On His Majesty's Secret Service: Part Four
Fredrick woke with the immediate feeling that he had been hit over the head with a sizable portion of the planet. He struggled to his feet, holding his head, and squinted his eyes as he realised it was daylight.
Around him, Jasmine, Quentin and Hewlett were also busily trying to gain their bearings.
“Caustic Sleep Potion #39,” Quentin groaned. “I helped develop it for use by Meridell Shock Troops.”
“Nice to know you carry a cure,” Jasmine growled as she leaned against the lifeboat.
“How long have we been out?” Fredrick asked.
“Normally lasts about twelve hours,” Quentin explained. “Marcel will be long gone by now.”
Fredrick scanned the horizon. There was indeed no sign of anyone else. Without warning, he sat down on the floor.
It’s happened again.
“What is it about me?” he asked to no one in particular. “Why does everyone lie to me?”
“We’re spies,” Jasmine commented. “It’s sort of our job.”
“Can we follow him?” Fredrick asked Quentin.
“I should be able to pick up some kind of trail if you give me a little time,” the wizard Zafara confirmed, taking out a small compass that seemed to spin erratically.
“Get on it,” Fredrick ordered.
“If we’re following him, we’re doing it on foot,” Hewlett announced from the lifeboat. “He’s sabotaged it, would take days to repair.”
“Shouldn’t we report to M first?” Jasmine asked. “I mean, Marcel’s turned traitor?”
“There’s no time to get to Cogham; they could have gotten back to the Citadel by then, if that’s where they are heading,” Fredrick explained. “Our orders were clear. Recover Dunlop and stop him giving information to the other side by any means necessary. Those orders still stand.”
“Got something!” Quentin proclaimed. “Caustic Sleep Potion #39 uses Red Bogberries as a base ingredient, which give off a distinctive magical aura. We’re absolutely covered in them, but there’s a steady trail heading that way.”
He pointed down the small track that led in the opposite direction to Cogham.
“Let’s march then,” Fredrick ordered. “There’s no time to lose.”
The group followed the erratic movements of Quentin’s magical compass for several miles, and it was late afternoon when they came to a fork in the path. Down one fork, the Citadel loomed in the distant sky, but strangely the compass seemed to point in the other direction.
“They’re not heading to the Citadel?” Jasmine questioned.
“Might be a tactic to throw us off,” Fredrick considered.
On the horizon, the spires of a castle could be seen.
“Hide out there until they think we’ve moved on, and then head towards the Citadel maybe?” he continued.
Hewlett shielded his eyes from the afternoon sun. “My geography this far out is a little bit rusty, but from how far we’ve travelled I’d say that’s Lord Merchant’s home.”
“Lord Merchant...” Fredrick repeated. “Dunlop mentioned that name when we were escaping; he seemed to think it was the same person as M. Maybe that’s their destination? Who is this Merchant?”
“I remember reading a piece about him in the Meridell Enquirer a few months back,” Jasmine replied. “He’s a Meridell Lord, but he’s been critical of King Skarl’s rule recently.”
“Perhaps he’s turned traitor then?” Fredrick suggested. “Either way, that’s our best lead. Let’s make for the castle.”
The others nodded, and together they made their way down the fork that led away from the Darigan Citadel. Eventually Quentin opened his mouth.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “If this Lord Merchant is working for Darigan, or the Clawed Hand, why would he need to put a secret agent inside?”
“Maybe his mission wasn’t to stop the Clawed Hand, but to make it more dangerous,” Fredrick replied. “Merchant might want to encourage a war that way.”
“By using an overweight Bruce?” Quentin asked. “Not exactly the fiercest fighter imaginable... something about this doesn’t make sense.”
Merchant Castle was a typically ornate piece of architecture, with meandering spires that stretched high into the late afternoon sky. It was perched atop a natural rock formation that sat in the heart of a small village. In many places, it would have seemed a palace fit for a king, but when compared with Meridell Castle’s pristine white walls, the shabby masonry of Merchant Castle was significantly less impressive.
The four spies were observing the castle from a distance, lying in the undergrowth on the crest of a nearby hill. Quentin had been prodding his magical compass for some time.
“They are inside,” he said at last. “I can’t give you anything more specific than that.”
“It’ll do,” Fredrick replied. “As long as we know this is the right place. The question now is how we get in.”
“How?” Jasmine scoffed. “You have morphing potions, or have you already forgotten? It’s just a matter of disguising ourselves as washerwomen or cooks and sneaking in the servant’s entrance. Everyone knows that.”
“Exactly,” Fredrick replied coolly without looking at her. “Marcel probably does too. That’s exactly what he’ll be expecting us to do.”
He pointed towards the small stone staircase that was carved into the rock formation, leading towards the back of the castle. Four figures could be seen guarding the bottom, even at that distance.
Jasmine was silenced momentarily before she asked, “Well, what’s your idea then?”
“Marcel is a spy, like us... so we need to do something a spy would never do,” he announced, standing up.
“And what’s that?” Jasmine questioned.
“Walk right up to the front door,” Fredrick smiled.
He pointed again, this time to the front doors of the castle. Only a single guard stood on patrol.
“One of him, four of us,” he added. “Strength in numbers.”
The Scorchio, being a guardsman, had long ago perfected the age old art of being able to fall asleep while stood up. It was therefore with a great deal of surprise that he opened his eyes in one of his routine trips back to consciousness to find a Quiggle stood in front of him.
The guard managed to keep his composure, only toppling backwards ever so slightly, before demanding, “State your business.”
“Well met, sir!” the Quiggle greeted him. “I was wondering if you might be of assistance. You see, it’s my cart.”
“Your cart?” the soldier asked.
“Yes, sir.” The Quiggle nodded. “I am but a humble travelling cabbage salesman, but my cart came a cropper of a pot hole not half a mile from here. If you could lend me a hand, I’d be able to get it back on the road in no time, I’m sure.”
“I can’t leave my post,” the soldier replied.
“Well that’s a pity and no mistake,” the Quiggle said, fishing about in his shirt.
“Because now I have to do this,” the Quiggle responded, blowing a handful of dust into the Scorchio’s face.
The soldier’s head slumped forward, returning to the slumber he had been in just before the Quiggle had arrived.
“See?” Quentin, the wizard said smugly as he jumped out from a nearby bush. “I told you we wouldn’t be able to just sneak past him. I said you’d need the sleeping dust! Sleeping guards always wake up!”
“Come on, we don’t have much time,” Fredrick hissed, silently prying open the castle doors behind them.
“Where are we heading?” Jasmine asked, close behind.
“Wherever this Lord Merchant is, I bet that’s where we’ll find Marcel and Dunlop,” Fredrick replied, holding the door open for the other two to get inside.
It didn’t take long to find the location of Lord Merchant, it was clearly marked by being the only room in the castle with guards posted outside. A couple more handfuls of Quentin’s sleeping dust and they were able to listen in through the timbers of the door.
“Everything went as planned?” an unknown voice asked.
“Exactly,” the voice of Marcel responded. “Dunlop was recovered safely; the Darigan officials have no idea who he even was.”
“Good, that could have made the situation a lot more difficult,” the other considered. “What of the others you used?”
“They believed they were doing the King’s business; nothing can be traced back to you,” Marcel told him.
“You dealt with them?”
“Not permanently; four bodies turning up near Cogham would have resulted in unnecessary attention from the King.”
There was silence for a moment, “You have just made this situation a lot worse.”
“My lord?” Marcel replied.
“Four people are alive, thinking they work for the King,” the voice that seemed to belong to Lord Merchant continued. “He will undoubtedly be their first port of call. It won’t be long before real spies from Meridell Castle figure out what’s been going on. The trail will lead straight here.”
“I... didn’t think, sire,” Marcel admitted.
“No, you did not,” Merchant snapped. “Now our hand is forced. We must begin preparations to storm Meridell Castle immediately. We should consult Dunlop immediately; see if he can tell us how likely Darigan is to lend us their help.”
“I shall debrief him at once, sire,” Marcel said.
Fredrick signalled the others to move back from the door as footsteps approached from the other side. The gathered spies hid themselves in alcoves and behind antiques as Marcel emerged from the meeting room. The shadow Draik leaned heavily on the door after he closed it, and massaged his temples.
“This is moving too quickly...” he muttered to himself before walking off down the corridor.
At the end, he seemed to pause in his step and smile to himself.
“I must be getting old,” he commented. “Didn’t even remember that he’s in the dungeons.”
The Draik set off down a different corridor. A moment later, the spies emerged from their hiding places.
“Did you hear that!?” Hewlett hissed. “They are planning some kind of coup!”
“We have to stop them,” Jasmine announced.
“Dunlop,” Quentin suggested. “If we can get to him first, that might cause enough confusion to delay them until the King is informed.”
“You heard Marcel,” Jasmine agreed. “He’s in the dungeons. Fredrick?”
Fredrick, who had been silent, lifted his head at the sound of his name.
“Weren’t you listening?” Jasmine asked.
“Yes,” Fredrick replied quietly. “Weren’t you?”
“What?” Jasmine frowned.
“Marcel, back in that room,” Fredrick added. “Didn’t you hear it? He said that he recruited us! He said that he made us believe we work for the King!”
The other three stood in silence.
“Don’t you get it!?” Fredrick hissed. “Marcel is M! There is no Secret Service! We’re not working for the King at all! The entire thing was his plan to get Dunlop back here!”
“That doesn’t change the situation,” Jasmine replied. “The King is still in danger.”
“We don’t work for him, though!” Fredrick protested.
“No, but would you like an innocent man to be killed, and an entire country thrown into turmoil?” Jasmine asked him. “We’re the only ones who can stop this, Fredrick. Even if it’s not our job, it’s our duty!”
Fredrick was silent for a moment before he nodded in agreement, “You’re right, let’s find Dunlop.”
To be continued...