Banner art by Artmetica.
You can find the whole cover art here- the art is gorgeous!
There's also a mix/soundtrack that goes with this story- you can find that here.
(Prologue, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5)
A red bird flew through the window and landed on the desk right on top of the paperwork Kendric was reading, startling the dark haired man. About to shoo the cardinal back outside, he caught sight of a tiny scroll attached to its leg. A courier bird wasn't an unfamiliar sight in the barracks so he untied the green ribbon attaching the paper to its leg. Assuming it was meant for someone else, he was surprised to see his own name on the outside of the paper; generally if something was important enough to be sent by bird, it was meant for a higher ranking officer.
As he unrolled the small parchment an even smaller piece of purple ribbon fell out. This he placed aside as he read the short message:
Meet me at Old Hamish's Inn tonight. Important situation to discuss- need your assistance. Neru will wait for reply."
He smiled to himself despite the seriousness of the wording; the only two people who called him that were his little brothers, and the color of the ribbon informed him that it was from the honorary brother rather than the one by blood, which was useful because the message was vague and not signed. He assumed the purple one was inside because two tied ribbons wouldn't fit on such a small bird.
He'd laughed at this color-coded idea originally, thinking it just one of the bizarre ideas his real brother was known for, but he'd come to realize that, although strange like most of those ideas, this one actually worked... Well, he was optimistic about the idea for vanishing paper, but his brother hadn't yet gotten that idea off the ground. In this case, though, it was a good way of saying a lot in a small space, or being secretive if that were needed. Green string or ribbon meant that the message was from Raff and the purple meant "disguise" or "be extra sneaky", which, coupled with the wording, meant both this time. A lack of bright red string told Kendric that this was sent in some sort of unofficial capacity; were that color there, it would mean that it was from Raff-as-Messenger, not Raff-as-brother- or more appropriately, Raff-needing-favor. Still, the cleric never asked for help if it wasn't needed, and even then often didn't notice until too late that he was in a situation where help was warranted, so Kendric wasn't about to turn him down.
Distracting the bird with a piece of bread leftover from breakfast, Kendric fastened two bits of string onto its left leg: one blue, one white. Blue was his personal color and white meant "yes" or a positive answer of some kind. If anyone noticed the random pieces of string he had laying around, no one had ever commented on it.
He picked the bird up gently and carried it to the window. As he watched it fly away, he wondered what trouble the half-elf had gotten himself into this time; trouble always seemed to follow him, although generally it became other peoples' misfortune. Yes, this is bound to be interesting, he thought, grinning as he stroked his short beard, I wonder what he wants me to do to help?
The inn was full of patrons when Kendric entered that evening and he hoped that the large crowd would mean that no one would recognize him. He'd tried to garb himself in cheaper clothing than he was used and nothing he wore bore any insignia of his rank, but he knew he wasn't the best at hiding who he was. And, truth be told, he wasn't entirely comfortable around all these boisterous working-class people. He always tried to see everyone equally, but it's hard to fight your upbringing, especially when you're feeling rather overwhelmed. This is why, when he felt a hand tap him on the arm and he looked down to see a raven-haired youth of that aforementioned class trying to get his attention, his first thought was Why is this kid trying to bother me? His annoyance fled when he caught sight of the bright green eyes under that large hat and he grinned as the "kid" embraced him quickly before beckoning to follow him upstairs.
Once in one of the small rented rooms with the door firmly locked, Raff gestured for Kendric to keep silent; the man watched as Raff brought his hand to his chest and quietly began chanting and gesturing with his free hand, his focus seeming to be on the door. Once done, the half-elf noticed Kendric's confused expression and shrugged. Taking a seat crosslegged on the bed, he explained in a quiet voice, "I can't keep anyone from listening in, but if they put their ear to the lock at any time in the next ten minutes or so, they'll be in for a nasty surprise." When the confusion didn't lessen, he continued, "It's going to get gradually warmer and if anyone is touching it, we're bound to hear them start yelling."
"Isn't that rather cruel?" Kendric asked, raising an eyebrow.
Raff grinned. "Then they shouldn't be listening."
The man eyed the door uncertainly. "Do you think anyone would be listening? I had hoped no one would notice us."
The priest shrugged again. "If they did, I doubt anyone would care enough to even remark on it."
"They probably just think that you've taken on a young lover." Raff said, keeping his voice flat and impassive.
Preoccupied, it took Kendric a second before he exclaimed, "I've taken- what?"
Raff grinned impishly. "Just kidding, brother dearest. That's why I picked this particular disguise; if anyone happened to notice us or caught on to who you are, they'd probably just assume I'm your son or nephew or something."
Kendric felt rather skeptical about that. He did have a nephew about the age Raff was trying to pass himself off as, but... it was just strange to think of his honorary brother as being able to appear that young, even after he himself had already fallen for the disguise. On the other hand, Raff's age had always been a bit of a mystery. Kendric had thought the two priests had been playing a trick on him when they'd explained that the half-elf was actually four years older than he was because he knew for a fact that Raff had entered the Messenger's mosque not even a year earlier than his younger brother- so Kendric now had an older little brother. Why was everything so confusing when it came to elves? It was enough to give someone a headache.
Shaking his head to clear it, Kendric changed the subject to something that was randomly bugging him, "How did your hair turn black, anyway? Some of that mischievous magic of yours?"
Raff wrinkled his nose. "I wish. It's soot. Well, mostly soot. It ends up being a sticky mess, but it works for a while." He glanced at the door before continuing in a softer voice, "Kenny, I need your help."
"So I figured." Pulling over the room's only other seat, a rickety old wooden chair, Kendric sat close to the bed so the two could plot quietly. "What did you do this time?"
Raff pouted indignantly. "Why'd you assume I did something wrong?" Noticing the look on his brother's face, he remedied that comment before Kendric could give them away by breaking into laughter. "Okay, so it was a good guess. But I didn't, not really. We- that is, the Messengers- have a problem. A very large problem. Someone is attacking us and is stealing a good portion of the messages we carry."
"So why the secrecy if it's a large scale religious predicament? Or have you priests just become overly obsessed with costumes and charades?"
It was a sure sign of the gravity of the situation, Kendric noticed, that Raff neither stuck out his tongue nor fired back a quip. Instead the half-elf just looked troubled and remained oddly quiet. Finally he answered, "Because we can't be open about this problem, even with ourselves; the Head Messenger here in Rinos fears that the attacks and thefts have something t'do with a Messenger, or at least someone who was once a Messenger. At the moment only a few of us are aware of who- or rather what- this criminal might be. Edward wants us to keep this as quiet as possible, in case he learns of our plans."
Kendric nodded, following most of this except... "Why tell me? You know I'll gladly help what I can, but I'm no priest or mage. I cannot track him down or anything of that ilk."
"No, but you are someone important." Raff saw that his brother was about to deny this, so he hastily added, "Ken, listen. What we need is someone in on the plan who isn't one of us because we need that person to send what is, to all intents and purposes, a real letter or message. An important real letter because it has to be enough to attract the attention of this renegade so he goes after it himself, rather than sending a lackey."
"Is he likely to do that?"
"He already has." Raff explained the attack and the minimal plan the few Messengers had come up with the night before, omitting nothing and hoping that Kendric would be able to contribute to the plan.
"I follow and of course I will help, but..." Kendric had a good idea what the answer to this would be, but still couldn't help asking, "Would something I send be that appealing? I'm just a lieutenant." That last part came out more resentful than he'd intended.
Raff sighed. "Stop playing modest. You're the best possible accomplice for this- a noble officer with no apparent ties to any priests in the area."
"But what about you?"
Raff eyed his brother- his muscular, tall, tanned, aristocratic, and above all human brother- and did his best not to laugh. "Be serious. If anyone caught on to the fact that you even know me, they'd have t'be a mind reader and then we'd be caught in an even more difficult mess."
"Ah, right." There was a time when his connection to the Messengers had been obvious, but that had been more than a decade ago and half the kingdom away. No one here knew that he had family and friends in the order, so why could he never remember that fact? Trying to redeem himself from his brief absentmindedness, he supplied an idea. "I believe I could pull both rank and class fairly easily- would a letter going to a knight suffice?"
"Of course. Osric, right?" Raff asked, naming the oldest brother in Kendric's family. At the man's nod, he went on, "But can you trust him? I know you've said he's short a few marbles- and that was one of your nicer comments- and I'd rather not let anyone in on this who we can't entirely trust."
"But there's no need to tell much, correct? It just has to appear to be a real message," Kendric plotted, "I think for that we can trust Os, and if the letter slips past this thief and he winds up actually receiving it, well, I'm all for confusing and vexing him. We can straighten it out later if we must."
Raff bit his lip as he thought about this. "There's so many ways this could go wrong, but I don't see any other option. We'll just have to hope that it does get waylaid. Try not to fill it with too many outrageous lies, okay?"
"If you must insist. I'll do my best to make it befit your grand schemes," he assured with a smirk.
Now Raff stuck out his tongue. "Ye know, you'd have made a good Messenger. You have sarcasm and roguishness well-honed."
"And be stuck wandering backwater lands at the whim of whoever desired a message to be sent? No thank you." He chuckled at Raff's expression, then turned serious. "One thing is bothering me about this situation, however."
"Only one? I would have thought there'd be several."
"You were going to leave the city without bothering to say hello, weren't you?"
"That's what's bothering you about this whole thing? And they say my priorities are askew." At Kendric's glare, he sighed. "Look, I forgot what town I was in."
The man raised an incredulous eyebrow. "It's the biggest city in the kingdom. Next to a lake. How did you forget?"
Raff shrugged sheepishly. "It's a city, Kenny. They all look the same after a while; huge buildings, too many people, distracting noises, not enough trees-"
"All right, nature boy, I get the point." He shook his head and wondered aloud something he'd never understood about his brothers. "I don't know how you and Cyn can be so comfortable outside city walls."
"I was going to be a ranger, remember? Being outdoors obviously goes with the territory, no pun intended. Not so sure about him, but that happens to most Messengers, I think; when you spend most of your life traveling, you become as comfortable outdoors as in." Raff answered, then figured this was a good a time as any to ask what had been on his mind for a while. Trying to keep his voice steady and not sound too hopeful, he inquired, "But speaking of Cyn, have you heard from him lately?"
"Not in over a month," Noticing the half-elf's face fall, he asked, "Why? What happened?"
"Nothing's happened, which is the problem." At Kendric's blank stare, Raff sighed again. "I haven't heard from him in even longer than that. I'm worried. Possibly his letters are being stolen, but..."
"I'm sure he's fine, Raff. One of us would have heard if it were otherwise."
"You're probably right. But if this thief does have those letters, he'll regret it. I swear."
Kendric nodded, knowing that he wouldn't want to be on the bad side of the Messengers, particularly this one. Messing with people who have perfected practical jokes to a career is never a bright move. "Then we'll just have to do what we can to catch him. Assuming you priests have this sorted out on your end, I'll bring the message by in two days."
"Perfect. If anything changes, I'll send my bird again." As the two rose, he added gratefully, "Thank you so much, Kenny- with your help we just might be able t'pull this off. The Messengers- well, the ones in on this- will be very thankful for your assistance."
The man reddened, feeling abashed but pleased. "Pah, you know you only had to ask. You don't have to twist my arm for me to admit that I miss spending time with you crazy clerics."
Before Kendric could say anything else, he was startled by his brother unexpectedly hugging him tightly with a muffled "Love ye." It shouldn't have surprised him since he knew that, despite being half-elven (elves, in Kendric's knowledge, were the epitome of stoic and bland), Raff always wore his heart on his sleeve, but it was something the man still couldn't become accustomed to; he was from a society where everyone- particularly the men- hid their true feelings and avoided showing any kind of passion or emotion. He could count on one hand (and still have a finger or two left over) the number of times his real brother had told him that, and Cyn was a self-proclaimed rebel of their caste.
Kendric's awkward return of the embrace seemed to satisfy the half-elf, though; Raff grinned rather waggishly before bounding out of the room. He does that on purpose, doesn't he? Kendric asked himself, shaking his head.