We left Jeromb at the Black Swan and made our way back to our sad little tavern in the Market Quarter. We didn’t talk as we walked, and when we arrived, we sat in silence on the bed in Ayglos’s room contemplating what we’d gotten ourselves into. Hitting the caravan last winter had been a huge success, but it had raised my bounty to 5,000 gold pieces. There was a 2,000 gold piece bounty on my accomplices, though no one was quite sure who they were or what they looked like. Which was fine. With the Empress so focused on me, she still hadn’t noticed the growing smuggling operations through Galhara and she hadn’t found all the children we’d liberated from her when we fled Dalyn the first time. I chewed my lip. The thought of every soldier being equipped with a ranged weapon they could quickly reload… I a little bit regretted making my face so notorious.
“I can’t believe every single dwarf in Anlor is in on that lie,” said Ayglos at last.
“Another secret to add to the pile.” I sighed and leaned my head against the wall. “I feel like most of Galhara knows about Namal at this point and we haven’t seen posters with his face on them. People can keep national secrets when there is someone who wants to kill them.”
My brother grimaced. “You can’t go into the Empire looking like yourself.”
“What else am I supposed to do?”
“You can bleach your hair. You can cut it, too.”
I looked at him in horror.
Ayglos’s glare was unforgiving. “You’ve resisted changing your hair for years, they won’t expect this.”
I reached up and covered my dark curls protectively. “This is a terrible idea.”
“It’s a brilliant idea and probably the only way we get those plans back without trading you for them.”
I scooted off the bed and crossed the small room as if Ayglos were actively threatening me with sheers and dye. He cut and colored his hair all the time and had since we’d started working as mercenaries. It wasn’t a big deal to him. I’d never changed my hair from the mane of dark curls depicted so faithfully in my wanted posters. My brother was right, and I hated it. I twisted my hair in my hands. “How short?”
Quill sat on the bed surrounded by the cultist’s journals while Eliah and Ayglos worked on my hair. I clenched the armrests of the chair and tried not to flinch listening to the sheers. One curl had fallen in my lap, stark against the sheet Eliah had wrapped around me. It looked weirdly lifeless and foreign and my eyes kept snagging on it.
“I think we should burn them,” said Eliah from behind me.
“That bad?” asked Ayglos.
“We haven’t done a thorough reading, but he does detail his ritual in this one,” Quill held up one of the books.
Eliah said, “Do we bother looking? Does anyone really believe there will be something in here we’d be willing to do?”
“No,” I replied, glad for the distraction, “But I was hoping for—I don’t know, a better understanding of what’s beyond the veil. How the veil works in general. There must be rules.”
“And maybe corroboration for that one book?” asked Quill, tone dry. There had been a journal in Angareth of a gifted Seer—an ancestor of the Countess—who detailed the wildest stories about entire civilizations in the ethereal plane composed of fairies and sprites and hobgoblins and other creatures of fantasy. It had started out as believable and details accounts of conversations with ghosts, and then devolved. The Countess had a genuine gift, it wasn’t a leap to think her ancestor did as well. Except that the book was catalogued as the Journal of Elabet the Mad.
Eliah continued, “If we’re having to rush off to the border for these plans, we’ll have to take these with us or burn them right now.”
“The books are easier to bring than the man,” pointed out Ayglos.
“I am not breaking that man out of jail,” I said.
There were grunts of agreement. The last thing I wanted was to bring a cultist to the Empire when he could hang by the neck here.
Eliah came around in front of me and stared at my hair with such intensity that I wanted to hide. The severed curl rolled off my lap and out of sight. She tugged on my hair, pursed her lips, then nodded. “I think this is good.” She gestured to Ayglos, who also came to look, and said, “Agreed. Now for bleach.”
Quill tossed a journal to the floor. “Nothing in that one.”
Our eyes caught and I mouthed, “Save me,” as the alchemical scent of bleaching agents filled the room. Quill’s expression turned sympathetic. He hadn’t loved the disguise plan, but had readily agreed it was the best way to get in and out of the Empire safely.
“You know what doesn’t make sense,” said Eliah, again out of sight behind me. “Why is cultism and demon summoning against the law in the Empire, too? Especially since we all know that’s how she banished Shyr Valla.”
“Empress Narya doesn’t want anyone else getting any favors, I expect,” replied Quill. He tossed another journal on the floor. “This man is very boring.”
By the time Eliah and Ayglos finished working unholy alchemy on my hair, Quill had skimmed through at least a dozen journals and they littered the floor like the cultists when we were done with them.
Eliah removed the sheet she’d wrapped me in and my brother tossed me a towel. Reluctantly, I lifted the towel to my head to be confronted with the reality of their work. My hair ended at my collarbone, and it felt like nothing as I dried it. It barely even held enough water to soak the towel. Ayglos handed me the little mirror he used for shaving and—well, I didn’t recognize myself. My curls were more intense now—and they were blonde. Even my eyebrows were lighter. I turned my head, and my hair—so light—tossed with the motion.
Eliah and Ayglos stood side by side, crossed arms, faces thoughtful. “I think that’s excellent,” said Eliah.
From the bed, Quill exclaimed, “Ah hah!”
I startled, but Quill wasn’t looking at me, he held one of the journals and read aloud, “By all the gods, I saw them. My hand is shaking so badly—gods—they’re real.”