"They agreed to pay Standish for his services, Milord. They're heading out in the morning to find the dragon."
Baron Royale's face was now a deep angry red. "I thought you told me that Standish was a liar and a cheat, that he didn't know anything."
"Maybe he's trying to con those Hunters."
"From everything you've told me, Standish is a smart man. He'd have to be suicidal to try and swindle the King's Hunters. He must know something. You idiot!" Royale jumped up from his throne to pace the room. "If he knew all this time and I listened to your incompetent advice... You and your men could've already tracked it and disposed of it! Because of your stupidity I had to send for help. Instead of sending a few trackers, maybe someone who could be bought off, the king sends his personal Hunters. Now I have these do-gooders breathing down my neck, asking too many questions. Do you know what they'll do to me if they find out the truth behind my uncle's little accident? Do you?"
"Milord, I...I didn't think..."
"Apparently not! I guess I have to do all the thinking around here. If you'd done your job right in the first place, I never would've had to send a request for help. Speaker Travis would be nothing but an unpleasant memory and that dragon's skin would be stretched across the wall of my Great Room as a trophy! But you couldn't even manage one little accident for the woman or track down a large creature that surely leaves big enough tracks to follow." The Baron stopped pacing to fix Pells with an enraged glare. "Don't just stand there! Get a group of men together. Follow them when they ride out. Keep out of site. Let them do all the work of killing the dragon. Then I want you to kill them all."
"But, Milord. They say the Hunters have powers, magic powers. How are we supposed to fight that?"
"Bah! Superstitious rumors spread by ignorant peasants! If you believe what 'they' say, then Hunter Sanchez is ten feet tall and Jackson is a demon with horns and a tail. Did they look like anything other than ordinary men to you?"
"Well, no, Milord..."
"Then don't be such a gullible fool! They probably started all those stories themselves to frighten their enemies. And let me remind you..." He walked over to Pells and stood face to face with him. His voice was full of menace and the promise of pain. "What I will do to you if you fail me will be far worse than anything they'll do to you, powers or no. Do I make myself clear?"
"Now get out here and take care of this little problem. They've taken too much of an interest in my affairs and I don't want them nosing in my business after they've disposed of this monster. Burn the bodies when you're done so it looks like the dragon killed them in battle." Royale smiled. "Then later we'll have a nice ceremony in the village to honor the brave Hunters who gave their lives to protect the people of Four Corners. It will be a good lesson for certain people who think they can defy me."
"Yes, Milord! Right away." Pells hurried from the room, thankful that he had escaped punishment. His years of loyalty had worked in his favor today. He'd seen Royale maim men for less.
Royale watched Captain Pells scurry from the room like a rat. The man had become entirely too comfortable lately. Just because Pells had helped him take the barony from his insipid uncle and cousin didn't mean that Royale owed him anything. In fact, it might be safer for him to have Pells gone. Royale was going to be keeping a close eye on his captain. Who knew what the fool would reveal if his own life were in jeopardy? Two men can easily keep a secret if one of them is dead. Perhaps Pells would meet with his own little accident in the near future. After all, no one was indispensable.
The Next Morning
"I still don't see why we have to travel by foot."
"As I've told you before, JD, the terrain within these woods is not conducive to horse travel. There are many little pits, stones, and roots along the trails. Sometimes there are no discernible trails at all, only weeds, small plants, and brushy undergrowth. It would be dangerous for the horses to stumble through such obstacles."
"Gee, nice to know you care about the horses at least."
"The horses have done nothing to to earn our contempt. Why should they be punished for our foolhardiness? Besides, our little trek is not nearly as long as the trip that brought you to Four Corners."
Josiah caught up to Ezra to walk beside him. "So is it because we are fools that we've earned your contempt, or is there some other reason?"
"You have to admit, chasing after a dragon is the height of foolishness."
"We aren't doing it for our own sakes, but for the good of the people of Four Corners."
"Ah, yes. The good people of Four Corners. We wouldn't want to leave them to fend for themselves."
Buck didn't like the way the conversation was going. "You surprise me, Ez."
"Ezra. My name is Ez-ra."
"Sure thing, Ez. As I was saying... You surprise me."
Ezra sighed. "In what manner?"
"You don't seem like the woodsy type."
"Well, appearances can be deceiving."
"I just thought for sure you'd be the kind of guy that likes the comforts of the big city, but here you are, traipsing through the forest, easy as you please--like you actually know what you're doing."
"Was that supposed to be a compliment?"
Buck grinned. "Maybe. So, Ez... Where you from? I don't recognize the accent or the style of clothes."
"Here and there. I'm currently residing in the oh-so-quaint village of Four Corners."
"It's a nice little place--out of the way, peaceful-like."
"Boring, more like."
"Then why stay?"
"It suit my purpose at this time."
"And that would be?"
"To have a place to stay, of course."
"Uh huh. You must travel a lot."
Ezra merely shrugged.
"Ever been to Itreya?"
"I believe we are standing in it."
"I meant Itreya Proper. The capitol."
"I can't say that I have."
"Really? Too bad. Everybody should see it at least once. It's the best place in the world to live. Yes sir! Warm waters, gentle breezes, and some of the most beautiful and accommodating women you've..."
Ezra stopped him before his description became too graphic. "I'm sure it's lovely."
Josiah laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder. The younger man flinched away. Josiah pretended not to notice. "Buck is forgetting some of the more cultural aspects and architectural wonders of our fair capitol: the grand library, the theaters, the monuments, the blue royal castle..."
Ezra stopped to stare at the other man. "Blue castle?"
"Yes. It's one of Itreya's many marvels. No one knows exactly why it's blue since it was actually built with white stones. Some theorize that there are fine particles of sparkling blue crystals within the white marble that are too small to see with the naked eye but are big enough to catch the light. Some say the castle was blessed by our elven friends during its construction. Still others think it is the magic of the land itself protecting the castle. From a distance it almost looks like it's glowing."
A glowing blue castle? Ezra had seen such a thing in his dreams, but hadn't known it really existed. What did it mean that he'd dreamt of a castle he'd neither seen nor heard of?
"You alright, Son?" Josiah watched with interest as Ezra seemed to pull himself back from wherever his thoughts had taken him.
"I'm fine. And I'm not you're son." Josiah merely smiled at him and moved off into the woods to keep an eye on things, but always within visual range. Vin was doing a perimeter watch in the other direction.
Buck dropped back to walk beside Chris. Chris had taken up a position to the rear of their little group. Buck could see that Chris was alert to everything around them, but his eyes were on Ezra.
Chris's voice was a gruff whisper. "So?"
"I threw out a few innocent questions, trying to feel him out. He's got some kind of resistance. My powers just kept hitting up against something."
"So I'm not the only one who doesn't find you charming?"
"Hey, now. No need to hurt ol' Buck's feelings. You know, it didn't feel like a natural resistance like you got because of your immunity to magic. It's kind of hard to explain. With you it's like I've come up to a house and I want in, but the house doesn't even have any doors or windows. Ezra's house has 'em, but they're all shut up and locked. He had to keep his guard up to keep me out or I could've forced that door open a crack and wiggled on in. I bet if I caught him in a really relaxed or unguarded moment I could get him to talk."
"That's not likely to happen. He doesn't trust us anymore than we trust him. He's not going to let anything slip."
Ezra had no idea what Larabee and Wilmington were saying, but he was sure that he was the subject of conversation. Why else could he feel the heat of their gazes constantly upon him? What else would they be discussing with such secrecy? Ezra turned to look back at the two men. He gave them both a sly half smile and a mocking bow before turning his attention back to the trail. Let them make of that what they would.
Chris scowled. It was almost as if Ezra had heard them talking. He also had the feeling Baron Royale wasn't the only one with secrets. Chris only hoped all these secrets weren't going to get any of them killed.