Princess-Cut Diamond Thief pt. 6

As their changes become more and more difficult to hide, Eli and Alric must take decisive action but an unexpected visit from the queen throws a wrench in their plans.

Eli rumbled pleasantly as he threaded his fingers through the loose pile of coins on his desk. It felt good. Relaxing. The faint tinkle as the coins shifted against one another was a delight.

Everything was still under control but Eli was on edge. It wasn’t that anything had gone wrong, so to speak—he didn’t expect anything would—but he was concerned.

The mental changes Eli and Alric had been going through were of little concern. It made them more formidable. Alric, who hadn’t been educated much past reading, writing, and the simple arithmetic that he needed for his post, had taken to study like a duck to water.

What free time Alric had that wasn’t spent fucking Eli or otherwise being sickeningly domestic with him, was spent in a corner with a pile of books borrowed from the palace library in Eli’s name.

Concerning these things, Eli had no complaints. He liked that Alric could keep up with him. As much as the young man titillated his body, his mind needed stimulation, too.

One thing Eli had discovered in conversing with Lord Sellig was that he had developed a peculiar craving for intelligent conversation. It had been a rare delicacy in the past when he worked all on his lonesome. He found himself rather looking forward to his forthcoming meeting with the young Lord Lukas Brever.

Although, in that respect, Eli much preferred speaking with Alric than with nobles. Their conversations were free and plain, not couched in the pleasant euphemism of politics.

There was a particular challenge in attempting to parse the hidden meanings behind the hidden meanings of nobles’ words. Eli enjoyed a good puzzle as much as any other man, but there were days he simply wished to speak for the mental exercise of it.

Alric, fortunately, could slake his thirst. Now that his mind had been elevated, anyway. There was a certain joy in talking to him about some new discovery he’d made in his studies.

It was quite fascinating to observe and interact with Alric as his mind broadened and his horizons expanded. To put it simply, it was fun to talk to Alric while he raved about something new he’d learned from his books.

No. The mental changes were not a problem at all. Eli appreciated them. Making money would have taken much more effort if not for them.

The issue Eli was facing was rather more… superficial. The physical changes were becoming troublesome.

Eli’s tail dangled off the back of the chair and idly swished from side to side. In two days it had grown from a small nub barely three inches long to a sizable scaled appendage that hung to just above his knee when completely limp. It showed no signs of having finished its growth, either.

Alric expected that, given the trajectory of their changes in recent days, he was going to grow his own tail at any moment. It was a problem—one for which there was no forthcoming solution.

The tail did not much trouble Eli as he mostly kept to himself and his chambers. It wasn’t that he was unsociable. He was just unwilling to leave his wealth behind unprotected for an extended period.

Alric, on the other hand, was a different story entirely. His duties took him all over the palace, as much as Eli would have preferred the contrary. Though Eli had taught him a simple glamour skill, it was unlikely to be sufficient for the task of hiding a full tail.

Eli’s tail flicked with irritation. They had a few days, at best, to figure out a solution. At worst, Alric could probably get away with some clever clothing improvisation while the tail was still short, but it grew remarkably fast. Such an impromptu fix was unlikely to work for more than a day, if that.

There was always the option of teaching Alric better glamour skills, but that required teaching him the fundamentals of magic. Besides, such illusions would only be stopgap measures as they hid extraneous body parts but did not remove them. Anyone who bumped into Alric the wrong way would still feel the tail.

The skills that allowed a person to change shape were advanced ones, and even those were relatively short in duration. Anything longer than a few minutes in duration necessitated an understanding of one of the many Mysteria, which was a difficult task on its own, to begin with.

The fact was, very soon, hiding would no longer be feasible. The conclusion was inescapable: Eli and Alric had to reveal their changes. The question was how. They had to do so in a way that did not jeopardize their plans either by drawing too much attention to themselves or by getting them ostracized by wider society.

Eli had always expected that it would come to this, but he had not anticipated that it would so soon. They were woefully unprepared. Had it come later down the line, they would have had too much money for people to much care. As it was, proactive steps had to be taken.

"You seem to be deep in thought, my lord," said Alric, jolting Eli out of his thoughts.

Eli smiled and placed a hand on Alric’s wrist as the young footman came up to him from behind and draped his arms over his shoulders. "I was thinking of what to do about the tail you’ll have, soon enough," Eli murmured.

"Oh?" said Alric. "To be perfectly honest, my lord, I had been worrying about that, myself."

Eli sighed. Normal breeches were intolerable with a tail. He’d come to realize that the reason his tail had hurt so much coming in was because it was being compressed by his breeches.

For the time being, Eli had had Alric cut a hole in the back of his pants where he could slip his tail through as the alternative wasn’t even worth contemplating. Eli could abide the faint draft he felt across the top of his ass, but he couldn’t stomach the thought of compressing his tail against his body. It was much too sensitive, for that.

"I think I may have a plan," said Eli. He plucked a gold coin from the pile and pressed it into the palm of Alric’s hand. "You will have to pretend that I gave you this coin when first we met."

Alric closed his fingers around the coin and kissed the fist he’d made. "I shall treasure it always, my lord," he said.

"Treasure it always, my ass," Eli growled, claws digging into Alric’s skin as he tightened his grip around the young footman’s wrist. "I expect that back."

Alric chuckled, lightly, as Eli let go. "Of course, my lord. All that I have is yours. I would never dream of depriving you of even a single copper piece."

"Good," said Eli, the tension in his shoulders melting away. "Very good."

Eli raised his eyes in surprise when the door opened and the first thing he heard was a shocked, "Y-your majesty. F-forgive us. We were not expecting you," from Alric. He stood up, hiding his tail behind his leg as he caught sight of the Queen of Bællad standing in the doorway past Alric.

"No need to stand on ceremony, Sir Blackblade," said the queen. Alric moved out of her way and bowed, gesturing into the room with one arm while the other was folded at his waist. "I shan’t be long."

"Ceremony is the least I can do in return for all you have done for me, your majesty," said Eli, dipping his head in a courteous bow to the queen.

"It is no matter, sir, truly," said the queen, graciously.

"Please, your majesty. If you would take a seat? I shall have Alric prepare some tea," said Eli, gesturing toward the seat opposite him. He had learned something of etiquette in the time he’d spent with Alric. Even if all his instincts screamed at him to give up his own seat—the seat of primacy in the room—to the queen, Bælladian custom dictated that a host should maintain the seat of primacy, however distinguished the guest.

"Ah, you need not go through the trouble, sir. I have merely paid you this courtesy to apologize," said the queen, gently inclining her head toward Eli. Behind her, Alric’s jaw hit the floor.

"Your majesty, you need not lower yourself so!" said Eli, just as shocked as Alric but managing a better job at maintaining his composure. He would have never imagined the queen to speak so brazenly before him.

"Oh, but I must, Sir Blackblade," said the queen. "I am afraid that I have done you a great wrong."

"I would not dare presume to demand your apologies, your majesty, whatever the matter might be," said Eli. Once the initial shock had passed, his mind quickly set about trying to decipher the queen’s intentions.

"But I must insist that you hear them all the same, Sir Blackblade. I like to imagine that I am a woman of my word and yet I have forced you to languish at the palace for months while I struggled to deliver the handsome reward I had promised you," said the queen.

Eli believed the queen to be an honorable woman. He did not doubt that she meant what she said. However, he also knew that she was shrewd and cunning, perhaps more so than even Lord Sellig. As sincere as he could sense she was, he knew there had to be some other motive.

"For the sake of my honor and my pride as a woman, Sir Blackblade, I simply must insist that you allow me to ask for your forgiveness," said the queen.

"All is forgiven, your majesty," said Eli, hastily.

"Prey, sir, stay your tongue a moment as I have more to ask of you," said the queen, with a serious expression. "I am afraid that it will take some more time to arrange for the reward I promised, so I shall have to trouble Sir Blackblade to stay for some weeks or months yet."

Eli nodded. "It is no trouble at all, your majesty," he said. He hadn’t intended on leaving any time soon but there was no need to say that part out loud. He’d finally figured out why the queen had come.

It came back to Lord Sellig. The queen was a shrewd woman. Eli did not doubt she had eyes and ears in every noble house across the land. She must have caught wind that he intended to stay and had come personally to ask him to do so in the hope of convincing him further.

"Very good, sir," said the queen, with a small smile. "Should you have need or want of anything, Sir Blackblade, you need only let me know. It shall set my heart at ease were I to know that you are enjoying our hospitality to the utmost."

"Of course, your majesty," said Eli.

"Ah, there is one other thing," said the queen.

Of course, there was. It had been some days since Eli’s conversation with Lord Sellig. The queen was bound to have heard of his intentions some time ago. Of course, she could not have paid him a visit with no excuse lest it be seen as inappropriate in the court.

"I shall have to trouble you with another apology, sir," said the queen. "I do not intend to pry but I had heard that you asked for a palace physician to pay you a visit?"

Eli nodded. "I believe it is a matter beneath your notice, your majesty. I must apologize if I have caused you undue worry," said Eli.

"Nonsense, sir," said the queen. "You are an honored guest of Bællad. It is only natural that I worry for your health."

Eli placed a hand over his heart. "Thank you, your majesty. I do not deserve your compassion, but I am sincerely grateful for it all the same."

Casting a furtive glance at Alric by the door, Eli continued. "Your majesty need not be alarmed. It is a minor concern that I only wish to get the opinion of a professional on. If it turns out to be something rather more serious, then I shall send word, as I am sure your majesty would like to be informed."

The queen smiled and nodded. "Thank you, Sir Blackblade, that would be much appreciated."

There was an awkward pause.

The queen spoke before Eli could. "I am rather afraid that I am not quite finished with the apologies yet, sir," she said, rather sheepishly.

"Your majesty, it would not do for one such as yourself to apologize so many times to one such as myself," said Eli, tempering his impatience. He just wanted to get to the bottom of the queen’s visit. The pleasantries had been nice, at first, as most pleasantries were wont to be. They didn’t stay nice for very long.

"No good man refuses to apologize when he deliberately inconveniences another for no great reason," the queen quoted. "A favorite of my father’s. I am afraid that while I have brought a physician to you, today, Sir Blackblade, it is not the palace physician."

With a grace befitting a woman of her stature, the queen glanced over her shoulder out the open door and called out, "Esilrud, darling, I had thought you followed me into the room."

The name sounded familiar, but Eli could not place it. He had been brushing up on the politics and geography of the region in anticipation of further dealings with the nobility. He had read the name "Esilrud" somewhere, but could not quite recall where.

A handsome young man, some handful of years—or fewer—younger than Eli came to the door. He was handsome, in a sort of rough and tumble sort of way.

The man’s sandy blond hair with its tight curls was somewhat unkempt but somehow looked rather good on him. The light dusting of stubble on his chin accentuated the ruggedness of his good looks.

Silver eyes, with a luster to rival the shiniest of Eli’s most precious coins, gazed at Eli with a look that he could only describe as discerning. A pair of half-moon spectacles, set in a thin metal frame, rested lightly across the bridge of his nose while a small smile tugged at the corners of his lips.

Eli met the man’s gaze and returned the small smile. Some dragons collected people instead of gold or jewels. He could see the appeal.

The man’s casual bearing belied the height of his birth. The only clue as to his pedigree was the set of healer’s robes he wore, in pristine white with blue accents and gold embroidery. It was finer fare by far than any clothes a physician, even one directly employed by the royal family, could casually afford—to say nothing of the azure silk brocade scarf wrapped around his neck, with embroidery in fine-spun gold made to look like filigree, and jewel beads threaded through the gold tassels at either end.

As the man stepped past the threshold, Alric bowed his head and said, "Welcome, Lord Esilrud. It is an honor."

Eli had been so taken by the man’s appearance that he’d briefly forgotten to try and figure out his identity. It struck him like a bolt of lightning, after hearing the way Alric addressed the man.

"Ah, allow me to make introductions, Sir Blackblade," said the queen. She beckoned Lord Esilrud to come forward and stand beside her, which he did. "I present to you Lord Esilrud, Duke of Brüntag, Master Physician, Royal Ambassador to the Northmen, and my dearest little brother."

If Eli remembered his geography correctly, Brüntag was a large province in the north of the kingdom and the ancestral homeland of the current royal family. Little wonder, then, that Bællad had such good relations with the Northmen. The royal family practically were Northmen in all but name.

Eli bowed to Lord Esilrud and said, "It is an honor to make your acquaintance, my lord. You must forgive my lack of hospitality. I had not expected to receive a man of your esteem, today."

"Nonsense, Sir Blackblade," said the queen, interrupting before Lord Esilrud could speak. "The fault is mine and my brother’s."

"You need not apologize, Sir Blackblade," said Lord Esilrud, lightly placing a hand on the queen’s upper arm and gently pushing her to the side. "I have been away on business with the Northmen for some time and returned just yesterday, so you must forgive that I have not visited and made your acquaintance sooner. Had I been able, I would have hastened my way to the palace to meet you."

The queen swatted at Lord Esilrud’s hand and smiled sweetly at him. "I should have your hand for that, dear brother," she said, with a subtle venom that made Eli shiver where he stood.

"In any case, Sir Blackblade, you must forgive me. I had not intended to interfere, but I dreaded to think what would transpire if I declined my brother’s request to intercede with you on his behalf," said the queen.

"Sister, must you embarrass me at every turn? And in front of the esteemed Sir Blackblade, at that," said Lord Esilrud, rather sheepishly. "Could you not spare a thought for the reputation of our family?"

The queen looked at Eli and smiled, rather conspiratorially, as she said, "It is an older sister’s duty to embarrass her younger siblings at every opportunity."

Before Lord Esilrud could interject, the queen continued. "To explain, Sir Blackblade, my dear brother has been rather obsessed with dragons from a young age. Therefore, when he learned that you had been to a dragon’s lair and come back alive, he could not contain his exuberance and begged me to arrange for him to meet you."

Eli scratched the back of his head and chuckled as Lord Esilrud stared daggers at the queen. "Had I known that refusing unsolicited audiences would cause your majesty such trouble, I would not have turned all who came knocking without invitation away."

"It is no matter," said the queen. "A man’s privacy is his right and his chambers his absolute domain—even in the royal palace. I should like it if Sir Blackblade felt no obligation to entertain the nobles of Bællad on my account."

"As you say, your majesty," said Eli.

Lord Esilrud opened his mouth to say something but the queen interrupted before he could. "In any case, I can personally vouch for Lord Esilrud, Sir Blackblade. I shall leave you in his capable hands as I have other duties to attend to. I should hope that we might have a chance to speak on another occasion, but for now, I must take my leave."

"I should like that, your majesty," said Eli, bowing deeply. She flashed him a smile and before anyone else could react, she had already swept out of the room and down the hallway.

There was an awkward silence in the moments that followed the queen’s abrupt departure. Lord Esilrud was the one who broke it. "Apologies, Sir Blackblade. I should hope this does not make you think any less of her majesty."

Eli chuckled. "Not at all," he said. He gestured toward the seat he’d previously offered the queen as Alric shut the door to the sitting room. "It is rather heartening to see that politics has not driven a wedge between brother and sister. Too often I have heard tell of wealth and power driving siblings to each other’s throats."

Lord Esilrud nodded, pursing his lips. "I believe I ought defend myself against my dear sister’s disparagement, Sir Blackblade, so I hope you take no offense when I tell you that I am not obsessed with dragons, as my sister seemed to suggest."

"Her majesty did more than suggest, it seemed to me, but I shall take Lord Esilrud’s word for it," said Eli, with a quiet laugh.

A faint pink tinge crept into Lord Esilrud’s cheeks. He coughed to clear his throat and said, "I-it is merely a healthy scholastic curiosity, sir."

Eli laughed. It seemed the queen had not been too far off the mark, judging by the fierce light that shone in Lord Esilrud’s eyes.

If Eli’s intuition was to be trusted, then Lord Esilrud’s affinity for dragons was likely to prove invaluable to them in the long run.

The duke’s thirst for draconic knowledge was no small thing, and he did not attempt to hide it. Either Lord Esilrud was inept for being unable to conceal his emotions, or the prospect of gleaning some insight into dragons was worth so much to him that he could not suppress his eagerness despite his training.

Eli knew for a fact that the queen could suffer fools for the sake of the kingdom, as she did for Lord Brever, but he found it difficult to imagine that she would maintain cordial relationships with such a fool even if he were family. It made the second scenario far more likely, by Eli’s estimation.

Despite not having much in the way of influence or power, Eli was the one who held the upper hand in this interaction. Still, he couldn’t afford complacency. Dragon-obsessed or not, Lord Esilrud was a dangerous man.

"I should be happy to indulge your… scholastic curiosity… over tea, Lord Esilrud," said Eli.

Lord Esilrud beamed. "Nothing could make me happier, Sir Blackblade."

Eli smiled back. It was possible he’d misjudged the duke but the more likely explanation for Lord Esilrud’s openness was that it was a show of good faith. Eli could appreciate it.

After a few moments, Lord Esilrud spoke again. "Has Sir Blackblade’s time at the capital been pleasant?"

Eli chuckled. He could discern the duke’s intentions. "Her majesty has been very generous and accommodating. I could not possibly ask for better treatment," he said.

"Good, good," said Lord Esilrud, nodding to himself. "It is good that my elder sister still understands how to take care of esteemed guests."

Eli laughed, scandalized at the implication. "Lord Esilrud!" he said, playfully. "Her majesty is sure to be displeased!"

Lord Esilrud waved his hand, laughed, and said, "Let her be displeased! Her majesty has caused more trouble with her indifference than solved problems with it!"

Eli raised an eyebrow. Lord Esilrud’s overly-familiar tone was surprising, but not entirely unexpected. Eli almost felt bad making the man fight so hard for his friendship, but neither did he want to appear so easy to appease.

Lord Esilrud leaned back in his seat with a casual ease. "My elder sister’s frigidness has earned her the rather unflattering epithet of ‘Iron Queen.’ The Northmen love her for it, but our other neighbors are less enthused."

"I had not heard of this," said Eli, with a smile. Not that he was complaining, but he was surprised at the lengths Lord Esilrud seemed willing to go to secure his friendship.

"It is true!" said Lord Esilrud. "I have always told sister that if she deigned to smile even once every moon, our relations with our neighbors are sure to markedly improve."

To the inexperienced ear, Lord Esilrud’s words, though disparaging to the current queen, would have sounded perfectly innocuous. Not so, for Eli.

Though Lord Esilrud spoke in a playful tone, the meaning he conveyed was far from trivial. That was, of course, assuming that Lord Esilrud was speaking deliberately, even if his tone was flippant.

Eli had long suspected that the queen greatly favored him, though he could never imagine why. Lord Esilrud had confirmed this fact for him, but the lack of an explanation was the disconcerting part. It meant that not even the queen’s brother, with whom she clearly shared a tight and familiar bond, knew her reasoning.

The second piece of information was no less important than the first and perhaps even more unsettling. Relations with the neighboring kingdoms could be better, but they weren’t. Because of the queen.

It was possible that the queen simply didn’t deign to acknowledge the other rulers but Eli had not marked the queen to be such a kind of person. It was unwise to be needlessly hostile to one’s neighbors.

Eli looked up and met Lord Esilrud’s gaze. Though there was an easy smile on the duke’s lips, there was a meaningful look in his eyes.

"Ah!" exclaimed Lord Esilrud, shaking his head from side to side. "How am I to know what goes on in my elder sister’s head? Life would be so much easier if only she were friendlier, but alas, she has ever been a wise queen and stalwart defender of the realm."

Eli, once again, understood Lord Esilrud’s meaning. Whatever the queen’s reasons were for declining to improve relations with the neighbors, alienating Bællad was a deliberate choice and, if Lord Esilrud’s judgment was to be trusted, one made with the betterment of the realm in mind.

Before Lord Esilrud could continue, however, Alric returned with the tea. The crisp, astringent aroma filled the room and made Eli’s skin buzz with energy.

The porcelain clinked as Alric set the tea tray down on the table between Eli and Lord Esilrud. All three were quiet as the drinks were poured and handed over.

Lord Esilrud had given Eli much to think about in their conversation before tea. It was only a pity that Alric was so good at his job. It was Eli’s turn to honor his part of the deal.

"So, tell me, Sir Blackblade, what was it like walking into the lair of a Dragon Sovereign?" said Lord Esilrud, with a wide and beaming grin.

"Remarkable, Sir Blackblade. Truly remarkable! Two years of preparation… I cannot even imagine the patience and dedication…" said Lord Esilrud, with no small amount of awe in his voice.

Eli chuckled and deflected the compliment. "Two years is hardly any time at all, my lord," he said. "When the stakes are as high as they were, two years disappear in the blink of an eye."

"Believe it or not, Sir Blackblade, I understand the sentiment," said Lord Esilrud, speaking more seriously for a moment. "Sometimes, what seems like a long time feels far too short."

Lord Esilrud fell quiet. Eli allowed the silence to linger for a moment before he spoke. "Perhaps Lord Esilrud would be kind enough to share," he said.

The duke looked up, a strange look in his eyes as his gaze met Eli’s.

For a moment, Eli was afraid that he’d offended the duke. He had spoken out of turn, but solely out of idle curiosity. He’d come to like Lord Esilrud and felt anxious at the possibility that he’d slighted him.

The awkward silence stretched for an intolerable length of time. Eli decided to take the initiative. "My lord, I must sincerely apologize if I have off—"

Lord Esilrud’s eyes widened as if he hadn’t realized that his silence had caused Eli some distress. "No, no, no," he said, waving his hand frantically in what Eli could only assume was an attempt to assuage his anxiety. "I was simply thinking of how best to convey my thoughts."

Eli nodded. "Apologies, my lord," he said. "Had I known it was a sensitive matter, I would never have pried."

Lord Esilrud smiled at Eli. "There is nothing to forgive, Sir Blackblade," he said. "It is simply rather difficult to find the words to speak about the matter without belittling it."

"I see," said Eli, in understanding. He had failed to see it, initially, due to his anxiety, but he saw clearly, now. It was likely that Lord Esilrud was speaking to his being a physician. "My lord need say no more."

"Your consideration is appreciated, Sir Blackblade. Allow me only to say one thing before we lay the matter to rest," said Lord Esilrud, in a solemn tone. "Days, weeks, and months can feel vanishingly short when one is working hard to save another’s life, at times, and excruciatingly long, at others."

"I can only imagine, my lord," said Eli. He did rather like Lord Esilrud, but his words, just now, told him that the man was a dedicated physician.

Lord Esilrud lightly clapped his hands. Out of the corner of his eye, Eli watched Alric flinch as the duke said, "Let us steer the conversation away from these somber matters, shall we?" he said.

Eli smiled at Lord Esilrud as Alric approached, having clearly misinterpreted Lord Esilrud’s clap for a request for more tea. "Yes, let us," said Eli, as he watched Alric pour more tea into Lord Esilrud’s cup.

Funnily enough, it didn’t seem that Lord Esilrud had even noticed Alric approached. So razor-focused was his attention on Eli.

"Pray, tell, Sir Blackblade, what was the hoard like?" said Lord Esilrud, practically vibrating in his seat.

Alric, who had just refilled Eli’s cup, lingered nearby for a moment. He seemed interested, which struck Eli as odd until he realized that he had never disclosed the events of the heist.

Casting an apologetic glance at Alric, Eli said, "It was breathtaking, my lord. There were so many coins they were piled halfway to the ceiling. There were so many jewels they shone like stars in the night sky. There were chests and artifacts more than one might ever see in the treasury of even the wealthiest of kingdoms."

Lord Esilrud leaned further forward over the table with every syllable, riveted to every word. "And the dragon? Did you see it?" he said, firing off the questions in rapid succession.

Eli nodded, solemnly. "I did," he said.

Someone gasped. Eli wasn’t sure if it was Alric or Lord Esilrud. Both had their hands over their mouths.

"Tell me more, please!" said Lord Esilrud. "What was it doing? What did it look like? Was it truly as ferocious as the stories say?"

Lord Esilrud’s questions gave Eli pause. He had not considered that there might be some danger to saying too much.

Eli trusted Lord Esilrud, as an ambassador, knew the meaning of the word "discretion." However, his exuberance made Eli nervous. There was a possibility he’d disclose the wrong detail to the wrong person in his excitement.

There were several inconvenient facts about Eli’s experiences that he could not afford to let spread. At the same time, however, he wanted Lord Esilrud’s friendship.

It was a conundrum, but Eli thought he could resolve it. He pulled back, deliberately putting on a pensive expression.

Lord Esilrud leaned forward, frowning. "What is it, Sir Blackblade?" he said. "Is anything wrong?"

Alric seemed concerned, too. He looked like he wanted to say something, but he was too good a footman to speak out of turn. He shot a meaningful look at Eli instead, as if to ask if he was okay.

Eli met Alric’s gaze and subtly conveyed that he was fine. Alric, who’d tensed up, relaxed.

Turning his attention back to Lord Esilrud, Eli said, "Nothing is wrong, Lord Esilrud," he said. "However, I do not think I can speak freely about what I experienced in the dragon’s lair."

Lord Esilrud frowned. "Why ever not, Sir Blackblade?" he said.

Eli averted his gaze and sighed. In the periphery of his vision, he spied Alric rolling his eyes. He was tempted to say something snarky but there was a role he had to play. "There are some rather… inconvenient things…"

"What manner of inconvenient things?" said Lord Esilrud.

It was only after taking a deep breath that Eli replied. "World-changing things, my lord," he said.

Lord Esilrud’s eyes widened. "Please, Sir Blackblade, you simply must tell me!" he begged.

"Ask me about the lair, the treasure, and the mountain, my lord, but please, you must understand, I cannot speak overmuch about the dragon. For my own sake," said Eli.

Lord Esilrud wore a troubled look for a moment. "Is there anything I can do to make Sir Blackblade more comfortable?" he said.

Alric, on the other hand, seemed to have caught on that Eli was hamming up the melodrama. He quietly scoffed but did not move from where he was standing, just a little bit too close than was appropriate for a footman.

Eli pretended to hesitate for a few seconds. "I suppose that if Lord Esilrud can give me some assurances that nothing said here will leave the four walls of this room, I could speak more freely," he said, haltingly.

Lord Esilrud’s expression hardened. He pursed his lips and fixed Eli with a level gaze, seeming to slip from his casual self to a more dignified and serious frame of mind. "I do not think I can make such promises, Sir Blackblade," he said, sternly but gently, voice taking on the tone of a proper diplomat.

"I am brother to the queen and a loyal citizen," Lord Esilrud elaborated. "If the matter is of import to our nation’s safety, then I believe myself obliged to confide in her."

Eli was quiet, for a short while. He sipped at his tea. This was something he didn’t think he could compromise on. He needed to have precise control over this privileged sort of information. "I am afraid I must insist, my lord," he said.

Lord Esilrud looked at Eli seriously. "As I am certain Sir Blackblade can understand, I have duties and obligations to my queen and my people."

Eli nodded. He understood. Lord Esilrud’s loyalty was one of the reasons Eli wanted his friendship.

With a sigh, Lord Esilrud pinched the bridge of his nose and said, "Is there nothing Sir Blackblade can tell me to assuage my concerns?"

Even one piece of seemingly no concern had the potential to be troublesome in the hands of the wrong person. This early on, Eli could afford no risks. "Unfortunately, my lord…" he said, trailing off and leaving the latter part unsaid.

"I see," said Lord Esilrud, rather tersely. His expression darkened further. He leaned back in his seat and scowled at his teacup.

Lord Esilrud schooled his expression and looked up at Eli. "It seems we are at an impasse, Sir Blackblade," he said.

"Indeed it does," said Eli, rather grimly. After a few moments of protracted silence, Eli continued. "It appears our conversation must end here, my lord."

Lord Esilrud pursed his lips and nodded. Neither side wanted to budge. Continuing negotiations would only waste everyone’s time.

"Such a shame," said Eli, lowering his teacup onto its saucer. He paused for a moment, letting the silence linger for effect. "We shall have to continue our conversation about the dragon itself on another occasion."

Lord Esilrud’s eyes widened. It seemed he’d forgotten what was at stake, and Eli thought it prudent to remind him.

The instincts of a diplomat were remarkable. Lord Esilrud had slipped into a mindset where his first and only concern was furthering the interests of his nation.

Eli had to admire that. It meant that Lord Esilrud was difficult to catch off-guard. It was just the duke’s misfortune that Eli had a weak point to exploit, and the leverage to do it with.

The conflict raging in Lord Esilrud at Eli’s casual comment was palpable. He chewed his lower lip, seemingly forgetting that Eli was there, at all.

Out of the corner of his eye, Eli spotted Alric with an eyebrow raised in askance. Eli smirked. Alric smiled. A wordless sort of understanding passed between them.

When Eli turned his attention back to Lord Esilrud, he was rather surprised to find that the duke’s gloomy expression had brightened considerably. It was concerning, but he did not doubt he could deal with whatever it meant.

"Did Sir Blackblade not need the services of a physician?" said Lord Esilrud.

Ah, Eli thought to himself. Lord Esilrud had conceived of a reasonable excuse to stay and talk. That was why he was so happy.

No matter. Eli could take care of it.

"We need not end our time together so abruptly. If there is anything I can be of assistance with—" said Lord Esilrud.

Eli shook his head and interrupted. "I would not dare ask my lord to waste any more of his precious time with me," he said, trying his best not to smirk in Lord Esilrud’s face as the other’s expression fell.

"But—" Lord Esilrud started.

Eli did not let the duke retake the initiative. He was in control of the conversation. "His lordship will have to forgive me for being indecorous. However, the matter is really of no great consequence or particular urgency."

Lord Esilrud opened his mouth to say something but Eli did not give him the opportunity. "Truly, my lord, it is a trivial matter and it would be an insult to your distinguished skills as a Master Physician to bother you over such a thing."

Eli paused as if to dare Lord Esilrud to try and speak. He might have been a new player to the game, but he damn well knew how to play. "In any case, I am perfectly healthy. I had simply wished to seek the opinion of an expert about certain recent developments," he concluded.

The look Lord Esilrud shot in Eli’s direction was nothing short of thunderous. He was not pleased.

Alric’s expression was priceless. He was wide-eyed and slack-jawed, scandalized beyond belief that Eli had dared speak that way to a noble, much less the brother of the queen and easily one of the most influential men in the kingdom.

Eli was not afraid of offending Lord Esilrud, though. He was the one that held all the cards at this table. If his estimation was correct, what he knew—what he had to say—was just tantalizing enough that Lord Esilrud could rationalize a choice that wasn’t, strictly, for the betterment of the kingdom.

In any case, even if Lord Esilrud didn’t relate today, Eli was sure he would, soon enough. The duke’s fascination with dragons was simply too strong—too deeply rooted.

Whatever upset Eli caused Lord Esilrud today, he was sure that it would evaporate as soon as he started talking about the dragon.

"Alright," said Lord Esilrud, hesitantly. "I will acquiesce to Sir Blackblade’s request. But just this once."

The look Alric sent Eli’s way was one of abject disbelief. It was clear he had not expected Eli’s bluster to work, but here they were.

Lord Esilrud sighed. "Her majesty seems to trust and favor Sir Blackblade. She would not do so if she thought you would bring harm to her kingdom. So I shall put my faith in her judgment, as you have given me no reason to doubt your fidelity."

Eli smiled with genuine warmth. He was glad there were no hard feelings, though Lord Esilrud’s pride was sure to be a bit bruised at being outmaneuvered. "Thank you, my lord," he said, "I shall treasure your confidence and endeavor not to betray it."

Lord Esilrud frowned. That he wasn’t exactly satisfied with having to make such concessions was clear to see. At the very least, it didn’t seem like his mood had suffered too much as he seemed eager to get right back on topic.

Unfortunately for the duke, there was one more hoop he would have to jump through.

Eli closed his eyes and concentrated. This was a skill he’d used only a handful of times in the past, when utmost secrecy and trust was required.

This was one such occasion.

Letting out a breath, Eli opened his eyes, splayed his fingers on the tabletop, and invoked [Mercurial Mysterium: Thief’s Honor]. He poured his mana into the magic. Despite the simplicity of the skill’s effect, the amount of energy it demanded was substantial.

Lord Esilrud jumped back in surprise as a bright golden light shone out from under Eli’s hand. "I-is that a Mysterium skill?" he breathed, unable to hide his astonishment.

Eli looked up at the duke, face illuminated from below by the golden light as it formed the outline of a piece of parchment. He smiled.

Alric seemed similarly shocked. Though Eli had taught Alric a glamour technique, it had been a simple rogue skill. There had been some illusion magic involved, but nothing too complex. He supposed Alric had simply never imagined that he could be capable of something so profound.

There was a faint rustle as the parchment faded into existence. Eli pinned it against the surface of the table as it shook, bright golden flames burning the words of a contract onto the blank page.

"Never would I have imagined," said Lord Esilrud, looking at Eli with something inscrutable in his gaze. He reached for the parchment, only to snatch his hand back at the last moment.

"I hope my lord does not take offense," said Eli, meeting Lord Esilrud’s gaze. "It is not that I have no faith in his lordship’s discretion, but in my life, I have learned that there is no such thing as an overabundance of caution."

Lord Esilrud chuckled. "So be it, Sir Blackblade," he said. The childlike wonder in his voice from earlier was gone, now. Even his demeanor had changed.

As Lord Esilrud stared down his nose at Eli, he took on the proper bearing of a lord. "Now that it has come to light you have knowledge of the Mysteria, Sir Blackblade will have to forgive me for being impolite. This secret of yours better be worth all this vigilance or I shall be very upset."

"I swear my lord will not be disappointed," said Eli, sliding the contract over to Lord Esilrud’s side of the table.

The duke picked the contract up and scrutinized it closely. The terms were simple. All Eli dared to ask for was to keep what he was about to reveal in confidence. The magic would take care of the rest, and prevent even the inadvertent spilling of secrets until such time that Eli decided secrecy was no longer necessary.

Lord Esilrud sighed. "How do I sign?" he said.

"With a quill and ink," said Eli.

Alric hastily retrieved a set from a nearby desk and presented it to Lord Esilrud, who received them with a resolute expression.

"I should hope neither of us comes to regret this, Sir Blackblade," said Lord Esilrud, as he put the nib to the parchment. The rasp of the quill as it glided across the page sounded louder than it had any right to be.

Having signed the contract, Lord Esilrud picked it up to hand it back to Eli, only to drop it in shock when the top burst into golden flames. Before the parchment could hit the table, it dissolved into brass-colored motes of light that coalesced into thin bands around Lord Esilrud and Eli’s wrists.

Lord Esilrud traced a finger over the band as it faded under his skin. He raised his gaze to Eli and looked at him expectantly.

Eli smiled. He leaned in conspiratorially, forcing Alric to creep closer to hear on instinct, despite his enhanced hearing. "The dragon was beyond anything I could have imagined," he said.

With those few words, Eli had immediately seized Lord Esilrud’s attention once more. The duke’s eyes were locked onto him, a deep fascination and hunger burning behind them. "Tell me more," he said.

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