Marcus rummaged through his bag trying to find something suitable to wear up to the palace. Although he knew he would be welcomed, it didn’t hurt to look presentable. His head shot up. He felt his neck and looked beneath his shirt. He pulled out a necklace. Instead of the small piece of metal with his name and status carved onto it, hanging from the chain was a pebble that was warm to the touch. He recognised it immediately as Aldene’s secret identification object. “But where’s my tag?”
“What?” Gerald shouted from the kitchen.
Marcus upturned his medical bag on the table. “I’m looking for my tag.”
Gerald scoffed. “Are you talking about your identity tag?”
Marcus shifted his change of clothes aside and righted the bottles of potions Aldene gave him a while ago. They weighed down on a small pile of scrap paper. The small packets of herbs went next. His bound notebook thumped onto the floor and the length of wood he used to support broken bones followed it. Two sheathed daggers and a crossbow the size of his palm were pushed against his bundle of clothes. A pack of spare needles and rolls of clean bandages were left at the centre of the table.
There was no tag.
Gerald approached and pointed at the chain around Marcus’ neck. “If you have Aldene’s tag, she might have taken yours by mistake.”
“But how? You don’t just put on a necklace without noticing that it’s not yours,” Marcus argued even as he was at that moment wearing Aldene’s.
“Be glad you didn’t leave it behind for some stranger to pick up,” Gerald said.
Marcus swore under his breath and repacked his bag. “I’m going to change. Probably take a bath, too.”
After his bath, Marcus dressed in a comfortable white shirt that had sleeves cut off at the shoulders and pants which were cut to just below the knees. The hem of both pant legs were tightened so they stayed snug to his legs. He made sure Aldene’s scroll was still tucked in the small pouch stitched onto his pants, which was made purposely for such scrolls or knives, and slung his bag across a shoulder.
The water on his body evaporated by the time he was ready to leave. Taking in a deep breath, he stepped out of the shadowed inn and into the hot summer air.
In the six years that he was absent, the shop where old man Kip sold pies was gone. In its place was a fabric shop that shared space with a woman who was a hired writer. The street was wider and less cluttered—shop fronts were torn down and rebuilt a metre back to make room for the carriages that frequented the street more often.
It was becoming a hub of commerce for travelling merchants and visiting dignitaries. Marcus actually thought that he was on the wrong street when he automatically turned onto it. Instead of packed dirt, his horse’s hoofs clomped over a cobbled stone road. As one of the first streets of Enzla’s capital that visitors saw, it lived up to expectations.
People deftly avoided his horse as he rode down the streets. Some even recognised him and called out. He waved and rejected the offer of a drink and carried on, picking up the pace he cleared the neighbourhood.
He used the familiar roads that would lead him to the palace with the least amount of time and slowed his horse to an easy walk. He squinted his eyes at the two guards standing on either end of the gate. The gates were wide enough for large entourages to go through, most likely because they were expecting one some time soon.
Marcus didn’t think that he recognised the Guards. They were both tall, muscular, and wore the Guard’s summer uniform, which was a white short sleeved tunic and pants. On the sleeve was stitched a red arm band. Over the tunic was a plate of armour, most likely light enough to stop arrows.
Unlike the Guards who patrolled the streets, these Guards wore swords on their persons in addition to the baton on their belt. They also had shields leaning on the wall behind where they stood.
As he approached, he made out their facial features. The one to the left of the gate was taller than the one to the right. His face was more square and his nose was broken once before. His hair was cut short. Every strand of hair was braided. A bit excessive, Marcus thought. The man also had a scar on his chin that ran along his jaw line. He wore his sword on his back, angled toward the left. His right hand fell to his baton when Marcus was a minute away from the gates.
The man to the right had a leaner figure but was no less muscular or alert. Although he didn’t make a move toward his weapons, the man looked ready to take them out at a moment’s notice. He was bald, which made the tattoo on his left temple more visible. “Is that Marcus?” The man shouted.
Marcus gave the man a second look. Bald, tattooed, and cheerful.
“Lanz?” Marcus said. “Is that you?”
Lanz grinned and said something to his partner. The taller man relaxed his grip and gave Marcus a friendly wave. Marcus dismounted to give Lanz a quick hug and gave the man another nod. He asked Lanz, “Why are you bald? I thought you said that you’d never lose a bet.”
“Well, I lost one,” Lanz said with a laugh. Lanz was in Marcus and Aldene’s graduating class from the Margins and was also the one who made them laugh. He was their long time friend. He also loved to bet his hair on any game. The stakes was always him shaving his hair all off if he lost a bet. But Marcus never remembered him ever shaving his head.
“What bet was it?” Marcus asked.
Lanz gave Marcus a reminiscing smile. “It was the bet Aldene made.”
Marcus thought back to their time together with Lanz. “The bet…” Marcus began to smile as he remembered. Lanz, though fun as he was, swore never to marry because his parents had gone though a bad one and he didn’t think it would ever work out for him. And now Lanz was bald.
“But Aldene didn’t come to claim her win, so why did you shave your head?” Marcus asked. “You could have kept your hair.”
“I’m a new man with my hair shaven off!” Lanz declared dramatically. And his smile dropped. “And I thought Aldene was never going to have the chance to claim her winnings, so I thought that I would…honour the bet.”
Marcus gave Lanz a grin. “We’re not that easy to kill. You should know that, Lanz.”
“But you were gone for six years,” Lanz said. “What’s a man to think? You were off in the south, where ‘sters knows how, Ician rogues invaded. How did they get there in the first place? They’re all the way up in the north!”
“I don’t know,” Marcus said. “They resisted torture and the truth spells.”
“They somehow went down south. Through Enzla.”
“It’s possible that they came by the water,” Marcus pointed out. “We don’t have such a big security flaw that the Guards on the Northern Islands wouldn’t have noticed an army of Icians coming onto shore.”
“That’s true. Even when Leal showed his traitorous side by giving the Icians information, he was quickly found out and stopped.”
Marcus’ jaw dropped. “Leal? The Duke’s son?”
Lanz raised his eyebrows and nodded. He turned to his partner and said, “I’m right, aren’t I?”
“It happened five years ago,” Lanz’s partner said. His voice was deep but loud and clear.
“Then I was already on the road,” Marcus said. “You two aren’t joking? Leal really is a traitor?”
“It was a shock for all of us when the Intelligence Chief of the Northern Islands told Her Majesty.”
Marcus shook his head. “I should have known better than to trust him based on appearance.”
Lanz grimaced. “Don’t worry. Our agents have been clearing the house for the past few years. None of the other nobles at least are spies. If they know about their servants, we haven’t heard of it.”
“There are bound to be one,” Marcus said, thinking of all the agents Enzla had disguised as servants.”
“Enough of this,” Lanz said. “What’s your business in the palace, Marcus?”
“I need to speak to the Scouts Master,” Marcus said. “Perhaps I will move into my rooms in the palace with my daughter.”
Lanz beamed at him. “That’s right! You have a daughter. How is she?” He saw Marcus’ wince and guessed. “Ah…wasn’t too keen about you leaving her, was she?”
“I’ll deal with it,” Marcus said.
“Hah. Go on in, Healer Marcus,” Lanz said with a smile and a shake of his head. “You always deal with everything,” he said softly.
Marcus squeezed Lanz’s shoulder and pulled his horse with him into the palace grounds.
The palace was more of…a group of many buildings. They were all built in different generations as Enzla grew into the powerful kingdom it now was. Newer buildings were created with more advanced technology and weaved into the building process was magic, which gave the buildings the excellent cooling system they enjoyed during the summer months.
The oldest buildings, including the original palace, were in the centre. It was made of great big stones that was enough on its own to provide a cool temperature but it was lacking during the winter month. The last time Marcus was here, the queen was planning to use original spells to help circulate the warmth coming from fire places and other heat sources in the building.
Their queen held her court in the original palace but that wasn’t his destination today.
Marcus followed the natural stream that ran through the palace grounds until he reached the stepping stones. There was also a bridge, but that was further down and farther from the Scout’s Quarters.
With a few quick leaps, he was over the water and on the other side. A few scouts were in the area and gave him a quick look before moving along. When scouts were focused on their work, they tended to put everything else in a safe corner of their mind.
Marcus walked across the grass toward the small building that housed the Scout Master and on-site scouts. The guard by the door recognised Marcus immediately and her jaw dropped. She didn’t stop Marcus as he entered, though the force of her stare made him say, “It’s good to be back.”
“Oh, ancestors help her,” the guard muttered. “I hope she’s safe.”
“Me, too.” Marcus nodded to her and carried on into the building’s interior. Scouts streamed in and out while he took the twists and turns to the fourth floor. He emerged from the staircase and was met with an open area where scouts milled around talking to each other in low voices. This floor was a commons for them, where they were able to share information and contacts. When you were looking for someone, there was always a good chance that they passed through the commons and someone could tell you where they went.
The Scouts Master was also on this floor, favouring the location because it was close to his scouts in case he needed to make any major announcements.
Marcus nodded to a few familiar faces. As he walked toward the office, he heard the room slowly fall silent. The scouts had realised what his presence meant.
Aldene’s extended six year mission was over. There were a few possibilities for why she wasn’t here to report in person and those possibilities raced through the room in glances to each other.
Marcus’ knock on the office door was loud in the hushed commons.
The door opened and a scout slipped out. The man’s eyes flickered to Marcus’ for a second before he continued on his way, most likely to start his mission.
Marcus closed the door behind him and the Scout Master looked at him. The Scout Master was in his early forties and was in great shape like the rest of his scouts. He was on the short side, but that must have helped him when he was an active scout.
He was known to be a master of knives and stealth. His experience and knowledge was so valued that the previous Scouts Master pulled him from the last war to act as instructor for the scouts. He spent years training scouts and organising the current stealth programs. But that wasn’t the only reason for why they offered him the job of Scout Master. Behind his dark eyes was a quick thinking mind that knew where to deploy scouts and what to do with the information that they brought back. He knew every scout and every strength and weakness they had, enough that he knew the chances of a scout’s survival for any mission before it even commenced.
“You’re Healer Marcus, Aldene’s husband,” the Scout Master said.
Marcus felt his heart settle into its place. “Yes, I am. This message is for you.” Marcus put the scroll on the table in front of the Scout Master.
“Sit, Marcus.” The Scout Master took the scroll and used his magic to confirm that the plain nondescript scroll was Aldene’s. “Where is she?”
Marcus told him about the three men and their conversation in the stables.
“So her mission continues,” the Scout Master said with a frown. “The Ician rogues aren’t entirely defeated yet. They’re waiting for something else to happen.” He unrolled the scroll and read the last entry, which was what Aldene had written hastily behind the stables. “Whatever it is she finds, Aldene is smart enough to know that she cannot stay there forever. I’m sending another scout after her to retrieve the information she has collected.”
The Scout Master nodded and tucked the scroll away for later reading. “Is there anything else you should tell me, Marcus?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve told you everything about the men and Aldene was always thorough with her reports.”
The man nodded. “Thank you, Marcus.”
Marcus stood from his seat and had a hand to the door when the Scout Master stopped him. “The secret identification tag that my scouts wear,” he started to say.
Marcus tried not to think about the warm pebble hidden beneath his shirt. The Scout Master might want it back if he knew Marcus had it. “I’ve seen it.”
“As you know, scouts are prone to taking potions that stave off pain so that they could safely retreat. Obviously, this isn’t healthy because they wouldn’t know if they were breathing their last breath.”
Marcus’s lips tightened. He knew this. And he tried not to worry about Aldene when she used those drugs but there was nothing he could do when he knew what was at stake.
“Experienced scouts always know how close to death they are even if they are heavily drugged so there is no reason to worry about them. It’s the younger ones who are in danger and benefit the most from their tag’s magic.”
Marcus’s hand dropped from the door handle. “What are you talking about?”
The Scout Master caught and held Marcus’ gaze. “A scout’s tag will tell her how close to death she is. The closer to death she is, the colder and more transparent the tag becomes. It works even when she does not wear it. In a way, it’s a bastardized communication object. Scouts often exchange tags so they know when each other is dead and shouldn’t be expected.
“Tags should be kept safe. Not lost.” The Scouts Master raised an eyebrow.
Marcus nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He hesitated for a beat. “Thank you.”
“Go. I’m going to be very busy from now on.”
Marcus stepped out of the office and scouts watched him as he left. If they wanted to know about Aldene, it was now up to the Scouts Master to share the information.
After he crossed the stream again, he clutched the pebble. Even through his shirt, he felt it exerting a steady wave of heat.569Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡnwrOCy2BiQns 188.8.131.52da2