Cupric the Copper stood at the foot of the High Reeve’s dais. Opposite Cupric stood three men- Ingram, the Garnet Marquess, disgraced foreign minister of Deira and two prison guards. The guards had been stripped of their uniforms and were manacled together. They looked like they needed a drink. Earlier that morning Cupric had, among other things, bluffed his way past those very guards, taken a written confession from the imprisoned Lord Ingram accusing the High Reeve of treason, and disseminated the message to the entire city of Diera. Cupric had also smuggled the High Reeve’s most dangerous political rival out of the city, then turned himself in to await his fate. There was something to be said for loyalty, after all. The rest of the large chamber was filled with the courtiers of Deira. As Ordulf, the High Reeve took his seat at the edge of the dais, the room quieted. Cupric tried to work out exactly how much trouble he was in. His gaze shifted again to the Marquess and two guards across from him. If this was a court proceeding, who among them was on trial?
The High Reeve cleared his throat. “Some among you may have heard news today that was disturbing- news that I ordered our former Foreign Minister Lord Ingram to intentionally delay our soldiers, allowing our enemies to gain a foothold in our territory, and then that I accused Ingram of treason, leaving him to be executed. It is time that the full truth of this matter be heard. At midmorning today, I ordered my loyal servant Cupric to enter the royal dungeon and convey correspondence from the Garnet Marquess to-”
“Actually your Grace…” Cupric loudly interrupted. Audible gasps echoed through the chamber.
Cupric heard Ramm Forkbeard, Duke of Rutland exclaim, “To dare speak over the High Reeve? This knave ought to have his tongue cut out!”
Of course Forkbeard would still be angry; slap a Duke on the butt just once and he’s your enemy for life. But Cupric was about to do worse than merely interrupt the High Reeve; Cupric was about to contradict him- and enjoy doing it. The High Reeve hadn’t asked Cupric to infiltrate the prison of course, why would he? And Cupric was going to spoil this whole idiotic cover up. Cupric glanced at the High Reeve. The man on the dais was silent, studying Cupric intently, waiting.
Then Cupric turned to the Garnet Marquess and the prison guards. Ingram’s face was like stone, completely impassive. But the guards both looked ashen. Cupric sighed. Was the joy of blowing the High Reeve’s cover worth getting these two executed? If Cupric told the truth, the High Reeve would have no choice but to punish them for their failure. The guards were inarguably very bad at their job, but then again, Cupric was excellent at bluffing. Was it fair to expect mere prison guards to see through the artifices of a master such as himself?
“Your Grace,” Cupric began again, “I must correct you. It was early morning, not midmorning. Breakfast time.” The guards were incompetent, to be sure, but they were also loyal which was something Cupric appreciated. Cupric would play along with whatever the High Reeve had in store.
The High Reeve smiled thinly and continued. “Early this morning Cupric enacted my plan to allow Lord Ingram to share his side of the story. The Marquess’ version of events is very nearly true… with a few exceptions. While it is true that I directed Ingram to delay troop deployment I never did so with the knowledge of our enemies whereabouts. After further investigation, I learned that Lord Ingram had not, as I had believed, intentionally aided our enemies. He did, however, argue in good faith to delay our forces, ultimately leading to great risk for our nation. I am suspending Lord Ingram’s death sentence for treason and exiling him to the front lines to serve as a Colonel under General Lebrunn’s forces, so that he may see directly the consequences of his careless decisions as Foreign Minister. These prison guards shall accompany him as servants.”
Cupric watched as the guards’ color returned to their faces. They would live. The Garnet Marquess bowed low to the High Reeve; Cupric spied a ghost of wink in his direction as the nobleman returned upright.
The chamber was empty except for a few silent guards, Cupric and Ordulf the High Reeve.
“Cupric, my friend. You always seems to rush my plans. I wish you had waited until I was ready to deal with Ingram; it would have been much cleaner. Specifically he would have been executed for a crime he truly had committed, and no longer able to meddle in my affairs.”
Which was the worse crime in the old man’s mind? Treason or meddling? Cupric was still unsure whose story was closest to the truth, the High Reeve or the Garnet Marquess.
“Cleaner, your Grace? I find I work better when things are messy. I’d have just killed him- Ingram was a treasonous liar playing a dangerous game to try to avoid the sword. Call his bluff. Let his head roll.”
Ordulf smiled at Cupric, and with a hint of condescension replied, “Yes but you see then there would be doubts. If I execute Ingram after his accusation, it looks as though I did it to silence him. Appearances are important. Speaking of which- Cupric, I have… concerns about some of your recent behavior.”
“Oh?” Cupric replied innocently.
“I can understand smuggling out a message from Ingram, and even breaking Aethelric out of prison. You did not understand the dangers of what you were doing. But why free the gangster and known assassin Bron Squint? The interrogators had said that he was just about to crack. We could have learned valuable information about the Usmanov gang’s connection to the gentleman suicides. And then there’s the murdered interrogator found late this morning. It looked like he took a pickaxe to his chest.”
Oh. So the man being tortured had probably deserved it. No matter.
Cupric locked eyes with the High Reeve, avoiding the urge to glance at his adamantine pickaxe leaning with his other weapons near the entrance of the chamber.
“Your Grace, I can honestly say that I did not know that the man I set free was part of the Usmanov gang. And I could not have anticipated how furious he would be once he got free and took hold of his tormentor. Bron Squint attacked so quickly that by the time I could intervene, his interrogator was already dying. Bron clearly was, as you say, an experienced assassin. He disappeared into the darkness while I vainly tried to save his victim.”
A benign smile and nod was the High Reeve’s only reply.
Cupric searched for a sign, the slightest twitch of Ordulf’s eye, the pursing of his thin lips, that might indicate whether the High Reeve believed the bluff, or was merely allowing Cupric to believe he believed it. Was he playing the High Reeve or was the High Reeve playing him? Cupric narrowed his scaly eyelids. No way to tell.
The High Reeve handed Cupric a small scroll in a case. “This,” he said, “is a new task. One by which you and your friends can renew your loyalty to me.”
Cupric opened the scroll, reading with no expression.
“No need to involve the others, your Grace. I can tackle this myself.”
Ordulf smiled blandly. “Of course. I will contact your colleagues to inform them of the day’s events and that they are welcome to return to the city whenever they desire.”
“Your grace, they have nearly a day’s head start. They could have left in any direction. They are going to be difficult to find.”
“Nonsense. They are traveling by boat downstream on the North River with Aethelric.”
Cupric betrayed no emotion, but did not reply. Was the High Reeve guessing, trying to get Cupric to betray some confirmation, or did the man already know his friends’ whereabouts?
The High Reeve continued. “You have my word that neither they nor Aethelric will be harmed, so long as Aethelric does not return to the city. He is not a threat to our security anymore, and so long as he does not incite new unrest among the people he has been punished long enough, I suppose.”
Cupric grew tired of this. Too much intrigue. He could not sink his pickaxe into this old man’s words.
“Anything else, your Grace? I have work to do.”
The High Reeve smiled again, this time benevolently. “Indeed you do, my friend. You have my leave to get to it.”
Back at the Copper Kettle, Cupric was sitting at the bar, a glass of brown liquid in his hand. He looked at the scroll case in his belt, shivered and quickly emptied his glass.
“Celebrating or drowning your sorrows?” The voice from behind Cupric was melodious, sweet. Cupric turned to see Baroness Elisabeth Lebrunn standing at the door, her halfling sneak and half-orc muscle in tow.
“Neither. Just thirsty.” Cupric reluctantly rose to greet his guest. “You shouldn’t be seen here, Lady.” The Baroness almost seemed to emit a gorgeous glow, yet Cupric did not offer her a drink or a seat.
“Did you hear your husband the General has a new recruit?” The Baroness appeared annoyed at the mention of her husband. Good.
“I’m sure the Garnet Marquess and my husband will get along famously. But Cupric, dear; if we are to work together then I need you to be more careful.”
“Well then we shouldn’t work together. Problem solved.”
The Baroness sighed. “I do not doubt your commitment to the downtrodden of this city. We are… different… but I believe that together we can help the greatest number of the most needy people. Whatever slight I have committed against you please do not make the poor suffer for it.”
Damn. She knew his weakness. Cupric poured himself another glass.
“Alright, Lady. What precautions would have me take to make my already difficult job even harder?”
She smiled, but her voice betrayed her irritation. “Perhaps try not to alienate all of the gentry. Once the High Reeve approves my plan for a mandatory tithe, I will need to work with the nobility to provide the grain and meat that you and your followers deliver to the poor. The gentry will bristle if they know you, Cupric the insolent mercenary, will be handling what were once their own goods.”
Cupric thought she looked tired. Lebrunn usually could hide her true emotion. He casually swung his pickaxe into his hands. “Tell them we can do it the easy way or the hard way. Their call. The fewer nobles the greater need for suitable replacements. Count Cupric… has a nice ring, doesn’t it?”
The Baroness smiled again, in spite of herself. “In Deira we have a saying; ‘Power begets responsibility.’ The silver circlet of nobility is a heavy weight, but I earnestly hope you live long enough to discover that for yourself, Cupric. Please. You can be quite charming when you choose. Just pick one noble and be good to them. Offend all the rest if you must. You will need more allies than just the High Reeve before you achieve your goals.”
“As you wish, Lady.” Whatever it takes to get this woman out of the bar.
She turned to leave. Cupric sighed and was about to take a sip-
“One last thing.” The Baroness’ bodyguards were already outside, but she had spun round before leaving the threshold of the door.
“I don’t suppose you asked the High Reeve why he allowed a treasonous nobleman to spend weeks in prison without interrogating or executing him, giving the man plenty of time to secure a desk, pen, paper and a way to get his confession to the masses?”
Cupric stared back. “Nope. Don’t care.”
The Baroness furrowed her brow and turned to leave.
“Very well. Lastly-”
“You already told me that thing was the last thing,” said Cupric drily, interrupting.
“Well I lied then,” she tersely countered. “As I was saying, lastly, do watch out for Count Nyle. I keep telling you all that he’s dangerous and probably behind much of the discord in the city.”
She was out the door before Cupric could reply.
Cupric turned back to the bar, turning over the Baroness’ last words in his mind. He pulled out the scroll the High Reeve had given him, read it again, shook his head and sighed. Cupric hefted his pickaxe with his right hand, feeling its weight, taking measure of it.
“Rock,” Cupric called.
“Get your quill and parchment. If we survive the night there’ll be one epic tale to write.”