This is getting out of hand, Kevin knew. If we don't work everything out now, we're going to wind up in prison. Or dead.
Kevin licked his dry lips, thinking feverishly. Maybe he hadn't acted like a leader up to now. Maybe that was because he had been trying too hard to imitate the leaders in the heroic songs, those miracles of bravery who were gifted with unfailing charisma. Well, that was nonsense! The boy who had left Bracklin might never have accepted it, but he was no longer so naive. Such marvelous, infallible heroes like that could never have existed—but those like Master Aidan most certainly did. Master Aidan and those other good, sensible, down-to-earth people who'd saved King Amber. People who tried to understand those they were supposed to lead, who brought them together and got them to concentrate only on their goal.
"All right," Kevin began.
"I said right!"
As the others turned to him, he added sternly, "Aren't you ashamed of yourselves? Did you really mean to rob Count Volmar?"
Ha, that made them start. "What do you mean?" Eliathanis asked coldly. "I am not a thief."
"No? You certainly aren't earning your keep! You were hired to rescue the Lady Charina—not to fight with each other! But bickering seems to be all you can do!"
"Now, Kevin," Lydia began, "that's hardly fair—"
"Let me finish!" He glared at them all. "You, Eliathanis and you, Naitachal: I know there are long hatreds between White and Dark Elves. 1 know those hatreds go back for generations. I don't expect either one of you to settle such ancient grudges overnight. I don't even ask you to try! But I don't think elves of either race had anything to do with the kidnapping and if you really mean to show your peoples' innocence the way you boasted, you had better stop fighting and show some of that famous elvish self-control! Or is that just a myth to make humans respect you?"
"It's not," Naitachal said shortly. "And you do have a point, bardling."
Tich'ki snickered. "Such a daring boy—"
"And you," Kevin's finger stabbed at her with such fervor that she flinched. "You've done nothing so far but snipe at everyone else—I don't care about your background, I don't care what unhappiness you're trying to hide—"
"I'm not!" she protested.
"—but I ‘m beginning to wonder if you're in the pay of the enemy!"
The fairy froze in mid-air. "I most certainly am not!"
"Then stop acting like it!"
Lydia cleared her throat. "Don't you think that's going a bit far, kid?"
Kevin whirled to her. "And as for you, Lydia: look, I know I'm young, I know that compared to you I'm as ignorant of the world as they come. But one thing I am not is an idiot!"
"Oh, I never said—"
"But you think it. And as long as you go on thinking it, you're not letting me do my job."
"The same as all of us: freeing Charina!"
They were getting restless. These weren't naughty children, after all. If he didn't change his tone, Kevin realized, he was going to lose them.
"Listen to me." The bardling pitched his voice as smoothly as ever he'd been taught. "Lydia and I learned something truly alarming, something that makes all our quarrelling the petty thing it is. Carlotta is alive."
"The sorceress?" Eliathanis exclaimed. "But that's impossible! Everyone knows she died years ago!"
"So we were led to think. Carlotta, I repeat, is very much alive. And you and I know there is nothing she would like better than to discredit King Amber's reign." Kevin look a deep breath, stalling, trying to figure out what he was going to say next. "Look you, we all know there's always been an undercurrent of uneasiness, of mistrust, between the different races in the realm. That's not so surprising. It may not be logical, but elf or human, we fear the unknown. And if that unknown takes the form of someone with a different shade of skin "—he glanced at Naitachal—" or a different way of life—" this time his glance took in Lydia "—well, it's all too easy to let fear turn to hate."
"True enough," muttered the Dark Elf, and Eliathanis nodded.
"But for thirty years," the bardling continued, "those different races have managed to live in peace. And why is that? Because King Amber has been such a just, impartial ruler."
This time it was Lydia who nodded—
"Well, Carlotta doesn't like that!" Kevin said. "The more popular a ruler her brother becomes, the more difficult it's going to be for her to replace him. She tried to kill him once before. We all know that. We also know how she failed. But Carlotta has had thirty years to think things over. I guess she's decided to be more devious."
The bardling paused to catch his breath, glancing at the others. They were watching him quite seriously; even Tich'ki showed no sign of her usual mockery.
"Carlotta has to know exactly how things stand between the races," Kevin continued. "What better way for her to destroy King Amber's reign than to use a kidnapping to stir up all that latent hatred? Once the land is torn by strife, what better way for her to seize control?"
"Could be," Tich'ki muttered.
"Not ‘could be,' " Kevin corrected. "Will be, if we don't do something to stop her."
"Why us?" Lydia asked.
Why, indeed? He couldn't blame the woman—who, after all was a mercenary, not a subject of the king for asking. But before Kevin could find a good argument, Naitachal said thoughtfully, "I believe I can guess why Carlotta would choose Count Volmar's niece to kidnap. His father was a true diplomat"
"He was," Eliathanis agreed. "Someone who tried his best to reconcile grievances among the races."
"But Count Volmar," the Dark Elf continued, "is ... shall we say, a bit less friendly towards both our races."
The White Elf nodded wryly.
"That's just it!" Kevin exclaimed. "Carlotta knows about him, she must! That's why she kidnapped Charina, and that's why she made it look as if elves were to blame. Ha, yes, and she probably plans to plant hints in the count's ear—you know, that his handpicked team isn't having any success because the elves in the party are deliberately hindering the hunt, because they don't really want to find Charina!"
‘‘Yes," Lydia agreed. "But you're still not giving me a good reason to risk my neck. These aren't my people or my land, after all."
"No," Kevin admitted. "But if Carlotta wins here, do you think she's really going to stop with one realm? She's a sorceress, Lydia, who can muster the forces of Darkness to her side."
"But why us, Kevin? How can we possibly make a difference?"
"Ah. Well. Because of the manuscript." I'm sorry, Master Aidan, but I don't dare keep it a secret any longer. Hastily, Kevin told the others the reason he'd come to Count Volmar's castle—and what he'd learned about that manuscript
"You mean Carlotta is part fairy'?" Tich'ki yelped. "Her mother mated with a human'?"
"So it seems."
"B-but that's disgusting!"
"Thank you." Lydia gave the fairy a sarcastic bow. "Kevin, go on. Tell us more about this manuscript."
"My Master must have realized Carlotta had returned."
"Then why didn't he go straight to the king?"
"He didn't dare!" Thinking it out as he spoke, Kevin added, "Not while Carlotta had her full powers, anyhow. No, that would be putting King Amber in direct danger. So he sent me after the spell."
"You being expendable, eh?" Naitachal asked.
"Uh, well, I wouldn't put it quite that way, but the king's life is more important."
"Of course," Eliathanis agreed, a little more emphatically than Kevin would have liked. "Kevin, what do you want us to do?"
What—Hey, they're listening to me! They really are! I've won!
Sure, but what was he going to do about it? "I think we're going to have to return to Count Volmar's castle," the bardling said slowly. "We have to retrieve that manuscript. If Carlotta's people really do have Charina, they might be willing to trade her for it"
"What! No!" the White Elf cried. "That's insane!"
"I'm not going to give them the real manuscript! No, no, I'll work up a forgery."
"They'll surely know the difference," Naitachal argued.
"They won't. You see, I had already started copying the manuscript before Charina was kidnapped. I'll put a few pages of the real copy in with the fake, and only Carlotta will be able to tell the difference. But by the time she learns the truth, Charina will be free! Yes, and while we're in the castle, we can tell Count Volmar what we've learned. Who knows? It just might force him to rethink how he feels about elves!"
"Sooner force a stone to walk," the Dark Elf murmured. "But it's worth the attempt."
"I agree," Eliathanis said—
Lydia shrugged. "Me, too—Hey, Tich'ki, you in?"
The fairy shrugged. "Why not? Now all we have to do is get out of the city—Easy. There's only one gang out to get us, and guards watching for us at every gate." She grinned sharply. "If we can escape all that, why, anything else will be a laugh!"
"Ha," Lydia said dourly.