We don’t make it to the camp before dark, but by the time the sun sets, we are close enough to see the flickering that marks the sprawling metropolis of tents on the far bank of the Laycurt River. I’ve seen plenty of camps in my lifetime---refugees, armies, nobility---but I’ve got to admit that this one (with a little bit of each) is possibly the most impressive. In the dim light of dusk, the smoke from hundreds of fires rises as a dull curtain across the purple sky, and pinpricks of flame dot the water’s edge. I let out a long, low whistle.
“Wow. That’s a lot of people.”
It’s a wonderfully obvious observation, if I do say so myself, but Eric doesn’t make a sound. Instead, he tightens the straps on his pack and wades into the shallow water. I follow, again feeling disconcerted; Eric only fits the first half of the “strong and silent” type, so his muteness is...unsettling. Usually he just doesn’t know when to shut up, so I feel like I ought to be grateful for this sudden change, but somehow, I’m not.
We’re thigh-deep in the Laycurt (i.e. about halfway across it) when we’re spotted. A man’s voice booms out from across the water.
“Halt! State your name and business!”
Obediently, we pause midstream. The cold water tugs at the heavy cloth of my pants and makes me sway slightly in the current; I plant my feet firmly several feet apart.
“I’m Nia Sanderson,” I call. My voice sounds thin and tinny in comparison to the sentry’s. I clear my throat. “This is my partner, Eric Quill.”
“And your business?” the man prompts.
All of a sudden, Eric is gripping my wrist tightly. I try to pull free, but he gives my arm a little shake and whispers, “Back me up.”
“What?” I hiss.
“Just follow my lead.” To the sentry, he says, “Count Fenton sent for us. We’re late because we ran into a bit of trouble on the road, but I know he’ll be anxious to see us.” I stare at Eric in the dim light of the flickering torches.
“I haven’t been told to expect anyone this evening,” the sentry says, sounding doubtful. “Can you…erm, tell me your connection to His Excellency?”
I’m thoroughly exasperated at this point. How does he expect us to verify our identities from the middle of a river? And why is Eric making all of this so much more complicated than it actually is?
“We’re---” I start to say, but Eric squeezes my wrist.
“...friends of the countess,” he finishes. “She’ll vouch for us.”
There’s a pause. It’s difficult to see the sentry, since he’s backlit by the fires, but after a moment, he says, “All right, come on up.”
“So I’m supposed to ‘back you up’, even when you’re telling the truth?” I mutter to Eric as we wade towards the sentry’s silhouette. “Although, ‘friends of the countess’ might be pushing it a bit...”
“Shut up,” he replies under his breath. We slosh out of the water onto the sandy beach. It’s not that cold, but standing almost up to my hips in icy river water leaves me chilled and shivering; I rub my hands together briskly and then start to wring the water out of my pants. Now we can see the sentry. He’s a short, barrel-chested man with a receding hairline and large, bulging eyes.
“‘Friends of the countess, huh?’” he grunts, and hands his crossbow off to another soldier before motioning us to follow him. “How’d you two manage that one?”
“It helps to know the right people,” Eric says lightly, but there’s an edge to his tone. The sentry takes the hint and falls silent.
He leads us through a maze of tents, ducking under wires and skirting the protruding stakes. After several minutes of this, we find ourselves on a wide track that cuts a swathe through the camp.
“It’s that one there,” the sentry says, and motions towards a pavilion with a broad, well-lit doorway. “Sanderson and Quill, is it? I’ll go in and announce you.”
“Wait!” Eric yelps, a little too loud. The man is already trotting towards the open tent-flap, but he stops and turns expectantly. It’s hard to see his face, but I could swear that he’s grinning.
“The count...he...may not be familiar with...erm, may not know us...by those names,” Eric says lamely. I roll my eyes, but it’s too dark for him to see. Too bad.
“How d’you want to be announced, then?”
“Tell them that Inspector Tremmel sent us,” I say quickly, before Eric can respond; he shoots me a furious glance. The sentry looks surprised, then nods and strides off into the tent.
“Let me guess,” I say, as soon as Eric and I are alone. “You’re just trying to stay incognito.”
“Nia, I don’t think you get it! This is a serious case, and above all, a private one!” Eric says in a strangled voice. Once again, I know that he’d be shouting if he weren’t so concerned with being overheard. What is with him today? “Thanks to you, that sentry now knows who we answer to, and the whole camp is going to know within half an hour that they have government agents in their midst!”
“You’re such a worrywart. I’ll take care of the sentry,” I say breezily. “I agree that it would be stupid to let the whole camp find out, so we’ll just make sure he won’t say a word.”
After a few more minutes, the sentry returns and waves us in.
“His Excellency has agreed to see you,” he says. “Goram here will take you in.” A pale-faced manservant ducks his head at us, and we nod in return, but as he turns to lead us away, I sidle up to the sentry and put a hand on his shoulder.
“What’s your name?” I murmur.
“Harold Oaks, if you please...ma---erm, miss,” he says, glancing around. Eric is covering for me by distracting the manservant with small-talk, and there’s nobody else in sight.
I smile as warmly as I can. “Mr. Oaks,” I say, and then more softly, “Harry.” I reach down, grab his hand, and press three gold crowns into it. His eyes widen.
“Harry, dear,” I say, closing his fingers around the coins, “if anyone asks who my friend and I are, you can tell them that we are doctors who are here to speak to the count about his health. If word should ever...slip out...who we really are? Well, I would be delighted to introduce you to some friends of mine who could put a serious dent in your health. Understood?”
“Uh...yeah. Right. Okay.” He pulls away from me, his expression now fearful. I smile at him again as the manservant and Eric move towards the interior doorway of the pavilion.
“Lovely to meet you, Mr. Oaks.”
* * * * *