“Informants are very good at being almost helpful. You can ask them for anything: the time of day, the history of the spotted unicorn, even how much beer is at the bar, and they will remain almost helpful until you slip them a coin.” – Guide to the Lower Class by Arnold Van Shepherd
She nudged him until he shifted to one side of the bed. “Now, tell me this big secret of yours.”
He stretched out on the bed and rolled till he was facing towards her and away from the furnace pipes. “The Duke is receiving threatening letters. He sent for me after learning of my history here in Kaluna. I’m to reestablish myself on the streets and keep the Duke informed about any news that may be useful.”
Amy glanced around. Molly had given him the largest room in the inn, as befitted an Invoker, but it was his luggage that made it look rich. Even unpacked, the large swathes of embossed leather trim and silver locks spoke of his wealth to any who looked. A gold timepiece tossed carelessly onto the room’s single table sparkled with enough precious stones to keep a would-be thief fed and clothed for a year. She returned her gaze to his face. “You can’t possibly hope to fool someone set up the way you are.”
He shrugged. “I can with your help.”
She resisted the urge to shake her head at the impossibility. “What do you expect to gain from all this? If the letters annoy his Grace, put a bounty up. There isn’t a thief, informant, or dealer on the street who wouldn’t turn his own mother in for that fancy timepiece of yours.”
He shrugged again. “All I need is for you to get me in. You don’t have to tell me anything I can’t guess. Just keep your ears open. I’ll make it worth your while.”
Bernard reached across her to pull the thick sheet of paper with the Assassin’s Eye into clearer view. “His Grace received this note a few days ago, right after he pledged his troops to an attack on the Stronghold. It disturbed him so much that he called for the best of Kaluna to serve. Of those who came, one of them recommended me as a head for the team combing the streets. In particular, His Grace wants us to find the person who wrote the letter. I figured my best chance of that would be finding you.”
Amy glanced over the ordered sequence of letters, and handed it back to him. “What does it say?”
“Can’t you―” he choked on his words. “Of course not. It’s a notice from the Western Stronghold advising the Duke to back down or risk being overthrown. The Stronghold boasts of their spies right here in the province. It won’t be long before they figure out he’s not changing his mind.”
Amy licked her lips and ran her mind over the possibilities. “Did the letter arrive by courier or did it simply appear?”
Bernard’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know.”
She closed her eyes. If it had arrived by courier, the Duke would have asked questions, Bernard would have learned the answers. The letter had appeared, increasing their fear, which meant the wards had been up. The possible list of suspects narrowed.
She took the sheet of paper without looking at it and smoothed it flat on the bed. There was a hint of wax on the surface of the paper, a preservative to keep it from getting wet. Odd that it would be added in such a dry and dusty climate as the Stronghold. The seal also was wax, or at least the trace left over suggested it. Didn’t the assassins tie their letters with a simple ribbon, daring the messenger to open it? Whoever had written the message had done it somewhere inside the country, she guessed. She met Bernard’s curious gaze.
“How many people have died?” she asked.
He searched her face. “None, yet.”
He didn’t understand. She could see the faraway squint in his eyes, and the small wrinkle over his forehead that only appeared when he was working on a puzzle. He was trying to figure the reasons behind her questions, and above all, she couldn’t let him do that. Bernard had always had a penchant for getting into trouble, but this time he’d gone too far. She took a deep breath to ease the knot in her stomach.
“I can’t help you.” Despite the relative ease they had shared, she couldn’t quite look him in the eye.
He stared at her. “Why not?”
“Telling you that would be helping you. You’re not one of us anymore.” Even that, she feared, would give him a clue.
“You want my advice? Don’t ask for help from anyone. The smart ones won’t help you. The stupid ones will die.”
She let the letter flutter onto his chest and crept out the door, leaving him alone with his thoughts.