Chapter One: I Wish She'd Never Been Born

Doctor Jane Knutley closed the file she was reading and pushed back from her desk. This case was odd in some way that she just couldn't put her finger on. Charlie Thompson was an out of work writer, dreaming of being a successful novelist. Like most, he had great imagination but little or no success to show for his efforts. The initial diagnosis had been paranoid schizophrenia, marked by periods of severe delusion. From what she'd read in the file, Charlie truly believed that he possessed the power of creation, that somehow his writing caused things and people to spring to life. She had watched from an observation room while Charlie was interviewed by his attending doctor, Doctor James Haven. Dr. Haven had made the initial diagnosis and written the contents of the file before her now. It all seemed markedly normal to her eye, and nothing stood out as a reason for her to be called in on the case.

Jane was a senior practicing psychiatrist at the Fir Hill Hospital, and normally dealt with only the most complicated cases and with administrative details. This case was turning out to be a little of both. Doctor Haven had been unable to make any progress with his patient, which in itself was not unusual considering the depth of despair and madness to which Charlie had sunk, but now Doctor Haven was exhibiting unusual behavior himself. Jane thought of the old saw that people who entered into her field often required mental counseling themselves. She found this saying rather offensive normally, but now she wondered if it might not hold some truth in the case of Dr. Haven. He seemed to be coming under the influence of the writer's delusions. He most recent notes contained references to Charlie's worlds as though the doctor believed they existed and was now trying to understand how the man's power worked. Jane sighed. She now worried that she had two patients instead of one.

Jane opened the file again, thumbing through until she found the sheet she was thinking of. This was Dr. Haven's notes on one of the early sessions with Charlie. In it, Charlie has been describing a woman named Michaelina. Somehow, this woman was very important to Charlie. She had great courage and athletic ability, though questionable morals when it came to her profession. Jane looked farther through the notes puzzling over why this had stood out in her memory and risen to her awareness now. And then she found it.

Dr. Haven had described Charlie's mental state as highly agitated. The man had been forceful and admiring when he described Mikey, as he had called the woman, but then he had begun weeping disconsolately. It had taken many minutes before Charlie had been able to speak again, and he had finally shouted "I wish she'd never been born; then I never would have hurt her."

Jane made notes to remind herself to meet with Charlie as soon as it could be scheduled, and to follow up with Dr. Haven. There were also some issues with Dr. Haven's attendance over the past weeks; the doctor had acquired a rather cavalier attitude about regular rounds since working with Charlie Thompson. Haven was punctual about visiting Charlie, but he often disappeared for hours rather than seeing other patients in the hospital. Jane frowned, turning to the side to look out her office window for long minutes. I do believe it's time to have a few sessions with James Haven, she thought. I can't put my finger on it, but something seems very wrong in this case. I have the strangest feeling that Charlie is in danger.

*     *     *

Melissa stood on the edge of the camp watching her companions ready themselves to begin travelling again. They had been camped beside the ruined tower for five days while Ingvar recovered from the terrible wounds sustained when they had crossed through the portal into this new world. Somehow the demons had found them the morning that they were preparing to use the portal, crashing through Celora's shield as the party made the crossing. Melissa herself had been bruised badly when she had been pushed through the portal to safety, but Ingvar's back had been torn open but a huge demon. He'd gone down and the demon had then tried to kill Melissa. She was only here today because Ingvar had been able to get back on his feet and behead the demon as it reached for Melissa. The shield had collapsed then, and several demons had struck at them as Ingvar propelled Melissa through the gate. They had landed in a bloody heap on this side of the gate, where only Celora's fast action and incredible healing ability had saved Ingvar from certain death.

Melissa had been in a deep depression for most of the time since they had arrived here. She was truly appreciative of Celora's ability to save her and Ingvar, and had been happy to express that appreciation. But sitting around for the days required for Ingvar to recover the blood he'd lost and get strong enough to travel again had left her with far too much time to worry about Charlie, and wonder whether she was doing the right thing by tearing these people out of their lives to help her change their worlds. Most people go through their lives dreaming of changing the world, she thought. And here I am trying to change four worlds at once. I must be crazy.

In her heart, though, she believed that there was much more to her resolve than just the selfishness of wanting to be with her Charlie once more. She was beginning to see that this was a battle between Creation and Destruction, or perhaps Good and Evil. It was easier for her to approach if she thought in terms of creation and destruction, because it implied less responsibility for herself and Charlie in the predicament these people were in. If she thought of good versus evil, that implied, at least in her mind, that she and Charlie were divine; that they were a god and goddess trying to defend their creation. Melissa sighed, turning around to look out across the snow covered valley they would be crossing this morning. The early morning sun was tinting the snow red. She shivered as she thought I just hope that isn't an omen that more blood will be shed today.

Melissa had accomplished amazing things since beginning this adventure, deliberately summoning magic for transportation and defense. She had manipulated the fabric of these worlds to provide shelter for them as the journeyed to the tower. I should be happy and confident after all that has happened, she thought. I'm just not made for this. I always get nervous when people depend on me, and I just can't get away from people depending on me. What if I fail? What will happen to me? Or to Charlie? What will happen to these people that trust me and to their worlds if I fail? Melissa brooded silently as the sun rose higher above the hills in the distance, the light on the snow changing from red to gold.

A short time later, everything was packed and loaded onto the horses. Everyone was ready to begin. Melissa's trepidation had faded somewhat, now she primarily felt an eagerness to be on the road toward her goal. Celora had cast her spells of protection and stamina upon the whole party, showing once more that the young priestess had learned much on her war campaign the previous year. Ingvar grunted as the shimmering light fell over him, flexing his hands as the strength flowed into his frame. "Good spell," he said laconically. Cara smiled to see him up and about on his own again, though she still hovered over him like a nurse attending an invalid.

They rode west for almost two hours before reaching the black paved road that would take them up and over the mountains, and hopefully, down into lands that would be familiar to Niall and Mikey. They climbed the sloping road up to the mountain pass and found a wide area that looked familiar to each of them.

"This looks like the place we camped on our way out," said Niall. "But I don't see a house here."

"There wouldn't be," Melissa answered. "This is a different world even though it looks the same."

"Then we can expect other things to be different when we reach the city?" Mikey asked.

"Probably even before that, I think," Melissa said. A worried frown settled across her face, and Mikey chose not to pursue the matter any farther.

Another two hours of riding saw them through the narrow gorge that led through the Bladed Mountains and down into the high alpine meadows below. Niall rode up next to Ingvar, and sat his horse looking far into the distance. Ingvar strained his eyes to see what the other was looking for and finally detected a shimmering brightness on the horizon.

"That should be Kor Opan," Niall said to them. "This appears to be the place where Mikey and I rode into the road that took us to the tower. If that's true, then we are a little more than a day's ride to my estate. And we will need to ride another day from there to the city." Sapphire went bounding down the hillside, Bob close behind.

"Let's look for a place to camp before too long then," Ingvar told them. "Niall, you had better lead since you know this land more than we do. We can reach your estate tomorrow rather than risking travel in the dark."

"Aye," Niall answered. He kicked his horse into motion and they began the descent into the valley far below. From time to time they could see either Bob or Sapphire coming back to check on them. Mikey was reminded of the way that Thorn had led the pack of dogs from Niall's estate, surrounding them at all times, checking in and being seen before loping off again. It reassured her to know they had scouts out. She wondered just how different this place would be from the Kor Opan that she and Niall knew well.

Trees began to appear around them as they travelled downward. There were only single, stunted trees at first; but soon there were small clumps of taller trees among the rocky outcrops. The sun was beginning a faster descent toward Kor Opan, casting long shadows by the time they reached the true beginning of the forest the blanketed the lower slopes of the mountains. Mikey remembered their ride out through a similar forest and briefly wondered what had happened to the mercenary she had deceived into think the Scarlet Rat was going into exile.

They found a small clearing within the forest where they could hear a rushing stream, and decided to stop for the night. They setup camp; Cara and Ingvar took care of the horses, Mikey and Melissa gathered fallen branches for a fire. Niall went off to fill some containers with water, and soon came back looking very pleased.

"Ronin, what would you say to venison for dinner?" Niall asked the hunter.

"I'd be happy with that idea," Ronin answered. "Did you see signs there are some deer nearby?"

"Better than signs," Niall said with a grin. "I saw a small herd on the far side of the stream. I think we might be able to bring one down if we go quietly." Ronin picked up his bow and quiver and smiled at the king.

"Why don't we just go see about that?" The two men made their way back into the forest, and Bob went bounding off in pursuit, Sapphire close behind him.

A couple hours later, there were venison steaks roasting over the fire and the four-footed members of the party were sating their hunger for raw meat on the edge of the camp where the humans wouldn't have to watch their gorging. Ronin was rather surprised at how much meat Sapphire had eaten; He was used to his wolf friend eating a large amount of meat when he could, but the black ‘puppy' ate nearly twice as much as the wolf. Now both canines were lounging near the fire, their bellies distended.

"She's going through a growth spurt," Niall explained when Ronin commented on this. "She will need lots of meat for the next few weeks. That's one reason I was so happy to see the deer. Although, I will admit that I was getting tired of stew made from dried meat."

They rose early the next morning and broke camp after a quick breakfast. Once more, the canines were out ranging ahead of them, scouting the path. The forest was quiet other than the normal bird calls and the occasional squirrel chattering at them from a safe perch in the trees. Melissa found the journey very peaceful, and her mood was lightened by the sunshine filtering through the trees overhead.

They rode down through the forest for nearly an hour before Mikey began to sense something amiss. She first noticed that Sapphire was staying visible for longer periods of time, but didn't think too much of it. After some time passed, though, Mikey realized that Sapphire was unwilling to leave her side and venture into the trees. She turned in her saddle and saw that Bob was also within view. The wolf was pausing from time to time, sniffing the air and listening.

"Niall," she called quietly. "I think we have company."

"I know, my love," he answered quietly as he dropped back to ride beside her. "I thought it was my dogs, but now I'm not sure. If it was one of the packs, they would've shown themselves by now. You'd better warn the others." Mikey nodded and reined her horse to move slower. As she dropped back, she warned each of the others in turn. When she reached the end of the line where Ronin was riding, she found that the older hunter had already strung his bow and fit an arrow to the string, and was carefully scanning the trees around them.

"Bob is afraid to venture too far," he said quietly. "That means that whatever is watching us is too much for him to handle alone and he wants some backup when they come."

"Are you sure they, whoever they are, mean to attack?" Mikey asked him.

"No," he said, his eyes never stopping their scan. "But they don't feel friendly to me."

The thunderous barking came suddenly from several directions. Most of the horses began bucking and dodging as the predators broke from the trees. Mikey and Niall had the advantage of riding horses that had been raised with the king's huge dogs, and so they were able to maintain control while the others were struggling to stay mounted. Niall whistled sharply and several of the huge dogs stopped short in confusion, but the two leaders changed direction to focus on Niall. Mikey thought she recognized them as Thorn and Bramble, Sapphire's parents. The two charged toward Niall, and Mikey drew breath to shout to him. She was frightened that they would tear him apart, they were acting so aggressively.

Before they could reach him, Sapphire dashed into the space between them, and stood facing her parents with teeth bared. Thorn and Bramble skidded to a stop facing Sapphire. The three dogs formed a tableau for several minutes while the other huge dogs watched, growling and threatening, but not attacking. The horses had quieted now that the pack was not directly threatening them any longer, though they were still showing the whites of their eyes and stepping nervously. Thorn came forward to sniff Sapphire carefully.

"Niall, that is Thorn, isn't it?" Mikey asked softly.

"Yes it is, but he also has a couple scars that I don't remember him having," Niall replied just as softly. "They answered my command to stop, but they seem very unsure of who I am and who Sapphire is. Everyone just stay put and don't move." Everyone in the party did their best to comply, comforting horses as best they could. The circled dogs were also staying still, watching Thorn and Sapphire.

After several minutes of sniffing, Thorn turned to Bramble and made a chuffing sound. Bramble came forward and began sniffing Sapphire as her mate had done. Sapphire stood still for the inspection, giving just the slightest swing of her tail to show her feelings. Bramble gave a small whine and began licking Sapphire's face, and then both Thorn and Bramble came to sniff Niall. He held his hands out, held low at his sides with palms outward toward the dogs. They both sniffed him carefully, their tails wagging slowly at first and then faster as they seemed to recognize him. After a minute of sniffing the two huge dogs began jumping around Sapphire and Niall as though they had been transformed into puppies. The other dogs came rushing forward to sniff at Niall and Sapphire, and then one by one they sniffed each member of the party.

The horses were beginning to settle as if they somehow sensed that they were no longer looked upon as food by the huge dogs, although Mikey suspected that Celora had done something to calm them. Thorn turned and gave three short barks. Niall lifted his head and stared in the same direction that Thorn was looking. There came a rustling in the brush and a man came forward slowly, holding a drawn bow not quite pointed in their direction but clearly held at the ready. Mikey was surprised to see that it was the king's Hunt Master, Thomas.

"Thomas, my friend," said Niall, affably. "Maybe you can tell me the reason for this cool greeting?"

"Who are you?" Thomas asked wildly. "I know who you look like, but you can't be… Who are you?"

"It's me, Niall," he said softly, keeping his hands in plain sight. "You've known me since we were boys, Thomas. Do you doubt your own eyes? Do you doubt Thorn and Bramble?"

"But… you died a year ago," Thomas said, lowering the bow. "You died in my arms when Gray's men burned the estate."

"When Gray did what?" Niall almost shouted, clearly shocked and angry.

"We don't have much time, my lord, it isn't safe to be outside for long in case there are patrols," said Thomas. "Might I ask who these people are and what your plans are?"

"They are my friends and companions on an urgent quest," replied Niall. "Melissa, how can this be? How is it that I am dead here?"

"This is a different world, Niall," Melissa told him, patiently. "You are not the same man that died a year ago here, but he was the same as you in most ways. We need to understand what was different here and what we can do to correct that so that we can move on."

"You are my king, and yet not my king? This will obviously take some time to understand," Thomas said, shaking his head. "I think I had better take the chance on you lot, and bring you back to the hold to talk with Mathilda. Maybe she can make some sense of this, for I don't think I can."

"Mathilda is still with you? Who else survived?"

"Just the two of us, and she doesn't leave the hold these days," Thomas answered sadly. "Come, let's get out of sight in case the king has men out looking for us again."

"The king? Who sits on the throne if I'm dead?"

"Gray, of course," answered Thomas in surprise. "He took the city with the help of the Wraith Army a little over a year ago. The troops that were loyal to you fell back to the estate for a last stand. It didn't last long. Mathilda forced me to leave after you died, saying that we needed to live to continue the fight another way. We brought the remaining dogs with us, and they've kept us alive ever since."

"Alright, clearly we both have questions that require answers," Niall told him. "Lead on, my friend." Thomas caught his breath a bit at that, then ducked his head and turned to lead them back the way he'd come. Mikey was certain that she had seen tears falling from his eyes as he turned away.

*     *     *

Mikey stood on the porch of the log building that formed the center of what Thomas called Free Hold. There were several other smaller log buildings clustered around the central building where Thomas and Mathilda lived. The other buildings were devoted to kennel space for the pack. Behind this building was a natural cave system that led back into the mountain, providing a large home with room for storerooms and guests. Mathilda had guided them to spaces where they could sleep in peace, with enough privacy to relax. The cave even had its own source of drinkable water that ensured they could hold out for a long time if they had to.

Mikey felt restless, and agitated. She was unable to sit still while Niall talked with Mathilda and Thomas. She had excused herself and stepped outside to feel the cold fresh air on her face. Sapphire had come with her, of course; the dog seldom left her side for long. From where Mikey stood, she could see out over the log palisade that protected the front of the hold in the event of attack. Thomas had explained that they depended on concealment more than stout defenses. If they were attacked, he'd told them that he had devised a way to cause an avalanche of the snow and ice that hung above the camp. That would most like destroy the buildings along with anyone attacking them, but the cave had everything they needed to survive for months. Mikey suspected that Thomas also knew of another route out of the cave, but had said nothing about it. Beyond the palisade, the high mountain valley sloped away sharply through trees and brush, concealing the approaches well.

Mathilda had acted as though she were meeting Mikey for the first time, not showing any sign of knowing her. Mikey had a premonition that she was completely unknown here, and that she could pass unseen anywhere she chose to go. I'm just like a ghost, she thought. She wondered what was waiting for them in the city, knowing that they would have to go and see for themselves. She shivered. She heard the door behind her, but didn't turn around to see who it was.

"I think I know what's different here," Niall said softly from just behind her.

"You mean, besides you being dead?"

"Yeah, besides that," Niall answered with a wry chuckle. "I could never live in this world, anyway."

"Why is that?" Mikey asked, finally turning her head to look at Niall. He looked haunted.

"You don't exist here at all," he said. Mikey could see tears in his eyes. Her heart pushed her into moving before her fear could hold her back. She stepped close to him and circled her arms around his neck pulling him close. "As near as I can tell, your parents never married or had a child. There is no Michaelina Bartolli in this world."

"Yes there is," she said. "Because I'm right here with you, exactly where I always want to be." Mikey closed the remaining distance between them, kissing Niall deeply. "There, that should prove I exist," she said when she finally broke the contact.

"Yes it does," he said softly. "Or else it proves that I'm dreaming." Mikey pulled away and turned, pulling his arms around her so that they both faced out toward the valley.

"Actually, this will make it easier for me to move around in the city," Mikey told him. "And it means that I won't have to disguise myself quite so much, which I have to admit will be more comfortable."

"Even though it will mean that I will be getting into more fights?" Niall asked her.

"Why would you be getting into more fights?"

"Well, if you start showing that you're a woman, I'm going to have to start beating the men away with a large stick," he told her with a serious face. "You may not realize it, my dear Michaelina Bartolli, but you are a beautiful woman." She moved her head to the side quickly to look him in the eyes. No, he isn't shoveling his usual load of flattery, she thought.

"Oh my," she said. "Now I know what it feels like to be a tavern wench being flattered by Dobb."

"No, you don't," he told her firmly. "Because this isn't flattery and I'm not going to be seducing tavern wenches ever again if we do things right."

"What do you mean?"

"I love you Michaelina and I want you to be with me always," he said sincerely.

"As what, exactly? Your rowdy girl?"

"As my wife, if you would ever consider it," Mikey started to laugh and then caught the vulnerable look in his eyes. "Oh my gods, you aren't joking, are you?"

"Not even slightly," he said with tears in his eyes.

"I'll answer you now, because I'm afraid you'll change your mind," Or I will, she thought. "But can we keep it quiet? Just between us until this is all done?"

"Of course," he agreed. Mikey felt a surge of her old familiar fear, and felt afraid that something would tear them apart if she admitted her love. She thought about what Melissa had told her, and decided to ignore her fear and listen to her heart instead.

"Then, yes I love you, and if you still haven't come to your senses after all this is done then yes, I will be your wife," Mikey told him. They were both crying and laughing, from the relief that came with her answer. They were kissing when Ingvar and Cara came out on the porch. Ingvar snorted loudly, startling the two lovers.

"I know, I know," Ingvar said, "Mikey's a woman. But that still looks so wrong to me, I just can't help it." Cara punched him on the shoulder as hard as she could. Ingvar looked at her in surprise. "What'd I say?"

"Oh never mind," she said. "You're hopeless, but you're all mine." She smiled broadly at him and slipped an arm through his and leaned against him. Ingvar looked bemused. Cara turned back to Mikey. "I take it that you two have resolved some things? Or is it too soon to ask?"

"We have resolved some things," Mikey answered with a smile that matched Cara's. Cara lifted an eyebrow in question; Mikey blushed, and then nodded shyly. Cara laughed, putting one hand up to her mouth.

"Well, Mathilda has prepared some dinner," Cara said. "She asked us to see where you were and let you know that food is ready."

"I wasn't hungry when I came out here," Niall said. "But I think I could eat something now. My lady, would you care to join me?"

"Of course, my lord," Mikey answered with exaggerated grace. She set her hand in his and they went inside to dinner. Ingvar looked after them speculatively and then turned to Cara.

"My lady?" Ingvar said with a bow, holding out his hand.

"Oh that will do rather nicely," Cara answered. "My lord," she said as she took his offered hand.

*     *     *

"The Wraith Army entered the picture about a year and a half ago," Mathilda told them after dinner. They were all gathered around the fire in the main cavern, reclining on piles of fur and a few of them brave enough to lean back against the few dogs that were present. "They moved across the Summer River southwest of the city and camped within plain sight. King Niall, our king that is, sent emissaries to ask their intentions. The emissaries did not return, but neither did the army make any overtly hostile moves. They merely sat there like a shadow across the land, no fires or light of any kind, a dark presence that weighed on our minds day by day.

"And then Zavius Gray began telling citizens of the city that the massed army was a peaceful delegation, and that we had nothing to fear from them. He became a complete opposite to the king, calming where the king tried to gather support to sweep the army from our doorstep. In the end, the citizens listened to Gray and the king was forced to use his Citadel Guard to face the Wraith Army. They killed many of the Wraiths, but in the end the Guard was broken. The emissaries from the Wraiths made it clear that they would only deal with Zavius Gray, but they would permit the king to depart in peace. We were hopelessly outnumbered, and so chose to take the offer and move out to the estate to begin a resistance campaign.

"They left us alone for almost three months. In the meantime, Gray had himself crowned King of Kor Opan and the citizenry seemed relatively indifferent to the regime change. Then one night, the Wraiths moved against the estate. We lost the remaining Guard that night, half of the dogs, and all of the staff. And we lost our king. Thomas wanted to stay and die, but I insisted we get away with the remaining dogs and see if we could find a way to bring Gray down some day in revenge. And that is how we came to be here."

They were all silent for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Mikey thought of something that Mathilda had not mentioned. "Mathilda, where were the thieves in all of this? Did they not help the king?"

"In the sewers with the rats, I suppose," she said. "Why would they be anywhere else?"

"Wait, are you saying that you didn't have any thieves working for you as spies? None of them were gathering information?" Niall asked her incredulously.

"Our king tolerated the Thieves Guild, but he never authorized working with them," Mathilda answered him. Niall and Mikey looked at each other.

"In our world," Niall said slowly, looking into Mikey's eyes as if reading her thoughts as he spoke. "We already had a working arrangement with the Guild before the Wraiths arrived. The thieves were the ones who uncovered the communications between Gray and the Wraiths before their army ever appeared. And then Mikey intercepted the contract between them before it reached Gray and let me confront Gray before it was ever necessary to lose men fighting them."

"But if I wasn't there leading the guild, and if we weren't friends already…" Mikey began.

"Then the king had no way of knowing that the Wraiths were called by Gray or that he was buying their cooperation by promising them the Emerald Crown," Niall added.

"That damn crown," muttered Mikey.

"Wait, you say Gray started all this by summoning the Wraiths? How do you know this?" Mathilda asked Niall.

"In our world, Mikey had a feud going with Gray, since she blamed him for the death of her father," Niall told her. "She made it her business to make Gray's life miserable, and on one occasion while robbing a courier from Gray as he left the city, she happened to obtain the contract between Zavius Gray and the Wraith Lord."

"At first I didn't know how important it was," added Mikey. "I was more concerned that the crown not be removed from Gray's estate before I could steal it. My father had died while trying to steal that crown, apparently in your service, Mathilda."

"Mine? Who was your father?"

"Kevin Bartolli, he was guild master before me," said Mikey. "Mathilda, that is, the Mathilda in our world, told me before we came here told me that my father had worked for Niall's father before the first attack of the Wraith Army and had been made a baron as a reward."

"It sounds as though Gray has been working toward this for a long time," Mathilda said thoughtfully. "It also sounds as though a great deal of importance has been placed on the Emerald Crown."

"Do we have any idea where the crown is now?" Mikey asked. "I'm fairly certain it was still at the Gray Manse in our world, but here it may have been sent to the Wraith Lord already or perhaps in the palace. I'd like to know where it is before we start planning to steal it."

"King Zavius wears the crown for state occasions," Mathilda told them. "To the best of my information, it is stored in his private suite when not in use."

"Well, it might be harder to steal than his trousers," Niall said to Mikey. "But at least you won't have to climb the flagpole in the town square this time."

"Oh yes I will, and so will you," Mikey told him.

"Why?" Niall asked, startled.

"Because I can't lift him that high by myself, and I said that the next time I would hang Gray from the flagpole instead of his trousers."

"But no one can get in to see Gray, let alone get near his private apartments," objected Mathilda.

"I wager the Scarlet Rat could do it if anyone could," said Niall proudly. Mikey pursed her lips thoughtfully.

"I'm sure I could get in," she said at last. "Getting out with the crown will be the hardest part. We'll need to think of a distraction of some sort to pull the guards away."

"Challenge him," said Ingvar.

"Excuse me? I don't follow what you mean," said Niall.

"I can think of few things more distracting than a dead enemy coming back to publicly challenge me to combat," said Ingvar. "It might be a good way to get all of their attention focused on you while Mikey gets the crown."

"Hmm, it does have possibilities at that," Niall agreed.

"I may need someone to help deal with pursuit if things go badly," Mikey said. "Not that things ever go badly for me, you understand. I'm just trying to think of everything." Niall snorted laughter, but said nothing as Mikey glared at him.

"I can provide some cover for you," Ronin said quietly. "If we can find a place where I can get a clear shot of your path out of the palace, I can handle quite a few men."

"That should work fine, thanks Ronin," said Mikey. The older hunter merely nodded.

"Is this Gray the kind of man that will answer a personal challenge?" Celora asked. "Or will he simply respond by sending his guards to kill you?"

"She's right, Niall," Mikey said. "He might just send the guards, or worse, send the Wraiths."

"I don't need to fight him, I don't think. If I can get him to come out to the front of his balcony and face me, I should be able to keep his attention for long enough for you to get the crown."

"Yeah, unless he's wearing the cursed thing," she said sourly. Niall laughed.

"That could put a damper on things," Niall agreed.

"Maybe I should try to seduce him," Mikey said. "I don't have experience, but he doesn't know me here either and I know plenty about him."

"Hey, I want to be the first in line for that treatment if anyone's going to be seduced by you," Niall said.

"Pfft, you're no challenge," Mikey told him. Everyone laughed as Niall sat there looking indignant.

"Perhaps it would be wise to get some rest tonight and think about our options," Melissa said. "I'd like to have time to think about what it could be that makes the crown so important. Perhaps we don't need to steal it; our task might be something completely different."

"That sounds like good sense," said Mathilda. "You have time to consider your next move, so why not rest well and plan tomorrow?"

"Let's do that, then," said Niall. He smiled at Mikey. "Maybe you could practice your seductive looks?"

"Men," said Mikey. Cara and Melissa laughed, and Celora smiled.

"What? I'm only trying to help you," Niall said innocently.

"Well said," Ingvar told him. "I believe you."

"Uh, thanks Ingvar," Niall said. "I think." The women were laughing harder now. Niall realized he wasn't getting anywhere and sighed, feeling like a martyr. He stood and held out a hand to help Mikey to her feet.

"C'mon, let's go back outside for a little while," said Mikey softly. Niall nodded and followed her outside onto the wooden porch again. It was quite dark now; the last fading light from the sunset barely lit the western horizon. The stars were burning brightly as they walked out. I've never seen stars so bright, thought Mikey.

"What's on your mind, my lady?" Niall asked once they were alone.

"What makes you think I have something on my mind? Perhaps I just want to be alone with my fiancé?"

"I'd like to think that's your motive," he said with a smile. "But I know you too well to think that's the reason."

"Well, it's one of the reasons," she told him, snuggling against his side. He put an arm around her and she sighed happily. "Niall, does this Mathilda strike you as odd?"

"Odd in what way?" Niall asked.

"When we were at your estate, Mathilda showed me that she knew a great deal about everything that went on in the kingdom," Mikey explained. "She told me that she knew who I was in a very circumspect way, while making it clear that she knew far more than she was letting on."

"That sounds exactly like the Mathilda I've always known," he agreed.

"My impression of her is that she was extremely loyal," Mikey continued. "If you were killed, I'm not sure that she was the kind of person who could bring herself to leave you. Maybe to take vengeance as Thomas said, but I find it hard to believe that she would leave like that unless she were protecting a member of the royal family. Am I wrong in my assessment?"

"No, not wrong," he said after a moment. "But not exactly right either. Thomas is her son, and she would've done everything in her power to protect him if the family were all gone."

"Her son? Really? I hadn't guessed that," Mikey said. "Why didn't anyone say anything about that?"

"It isn't widely known," Niall said. "I'm not even sure who his father was, but Mathilda never talks about it. She just looks out for Thomas."

"Like she looks out for you?"

"Yeah, pretty much."

"I still find her behavior odd," Mikey said after they had been silent a few minutes.

"I find it odd that the thieves were so absent during that whole time," Niall said. "Could there be an issue there for us to pursue?"

"Possibly," said Mikey. "I planned to get in touch with the guild anyway. It's polite to announce one's self when visiting; otherwise I might get a knife in the ribs for poaching."

"No getting hurt, love, please," he told her, holding her closer as he spoke.

"Why don't we go somewhere private and talk about that?" Mikey suggested. Niall smiled and led her back inside.

*     *     *

"We need to get closer to the city to find out what's happening," Mikey insisted. She and Niall were talking with Mathilda and Thomas on the porch early the following morning. The others were still sleeping or were moving about quietly seeing to breakfast.

"I think it would be too risky for all of you to use the estate as a base of operations," Thomas said quietly. "There really isn't much left standing, so finding a place to get out of sight will be difficult. Unless you can uncover the entrance to the storage cellars, but I wasn't able to clear them when I was last there."

"Why not go into the city itself?" Niall said. "We could stay at an inn and try to keep a low profile until we know what's happening."

"Pig or Goose?" Mikey asked, and Niall laughed at the echo of their conversation the night they met Melissa. "I wish it could be Pig, but if I don't exist here, I doubt that Jane would be willing to help us."

"Mathilda, did your Niall ever spend time roaming the city on his own?" Niall asked.

"Not that I know of, he always stayed near the palace or the estate, unless travelling with guards," Mathilda answered.

"Before that night I sliced your ribs, weren't you pretty much the same, love?" Mikey asked Niall.

"I think the night we met was one of the first times I tried sneaking out on my own, now that I think about it," he said. "I've gotten so used to roaming the city over the past year or two with you that I forgot that."

"You probably could slice Gray up pretty well then, since he'd be expecting you to be as soft as you were before you met a certain Rat." Mikey smiled at him. "I think Dobb should come along into the city. We could set up in one of the inns as a pair of young adventurers and then meet the others a day or so later."

"Are you thinking of letting Melissa guide them in after we go in?" Niall asked.

"Yes, unless you think it would be better to split up even further?"

"It might be wise if we did, just go in as couples, with Melissa travelling with Celora and Ronin," Niall said. "What do you think?"

"Are you two coming with us?" Mikey asked Mathilda and Thomas.

"That might draw a lot of attention before we want to cause trouble. We're both rather well known, though Thomas would be less so than I," Mathilda said.

"Perhaps if you arrived the afternoon before the main event, we might avoid unnecessary complications," Mikey suggested.

"That could work," Thomas said. Mathilda looked worried as she gazed at him. She really does try to protect him, thought Mikey. I wonder who his father was?

"That just leaves us with figuring out how to communicate so you'll know when to come in," said Niall.

"I can handle that," said Melissa from behind them. Niall jumped, causing Mikey to giggle. "I'm sorry if I startled you; I was just listening and trying not to interrupt. I can travel unseen between the inn and the estate to bring Mathilda and Thomas back when we're ready."

"That would be the perfect solution Melissa, thank you," said Mikey.

"Gray has watchers everywhere," said Mathilda. "It's one of the reasons we don't leave here often and stay out of sight when we do. Can you really move without being seen, lady?" Melissa just smiled at her, and then disappeared from view.

"Will this do?" Melissa asked, causing them all to look around wildly. She laughed and reappeared before them in the same place she'd been standing.

"I apologize Lady," Mathilda said with a gulp. "It appears that you can move without being seen at all." They all laughed.

"It's one of the few things I can do in this group," Melissa said.

"So then, we have a tentative plan?" Niall asked them all.

"Let's talk it over with the whole group, but yes, I think we can get started with this," said Melissa.

"I think it's enough to get us into the city at the very least," Mikey added. "Once we're inside, we can gather more information and make a more complete plan."

"Good, then we can spend today getting ready and head out in the morning," said Niall.