Gwin looked at the robe draped over her arm, confused. She had believed it to be rather handsome. The robes of Armoria’s druids were made from the thickest cotton, finely stitched and embroidered with subtle sigils encircling the hem and the cuffs of the wide, pointed sleeves. A thick, tasselled belt was threaded through loops at the waist, a deep purple colour that blazed against the stiff white cotton.
“Surely you don’t believe this is ugly?” Gwin said.
Gulpe shook his head, clearly exasperated. “It’s not the garb itself that’s ugly, it’s what it represents. The folk around here don’t take kindly to the druids, as you well know, Mrs. I certainly don’t want you displaying it for all to see in my bloody window.” A look of utter disdain deepened the creases around his eyes. “So that’s your game, then? You plan to join the ranks of the Crimson Order? Either that or you’ve inadvertently killed the hapless soul those robes belonged to and you need help disposing of the body. Stripping the wretch naked would certainly have been a prudent move. Less evidence for the Salt Swords to find.”
“I have not stripped anyone naked,” Gwin cried. She found the thought of doing so vaguely nauseating. “And I certainly haven’t killed a druid. I bought these at a reputable shop on the Crimson Mile.”
“Exactly what kind of reputable shop sells druid’s robes to any old crumb bum off the street?” Gulpe said. He crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at Gwin. “Especially to a crumb bum with bright blue hair and a changeling’s eyes? What fib are you spinning, Mrs?”
Gwin was finding the hobgoblin’s tone more annoying by the second. “Kindly refrain from calling me a crumb bum,” she said. Gulpe smirked. “There are indeed druid’s robes to be found for sale on the Crimson Mile. The moons have turned so naturally, the Citadel is taking in new students and they all need robes and supplies. These new students draw their power directly from the purple moon, from Aikana, rather than from Mamai. Hence the purple belt. Most druids you have seen about the city will have been wearing a pale yellow belt, to represent silver Mamai. Now their power wanes and it is time for those attuned to the Purple Mother to ascend.”
“I know all this. You sound like a bloody textbook.”
“If you know all this then why did you make me explain…” Gwin stopped and briefly closed her eyes. She took a calming breath, inhaling through her nose and exhaling long and low through her mouth. “No matter,” she continued. “I plan to enter the Crimson Citadel under the pretext of being a new student. I found a very nice, if somewhat pungent, man in the Silver Quarter who was willing to sell me an extremely authentic looking Letter of Druidic intent. He even stamped it using the exact same wax the druids use to authenticate their documents. It meant I was able to openly purchase the robes and I will present it at the Crimson Citadel when I arrive. I have it here if you would like to see it.”
Gwin reached into a pocket of her cloak and withdrew a folded piece of parchment. Gulpe took it from her without a word, setting a small pair of glasses hanging from a chain around his neck on the end of his nose before beginning to read.
“I was careful to disguise my hair and eyes with a powerful piece of glamour magick before I bought the robes,” Gwin went on. “I will use the same magick when I enrol at the Citadel. I foresee no difficulties. There is just one thing I must ask of you.” She paused and reached into her cloak once more, this time beckoning to the shivering leafling hiding there. The little creature obediently held onto her outstretched finger, allowing Gwin to bring her out and present her to Gulpe. “I couldn’t possibly take her where I’m going. The chances of her being discovered are too high.” Gwin smiled at the leafling, holding tightly to her finger with long spindly arms, and gently stroked the top of her head. “I call her Little Leaf.”
Gulpe looked from the leafling to Gwin with wide eyes. “Isn’t that the little ‘un they lost up at the Leafling’s Half?” he asked. When Gwin nodded he grinned. “Good. It’s disgusting to keep such a creature locked in a cage. I always thought so.”
“So you will care for her in my absence?” said Gwin, relieved.
“Well, what do you say, Little Leaf? Want to bunk with me and Petey for a while?” The leafling shook and curled herself tighter around Gwin’s finger, hiding her face against her cuticle. “Well, maybe she’ll warm up to me,” Gulpe said. He re-folded the parchment and passed it back to Gwin. “You’ve done well there,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from the real thing. You’re right, you shouldn’t have a problem getting into the Crimson Citadel. But what exactly do you hope to learn from the druids?”
“I hope to learn everything,” Gwin said, amazed that wasn’t obvious. “I hope to learn Lord Dewer’s entire plan for the future of Joria. It is the druids who seem to be controlling these demons on his behalf. If I am one of them, I can work to end what he’s doing.”
“A noble, well thought out plan,” Gulpe conceded. “I’m sure nothing could possibly go wrong.”
“You are being sarcastic.”
“Actually, Mrs, your bravery has deeply impressed me.” He held up a hand to stop Gwin before she could exclaim with surprise and pleasure. “However,” he continued. “If something does go wrong, we’d better make sure you’re adequately prepared.”
Gwin watched the hobgoblin with interest as he shuffled back towards the counter and pulled out several boxes from the shelves beneath.
“These could come in handy,” he said, holding up a pair of earrings.
“The Shining Earrings of Solania,” Gwin breathed, recognising them at once. “But won’t they burn a hole through my ears?”
“Only after prolonged use, and only if many people are talking about you at once.” He tutted and pressed them into Gwin’s hand when she continued to look unsure. “Only wear them if you think someone might be suspicious of you. You’ll be able to hear anything they say about you, no matter where they are. And remember to take them off as soon as possible.”
He turned his attention back to the boxes on the counter, rummaging through the myriad contents until he finally presented Gwin with a small paper packet and a red velvet drawstring pouch. He opened the packet first, holding it out to show her the loose powder inside. It was dark red and grainy, smelling vaguely of cloves.
“One of my favourite blends,” Gulpe said. “Truth Tongue. The trickiest part is getting the dolt of your choosing to swallow the stuff. I’ve found it’s best mixed with honey and spread on bread; dulls some of the wretched taste. Once swallowed, Truth Tongue will latch onto the roof of your victim’s mouth like a sticky web. Most painful. Hideously unpleasant. Not only will they be compelled to tell you anything you ask of them, they won’t be able to spit out the Truth Tongue until you are done. Just remember to say, ‘so ends the curse’. If you don’t, the entire roof of their mouth could eventually be stripped away. I’ve actually seen that happen once, it wasn’t pretty.”
Gwin curbed a shudder, but took the packet and slipped it into a pocket of her cloak. “What’s in the other one?” she asked.
Gulpe pulled open the velvet pouch and gently shook the contents. They made a fine tinkling sound, like falling shards of glass. Gwin leaned across the counter to peer inside. At the bottom of the pouch was a quantity of dull brown crystals.
“You need to be very careful with this one,” Gulpe said. “I call them Wink-Out Chips. If you crush just one of them, I’d advise underfoot, the eyesight of anyone in the vicinity will instantly wink out. The blindness is only temporary but it may cause some bleeding.” Gwin wrinkled her nose. “As an added bonus,” Gulpe went on, “those afflicted will also have the last five minutes or so of their miserable lives erased from their noggins. Extremely useful if you’re caught in a pinch and need to make a dramatic escape. They won’t even remember you were there. Of course, there is a downside. If you don’t properly cover your own eyes, nose and mouth, you’ll be similarly affected and that could create a whole fresh mess of trouble.” Gulpe pulled the drawstrings shut and tied them in a knot before giving the pouch to Gwin, who gingerly placed it in her pocket alongside the packet of Truth Tongue.
“Thank you, Gulpe,” she said. “This is most generous of you.”
“It’s only a small gesture,” the hobgoblin replied, waving her thanks away. “Good bloody luck to you, Mrs.”
“Now then, Little Leaf,” Gwin said to the shivering creature still wrapped around her finger. She brought the leafling up to her face and smiled kindly. “Are you ready to take your leave of me?”
The leafling lifted her head long enough to poke a long silver tongue out, first at Gwin and then at Gulpe, before hiding her face once more.
“Come now, Little Leaf,” Gwin insisted. She tried prying the leafling free but for such a tiny creature, her grip on Gwin’s finger was surprisingly strong and she was unable to dislodge her. “There’s no need for rudeness.”
“I believe Little Leaf has made her choice,” Gulpe said. “She obviously wishes to remain with you.”
“But that’s impossible. If she is discovered within the Scarlet Citadel, it will raise all sorts of suspicions. The druids have no love for the koskin, just as they have no love for the changelings or anything else outside their narrow view of the magickal world.”
“Then all I can suggest, Mrs, is that you make bloody sure your little friend is not discovered.”
Gwin glared at Gulpe, prickled by his unwillingness to help and his nonchalant attitude.
Gulpe ignored her. Instead, he turned to the leafling, now wound so tightly about Gwin’s finger she could have been mistaken for a twisting green ring. “You won’t cause any trouble, will you, Little Leaf?” Little Leaf shivered slightly, letting Gulpe know she had heard him. “Just be careful,” Gulpe continued. “Mind your mistress and keep a watchful eye out at all times. You must not let another soul see you. Do you understand?”
This time the leafling uncurled herself. She slid down into Gwin’s palm and looked up at Gulpe, nodding solemnly.
Gwin sighed, defeated. “Very well, then. In truth, I would have missed you, little one.” She briefly stroked the leafling’s downy head once more before lifting her back up to settle into her customary pocket.
“Now, get those bloody robes back in that sack and be on your way,” Gulpe said. His voice was rough-edged but he smiled as he spoke.
As Gwin stepped back out into the ashy haze of Midnight Lane, she felt a sudden thrill of fear. The leafling fluttered inside her pocket as if attempting to comfort her. Mustering her courage, Gwin began to make her way towards the white stone and sunny terraces of the Crimson Quarter.