I changed the title of this episode from “The Rogue, the Investigation, and the Track” to “The Rogue, the Investigation, and the Viscountess”
It was dark when Andrew returned to the castle. The king was in his study, and looked up in surprised when Andrew entered over the protestations of the guard outside. “Ah, you’ve returned.” He set aside the book he had been perusing.
“Any luck with your investigations?” Andrew asked without preamble.
“Some. We’ve discovered that the stranger, one Ed’c’ba Jih, is from Brillias.”
“Desert people, aren’t they? Nomads?”
“Correct. We’ve also discovered that, soon after he arrived, the Viscountess Ruth Alistair, sister of our troublemaking Viscount, disappeared.”
Andrew frowned, thinking. “That’s convenient.”
“We thought so too, but nothing was ever proved. Once we set a tail on him—”
“Already been done,” Andrew said with a slight grin. “I ran into an old friend of mine, one who’s good at those kinds of things.”
The king raised an eyebrow. “Very well. Then we shall just wait for him to return.”
Michael was lurking about the market, watching the Viscount and his mysterious companion. So far they had done nothing out of the ordinary, but the stranger still made Michael suspicious.
When the Viscount left the market, the mysterious stranger remained. Following his instructions, Michael let the Viscount go, watching the dawdling nomad. After a few moments, he disappeared into one of the taverns, followed swiftly by Michael. For all his swiftness, however, Michael only barely arrived in time to see his quarry passing through a door into the basement of the tavern.
Michael knew that the barkeep would not let him through, so he quickly exited the building and walked the perimeter, searching for an external entrance to the basement. All he found was a small window, nearly obscured by weeds, which looked down into the darkened basement.
Though it was dark within, and the window was grimy, he was able to perceive the nomad he had followed, holding a candle, and speaking with someone sitting on a small cot. The man said something, and the figure on the cot stood, allowing her tattered dress to hang so as to define her womanly features, which had previously been indiscernible.
Whatever she said clearly angered the man, who backhanded her, knocking her back onto the cot. He set the candle on the table and grabbed her wrists, leaning over her. Michael jumped up and ran to the castle, not wanting to see any more, and knowing that Andrew would know what to make of this.
He burst ran past the startled guards, who chased him all the way into the throne room, where Andrew was playing chess with one of the king’s advisors. “Andrew!”
Andrew stood, taking in the situation at a glance. “He’s with me,” he said, waving the guards off. “Return to your posts.” He gestured for Michael to sit, but the rogue shook his head, breathing hard.
“The stranger… with the Viscount…” he said between pants, “has a girl… locked up… in the basement of the Golden Rooster.”
The king’s eyes narrowed. “This girl, does she have red hair?”
Michael was silent a moment, then nodded. “Yes, she does.”
Andrew and the king looked at each other, saying simultaneously, “The Viscountess!” Andrew dashed from the room, dragging Michael with him, while the king ordered the Captain of the guard to send a squad to the Golden Rooster.
Michael led Andrew through the town, winding through the streets to the tavern. Nearly half an hour had elapsed since Michael had left, and he wasn’t sure what they would find.
They burst in, and Andrew shoved past the barkeep, slamming the door to the basement open and rushing down the stairs. The girl was on the cot, curled into a tight fetal position, trembling. There was no trace of the nomad. Andrew touched her shoulder. “Viscountess? Ruth?”
She flinched at her title, but the gentle way Andrew said her name caused her to turn slowly and look at him. “You’re not one of his… They never call me that…”
Andrew shook his head. “No. We’re here to save you.”
Ruth curled into a tighter ball again. “No one can save me. I’m nothing. An object.”
The guards arrived at that moment, bringing with them a small cart they’d commandeered on the way. Ruth was carried out, tense and trembling, and laid on the bed the guards had made in the cart with their cloaks. Then they all returned to the palace, each lost in their own thoughts.
Michael thought of how terrible it was that this sort of thing could happen in this city.
The guards weren’t sure what was going on, but they knew that something big was brewing.
Ruth lay in the cart, silent tears running down her face, hating what she perceived herself as.
And Andrew… Andrew contemplated all kinds of slow deaths for Ed’c’ba Jih, the fiend who had caused Ruth to hate herself.