The Rogue Knight Page 19

“Most will ignore it as a dusty old theory,” Joe said. “If our real enemies hear the rumor, they will move swiftly to crush it. The timing is wrong to reveal Mira’s true predicament.”

“What else should we ask about?” Mira inquired.

“Keep it hazy,” Joe said. “Check for news. Claim to be from elsewhere. It will ring true because most of your info is from Sambria. Try to get a sense for what is going on in Elloweer.”

“Do you think Honor’s power is running wild?” Mira asked. “Does Elloweer have a Carnag?”

“I imagine Honor’s shaping ability is taking form much as yours did,” Joe said. “Quima certainly hinted that would be the case. This is the place to find out about anomalies in the kingdom. Keep your ears open and your comments guarded. You will be among expert gossipmongers. They will read into everything you share. Try not to lie. These are difficult people to deceive.”

Before long, the coach turned down a bare alleyway and slowed to a stop. Joe barely had room to open the door and step down. Mira and Cole followed.

They had halted beside an unmarked door set in an otherwise blank wall. Joe knocked, and the door swung inward to reveal a hulking brute with a bad haircut. “Do you have an invitation?” the bouncer asked.

Joe produced a card and handed it over along with a platinum ringer. “I had to add another guest at the last minute. I hope that’s all right.”

Furrowing his brow, the goliath studied the invitation and the ringer. “One moment.” The door closed.

“I can stay with the coach if it’s a problem,” Cole said, feeling like a party crasher.

“No,” Joe said. “I want to get you inside and permanently disguised. If it requires a bigger bribe, we can afford it.”

The door opened. “Request granted,” the big guy announced, stepping aside. “Welcome to Shady Lane.”

Joe, Mira, and Cole entered. Behind him, Cole heard their coach continue down the alleyway. The door closed.

They stood in a small, stone room with an iron door on the far side. Two of the walls had rows of dark slits in them. Cole thought the narrow gaps looked sinister. People might spy through them, or shoot arrows, or leak poison gas. How had he ended up in a place like this? It seemed like a mission for a trained spy.

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An efficient-looking man, neatly groomed and well-dressed, patted down Joe, then Cole, and finally Mira. He backed away and murmured into a small grate beside the iron door.

The door opened, and the man motioned for them to pass through. The next room was also made of solid stone, but it was larger and softened by carpets, draperies, and cushioned furniture. The walls had so many doors that Cole wondered if the room was surrounded by closets.

A bespectacled gentleman, who was probably in his sixties, greeted them. Though not very tall, he had a gangly build with large hands and feet. Cole found his strong cologne distracting.

“Welcome, esteemed guests,” he simpered, rubbing his hands together. “You have visited us before?”

Joe shook his head.

The gangly man perked up at this news. “Newcomers! How marvelous. At Shady Lane, we pride ourselves on unparalleled discretion. We have four chief lounges. Your appearance will change each time you pass to a new room. To begin, you’ll each enter your own changing room, remove your mask, place it in a trunk, lock it, take the key, and face the mirror. Once satisfied with your disguise, exit through the other door and follow the hall to the blue door. Any questions?”

Joe shook his head again. Cole wasn’t sure he could picture exactly what the man meant, but he didn’t want to be the only one to ask for clarification.

“This way,” the gangly man said, walking over to one of the doors on the right side of the room. “Young sir may enter the trident door.” A subtle trident symbol was embossed above a doorknob. The man opened the door, and Cole entered. The door closed.

Though he listened intently, Cole heard no further conversation from beyond the door. The changing room was soundproof, or close to it. Another door waited on the far side of the room. A full-length mirror hung on one of the side walls. A row of medium-size trunks hid the base of the opposite wall. Keys protruded from most of the locks. There were two empty keyholes.

Cole opened the leftmost trunk. He unhooked his mask, placed it inside, then shut the trunk, locked it, and removed the key. A trident and a swirly symbol decorated the key. The lock had a matching swirl.

Cole stood before the mirror. He looked exactly like himself, so he figured that whatever was going to happen hadn’t started yet. Glancing around the room, Cole wondered if he was being watched. Somebody had to create the illusion. He didn’t notice any peepholes. Maybe somebody was spying through the mirror, like in an interrogation room. Or maybe the illusion happened automatically. Could the mirror be magical?

As Cole gazed into the looking glass, his skin drooped and his hair thinned. His nose, ears, and lips expanded. His stomach gained mass and pooched out. Before he knew it, Cole was staring at a pudgy old man who bore no resemblance to him. The reflection moved when he moved, blinked when he blinked. If a disguise like this could become permanent, Ansel would never find him.

Looking down at himself, Cole found that he did not match the reflection. He appeared the same as when he had entered the room. But the figure in the mirror wore dapper clothes and had a very different build. Held in front of his face, Cole’s hands looked normal, but in the mirror they were obviously older, with thicker fingers and liver spots. Evidently the illusion only tricked his eyes in the mirror.

Cole went out the door and into the hall. Thick fur coated the walls, ceiling, and floor. When he closed the door, the fur completely hid it. Feeling around through the fur, he could find no doorknob. The sensation of the fur against his hand didn’t feel quite right; like brushing through spiderwebs. He pressed a palm against the fur. His hand sank until he felt the cool flatness of a stone wall. Swiping his other hand through the fur, Cole found it gave no resistance. The hairy walls were an illusion.

Cole picked a direction and walked down the hall until he reached a dead end. Doubling back, he followed the hall when it elbowed left, then reached a blue door, the only interruption of a furry expanse.

From the other end of the hall came a pale woman with silver hair and a jewel on her forehead. Somewhat taller than Mira, Cole supposed it could be her. Or Joe for that matter.

Cole waved at her.

She waved back. “Is that you?” asked an unfamiliar female voice.

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