"That was a lot of work for only half as much as I earned yesterday," Frederick complained.
"Look on the bright side," the tavern keeper said. "You only look half as battered for your troubles."
Frederick was dismayed to note that cage-fighting had now settled into his conscious mind as an everyday occurrence. In Frederick's mind earning money from fighting was the kind of thing a scoundrel would do, and he didn't like to think of himself as a scoundrel. Unfortunately saving maidens from dragons was work as badly paying as it was rare in the days following the Great Vanishing.
"I have to be quite glad that you are too clumsy to actually be able to hit me," said a voice behind Frederick. Frederick turned to take in the ever-present lopsided smirk on the morally ambiguous face of Harvey Raine.
"You were watching?" Frederick asked.
"When you said you were going to spend the evening in a cage with a number of large gentlemen who would like nothing better than to hit you in the face until your teeth rattled I just had to come along," Harvey said. "Phoebe was glad to see the back of me for a few hours. I have to say that although the random violence was entertaining I wasn't expecting you to come out of it quite so... unscathed."
"It's not supposed to be entertaining," Frederick said, in brave but pointless opposition to the actual process of fighting on a stage under bright lights and having each bout announced.. "Come on, we'd better get back to the Inn."
"I think you might be misunderstanding where the six crowns you're currently holding came from," Harvey taunted Frederick but Frederick was already halfway towards the main entrance.
If Frederick had hoped that Harvey might shut the hell up as they made their way out into the street he was to be disappointed. In a corner of his mind that he had never used much growing up Frederick knew that Harvey wouldn't shut his mouth until he'd elicited some sort of angry response from Frederick. This was one of Harvey's favourite games.
"Still, that last chap, he did get a couple of solid head blows in," Harvey continued as they walked down the street towards the market square. "Good job he didn't get you anywhere important, eh, Freddie?"
The words 'don't call me Freddie' were so eager to escape from Frederick's tongue that he actually had to bite down to stop them from coming out. The pain of biting into soft parts of his own anatomy wasn't as sharp as a few of the strikes he'd suffered during the evening's bouts.
The stony silence, unfortunately, had seemingly no effect on Harvey. The djinn was long lived and used to tormenting people, he was pretty much an expert at going at someone until they collapsed into a ball of fury.
"I have to say, Freddie," Harvey continued, how the irritating sprite knew to continue with the hated contraction of Frederick's name probably came down to an almost imperceptible reflex twitch in one of Frederick's facial muscles. "I was impressed by exactly how much damage you avoided taking. I just thought you were some hopeless wannabe. Turns out you're actually a second-rate practitioner. I don't know many people for whom mediocrity would be a step up but to a certain degree I think you should be proud."
Frederick had never previously met anyone like Harvey. The only hope Frederick had of not being taunted by the djinn was if there was some novel opportunity for Harvey to annoy someone else entirely. When no such opportunity presented itself Harvey's taunting of Frederick was merciless.
"Harvey," Frederick said, trying to remain calm but not doing terribly well at the job, "why do you have to insult me all the time?"
The same corner of the mind that had known what Harvey was up to all along threw its hands up in horror at that open invitation, but it was too late, it had been issued.
"Insult you?" Harvey asked, as if that had been the last thing on his little mischief fuelled mind. "Freddie I was just pontificating out loud, sharing my inner thoughts. I don't know what it is you could possibly find to get insulted about in that."
The rest of Frederick's mind gave up on trying to make any sense out of the situation at that point. Frederick turned on his heel to put Harvey behind him and strode off in the direction of the Gryphon's Wing.
Harvey followed along and continued to insult Frederick's name and his competence at knightly activities while, at the same time, conceding that it surprised Harvey that Frederick could even muster the ability to beat people to a pulp in a cage fight. Frederick seemed to have plateaued in a condition of not really paying much attention to this babble and he did notice a distinct drop off in the viciousness and originality of Harvey's barbs.
It was with some satisfaction that Frederick gave Harvey a pointed glare when they reached the threshold of the inn. Harvey grudgingly turned into cat form and allowed himself to be picked up by Frederick. Normally there was no way that Harvey would endure such an imposition but he was under an injunction from Phoebe that could not be resisted.
Phoebe was sitting in the lounge of the inn doing something witchy with a number of pebble sized cut crystals and a cloth with a diagram on it. As soon as she was in sight Harvey hopped out of Frederick's arms and went to sit next to her. Frederick put his coin purse on the table.
"That should see us right for a couple of days," he said, sitting opposite her.
"Then what?" Phoebe asked.
"Well, I guess I'll have to find some more work to do wherever we are," Frederick replied.
"No," Phoebe said, wearing the face that she always wore when Frederick had singularly failed to grasp the thrust of her point. "I mean, what are we going to do? And where are we going to do it?"
"Um," Frederick said. He had made the breakthrough of realising that he wasn't following Phoebe's train of thought but he had no idea what to ask her to get her to make sense. "I, uh, don't exactly know what you, uh..."
"Frederick," Phoebe said. "I think we have to face facts. We joined forces to reunite a little girl and her, uh, mouse, father... mouse-father. That mission has been accomplished, as far as we can tell. Now we each have our own things to be getting on with and... well, don't you think you'd be better off without us hanging around, slowing you down," she looked down at Harvey, "annoying you?"
Frederick could only muster a blink in response to this query. He hadn't really devoted much thought to the matter. He remembered being on his own, miserable, walking around from place to place, earning some scraps of money cage fighting or killing vermin, then he had fallen through a hole in reality and found himself the sidekick to the most celebrated hero in the long history of Faerie.
After that he had taken a long journey alone through a very strange place that ended with his opportunity to prove his knightly credentials by killing an evil sorcerer. Finally he experienced a brief stint in a jail cell in Hamsamperburg where he was arrested for vagrancy and then condemned to burn at the stake as a witch when he explained his situation to the locals. It was during this incarceration that he came to the conclusion that spending too much time on your own made you go a bit funny.
Thankfully, at that point, he had been rescued by Lester, James, Phoebe and the delightful Princess Anabyl. His magic sword, now imbued with the power of speech, was returned to him and from that point on he had been part of the team.
If you'd asked him what he thought the team's overall mission and direction should be, or would be in the future, he wouldn't know. All that he did know was that is was his team and he was happy to be a part of it. He was, in fact, so happy to be a part of it that he hadn't noticed its shrinkage to the point where it could no longer really be called a team any more.
In its current state 'the team' was him, Phoebe and Harvey, which made for two and a half team members, because Harvey was compelled to be present and did his best to sabotage them wherever possible. Also, Frederick had to concede, the idea that a team should have a mission, purpose and direction was a good one.
Frederick had set out to be a wandering knight for hire but, at this stage, he had so done that it wasn't even funny. The next thing that he ought to do was seek a place at the round table of the nearest royal personage who was in the hiring mood. The only problem with that was that most monarchs currently engaged in war were of the evil variety and Frederick was very much looking for a position as a white knight.
So his options were to resume wandering, or to stay with Phoebe and Harvey. The only issue being that Phoebe and Harvey wanted to go their own way. Frederick could not, off the top of his head, think of a knightly reason why he should stay with Phoebe and Harvey. He could think of plenty of personal ones, but knights did not do things for personal reasons, they did things because of their code.
What did Frederick's code have to say on the matter?
That was yet another awkward question. Frederick had never been much for scribing, or any other type of academics. His code boiled down to: 'Try to be nice and make yourself useful'. As filled with benevolent good intention as this was it did not compel him to remain in the company of a powerful newly not-dead witch and her djinn. They didn't even need his help to protect them from anything, having, as they did, a scary abundance of magical power between the two of them.
In wandering through this tangled maze of desire and motivation Frederick did manage to come up with a half-hearted attempt at a response:
"So, what are you going to do next?" he asked. This did not actually commit to the new 'go our separate ways' plan while also being an attempt to discover whether they had any plans which could be considered mutual.
"Well, I imagine I will have to go back to Vikor's castle... the remains of Vikor's castle, and get the amulet from about the skeleton's neck," Phoebe said. "Until that's broken Harvey and I are bonded together and, well, I don't think that's best for anyone."
"I... see..." Frederick said. "Well, that should be... I mean... I hope that all goes well for you."
"I'm sure you have some knightly things to be getting on with," Phoebe said. "So we shouldn't really delay you, should we?"
Frederick's answer to this question was interrupted by the sudden and unexpected arrival at their table of a worried looking goblin trader. The one who had been with the little girl, the one Harvey had whisked away from the House of Mirth back to Steephill Fell: Tabarnas.
"You two are still here," Tabarnas said. "That's excellent news."
"It is?" Phoebe asked. "Why?"
"Something's happening, to my books," Tabarnas said. "It's making me very worried."
"Your books?" Frederick asked.
"I didn't know you worked any magic," Phoebe said.
"Oh, I don't," Tabarnas replied. "Other than the magic of storytelling. I have a weakness for written tales, you see. So I have, along life's journey, furnished the shelves of a small library, mostly chronicles, mostly Avan Weatherstrong stories."
"So what's the problem?" Frederick asked.
"I have three new books, books I have never read, books that are not about Avan Weatherstrong," Tabarnas said.
"And?" Frederick asked, he was trying not to sound impatient but his hope that this interruption would provide reason for the party to stay together was fading fast.
"These books are a four volume work that describe the heroic ascendance, adventures and tragic demise of a female Dragon Warrior," Tabarnas said. "I only mention it because some of us feature in the prologue."
"Some of us?" Phoebe interrupted. "As in some of us here at the table?"
"Specifically yourself," Tabarnas said, nodding his head and making eye contact with Phoebe, he transferred his gaze to Frederick. "And you. The cat doesn't come into it, neither do I. I just thought you ought to know."
"So in this story, at some point in the future," Frederick said. "We are destined to encounter this dragon warrior?"
"No, that's not it," Tabarnas said. "The implication of this summary of the warrior's early life is that she met you both whilst she was very young."
Phoebe and Frederick exchanged a glance.
"You don't mean-" Phoebe began.
"See, the warrior used a magic spade, so it's said, to liberate you, Miss September," Tabarnas said. "And she provided some assistance in freeing you from a jail cell, so it says, following a journey through a magic mirror, following a regrettable instance with a bow and arrow, so the story goes, anyway."
Tabarnas reached into his overcoat and struggled to pull out a bound pile of books from an enormous interior pocket. He placed the volumes on the table and Frederick and Phoebe read the title of the topmost tome:
The Life and Death of Anabyl, Fiercest of the Dragon Warriors, Volume I
It appeared that Frederick had found some small reason why they might want to remain a team. The Life of Anabyl wasn't so much of a problem, but the death... They would have to study further, and see if such a death was preventable, and, if it was, they would have to prevent it. The how and the where of it were details that would come again, upon another day.