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Lucky Guess?

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Most months, Ekaira was convinced that Alethin’s whole persona and the air of secrecy surrounding him were merely ploys to increase sales. Most of what he offered could be found (in some form) in abundance and far more cheaply at the marketplace near the Keep. With the right magical know-how (and a complete lack of scruples), Ekaira could easily set up something similar. She even looked the part, especially if she dug her black clothing out of storage.

Anything that could be pulled out of Alethin’s mystery bags could be found (for far less) during a stroll through the marketplace, even the bone venom. Most magi had more potions than they could reasonably use and many made some extra gold by selling some to various shopkeepers. The pawprint sapphires and the like had to be clever fakes, of course, but since they worked just as well as the originals, it didn’t really matter.

As for the rare creatures, that was a different sort of trickery. For most, no smuggling was required. Creatures that were almost extinct in the wild tended to be more common near the Keep, so gathering enough eggs to offer for sale was only a matter of time and patience. As for the glacial ikantan and the other creatures previously unknown to the Keep, there was a simple explanation. Ekaira had no less than a dozen items currently in her possession that could change one creature into another. If a cookie could change a kitsune into a rabbitsune and a candy could change a kraken into a plush toy, then it was hardly remarkable that there might be a spell to bleach an ikantan or turn a wyvern red. If Alethin wanted to invent some cloak-and-dagger smuggling story to sell overpriced things to gullible magi, that was his business.

Still, Ekaira hadn’t been terribly surprised by Alethin’s recent disappearance, especially given the notes he’d left behind. She just hoped he’d been using potions to increase egg yield and not to create new hybrids. There were plenty of horror stories in the Keep archives about magi who had tried that and died in the process.

Everyone had their own ideas about what had happened to Alethin. Ekaira was no exception.

“Has anyone ever actually seen Kaiden Featherstone and Alethin in the same place at the same time?” Ekaira said to a group of student magi one night at dinner. She hadn’t meant to get drawn in, but Val had waved her over and then left as soon as she got comfortable. “It’s not like Alethin has ever let us get a good look at him. He could be hiding in plain sight and the authorities would never know.”

One student eyed her skeptically. “I’ve met them both. They look nothing alike.”

“Illusion spell.”

“Height difference. You might as well say that Remy is Alethin in disguise.”

That gave Ekaira an idea. “You’re right. That is ridiculous. I bet Remy was involved though. There’s certainly something between them. And just think. Why should we pay Remy for overpriced drinks and the chance of something special when we can just buy the whatever-it-is directly from Alethin and be spared the hangover? Of course he set Alethin up.”

“Humans,” said Constance suddenly, making everyone jump. The black Keep rat had performed her favorite trick of slipping in while everyone was distracted. “You’re so convinced of your own superiority that you’re overlooking the obvious answer.” She turned so that only Ekaira could see her wink.

“Yes, you’re right,” Ekaira said, knowing exactly what Constance was getting at. “It really should be obvious. Alethin is three Keep rats. In a cloak. With an illusion spell.”

One student looked dubious. “Don’t snakes eat rats? Adela looks large enough to swallow even a Keep rat without too much trouble.”

“The top rat talks him out of it,” Constance added. “We’re very persuasive speakers.” Ekaira could tell she was trying hard not to laugh and ruin the game.

“Still...,” said the student.

Constance sighed. “You’re right. I’m having fun at your expense. He’s clearly a very talented alucinari.”

The student opened his mouth, then shut it again. “That...actually makes sense. I guess. Why would he let himself be caught, though? Couldn’t he just have used illusions to escape?”

“Maybe he did,” Ekaira said. “Even the best illusions wouldn’t let him pick up where he left off, though. Too many people would be looking for that particular form. I suppose it’s also possible that he could be a lycanthrope – or maybe a lichenthrope – who has been cursed to turn human around the time of the full moon. That would be why we never see him the rest of the month. No, wait. I have a better idea. Alethin is clearly a shapeshifter who can change into a black cobra.”

A different student scoffed at that. “Please. Alethin and Adela are inseparable.”

“Of course,” said Ekaira. “That’s the whole point. That way, when you see a cobra slithering around, you just think it’s Adela. It’s a standard shapeshifter’s trick.” She ought to know, as between Rykian and Tobran, she had probably read every single piece of paper in the Keep archive that dealt with those rare individuals who could successfully change shape.

The student stared at her for a second. “And then he slithered out of his cell?”

Ekaira nodded. “Or used some sort of unlocking spell or a master key, like the one that went missing from the Artificer’s Guild. Of course, he’s now pretty much stuck in snake form until things calm down. Did anyone else think the handwriting on the notes looked a little shaky? It’s hard to write with a quill clenched between your fangs.”

That led to a lively debate about how Cobralethin might be managing without opposable thumbs (or fingers, for that matter) and what else he might be up to.

“I figured it out! He’s hiding out at the Callisto Islands,” one student said at last.

Ekaira wished she had thought of that one. “Of course! You don’t wear dark robes to the beach unless you want heatstroke, and who’s going to recognize him in a floral shirt? It’s the perfect disguise, especially once he starts developing a tan.”

“What about the Caves of Nareau?” another student asked, her dinner forgotten.

“Because of the crystalwings? Oh, it’s possible, as long as a few of them agreed to guide him. He’d need some way to avoid being caught in an illusion, after all.”

“Okay, that’s ridiculous,” said another student. “Most crystalwings aren’t built for human riders. I guess he could have ridden a hexapo crystalwing, but that would take weeks to get there. If he used a spell, why not adapt it to take the cart with him?”

Ekaira actually had an answer for that. “Who says he went by crystalwing? Pesadelos are much faster.” She waited for a minute while that sank in. A few students - those who had acquired pesadelo burns without a grown pesadelo to show for it - winced. “Though not without their risks, especially since I don’t see Alethin having taken the time to raise one as a contingency plan. At least he didn’t try a kelpie. Anyway, I doubt he went all the way to the Caves of Nareau. Too far away, not to mention too risky when everyone and their cousin has a crystalwing flock that can follow after him. No, I think he’s hiding much closer to home.”

“Where?” asked a third student, when it became clear that Ekaira wasn’t going to answer without being prompted.

“Isn’t it obvious? He convinced a few dozen koi to help him set up camp in that sunken temple that’s supposedly at the bottom of Lake Lakira. The humidity is horrendous, but at least he’s safe from his enemies.”

“The Dark Brotherhood?”

“Worse.” Ekaira struggled to keep a smile off her face. “Far worse. He wishes he only had to hide from the Dark Brotherhood. No, what most people don’t realize is that some creatures view having their eggs in Alethin’s cart as a sort of status symbol. He’ll sell just about anything, but there are creatures even he won’t touch. Some of them got wind of this, so now he’s hiding from the wrath of the most dreaded and deadly creature known to the Keep. Yes, the oblivion pillagebeasts are out for his blood.” Ekaira waited for the laughter to die down before she excused herself from the table. There was no way she was going to be able to top that story. After warning the table to remember that they didn’t know all of the tricks the Keep rats had up their sleeves, Constance followed after her.