The lone figure squinted against the sun as he surveyed the expanse of the valley below him. Dark green forest stretched to the bottom of the hill—no, it was practically a mountain, he decided— where it was interrupted by farmers' fields and pastures dotted with cows and sheep. The river rushing by on his right collected below in a sparkling lake, and tiny boats skimmed over the surface like hungry beetles. Houses squatted in low clusters around what might have been an open-air market, although no people were visible from this distance. In any case, neither the village nor its residents were what the man was looking for.
His eyes followed the lines of houses farther and farther away until he reached what he really sought—the castle, set against the mountain on the opposite side of the valley. Stout battlements, looming portcullis, grey stone towers, even a spire or two for elegance. Nothing he hadn’t seen before. Chimney smoke trailed through the blue sky, and he frowned. Occupied. Great. One potential site gone. Still, there might be ruins somewhere else in the land. In fact, the castle would be the best place to find out. Maps and records of cave-ins, destroyed property, old manors. History books. Legends. And, if he was lucky, attractive scullery maids. Yes, the castle was still the place to go, once he stopped for a drink, a hot meal, and local chatter.
Drake adjusted his pack and started down the mountainside into the woods.
“What, are you lost, kid?”
The voice seemed to come from nowhere, and Drake jumped at the sound. Scanning the wooded area, he crouched down, ready to sprint at the first sign of danger. His hand gripped the knife tucked in his belt, and he heard a chuckle behind him.
“Relax, kid. I’m not gonna hurt ya’. Just an old man down on his luck.” There was a rustling noise, again behind him, and Drake turned to face the sound.
At first, he saw nothing but the trees and shadows of the afternoon forest. But then something moved—what was it? It wasn’t any thing, just unfettered movement, like a flutter at the corner of your vision. And something strange…smoke? Drake stared at it, confused, until there was movement again, and the bowl of a pipe glowed red. Suddenly given a frame of reference (mouth should be here, legs should be here), he strained to make out the figure sitting at the base of the tree just as the man pushed the hood of the cloak back from his face.
Drake’s eyes widened at the optical illusion of a head floating in the woods. The camouflage of the cloak was marvelous; it was only now that he knew exactly where he was supposed to see a body that he could make out the lines of the fabric’s edge, and then just barely. The man’s face was not nearly as secretive—his smile arched in amusement and his eyes twinkled with humor, making him seem far younger, although he wasn’t as old as he had implied anyway. The giveaway pipe dangled beneath a steely mustache the same color as the smoke gently curling up into the trees. Something about this bothered Drake, but he couldn’t pinpoint it until the man blew a smoke ring into the air. Of course. He should have realized something was burning long before the man called attention to himself, but Drake couldn’t smell anything besides summer leaves and damp earth. Sneaky.
“Y’see? Nothing to worry about.” The man’s arm appeared out of nowhere as he gestured at Drake with his pipe. “Nothing for you to worry about, anyway.”
“I guess that’s reassuring then,” Drake said as he took a step closer to examine the cloak. “Looks like you could have the drop on anyone you want in that thing.”
The man laughed. “Don’t think I haven’t tried! Plus it’s good for sneaking out of, shall we say, sticky situations. Of all kinds.” He wiggled his eyebrows, and Drake couldn’t help but smile too.
“Lover, not a fighter?”
“If I have the choice. Rarely do though. That’s how I busted my leg.” He pulled back the hem of the cloak to reveal an ugly purple and yellow bruise on his shin. “Son of a bitch didn’t fight fair, kicked me when I was down.”
“What did you do?”
“Kicked him right back. Little higher though. He’ll be lucky if he can ever get it up again.”
“Now I’m really glad you didn’t ambush me,” Drake laughed.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Drake. Pleasure to meet you.”
The older man popped the pipe back into his mouth and extended his hand, which Drake shook briskly. “The name’s Sullivan. Friends I’m not kicking in the groin call me Sully. Since you already got me, how ‘bout you give me a hand up?”
Drake yanked him to his feet, and grabbed him when the injured leg buckled slightly. Grasping Drake’s shoulder, Sully steadied himself, then tapped some ash out of his pipe.
“Thanks, kid.” He released Drake, pulled off his cloak, and stuffed it in a bag. His clothes, now visible, were shabby but clean, and besides the leg he seemed to be in good health for his age.
“No problem,” Drake replied.
“Where you headed now?”
“A tavern would be a good place to start.”
Sully clapped a hand on Drake’s back and laughed. “Couldn’t agree with you more.”
Several hours later, the two men sat in the town’s tavern, each with a mug of ale and steaming bowl of stew in front of them. Drake noticed that the waitress gave a patronizing little sniff at the sight of them, but otherwise left them alone.
“So what brings you to Malcaniston?” Sully dunked a piece of coarse bread in the stew that represented a very depressing fraction of Drake’s remaining coins. “Looking for fame, riches, adventure?”
“Something like that,” Drake answered idly, trying to sound uninterested enough to avoid suspicion. As roguish as Sully was, he didn’t want to test him by admitting he reclaimed abandoned property. People tended to get a little funny about that.
“Gonna try your hand at winning the princesses and the fortune then, huh?”
Drake’s head twisted to look at Sully, his air of disinterest evaporating.
“The princesses, the ones at the palace…” he trailed off at the confusion on Drake’s face. “Oh boy, you mean to tell me you don’t know about our princesses?” When Drake shook his head, Sully rubbed his hands together. “Excellent. I love being the first.” He flagged down their waitress, ordered another mug of ale (to Drake’s dismay), then launched right into it.
“I don’t know if you know, but in Malcaniston, women aren’t allowed to carry or use weapons. It’s punishable by death, by rule of the king. But it wasn’t always like that. In fact, a long time ago—”
“—once upon a time?” Drake interrupted.
“Shut up. A long time ago, the queen was a very skilled swordswoman. Sure, the king liked it then, you know? Who wouldn’t like a woman who can handle a sword? But not long after her third daughter was born, she was out doing saber training on horseback and got thrown. Broke her neck. Terrible. Messy. So the king, grieving and maybe a fool, bans women on pain of death from training with weapons, carrying them, the works.”
“Not that I doubt your focus, Sully, but what does this have to do with fortune?”
“I’m getting there, goddamnit.” Sully took a swig of ale (how did he so neatly avoid getting it on his mustache?), and leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table. “I mentioned that the queen had three daughters, right? Well, being princesses, they’re especially not allowed to use weapons of course. Wouldn’t be proper. But one night, around the youngest daughter’s twelfth birthday, the servants come into the princesses’ room to wake them up and find that their riding boots, gloves, and habits were all worn out and nicked up, exactly as if someone had slashed them fencing.
“Since then, every night it’s the same thing. The girls are locked into their room at night, and the next morning their riding clothes are all scuffed up. The king’s losing his hair worrying about it, offered a princess in marriage and half his kingdom as a reward for any young man who could figure it out, prince or not. Every single man has failed, and what’s more, not a single one who’s tried has been seen again. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
“Sounds like you’re the only one smoking anything, old man, if you believe that crap.” Drake shook his head. “The girls probably sneak out a window or something, and the men probably all get beheaded for failing or seeing the princesses in their nightgowns or something. Kings are like that about their daughters. No princess is worth that.”
“Then why hasn’t anyone figured it out yet? Seen them out of bed and raised an alarm? And come on, kid. Half the kingdom.” Sully scratched his chin. “Or at the very least, a hearty lump sum in gold and assorted jewels.
“Well, you can have the glory of winning a princess half your age then, Sully,” Drake laughed. “I was planning on going to the castle, sure, but more for employment and research than a gamble on a haughty girl.”
“Alright, alright, mock me if you want. But if you’re planning on getting a job at the palace, you’re going to need my help to get your foot in the door. And once you get a look at these princesses? We’ll see how long it is before you want to try and figure out what they’re up to at night like the rest of us.”
“Somehow I doubt it’s as interesting as you want to think, Sully.”
“A man can dream, can’t he?” Sully raised his mug in a toast to the waitress, whose eye roll could be seen clearly across the room.