.
“The first attack. The fake attack. The decoy. Like Fal over there.” She waved her dagger in the direction that the ridiculous parade had gone. “Terrible tracker or not, I’m sure you can remember the way through the castle?”
“Good. You have ten minutes to be there.” She jammed her dagger back into her belt. “You’re going to help me kill her.”