An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

Like a Bird in a Cage Shade

Shade knew she was being watched. The footsteps that passed her door came and went with both a regularity and rhythm that was far too regimented to belong to any common servant, and one brief look out the window was all she needed to spot the two men who, while they appeared to be engaged in casual conversation, were perfectly positioned to watch her room. She suspected that there would be at least one more set of eyes on her. That was how she would have done it. Altogether, in only served to confirm what he had already guessed—that Sir Oralon Vander did not want her going anywhere.

She considered running and leaving this entire business behind her, then quickly decided against it. With just a bit of luck, she was confident that she could find a way out of the inn, and then the city, but there was nothing to be gained beyond the petty pleasure of frustrating the Lordling. And there’s a fortune lose, she reminded herself. Until she felt openly threatened—or found it was otherwise in her best interest—she would continue to play Vander’s game.

Though she did not like feeling like a bird in a cage. Something would have to be done about that.

A thousand gold falcons, Shade thought. She had never even seen such a sum, but she was certain that it must be more wealth than most Minor Lords would collect through an entire year’s taxes. And while it was true that Vander’s holdings encompassed the rich, fertile and heavily populated lands surrounding Kilinshire, it seemed incomprehensible that he would spend such a sum simply to have one man found—even if that man had somehow managed to kill Prince Jayslen.

No, she thought, something else is going on here, and if I’m not careful, I might just find myself a piece in a game where I don’t know all the rules. It was a situation she was determined to avoid. Vander might have played her for a fool once. She would not allow him do it again.

Shade took one more look out the window, where the two men were still engaged in their casual conversation, then set about preparing for journey. She opened the purse that Vander had thrown at her and counted out the coins again, combining it with the contents of her own purse. All told, she was now carrying forty four gold falcons, ten silver wrens and nine copper pennies. Altogether, it was enough for her to live on for several years, and far more than she needed to carry on her. She divided the sum out into three separate piles, tucking a pair of falcons and most of the wrens and drabs into the various pockets of her leathers. Then she dropped four falcons into one purse, and the balance of the coins into another.

Satisfied with the divisions, she set the two purses aside and retrieved the simple looking hairpin that was resting on the table beside the bed. Applying just the right amount of pressure, she was able to twist the pin and draw out the slender, needle-like blade that was hidden within. It was a practiced, familiar motion, one that she had practiced a thousand times over, until she was able to perform it without thinking. She examined it carefully, looking for any of the dark, virescent crystallization that would indicate the the poison was beginning to lose its efficacy. Finding nothing, she slipped the weapon back into its hiding place.

As she laid the hairpin aside, there came a familiar knock at the door. Tap. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap.

“Come in,” Shade called. The door to her room swung open, admitting a tall, slender man with a long, angular face. His sharp, green eyes brimmed with concern as he closed the door behind him.

“What happened?” he asked in a harsh half-whisper. “I was waiting outside the Perch, just like we planned, but you didn’t show up. Then, about ten minutes ago, I saw Vander ride by. I half expected to find you dead in here.”

“Relax, Laird,” said Shade. “There was a bit of a mixup. It turns out that it was Sir Vander who put out the contract in the first place.”

The big mercenary’s face took on an expression of stupefied confusion. “I’m afraid I’m not following…”

“Understandably. It turns out that there is more than a little truth to many of the rumours we’ve heard. The Lord of Kilinshire appears does appear to be a master of Flameborn illusion.” She went on to explain everything that had happened, and found herself growing angrier and angrier. Flameborn illusion or not, the fact that she had killed the wrong man was unacceptable.

Shade did not lead gentle life. It was neither not easy, nor simple. There were times when it was downright unpleasant. She understood that. She accepted it for what it was. The path she had had carved out for herself was a bloody one. She had dispatched guards, soldiers and hired thugs, all in the pursuit of her targets. She had even caused the mysterious—but very permanent—disappearance of those people who had threatened to undermine her cover.

But she had never killed the wrong target. That she had been duped into doing so only made it that much worse.

“And so I agreed,” she said, staring at a peculiar looking knot in the floorboards. “Now I just need to find this mysterious assassin and bring him to Sir Vander.”

“And you’re sure you’re alright?” Laird pressed. Shade looked up to meet his gaze. There was an intensity there, a fierceness that troubled her because she could never quite put her finger on its source.

“Nothing’s hurt but my pride,” she said.

“The Nine know you have a lot of that.”

Shade shrugged. “I suppose I should have recognized that everything fell together just a little too neatly.” That should have been the first and clearest warning sign. Only a day earlier, she had been sitting in a room she had taken at the Ploughman’s Perch, leafing through the pages of a Mesinian romance—a simple vice she allowed herself to indulge in from time to time. Her purse had been full and she not yet fallen into the boredom that normally drove her to take on new contracts.

Then Laird had come knocking at her door, bringing with him an inquiry after her services. She had sent him away, only to have him return about a half hour later, claiming that the potential employer was being quite insistent, and was prepared to pay a sizeable sum. That had piqued her curiosity. An hour later, she had found herself in another room, in another inn, sitting face to face with Alys Vander, Orlan’s short, round-faced wife.

If the entire thing had been an act, as Shade now strongly suspected, then the woman was a master performer. She had not shouted or ranted, screamed or wept—all things that would have triggered suspicion in Shade’s mind. Instead, she had spoken with the quiet fury of a spurned wife as she explained how she had grown tired of her husband’s  licentious behaviours, and that it was her belief that time had come for their son, Cerin, to claim his inheritance. She had then made a very convincing case of wanting to hire Shade to help speed that inheritance along.

Afterwards—when Shade had secured her deposit—everything else had simply fallen into place. Lady Vander had introduced her to the mistress of a local brothel, who had in turn arranged the entire meeting between Shade and the supposed Sir Vander.  Even the horrid, scarlet dress had been provided.

Too easy, she chided herself. Far too easy.

“I should have known the little shrew was lying,” growled Laird, brushing one stray lock of muddy-brown hair back behind his ear.

“Probably,” Shade admitted. “But then, so should I, and I’ve been at this a lot longer than you. She pulled the wool over over both our eyes.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“For the moment, I’m going to do exactly what I said I would. Assuming that the Prince is actually dead, I’m going to find whoever killed him and bring them back here.”

“Just like that?”

“There’s not much more to it, really.”

“Of course there is. To start with, how are you going to find this person?”

“I thought I’d try the tried and true method of looking.”


“Wherever I need to. Vander has all but ordered me to accompany him to Relen’ayar for the Queen’s Council. That’s where the Prince lived, so it seems as good a place as any to start.”

Laird’s brow furrowed. “In the three years that I’ve been working for you, you’ve always said that under no circumstances are we to visit the capital.”

“Things change.”

“What things?”

“It doesn’t matter, because you’re not coming. My purse is getting a little too heavy for my liking, so after I’ve left Kilinshire, I want you to ride for Wellan. Take your cut from the purse and leave the balance with Tolis, as usual. I also need you to stop in at the loft and pick up a few things. I’ll make a list. Then, make for Sinath and buy passage on a ship heading up the Kharnine. There’s a small village on the north bank, about ten miles east of Relen’ayar. Wait for me there.”

It was clear that Laird wanted to protest, but he held his tongue. Shade fought back a smile. Perhaps the big mercenary was finally beginning to grasp that she was not paying him for his protection—she had handled herself for years without him—but for the fact that, as a man, he could gain access to places that were closed to her. If his sword or axe proved useful from time to time, so much the better.

“When do you leave?” he asked.

“Sometime tomorrow, I should expect. I suppose Vander will attempt to summon me.”

“Shall I have your things sent up, then?”

“Not a chance,” muttered Shade. “I don’t much care for feeling being trapped here. Go back to the Perch and settle up with the owner. Pass him four pennies first. He’ll understand what that means and I’ll meet you at the Fool’s Fiddle.”

“You know you’re being watched, right?”

“Of course. Two men from the street, and supposed servants passing by the door every few minutes or so.”

“There’s someone on a rooftop down the street too. You’d have to stick your head out the window to even catch a glimpse of him, but he has a clear view of you here.”

Shade leaned against the wall and closed her eyes to think. There was a reasonable chance that Laird would be able to distract the two men on the street, but the third set of eyes on the rooftop presented an interesting challenge. For a moment, she considered orchestrating an elaborate distraction, but quickly rejected the idea. Experience told her that distractions sometimes had a tendency to attract just a bit too much attention. Bodies were even worse, which meant that killing any of the guards was out of the question. Besides, while Shade did not think that Vander had any particular attachment to his hirelings, he would probably be irritated at losing them. As a matter of professional courtesy, Shade generally tried to avoid angering her employers.

That left only one option. She would simply walk out the front door.

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