Hidden Faces

The demon appeared from nowhere in a puff of evilsmelling smoke. The warped and twisted trees of the Darkwood loomed protectively over the crouching figure. The High Warlock stood tall and proud before the demon, his jet black cloak swirling ominously about him in the evening breeze. The stage lights gleamed brightly from the cloak’s silver embroidery of stars and moons and sigils. The warlock gestured imperiously, and a sword suddenly appeared in his right hand. Gaudily colored lights shrieked and flashed around the crouching demon, and the warlock stepped back a pace. The sword was no longer in his hand. He drew himself up to his full, imposing height, and raised his arms in the stance of summoning. He chanted a spell in a deep, ringing voice. The audience watched breathlessly, and then gasped in awe as blue-white flames flared around the warlock’s upraised hands. The flames danced and crackled noisily on the gusting wind, but the warlock’s hands remained unburned. His voice rose to a commanding roar, and then the demon burst into flames as the warlock gestured sharply with a flame-wrapped hand. The twisted creature burned fiercely, and the audience cheered. The High Warlock turned and smiled coldly at them, and they fell silent before his unwavering gaze.

“And thus did the demons of the Darkwood fall before me, in the darkest hour of the Forest Kingdom. In that faraway land, I stood shoulder to shoulder with the noble King John, and his heroic sons Harald and Rupert, and the forces of darkness could not stand against us.” The High Warlock lowered his hands to his sides, and the blue-white flames sputtered and went out. “The long night ended, the demon hordes were thrown down and destroyed, and the Forest Kingdom was saved. That was the way it had to be, for is it not written that evil cannot prevail against good, and that the darkness shall always give way to the light?”

He clapped his hands sharply, and the stage lights flared brilliantly for a moment, pushing back the shadows of the falling evening. The lights dimmed again, and the warlock folded his arms across his chest. His black cloak folded about him like great membranous wings. His gaunt face was harsh and forbidding, and his cold gray eyes stared unwaveringly out over the hushed audience. “And that, my friends, is the true history of the great and wondrous High Warlock, and his part in the destruction of the Darkwood. A tale of adventure and intrigue, honor and treachery, and the inevitable triumph of good over evil. My honored friends … the performance is at an end.”

He bowed once, and then gestured imperiously with his left hand. Smoke billowed up around him from nowhere, and then drifted away to reveal the actor standing alone in the middle of the crude wooden stage, dressed once again in his simple everyday clothes. He stepped forward and bowed deeply, and the audience beat their hands together until they ached. The Great Jordan smiled and bowed graciously, but all too quickly his audience began to drift away, and only a few of them paused to drop a coin in his offerings bowl.

Jordan waited until the last of his audience had left, and then he sat down on the edge of his stage and began wiping the makeup off his face with a piece of dirty rag. Without the carefully placed shadings and highlights, his face looked younger and softer, and nowhere near as forbidding. His shoulders slumped wearily as the tiredness of the day caught up with him, and the air of mystery and command that had surrounded him on stage vanished like the illusion it was. The sword he’d used in his act poked him unmercifully in the ribs, and he pulled it out of the concealed sheath under his clothing. Seen up close, it was battered and nicked and not at all impressive. It was just a sword that had seen too much service in its time. Jordan yawned and stretched, and then shivered suddenly. Nights were falling earlier as the summer gave way to autumn, and the rising wind had a cold edge. He glanced across at the smoldering demon, but the roughly carved prop had pretty much burned itself out. He’d have to do some more work on the demon. It still looked all right from a distance, but the spring that threw it out from behind the concealing piece of scenery must be getting rusty. This was the third time in a week that its timing had been off. Any later and the damned fireworks would have gone off first. Jordan sighed. The spring wasn’t the only thing whose timing was off. He was getting too old for one-night stands in backwater towns. At twenty-seven he was hardly an old man, but he just didn’t have the stamina anymore to put up with an endless round of poor food, hard travel, and never enough sleep.

He got to his feet, strapped the sword to his side, and walked unhurriedly over to the offerings bowl. For a moment he allowed himself to hope, but when he looked it was even worse than he’d expected. The dozen or so small copper coins barely covered the bottom of the bowl. Jordan emptied the coins into his purse, and glumly hefted the trifling weight in his hand. Bannerwick was only a small mill town deep in the desolate North country, but he’d still looked for better takings than this. If things didn’t improve soon, he’d have to go back to cardsharping and picking pockets to make ends meet. He hadn’t seen takings this bad since he first started out on the stage as a juvenile. Maybe he was losing his touch. Or maybe his material was getting old; the Demon War had ended seven years ago. Jordan shook his head, and tied his purse securely onto his belt. It wasn’t him, and it wasn’t his. act; if truth be told, it was simply that times were hard in the kingdom of Redhart. Money was scarce, and strolling players had become a luxury beyond the purses of most.

It wasn’t just Redhart, of course. Jordan had spent most of his professional life in Hillsdown. He’d known good times there. Not once had he ever thought he might one day be forced to leave the country of his birth by poor takings. He’d appeared three times before the duke himself, and known the company of great men and their ladies. They’d been the first to name him the Great Jordan. He’d traveled widely, even to the Court of the Forest Kingdom itself, though that was some time before the Demon War. He hadn’t been back since. The demons had been defeated, but not nearly as simply and easily as he made it sound in his performance as the High Warlock. The war had devastated the forest, and much of the countries that bordered it. The land was slowly recovering, but there were those who said it would take a generation and more before trade fully recovered. In the meantime, Hillsdown and Redhart and the Forest Kingdom struggled to keep their heads above water, and had little time or money to spare for the great players who had once touched the hearts of all who’d heard them.

Jordan frowned as he tried to work out if he had enough money to buy provisions and to get drunk, and if not, which of the two was the most important. The mental arithmetic took a depressingly short time, and he scowled unhappily. It would have to be provisions. Bannerwick stood alone and isolated in the middle of Redhart’s moorland, and it was a good two or three days’ traveling to the next town. He could always pick up a few grouse along the way, but the local margrave’s men took a very dim view of poaching. When all was said and done, it might prove rather tricky trying to do his act with only the one hand … No, it would have to be the provisions. Jordan looked about him at the squat little houses clustered around the narrow main street of Bannerwick. How had he come to this?

The stone and timber houses huddled side by side as much for comfort as support. The rough and dirty walls were all much the same to look at, like so many defeated faces. Smoke curled wearily from the narrow chimney pots, and the bitter wind tugged at the tiled roofs as it came gusting in off the moors. The last light of evening was already fading away, and the main street was deserted. Country people awoke with the first light, worked while it lasted, and went to their beds when darkness fell. It was only Jordan’s show that had kept them up this late. He supposed he should be flattered. They hadn’t been a bad audience, all told. They’d laughed and cheered in the right places, and even gasped in awe as his conjuring produced the illusion of magic powers. Jordan smiled slightly. He’d always believed in giving value for money. Of course, there had been a time, and not that long ago, when he’d been able to include real sorcery in his act, but that time was past. Hiring sorcerers was always expensive, and of the few spells that remained to him, most were slowly wearing out.

Still, there was no denying he’d been in excellent form tonight. The times might be hard, but he was still the Great Jordan, and the High Warlock was one of his best roles. He’d always prided himself on his choice of roles. He’d played all the best parts in his time: everyone from the fabled King Eduard, who loved the deadly Night Witch, to the heroic starlight Duke of Hillsdown, to the sad and tragic sheep minder, Old Molly Metcalf. The Great Jordan was nothing if not versatile. He’d played before lords and ladies, townspeople and villagers, and once even for a scar-faced man who claimed to be a prince in exile. Though he never actually said where he’d been exiled from. Jordan smiled, remembering. In those days, his bowl had known the heavy clunk of gold and silver and even precious jewels. His ears had rung to roars of joy and admiration from packed theaters, and tearful pleas for just one more encore. But those days were over. The times had changed, and other names had risen to prominence as his had faded, and now he had to take his offerings where he could find them.

The Great Jordan, showing his act to a few gawking peasants for a handful of coppers. There was no justice in the world. Or at least, none a man could learn to live with.

He got slowly to his feet and shook his head. It was getting too cold to sit around brooding. He threw a blanket over the smoldering demon prop to douse the last of the flames, and then set about transferring his props and scenery into the back of his small caravan. He gathered up his stage lights and counted them carefully twice, just to make sure none of them had disappeared with some unprincipled member of his audience. He stacked the lanterns and lamps in their proper places, and then went back for his stage. It was supposed to break easily into sections, but Jordan had to struggle with each square until he was red in the face and short of breath. He scowled as he slid the last section onto the floor of his caravan. He was going to have to do more work on the stage before it would come apart properly, and he hated working with wood. No matter how careful he was, he always ended up with splinters in his fingers. His scowl deepened as he laced up the caravan’s back flaps. He shouldn’t have to do scut work like this. He was an actor, not a carpenter.

Jordan smiled sourly. That was his past talking. Stars might not have to do scut work, but actors did. If they wanted to eat regularly. And if nothing else, exercise did help to build a healthy appetite. He set off down the main street, looking for a tavern. Late as it was by country standards, the town inn would still be open. Such inns always were. I don’t care if the specialty of the house is broiled demon in a toadstool sauce, I’m still going to eat it and ask for seconds, he thought determinedly. Halfway down the narrow street, his nose detected the smell of hot cooking, and he followed it eagerly to a squat grimy building that looked no different from any of the others, save for a roughly painted sign hanging over the door: The Seven Stars. Jordan tried the door. It was locked. He banged impatiently on the stained wood with his fist. After a long moment he heard footsteps approaching, and eventually a panel slid open in the door. A dark-bearded face studied Jordan suspiciously.

“Ah, good evening, innkeeper,” said Jordan pleasantly. “I find myself in need of a room and refreshment for the night, and I hope to satisfy that need at your splendid establishment. I fear my funds are somewhat depleted at the moment, but no doubt I can provide payment by entertaining your good customers with my songs and stories. How say you?”

The bearded face glowered at him, and then sniffed loudly. “We don’t take theatricals.”

Jordan dropped his aristocratic actor-manager voice, and tried his all-friends-together-in-adversity voice. “Listen, innkeep, I know I’m a bit short of the ready at the moment, but surely we can come to some sort of arrangement? It’s going to be bitter cold tonight, friend.”

The innkeeper sniffed again. “We don’t take theatricals. Hop it.” And the portal in the door slammed shut.

Jordan lost his temper completely. He kicked the door and hammered on it with his fist. “Open this door, you son of a bitch, or I’ll use my magic to make you even uglier than you already are! I’ll give you fleas, and boils, and warts, and piles! I’ll give you warts on your piles! I’ll shrink your manhood to an acorn, and turn your nose inside out! Now open this bloody door!”

He heard a window’s shutters open above him, and looked up. He just had time to throw himself to one side, and the slops from the emptied chamber pot just missed him. The shutters slammed together, and the evening grew quiet again. Jordan slowly picked himself up off the filthy street, and brushed the worst of the mud from his clothes. Ungrateful peasants. Didn’t know a class actor when they saw one. He started back down the street toward his caravan. It looked like he’d be sleeping with his props again, and that damned demon was starting to smell something fierce.

As he passed a narrow opening between two houses, Jordan thought he heard someone moving surreptitiously, deep in the gloom of the alley. He slowed to a halt just past the opening, and scratched thoughtfully at his ribs, letting his hand drift casually down to the sword at his side. Surely it was obvious to anyone with half the brains they were born with that this particular actor had nothing worth the effort of taking it, but it was best to be wary. A starving man would murder for a crust of bread. Jordan’s hand idly caressed the pommel of his sword, and he eased his weight onto his left foot so he could get at the throwing knife hidden in that boot if he had to. And if all else failed, there were always the flare pellets he kept concealed in his sleeves. They might not be quite as effective as they appeared onstage, but they were dramatic enough to give most footpads pause. He swallowed dryly, and wished his hands would stop shaking. He was never any good in a crisis, particularly if there was a chance of violence. He let his gaze sweep casually over the dark alleyway, and then stiffened as his hearing brought him the rasp of boots on packed earth, and something that might have been the quiet grating of steel sliding from a scabbard. Jordan whipped his sword from its sheath, and backed away. Something stirred in the darkness.

“Easy, my dear sir,” said a calm, cultured voice. “We mean you no harm. We only want to talk to you.”

Jordan thought seriously about making a run for it. Whenever anyone started talking that politely, either they were intent on telling him something he didn’t really want to know, or they wanted to sell him something. On the other hand, from the sound of it there had to be more than just the one man hidden in the alley darkness, and he wasn’t that fast a runner at the best of times. Maybe he could bluff them … He held his head erect, took on the warrior’s stance he used when playing the ancient hero Sir Bors of Lyonsmarch, and glared into the gloom of the alley.

“Honest men do their talking in the light,” he said harshly. “Not skulking in back alleys. Besides, I’m rather particular about who I talk to.”

“I think you’ll talk with us, Jordan,” said the polite voice. “We’re here to offer you an acting role—a role beyond your wildest dreams and ambitions.”

Jordan was still trying to come up with an answer to that when the three men stepped out of the alley mouth and into the fading light. Jordan backed away a step, but calmed down a little when they made no move to pursue him. He quickly resumed his warrior’s stance, hoping they hadn’t noticed the lapse, and looked the three men over carefully from behind the haughtiest expression he could manage. The man in the middle was clearly a noble of some kind, for all his rough peasant’s cloak and hood. His skin was pale and unweathered, and his hands were slender and delicate. Presumably this was the owner of the cultured voice. Jordan nodded to him warily, and the man bowed formally in return. He raised one hand and pushed back the hood of his cloak, revealing a hawklike, unyielding face dominated by steady dark eyes and a grim, humorless smile. His black hair was brushed flat and heavily pomaded, giving his pale skin a dull, unhealthy look. He was tall, at least six foot two, probably in his early forties, and looked to be fashionably slim under his cloak. He wore a sword at his side, and Jordan had no doubt at all that this man would know how to use it. Even standing still and at rest, there was an air of barely contained menace about him that was unmistakable.

“Well?” growled Jordan roughly, trying to gain the advantage before his knees started knocking. “Are we going to stand here staring at each other all night, or are you going to introduce yourself?”

“I beg your pardon, Jordan,” said the noble smoothly. “I am Count Roderik Crichton, adviser to King Malcolm of Redhart. These are my associates: the trader Robert Argent, and Sir Gawaine of Tower Rouge.”

Jordan nodded to them all impartially, and then sheathed his sword as an act of bravado. It seemed increasingly important to him that they shouldn’t think they had him at a disadvantage. According to the count’s graceful gestures, the man to his left was Robert Argent. He was short and sturdy, and wore a merchant’s clothes. His stomach bulged out on either side of a wide leather belt. His peasant’s cloak hung around him in drooping folds, as though it had been meant for a much taller man. His face was broad and ruddy, with the broken-veined cheeks of the heavy drinker. His eyes were a pale blue, and strangely dull and lifeless. His hair was straw yellow, cropped close to the skull. He looked to be in his late thirties, but the empty eyes made him seem much older. He wore a sword on his hip, but from the shiny newness of the scabbard, Jordan doubted the sword had seen much use. His eyes lingered on the man for a moment, though he wasn’t sure why. There was just something about Argent, something … cold.

Sir Gawaine stood to Count Roderik’s right, leaning casually against the wall. He was chewing on a cold leg of chicken, and not being too careful about where the grease went. Jordan’s stomach rumbled loudly, and he gave the knight his best brooding scowl to compensate. Gawaine looked at him briefly, and then gave his full attention back to the chicken leg. Sir Gawaine of Tower Rouge … Jordan had a feeling he knew the name from somewhere, but he couldn’t place it. Maybe he was a minor hero from the Demon War … He was tall and muscular, and though he had to be in his late fifties, his chest and shoulders were still impressively broad. Chain mail glinted under the peasant cloak, and Jordan caught a glimpse of a heavy-bladed hand ax at the man’s side. His hair was iron gray and cut in a style that hadn’t been fashionable for at least ten years. His face was lined and weathered, and when he looked at Jordan his eyes were dark and cynical. His scarred hands looked disturbingly powerful, and for all his apparent casualness he was no more at ease than Jordan. Everything about Gawaine shouted to the observant eye that this knight was a trained warrior, and experienced in his craft. Jordan decided immediately that if these three men turned out to be villains after all, he’d better go for Sir Gawaine first. And he’d better be bloody quick, because he wouldn’t get a second chance.

“You mentioned an acting role,” said Jordan to Count Roderik.

“The greatest role you’ll ever play,” said Roderik.

“What’s the money like?” asked Jordan.

“Ten thousand ducats,” said Robert Argent. His voice was flat and unemotional, and his cold gaze fixed unwaveringly on the actor.

Jordan kept his face calm with an effort. Ten thousand ducats was more than he’d ever earned in a year, even at the peak of his career. And that was a long way behind him. Ten thousand ducats … there had to be a catch.

“Assuming, for the sake of argument, that I’m interested in this job,” he said carefully, “what kind of role would I be playing?”

“Nothing too difficult,” said Roderik. “A prince—the middle of three sons. There’s a great deal of background information you’ll have to learn by heart, but an actor of your reputation shouldn’t have any trouble with that. After all, you are the Great Jordan.” He paused, and frowned slightly. “Is Jordan your real name, or would you prefer I used another, offstage?”

The actor shrugged. “Call me Jordan. It’s a good name, and I earned it.”

“I was most impressed with your performance this evening,” said Roderik. “Did you write the material yourself?”

“Of course,” said Jordan. “A strolling player has to be able to adapt his story to suit the level of his audience. Sometimes they want wit and eloquence, sometimes they want conjuring and fireworks. It varies. Did you like my High Warlock? I created the character after extensive research, and I flatter myself I caught the essence of the man.”

“Nothing like him,” said Sir Gawaine. His voice was harsh, with bitter undertones. He looked at the ragged chicken leg in his hand, and threw it casually over his shoulder. Jordan’s stomach rumbled again, and he glared angrily at the knight.

“Is that so, Sir Gawaine? Perhaps you’d care to tell me what he was really like?”

“He chased women and drank too much,” said Gawaine.

“He was a great sorcerer!” said Jordan hotly. “Everybody said so! He saved the Forest Kingdom from the demon prince! All right, there were a few rumors about him, but there are always rumors. And besides … it makes for a better show my way.”

Sir Gawaine shrugged, and looked away.

“If we could return to the subject at hand,” said Roderik icily, glancing angrily at the knight. “You haven’t yet said if you’ll accept the role, sir actor.”

“I’ll take it,” said Jordan. “I’ve nothing better to do, for the moment.” For ten thousand ducats he’d have played the back end of a mummer’s horse, complete with sound effects, but he wasn’t going to tell them that. Maybe he could hit them for an advance … He looked at Count Roderik. “Well, my lord, shall we get down to business? What exactly is this role, and when do I start?”

“You start now,” said Argent. “We want you to return with us to Castle Midnight, and impersonate Prince Viktor of Redhart.”

Jordan’s heart sank, and for a moment he wasn’t sure whether to scream or faint. “You have got to be joking! Forget it! I’m not getting involved in any conspiracy to commit treason. I once saw a man hanged, drawn, and quartered. It took him two hours to die, and he only stopped screaming when his voice gave out.”

“There’s no question of anything treasonable,” said Roderik soothingly. “Prince Viktor knows all about this substitution, and has agreed to it.”

Jordan looked suspiciously at the three men before him. They all looked very serious. Sir Gawaine had even pushed himself away from the wall to stand upright. Jordan noticed uneasily that the knight’s right hand was now out of sight under his cloak, resting just where the hand ax had been. Jordan turned his attention back to Count Roderik, mainly because it was less disturbing looking at him than it was at Sir Gawaine. He gave the count his best intimidating scowl, and tucked his thumbs into his sword belt to stop his hands shaking. “If the prince knows about this, then what … oh, I get it. You want me to act as a decoy—a double to draw out an assassin! The deal is off. I’m an actor, not an archery target.”

“My dear fellow,” said Count Roderik, his voice practically dripping sincerity, “I assure you we wouldn’t waste someone of your undoubted talents on a simple decoy’s job. Allow me to explain the situation. Prince Viktor is required by law and tradition to undergo a series of rituals shortly, at Castle Midnight. Unfortunately, he is indisposed at present with a rather troublesome illness, and is unable to perform the rituals. But if he doesn’t appear, he’ll lose his inheritance. So, we need someone who can act enough like the prince to take his place in public and perform the rituals. It’s as simple as that.”

“Ah,” said Jordan. “I see.” He didn’t believe for one moment that Roderik was telling him the whole truth, but for the time being, he might as well act as though he did. After all, if he’d learned anything as an actor, it was that the aristocracy hadn’t a clue as to the real value of money. You could charge them extortionate amounts for performances, not to mention expenses, and they didn’t even blink. If he played his cards right and watched his back, ten thousand ducats could be just the beginning …

“Assuming I was interested in this job,” he said carefully, “there are some obvious difficulties. What about appearance, for example? How similar are the prince and I in looks? There’s a limit to what I can do with makeup.”

“That won’t be a problem,” said Roderik. “I have a small talent for sorcery. A simple glamour spell, and you’ll become an exact double of the prince. Much more important is your being able to convince Viktor’s friends and family that you are who you seem. For that, we need an actor of your considerable talent. Our agents have been traveling throughout the land, searching for someone suitable, and you can imagine how delighted we were when word came back to us that you might be available. To be honest, we hadn’t even heard you were in Redhart …”

Jordan shrugged airily. “Every career has its ups and downs. If you’d have asked me this at the same time last year, I’d have had to turn you down. The pressure of work was just too great. But, luckily for you, at the moment I’m at liberty to give you my full attention.”

“This time last year,” said Robert Argent, “you were in a debtors’ prison in Hillsdown. You haven’t appeared in a major theater in almost three years. You’re just another strolling player, Jordan, and if you don’t want this job, we can find a dozen just like you to take your place.”

Jordan gave him a hard look. “There is no one like me,” he said flatly. “I’m the Great Jordan. And if I hear one more word out of you that I don’t like, Argent, I’ll double my fee.” He deliberately turned his back on Argent, and looked thoughtfully at Count Roderik. “This glamour spell that’s going to make me look like Viktor; can it be removed easily when the job’s finished?”

“Of course,” said Roderik. “But now, my dear fellow, we are in something of a hurry. It will take us at least a week’s hard traveling to reach Castle Midnight, and the rituals are due to begin shortly after that. I’m afraid we must insist on knowing your answer now.”

Ten thousand ducats … maybe more … a chance to start over again … a role that could be a real challenge … There’s got to be a catch, but I don’t give a damn.

“I’m your man,” said Jordan. “We can leave as soon as I’ve brought fresh provisions.”

“We already have everything you’ll need,” said Argent. “Roderik, start the spell. We’ve wasted enough time in this filthy hole.”

“Wait just a minute,” said Jordan quickly. “You want to cast the glamour spell right here and now? Where everyone can see us?”

“No one will see us in this light,” said Roderik. “The spell is quick and quite painless, I assure you. There’s nothing at all to worry about.”

Jordan looked suspiciously at Roderik. There’s nothing to worry about was the kind of thing the traveling dentist said as he knelt on your chest and poked his pliers into your mouth. But he couldn’t argue. He’d agreed to take on the role, and the spell was a necessary part of it. He’d just thought he’d get a bit more warning …

Roderik took Jordan’s silence for assent, and raised his left hand. He frowned, and muttered something under his breath. Jordan strained his ears to try and catch the quiet words, but the few he caught were in a language he didn’t recognize. They sounded harsh and grating and somehow … disturbing, and Jordan suddenly wondered if perhaps he’d made a mistake after all. Count Roderik fell silent, and made a sharp, twisting motion with his left hand. Jordan gasped, startled, as his skin suddenly began to itch and creep. His face twitched convulsively. He started to lift his hands to his face, and found he couldn’t. His whole body had locked solidly in place. He couldn’t even blink his eyes. He struggled furiously, to no avail, and then his anger gave way to panic as the first changes began. His bones creaked and groaned. His flesh shuddered, rising and falling like a series of ripples on the surface of a pond. He tried to move or run or scream, and couldn’t. His panic rose another notch when he found his breathing was becoming increasingly shallow. Sweat poured off him. His vertebrae popped one after the other as his back stretched, giving him an extra two inches in height. His fingers tingled painfully as his hands grew long and slender. New cords of muscle crawled along his chest and arms and back. His legs grew thick and sturdy. His face trembled as his features lost definition and then grew firm again in a new shape. And as suddenly as it had begun, the paralysis was gone, and his flesh grew still again.

Jordan swayed on his feet, and Sir Gawaine was quickly there at his side. Jordan clung to the knight’s arm as his head slowly cleared, and his harsh breathing gradually returned to normal. He finally straightened up, and let go of Gawaine’s arm. He gave Gawaine a quick, grateful nod, and then stared in something like horror at his hands. He lifted them up before his face and looked at them, turning them back and forth before him. They weren’t his hands. The length, shape, and shade were wrong. But the fingers flexed obediently at his command, and he could feel the cool of the evening moving over them. He lowered his hands and looked down at his body. His clothes no longer fit him. He was taller now, and his arms and legs were longer. His shirt was tightly stretched across his new chest and shoulders, and his belt hung loosely about his flatter stomach. Jordan felt a brief surge of vertigo as his mind refused to accept the new body it found itself in, and then the feeling died away as he brought it under control. Jordan was used to being different people at different times. He was an actor. He looked at Count Roderik, who bowed formally.

“Your Highness. Would you like to see a mirror?”

Jordan nodded dumbly. Argent produced a small hand mirror from a pocket in his cloak, and handed it to Jordan.

The face in the glass was traditionally handsome, in a dark, saturnine way. The jet black hair was thick and wavy, and showed off the firm bony planes of the face. The eyes were a surprisingly mild brown, but the mouth was flat and uncompromising. Someone had broken the nose a long time ago, and it hadn’t been set quite right. The owner of the face looked to be in his midtwenties, but there was something about the eyes and mouth that made him look older.

Yes … thought Jordan finally. I can do something with this face. This … Prince Viktor.

He handed the mirror back to Argent, who replaced it carefully in his pocket. Jordan scowled at Count Roderik, and let his new right hand drop to the sword at his side.

“When you said a glamour spell, Roderik, I thought you meant some kind of illusion.” The new voice sounded a little deeper than he was used to, but not enough to throw him.

Roderik smiled at Jordan, and shook his head. “Illusions are too easily seen through—especially at Castle Midnight. This spell is fixed, until such time as it is specifically reversed. Physically, you are now an exact duplicate of Prince Viktor of Redhart.”

Jordan looked at Argent and Sir Gawaine. “Well, what do you think? Will I pass?”

Argent nodded stiffly. “No one will be able to tell the difference. You even sound like him.”

“The voice is right,” said Sir Gawaine, “but you’ll have to learn Viktor’s way of speaking. The prince has been away from court for almost four years, and we can use that to explain away some differences in behavior, but you’ll have to study his background every chance you get. You screw up on this, and we’re all dead.”

Jordan looked quickly at Roderik. “I thought you said we had Prince Viktor’s permission for this little masquerade?”

“We do,” said Roderik. He shot an angry glance at Gawaine. The knight ignored him. Roderik looked seriously at Jordan, and the actor tensed up inside. He knew that look. It was that particular mixture of sincerity and hesitation that meant he was about to be told something necessary but unpleasant.

“The situation at Castle Midnight is rather complicated at present,” said Roderik. “King Malcolm died four weeks ago, some say by poison. His daughter, the Lady Gabrielle, found him dead in his chambers. It’s not clear yet which of his three sons will succeed him, so it’s vital that no one finds out that Viktor is ill, and … vulnerable. Once he’s well again, he’ll take over the necessary rituals and public appearances, but until then you’ll take his place. It’s really quite straightforward. However, should you be exposed as an impostor at any time, Viktor’s brothers will undoubtedly have you killed. Princes tend to be very sensitive about the use of doubles.”

“I can imagine,” said Jordan. “Look, are you sure you can get me away safely afterward?”

“We’ll take care of everything,” said Roderik reassuringly. “You don’t have to worry about anything but your performance.”

Jordan nodded slowly. “So, King Malcolm is dead. All those campaigns he led, all those battles he fought in, and he finally dies in his own castle, poisoned. A dirty way to die. How long before the news gets out?”

“So far, the Regent’s been able to keep a lid on things,” said Roderik. “No one outside the castle knows anything yet. It has to be that way. If the news gets out before the succession is decided, there’ll be panic in the land. There might even be civil war, and none of us wants that.”

“If Malcolm was poisoned,” said Jordan slowly, “who did it?”

“There are several suspects,” said Argent. “Not least Viktor’s two brothers, Lewis and Dominic. But there’s no proof against anyone, so far.”

“I doubt there’ll ever be any real proof,” said Gawaine. “It was a very professional job. The autopsy couldn’t find a trace of poison.”

Jordan frowned. He was getting too much information at once to be able to make sense of it. He decided to concentrate on the only details that mattered: those directly affecting the prince he had to play. He sighed silently. He hated politics, and Court politics in particular. Intrigues made his head hurt. He supposed he just didn’t think deviously enough. He thought hard about what he’d been told so far, and a question occurred to him.

“Gawaine, you said Prince Viktor had been away from Court for four years. Where’s he been all that time?”

“The king sent him into internal exile,” said Roderik, before Gawaine could answer. “A minor border city, called Kahalimar. Like his brothers, Viktor was never known for his self-control, and eventually he went a little too far. It was thought a few years in the back lands might help to cool his blood.”

“I see,” said Jordan. “So I’m playing a villain, am I?”

“Viktor’s not that bad,” said Gawaine quickly. “He’s headstrong, and too easily led for his own good, but at heart he’s a true prince. I’ve sworn to defend him with my life.”

Jordan made a mental note to talk to Roderik and Gawaine separately; their views on Viktor seemed to differ quite a bit, and that might be important. A new thought struck him, and he gave Roderik a hard look.

“You still haven’t said why you chose me for this job. All right, I’m an excellent actor, one of the best, but there are others almost as good as me. And most of them are much better known these days than I am.”

“That was part of the problem,” said Roderik. “If one of your more illustrious colleagues were to suddenly disappear, it would be bound to be noticed. Questions would be asked. However, in your case … well—you understand, I’m sure. And there was one other reason why we particularly wanted you.”

“Oh yes?” said Jordan. “And what might that be?”

“You’re a conjurer, as well as an actor.”

Jordan looked at him blankly for a moment, and then nodded slowly. “Of course, the royal Blood …”

The kings of Redhart were magic users, and had been for generations. Every member of the royal line inherited the ability to manipulate one of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. The spreading Bloodlines were jealously guarded and nurtured down the centuries, as it was discovered that the purer the Blood, the more powerful would be the resulting magic. For a while, the royal line became dangerously interbred, producing monsters and mules more often than normal children. These days there were strict laws and traditions to protect the magic-carrying Bloodlines, and the elemental powers only remained truly powerful in the carefully monitored royal line.

“Prince Viktor has the fire magic,” said Roderik. “Whoever was to take his place had to be able to counterfeit this magic convincingly. You’re a conjurer, Jordan; a few flames on demand shouldn’t prove too difficult for you.”

Jordan frowned unhappily. “They’ll see through it. They’re bound to. My tricks are good, but they’re still only tricks and illusions.”

Roderik smiled, and shook his head reassuringly. “No one will suspect anything. They’ll see only what they expect to see.”

Jordan looked at him for a moment, and then shrugged. “You’ve obviously put a lot of thought into this, so I suppose you must know what you’re doing.”

“Then may I suggest, Your Highness, that we get a bloody move on,” said Sir Gawaine. “We’re pressed for time.”

Jordan nodded, and went to get his horse. Roderik sent Sir Gawaine with him, just to keep him company. They walked in silence. Jordan didn’t know what to say to the knight, and Gawaine seemed content to leave it that way. They walked quickly through the darkening evening, their steps echoing dully back from the stone walls on either side of them. The houses were silent, and no lights showed past the closed shutters, but Jordan had no doubt he and Gawaine were still being watched. People in small towns didn’t miss much, if they could help it. Jordan sneaked a few sidelong glances at Gawaine. He wasn’t sure yet what to make of the knight. The man was obviously competent, not to mention dangerous, but there was a bitter, brooding quality to Sir Gawaine that intrigued Jordan. If he was going to get answers from anybody in the conspiracy about what was really going on, Gawaine looked to be the best bet. It might pay to cultivate the knight …

Jordan found his horse still waiting patiently beside the parked caravan at the edge of the town. He wasn’t surprised. He didn’t even hobble his horse these days; he didn’t have to. Smokey was well trained, and too lazy to go anywhere she didn’t absolutely have to. There was a time Jordan had worried someone might steal her, but of late the ominous runes and curses he’d painted on the sides of his caravan kept everyone at a respectable distance. After the Demon War, even footpads and outlaws had discovered a new respect for the supernatural. Jordan looked proudly at the runes he’d painted. He hadn’t a clue what they meant, but they looked great. He glanced at Gawaine, who was studying the grazing horse. His gaze suggested that he was used to companions who rode a better class of animal. Jordan had to agree that Smokey wasn’t exactly pedigree stock. She was mostly brown, with white patches, and reputedly even older than she looked. On a bad day, it was all she could do to break into a canter. But she pulled the heavy caravan for hours on end without complaint, once he got her moving, and she accepted resignedly the occasional hungry days that were a part of every strolling player’s life. Though having Smokey around meant he could keep the strolling part to a minimum. He reached into his pocket and brought out the half carrot he’d saved from his last meal. Smokey picked it daintily off his palm and crunched it up while staring vacantly into the distance. Ungrateful animal, thought Jordan, but smiled anyway. He and Smokey were used to each other’s little ways. He made to harness her up to the caravan, but Gawaine stopped him with a raised hand.

“You needn’t bother with the caravan. You won’t be needing it.”

“What do you mean, I won’t need it? How else am I supposed to carry all my stuff? There’s my stage, the costumes, the props …”

“We’ll supply everything you need to be Prince Viktor. Everything else gets left here. No arguments, Jordan. We know what we’re doing. You can’t afford to be found with anything that might give away who you really are.”

Jordan scowled unhappily. “What about Smokey? I won’t leave her behind. She’s a good horse, in her way.”

Gawaine looked at the horse, sniffed, and then looked away again. “We can always say your usual mount went lame. Now then, if you’ll look in the back of your caravan, you’ll find a parcel containing a set of Prince Viktor’s clothes. Get changed, and don’t take too long about it. I want to put a few miles between us and this town while there’s still some light left.”

Jordan looked at him for a long moment. “You put these clothes in my caravan before you’d even talked to me? You must have been pretty damned confident I’d agree to this.”

“Roderik wanted you,” said Gawaine. “And he usually gets what he wants.”

Jordan had several quick answers to that one, but decided it might be politic to keep them to himself for the time being. He started to unlace the back flaps of his caravan, and glanced irritably at Gawaine. “You don’t need to hang around, you know. I’m quite capable of getting dressed on my own.”

“Think of me as your bodyguard,” said Gawaine. “Anyone who wants to kill you has to get past me first.”

“A gray-haired bodyguard,” said Jordan. “Just what I always wanted. You’re not fooling anyone, Gawaine. You’re just here to make sure I don’t change my mind and run out on you. Right?”

“Of course,” said Gawaine calmly. “We can’t have you running around the countryside wearing Prince Viktor’s face, can we? That could prove very unfortunate.”

“Yeah, your little conspiracy would sink without a trace, wouldn’t it?”

Gawaine grinned and shook his head. “I was thinking more of how unfortunate it would be for you, Jordan. Because if you were dumb enough to run out on us, I’d track you down and kill you. Don’t let the gray hair fool you, lad. I may not be as fast as I once was, but I’m twice as mean when I’m annoyed. And don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re irreplaceable. We can always find another actor, if we have to.”

“Not like me,” said Jordan flatly. “I’m the best.” Gawaine glanced briefly at the small shabby caravan, with its peeling paint and mismatched wheels. “Sure you are, Jordan. You’ve just come down in the world, like me. Now hurry up and get changed, and forget any ideas about running. I’ve sworn to protect Viktor from any and all dangers, and that includes small-time actors with delusions of grandeur.”

Jordan’s hand dropped to the sword at his side, but before his fingers could even touch the hilt, Gawaine had drawn his ax and stepped forward to set its edge against the actor’s throat. Jordan started to back away, and the ax followed him. Its edge cut a little deeper, and Jordan stood very still and fought down an urge to swallow. He breathed very shallowly, and felt a thin trickle of blood run down his throat.

“Understand me, actor,” said Gawaine softly. “I swore an oath upon my life and upon my honor to protect Prince Viktor. I stood at his side when his father banished him, and I followed him into internal exile for four long years. If I even think you’re going to be a problem, I’ll cut you into pieces. Remember that, actor.”

He stepped back a pace, lowered his ax, and sheathed it at his side again. Jordan put a hand unsteadily to his throat, and his fingers came away bloody. His hackles rose, and a cold breeze caressed the back of his neck. His legs were shaking slightly, as much from shock as fear. He’d seen his share of violence in his travels, and even been in a few sword fights himself when there was no other way out, but never in his life had he ever seen anyone move as quickly as Sir Gawaine.

What the hell have I got myself into this time?

He pulled out a handkerchief, cleaned the blood off his fingers, and then pressed the cloth to his throat. He was pleased that at least his hands weren’t shaking. He tried concentrating on the ten thousand ducats, but the thought didn’t comfort him as much as it once had. He turned his back on Gawaine, and climbed up into his caravan. He pulled the leather flaps shut behind him, and then sat down on his unmade bed and thought hard.

There was no doubt in his mind that Gawaine had meant every word he’d said. If he tried to back out now, the knight would kill him. On the other hand, there was obviously a great deal about this conspiracy he wasn’t being told. For example, what the hell had Viktor done to get himself sent into internal exile? Jordan took the handkerchief away from his throat, and looked sourly at the bloodstained cloth. Maybe he could sneak up on the knight while he was sleeping … But there was still the ten thousand ducats to consider. As long as there was a chance of getting his hands on that kind of money, he wasn’t sure he wanted to back out. He put the handkerchief back in his pocket, and looked around the crowded interior of his caravan. The rough-wooden walls weren’t even varnished, let alone painted, and the floor had disappeared under a confused mess of props and costumes. When he’d been at the top of his career, he’d had dressing rooms that were bigger than this. He looked at the package Roderik had left for him on his bunk, and sighed quietly. He’d go along with the others, for now. It wasn’t as if he had a choice.

The clothes turned out to be elegant, richly colored and a perfect fit. Well tailored, too. Presumably they’d been made especially for the prince he now resembled. Jordan fumbled a little at the unfamiliar hooks and fastenings, and stopped every now and again just to admire a particularly fine piece of attire, but finally he was ready. He strutted back and forth in the narrow space, sweeping his cloak around him, and wished he had a full-length mirror. He wore his own shirt underneath the long waistcoat, even though he had to leave half the buttons undone. He needed the hidden pockets sown into its sleeves to carry the flare pellets and smoke bombs he used to counterfeit his magic. He stuffed the pockets as full as he could. He didn’t know how long it would be before he’d have a chance to make any more.

He strapped his own sword on his hip. Roderik had provided a blade of far superior quality and workmanship, but Jordan preferred to stick with the sword he was used to. And just to be on the safe side, he slipped a throwing knife into the top of his knee-length boot. He’d always been good with a throwing knife. Better safe than sorry, as his dad always said. That left only one item to put on, and Jordan stared at it for a long moment. The chain mail vest stared blankly back at him. Given the circumstances, the vest was a sensible precaution, but he was still reluctant to put it on, as though by acknowledging the danger, he somehow made it real. He shook his head, took off the cloak, and put on the chain mail vest. It was lighter than it looked, but he could still feel its solid weight tugging at him every time he moved. He pulled on the heavy burgundy cloak again, hiding the vest from sight, but it didn’t help. Jordan looked around his caravan one last time, and then pushed past the leather flaps and jumped down onto the ground.

Sir Gawaine was still waiting for him. Jordan stood haughtily before him, and took up his best aristocratic stance. Gawaine bowed formally to him.

“If you’re quite ready, Your Highness, we should rejoin the others.”

Jordan nodded stiffly. A chill wind was blowing from the north, and he pulled his cloak around him. “I trust we won’t be traveling far tonight, Gawaine. It’s going to be bitter cold on the road once the sun goes down.”

“I think the sooner we leave Bannerwick behind us, the better, sire,” said Gawaine. “We aren’t the only ones who have agents out in the kingdom.”

Jordan nodded reluctantly. He turned to his horse and found Gawaine had her already saddled and waiting. He swung up onto Smokey’s back without saying anything. Gawaine reached up and took hold of the bridle, and led horse and rider back down the deserted main street to where the others were waiting. Their horses were fine Thoroughbreds, beside which Smokey in her battered trappings looked very much the poor relation. Jordan patted her neck and muttered a few comforting words as Gawaine moved away to mount his horse. They all looked at each other in silence for a moment, and then Robert Argent started off and the others followed him. The quick hoofbeats sounded loud and distinct on the quiet as the small party left Bannerwick behind them and headed out into the falling dusk.

The evening was still and silent as they made their way out onto the moor. The sun was sinking below the horizon in a mass of bloodstained clouds. Sir Gawaine lit a lantern and hung it from his saddle horn, so that the small party moved in its own pool of amber light. A cold wind gusted across the open moorland, ruffling the tall heather with a heavy hand. It rose and fell like the slow swell of a purple sea. The thick smoky scent of the heather made a pleasant contrast to the open-sewered stench of the mill town, and Jordan began to relax a little. He’d always liked traveling by night, and the lonely moors held no horrors for him. Bandits and wolves tended to prefer the forests, and he was too old to believe in ghosts. Besides, away from the stage he liked his solitude. It gave him time to think, to be himself rather than one of the many masks he wore for other people, on and off stage. The moors had their own stark beauty, for those with eyes to see it, and yet for once their open grandeur had no power to soothe his soul.

It was all very well playing brave warriors and noble heroes on the stage, but he was well aware that out in the real world he had none of the qualities necessary to bring off such a role. He was an actor, not a fighter, and he was perfectly happy to leave it that way. In his experience, heroes tended to lead short and very dangerous lives, and usually came to a nasty end. Standing up to be counted just made you an easier target to hit. And yet here he was, heading into an arena more perilous than any battlefield: a Court torn by intrigue. Jordan decided he wasn’t going to think about it anymore, for the time being. It just made his stomach ache. He glanced surreptitiously at Sir Gawaine, riding close beside him. He wasn’t sure whether the knight’s presence made him feel more secure or more threatened.

“Roderik,” said Jordan finally, as much to break the silence as anything, “tell me about Prince Viktor. Just an outline to begin with, to give me a feel for the part. And I’ll need to know about his brothers as well.”

“Of course,” said Count Roderik. As he spoke, his voice remained casual and unhurried, but he never once looked at Jordan. “You are the middle of three sons. Prince Lewis is the eldest. He inherited earth magic by his Blood. There isn’t much call for earth magic inside a castle, so he’s spent most of his life training to be a warrior. He favors the sword, and is very good with it. In many ways he was King Malcolm’s favorite, but of late he and your father had grown distant. He has a vile temper, and won’t be crossed on anything. His private life is a scandal. In his position, he could have practically any woman for the asking, but instead he prefers to intimidate and take by force young ladies from the lesser nobility. Any who dare complain are dismissed from Court, and their families are disgraced. Few are prepared to make an enemy of the man who may one day be their king. He’s known to have strangled one girl when she declared she was pregnant by him. It was never proved, of course, but everybody knows.”

“Sounds a pleasant chap,” said Jordan. “What does he do for a hobby, poison wells?”

“Don’t underestimate his support,” said Roderik sharply. “He’s quite popular among the guards and men-at-arms, due to his undoubted martial prowess. They tend not to hear the rumors about his other exploits. And as the eldest son, and your father’s acknowledged favorite, he’s always commanded quite a large following at Court.”

“Could he have killed King Malcolm?” said Jordan, frowning.

“It’s possible, I suppose. If your father had threatened to disinherit him because of his behavior, I can see Lewis striking back at him in a rage. But poison … no, that’s not Lewis’s style. Now then, your younger brother is Prince Dominic. He inherited water magic by his Blood, but he’s never made much use of it in public. He’s the quiet, thoughtful one of the family, and has an unhealthy interest in sorcery. He’s had many teachers, and is rumored to be something of an adept, though again he’s shown little sign of this in public. Dominic has always been a very private person. He is also somewhat … strange.”

Sir Gawaine laughed shortly. “That’s one way of putting it.”

“How would you put it?” said Jordan.

“He’s barking mad,” said Gawaine flatly. “And dangerous with it.”

“Like his brother Lewis, Dominic also has a following at Court,” said Roderik, continuing calmly on as though Gawaine hadn’t spoken. “Dominic is married to the Lady Elizabeth, a very ambitious woman. She helped to build Dominic’s following through a series of well-thought-out political deals. Many of us believe Dominic and Elizabeth to be the prime suspects in your father’s murder, though it must be said that so far no proof has been found to lay against their door.”

“How do I feel about my brothers?” said Jordan thoughtfully. “Are we close?”

“Hardly. In Redhart, inheritance of the throne is rather a complicated matter. In most countries the crown goes to the eldest son, and any other sons get nothing. But here the king chooses which of his sons he considers to be most fit, and that son inherits the crown. This is a throwback to the days of inbreeding, when many eldest sons simply weren’t … suitable. The dangers of that time are mostly past now, but the law and custom remain. However, if your father had made a choice, it remains unknown. The will has vanished without a trace. Since Lewis is no longer the favored son, all three of you now have an equally valid claim to the throne.

“Neither you nor Dominic care much for Lewis. He is arrogant and brash, and has always used his position as favorite to lord it over both of you. He in turn despises Dominic as a weakling, for spending most of his time as a scholar rather than a warrior, and considers you a fool for letting your emotions get the better of you. You detest Dominic, not least because of his choice of wife. The Lady Elizabeth was once … close to you, until Dominic won her away.”

“Tricky,” said Jordan. “Do I have any friends at Court?”

“Not really,” said Roderik. “Most of your followers were sent with you into internal exile, and for the most part they’ve chosen to remain there until the succession is decided. But Dominic and Lewis are also finding themselves more isolated than usual, for the same reason. No one wants to be remembered as having backed the losing side …”

Jordan rode for a while in silence, sorting out the new information as best he could. It was fine, as far as it went, but it wasn’t what he needed. If he was going to pass off this impersonation successfully, he was going to have to know not just the facts of Prince Viktor’s background, but also the secrets and motivations that underlay those facts. And interesting though Viktor’s family background was, there was still a great deal he wasn’t being told.

“Viktor’s been in internal exile for four years,” he said finally. “What exactly did he do that warranted such extreme punishment? I mean, you’ve already told me that Lewis once strangled a young woman of the nobility and got away with it.”

Argent and Roderik looked at each other. Sir Gawaine stared at the road ahead. Finally Roderik sighed and looked at Jordan.

“Forgive me, Jordan, of course you need to know. It’s just not something we normally talk about. In fact, we seem to have spent most of the last four years using every bit of influence we had to keep the truth of what really happened from ever coming out. Prince Viktor … has always been one for the ladies. However, unlike Lewis, Viktor was normally sensible enough to limit his wandering eye to the servant classes. Such assignations may be deplorable, but they’re of no real importance. But, as I said earlier, Prince Viktor somehow became involved with the Lady Elizabeth, at a time when she was officially betrothed to Prince Dominic. How they kept it a secret for so long in a Court noted for its love of gossip is beyond me, but of course it couldn’t last, and eventually Dominic found out. And that was when the tempers really began to fly. The Lady Elizabeth is a charming, beautiful young woman from an impeccable family background. Unfortunately, she is also a cold, calculating bitch. She delighted in playing the two brothers off against each other, possibly to determine which would make the better husband, but more likely just because she enjoyed it. Viktor and Dominic were on the point of a formal duel when the king finally discovered what was going on, and stepped in to put an end to it. He called all the parties before him in a private session, and apparently demanded that the Lady Elizabeth make her choice there and then. She chose Dominic.

“For a time, nothing happened. Viktor shut himself in his quarters and refused to speak to anyone, even Gawaine. We were all very worried about him. Viktor had never been one for brooding: when he was angry he spoke his mind, and let the sparks fall where they would. His continued silence was … disturbing. Meanwhile, Dominic and Elizabeth made the preparations for their marriage. The invitations went out, presents began to arrive, everything seemed perfectly normal. What happened next isn’t entirely clear. The full facts were only ever discussed with the king, behind closed doors, and Viktor still won’t talk about it. What is clear is that Viktor tried to murder Dominic. He almost succeeded. From all accounts, the king was frantic when he found out. A formal duel was one thing; that at least was honorable, if not strictly proper. But murder … to attempt to strike down one’s own brother by stealth and treachery, to steal his fiancée …

“King Malcolm couldn’t put Viktor on trial. If he had, the whole story would inevitably have come out, and the royal family would have been brought into disrepute. Malcolm was always very conscious of the family honor. But if he couldn’t try Viktor, he couldn’t let him go unpunished either. And he certainly couldn’t have Dominic and Viktor living under the same roof any longer. Indefinite internal exile was the compromise he came up with, and it worked well enough.”

“I was right the first time,” said Jordan. “I am playing the villain.”

“Viktor was betrayed by a woman who said she loved him,” said Sir Gawaine. “And save your sympathy for Dominic until you’ve met him. There were demons in the Darkwood that had more humanity in them than Prince Dominic.”

Jordan shook his head tiredly. Just when he thought he was getting the hang of the characters of his new role, they kept changing.

“All right,” he said slowly. “That’s his family, and his ex-love. Anyone else I need to know about?”

“The Lady Heather Tawney,” said Gawaine. “Viktor’s present love.”

“What’s she like?”

“A very forceful lady,” said Roderik, quickly.

“Forceful,” said Gawaine. “That’s one way of putting it, I suppose.”

“Viktor met her in Kahalimar,” said Roderik. “She comes from an old, though fairly minor, noble family, and she’s linked her star very firmly to Viktor’s. She was one of the very few people who followed Viktor back to Court. The two of them are practically inseparable, and there’s no doubt Viktor sees her as his main support in these troubled times.”

“In other words,” said Gawaine, “don’t upset her. If she were to turn against us, Viktor would throw us to the wolves without a second thought. Heather’s agreed to the impersonation; we couldn’t do it without her cooperation. But watch your arse, Jordan. Her loyalties are strictly to Viktor himself.”

“Great,” said Jordan. “Just great. Isn’t there anybody in this conspiracy I can trust?”

Sir Gawaine chuckled loudly. “Not a damned one, Jordan. Now you’re starting to think like a prince.”

Jordan decided not to ask any more questions for a while. The answers were getting too depressing. The four men rode in silence in the gathering darkness, each lost in his own thoughts. The stars came out, and the bent moon cast its light over the open moors. Jordan huddled inside his cloak, and looked gloomily about him. The moors were starting to get on his nerves. The hoofbeats of the four horses seemed eerily loud, echoing on and on in the quiet. Jordan scowled uneasily, and wondered what the hell he’d ever seen in the moors. They were a desolate place when all was said and done. Only the desperate and the outlawed lived there, and never for long. There were hidden bogs and marshes, and no place to shelter from the bitter cold nights. More than anywhere else in Redhart, the moors were untouched by man and his civilization. They looked just as they had before man came to Redhart, and would still be there after man had gone. The moors had no need of man, nor any love for him.

“Don’t look around,” said Sir Gawaine quietly, “but we’re no longer alone.”

Jordan sat stiffly in his saddle, jolted out of his melancholy. The other three glanced casually about them, barely moving their heads.

“Bandits?” said Argent.

“Unlikely,” said Roderik. “I had my people check this whole area out before we came in. There are a few footpads and liers in wait, but no armed gangs. There aren’t enough steady pickings here to support them.”

“They could be agents working for the other princes,” said Argent.

“It’s possible, I suppose,” said Roderik. “But what would they be doing in a backwater place like this? No one but us knew about Jordan. How many are there out there, Gawaine?”

“Five, maybe six,” said the knight calmly. “They’re laying low in the heather up ahead. They’re pretty good. I almost missed them.”

“What are we going to do?” said Jordan hoarsely.

Gawaine chuckled quietly, and let his hand fall to the ax at his side.

“No one knew we were coming here,” said Roderik. “I’d stake my life on it.”

“You did,” said Gawaine. “Now it looks like someone’s planning on calling in the bet. One of our people must be a traitor.”

“That’s not possible,” said Argent. “Everyone was carefully chosen …”

“Don’t be naive,” said Gawaine. “There’s always someone who can be bought, or broken. We’d better look into it when we get back to Castle Midnight.”

“Assuming we ever get there,” said Jordan. “Whoever those people are out there in the heather, they outnumber us six to four, remember?”

“They may have the numbers,” said Roderik, “but we have Sir Gawaine.”

Gawaine smiled nastily. Jordan tried hard to feel reassured.

They rode on down the beaten path. The heather stirred ominously as the wind moaned briefly. Jordan searched the surrounding shadows as best he could without being too obvious about it, but couldn’t see anything. He wondered if he could take advantage of an ambush to turn his horse around and race back to town. If by some chance Roderik’s people survived, he could always emerge later when all the fighting was over, and swear blind his horse had run away with him. It only took him a moment’s thought to see the plan wouldn’t work. Firstly, the others would never believe it, and secondly, Smokey was too damned lazy to run anywhere. Jordan swallowed hard, and loosened his sword in its scabbard. When it came to violence, Jordan always believed in seeing the other person’s point of view. If that failed, he tended to favor kicking the other guy in the nuts and running away quickly. It wasn’t so much that he was afraid of violence, though he was, it was just that Jordan had too good an imagination. He found it far too easy to visualize all the terrible things that could go wrong, and just what it would feel like to have your head ripped clean off your shoulders. He swallowed hard and wished he was somewhere else. Anywhere else. He eased his boots out of his stirrups so that he could jump free of his horse if he had to, and flexed his arms surreptitiously to check that the flare pellets and smoke bombs in his sleeves were within easy reach if he needed them.

A dark figure suddenly leapt out of the heather before Gawaine’s horse, and grabbed for his bridle. The horse reared up on its hind legs, and Gawaine tumbled backward out of the saddle. He landed on the packed earth of the trail with a heavy thud, and rolled away into the heather. The dark figure went rushing after him. Moonlight shone brightly on his upraised sword. Jordan and the others reined their horses to a sudden halt as more dark figures rose up out of the heather on either side of the trail.

Jordan glared wildly about him. He counted six figures, including the one that had gone after Gawaine, and they all looked to be armed. In the dark, they looked more like demons than men. Jordan reached into the hidden pocket in his left sleeve, and pulled out one of the small wax pellets. He nicked the wax coating with his thumbnail, and threw the pellet onto the ground between him and the nearest of the advancing figures. The pellet split open on impact, and the liquid within burst into flames as it was exposed to the air. Flames roared up in the middle of the trail, lighting the scene in vivid shades of crimson and gold. For a moment, the ambushers stopped dead in their tracks, stunned by the unexpected heat and light. The dancing flames reflected brightly from their chain mail and blank shields. Mercenaries, thought Jordan sickly. We’re up against professional bloody killers. He groped frantically for another flare pellet.

There was a horrid scream from out in the heather, and then Sir Gawaine stood up, his ax dripping blood. There was no sign of his attacker. “Well-done, Prince Viktor,” he called loudly. “But we won’t need any more of your fire magic. My friends and I will take care of this trash.”

He laughed unpleasantly, and Jordan shivered. There was something harsh and awful in that laugh: an open delight in murder and human butchery. Sir Gawaine hefted his great ax once, and started forward. The mercenaries snapped out of their daze, and two of them went to meet him. The others moved cautiously forward, giving the flames in the middle of the path plenty of room as they passed. Roderik drew his sword and dismounted, all in a single supple movement, and Argent swung quickly down to join him. They moved confidently forward to meet the mercenaries. The fighting had already begun by the time Jordan got down from his horse.

Gawaine stood his ground, grinning nastily, as the two mercenaries closed in on him. They had to wade through the tall heather to reach him, and he didn’t miss the way it slowed them down. He chose his moment carefully, and then launched himself forward, his ax a silver blur in the moonlight as it swept out to punch deep into the first mercenary’s ribs. The heavy steel blade buried itself in his side with a harsh, chunking sound, and the impact threw the mercenary to the ground. Sir Gawaine yanked the ax free, and blood and splintered bone flew on the air. The second mercenary’s sword swept out in a long arc, reaching for Gawaine’s throat. The knight ducked under the blow at the last moment, and his ax whistled through the air toward his attacker’s legs. The mercenary jumped backward, and the ax just missed. Gawaine recovered his balance and moved forward, swinging his ax lazily before him. The mercenary backed away, peering warily at him over his shield. Gawaine feinted to the left and then threw himself forward as the mercenary hesitated, undecided. The ax rose and fell, sweeping past the shield to smash through the mercenary’s collarbone and bury itself in his chest. The two men fell to the ground in a heap, but only Gawaine got to his feet again. Blood soaked his chain mail, none of it his.

There was a weak thrashing sound behind him, and Gawaine spun around as the first mercenary lurched to his feet, favoring his smashed ribs but still clinging to his sword. Blood ran from his mouth and nose, and he showed his teeth in a bloody grin. Gawaine watched him warily. When a man knows he’s dying, he becomes a much more dangerous opponent. He’ll try anything, take any risk. He knows he’s got nothing to lose. The mercenary rushed forward, and his sword cut viciously at Gawaine’s belly. The knight met the blow with the flat of his ax, and the shock ripped the sword from the mercenary’s weakened grasp. He watched his sword fly through the air, and Gawaine’s ax leapt up to sink into his throat. He fell limply to the ground, and lay still. Gawaine pulled his ax free with a sickening tearing sound.

Count Roderik cut down the first mercenary to reach him with practiced ease, his sword a shining blur in the uneven light. He turned quickly to meet the second mercenary, his face a cold and calculating mask. He moved confidently forward, and steel clashed on steel as the mercenary parried his attack without flinching. He took most of the blows on his blank shield, content to let Roderik tire himself, and then launched his own attack. The two men stamped back and forth on the narrow trail, sparks flying in the gloom when their swords met.

Roderik gritted his teeth against a growing ache in his sword arm. It had been too many years since he’d used a sword for anything but sport or exercise. That was the trouble with a good reputation as a swordsman: after a while it became practically impossible to find anyone foolish enough to duel with you, even just to first blood. Roderik pressed his opponent hard, and the mercenary backed cautiously away, leaving no opening. Roderik scowled. It was taking too long. Old instincts and skills were slowly returning to him, but already his breath was coming fast and hurried, while the mercenary wasn’t even breathing hard. Roderik felt an almost forgotten chill run through him as he realized the man before him might just be a better swordsman than he.

The fifth and last mercenary slipped past the struggling figures and made for his main target, the prince. The merchant could wait; he wasn’t going to be a problem. Prince Viktor, on the other hand, was looking more dangerous by the minute. He had to be taken care of quickly, before he could call up any more magical fire. Besides, there was a bonus for the man who killed the prince. The mercenary grinned. For a hundred ducat bonus, he’d wipe out a whole royal family. And then he pulled up short, startled, as Robert Argent blocked his way with a drawn sword. The mercenary looked at him, and his grin widened. One short, tubby merchant with a brand-new sword shouldn’t be much of a problem. The mercenary glanced briefly at Prince Viktor, just in case he was about to launch any more magic, but he was apparently busy fumbling with his sleeves and muttering to himself. Argent lashed out clumsily with his sword, and the mercenary parried it easily. He quickly took over the attack, and forced Argent back step by step, the merchant defending himself more by strength and determination than skill. In a matter of seconds, the mercenary knocked Argent’s sword out of his hand, and drew back his blade for the killing thrust.

“Hold, assassin!” roared Jordan, in his most commanding voice. He gestured mystically, and blue-white flames flared up about his hands. The mercenary took one look, and started backing quickly away. Jordan adopted his most impressive High Warlock stance. The trick was to keep the audience looking at you, rather than the hands. That way they wouldn’t notice how quickly the flames started to die down. He ran his hands through a quick series of mystical gestures, using the movements to hide his palming of another flare pellet from his sleeve, and threw the pellet at the mercenary. It cracked open as it hit his chest, and the liquid in the pellet burst into flames. The fire took a savage hold on the mercenary’s clothes, and leapt up around his face. He screamed shrilly, and dropped his sword to beat at the flames with his hands. Jordan stepped forward, and ran the man through with his sword. The mercenary fell to the ground, and lay still. The flames burned fiercely on the unmoving body.

Jordan looked quickly about him. The flames licking around his hands were already beginning to gutter. Argent gave him a quick nod to show he was all right. Gawaine was just finishing off his last opponent, but Roderik was being beaten slowly back by his. Jordan blew out the flames on his hands, and moved stealthily in behind the mercenary. It only took a moment to remove his cloak and sweep it over the mercenary’s head, blinding him. He grabbed frantically at the heavy material, and Roderik ran him through. Jordan pulled his cloak away as the mercenary collapsed, and put it on again. Roderik looked at the dead man, and then at Jordan, and raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t believe in fighting fair, do you?”

“I believe in winning,” said Jordan, settling his cloak comfortably about him.

“A very sensible attitude,” said Sir Gawaine, stepping over a dead body as he came forward to join them. He looked sternly at Argent, who was still groping in the shadows at the side of the trail, trying to find the sword he’d dropped. “If you’re going to stay with us, Argent, I’d better teach you how to fight. Or at least how to hang onto your sword.”

“If you were doing your job properly, I wouldn’t need to know how,” said Argent, finally straightening up with his sword in his hand. “You’re supposed to be our bodyguard, remember?”

“We all fight when we have to,” said Roderik quickly. “Now, may I suggest we all get the hell out of here? Those mercenaries knew where to find us; for all we know there could be more of them on their way right now. Damn it, Gawaine, I would have sworn nobody knew we were coming here.” He frowned unhappily at the mercenary he’d just killed. “It’s a pity we couldn’t take one of them alive to answer questions.”

“Sorry,” said Gawaine. “I’ll try to remember next time.”

He strode away to round up the scattered horses. Jordan noticed with pride that of all the party’s mounts, only Smokey had stayed put. In fact, when he thought about it, Jordan was actually quite proud of himself, too. He’d helped to take on six fully armed mercenaries, had killed two himself, and had come out of it without a scratch. Not bad going … The rising wind brought him the smell of burned pork from the mercenary he’d killed, and the reality of the situation suddenly caught up with him. He felt faintly sick, and his hands began to shake. He’d only been on this job a few hours, and already people were trying to kill him. Next time, there might be a hell of a lot more of them … He stepped forward to confront Roderik, and fixed him with an icy glare.

“When I took on this impersonation, nothing was said about having to face bands of armed mercenaries. I’m an actor: a strolling player. I’ve damn ill skill with a sword, and no real interest in acquiring any. If I’d wanted a life of danger and excitement, I’d have joined the tax collectors. In short, either you give me one hell of a good reason to stay, or I’m for the nearest horizon and you can find some other half-wit to play Prince Viktor.”

Roderik nodded slowly. “I see. And what would you consider a good reason to stay?”

Got him, thought Jordan gleefully. All I have to do is name a price they can’t possibly meet, and I’m free!

“Fifty thousand ducats,” he said flatly. “Take it or leave it.”

“Very well,” said Count Roderik. “Fifty thousand ducats it is.”

Jordan swallowed dryly. “That’s a good reason to stay,” he said finally.

“There’s really no need to worry,” said Roderik as Gawaine came back with the horses. “A week from now, we’ll be back at Castle Midnight. Our people can protect you there.”

“A lot can happen in a week,” said Jordan darkly. He thought for a moment. “What’s Castle Midnight like? Will I be safe there?”

“Depends what you mean by safe,” said Gawaine. “Castle Midnight isn’t exactly your average castle.”

“How do you mean?” said Jordan.

“You must have heard some of the stories,” said Roderik.

“Well, yes,” said Jordan. “But they’re just stories. Aren’t they?”

“Are you going to tell him,” asked Gawaine, “or shall I?”

“Castle Midnight is very old,” said Argent, “and a place of power. Within its walls, what is Real and Unreal is sometimes largely a matter of opinion.”

“Great,” said Jordan, shaking his head. “Just what this job needed. More complications.”