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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 11: Questionable Motives

Updated: Feb 21, 2021

After long, cleansing baths, the three freeblades sat in solemn silence in Cora’s room at Crossroads Tavern. Cuauhtérroc fiddled with the belt clasp on his macana, picking at a few new nicks in the wood, gained from his earlier tirade. Ordin sat in a chair with his arms folded, his surly brow shadowing his eyes as he focused on the floor near his feet. Cora alternated scalding hot glares at each of them.

She stood abruptly from her bed and poured a glass of water. “We’re in trouble,” she said, feeling her composure beginning to slip. “You need to let that sink in.”

She drained the glass in one breath. And then she unloaded.

“I said we needed a plan first. I told you we needed permission from the city. The sign on the front door said ‘Keep out,” for crying out loud! What in the Nine Hells were you two thinking!” She finished with a growl and slammed the glass down much harder than necessary.

One thing was quite apparent to the songsage: her reputation was on the line. She cursed under her breath. Her father would chastise her severely; her mother would remind her in the harshest terms that she wasn’t even supposed to be here; and Huxel would never turn over the Sword of the Coast, though she were to slay a hundred dragons. There was only one thing she could do, as they said in the O’Banion School, and that was to “face the music.” But at the moment, she felt like screaming.

Ordin shifted his glare to her. “I already told you—we were provin’ there ain’t no phantom up there. And we were right.”

Cora wanted to choke him. “You broke in! And you!” She shot an incendiary look at the Audric. “You burned the thing down!”

“I deed not mean to burn dees tower,” Cuauhtérroc answered. “I hate dees fire.”

“Look,” Ordin grumbled, “city laws are stupid—”

“No, they’re not,” Cora interrupted.

The mystic sat up, his eyes like two blue flames. “Yes, they are, Cora! They’re insane! The sign said the tower was ‘condemned.’ Well, that was a lie from the outset. There wasn’t a rinkin thing wrong with that tower, except someone was livin’ in it, settin’ up traps, conjurin’ komacis, and buildin’ an alchemy shop. That was a city secret they didn’t want you knowin’ about.”

Cora cocked her head sideways. “What are you talking about?”

“There ain’t no way the city didn’t know there was someone livin’ in that tower. Only the simple townfolks didn’t know anything about that, did they? Gælen thought it was the undead; he didn’t know his ghost story was just an old man playin’ with magic.”

“But you didn’t have the right or the authority to break in like that.”

“That’s just it. Laws like that shackle good folk. They won’t investigate it, and we can’t? If we had asked first, the city woulda said no and then nothin’ woulda happened, and their little secret would still be hidin’ out in the top of that tower. Who knows what they were up to?”

Cora dry scrubbed her face. “The city is not conspiring against its people.”

“You don’t know that,” Ordin replied. “There’s been a lot of weird stuff goin’ on ever since the Wars of Attrition—kingdoms fallin’, nations makin’ stupid laws, the Nephreqin comes outta nowhere. Nine Hells, even freebladin’ gets legalized!”

Cora shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. “It’s also possible that the old man was taking advantage of an abandoned tower, using it as a laboratory right under their noses. Isn’t it?”

“Maybe…but I seriously doubt it.”

The songsage turned to Cuauhtérroc. “We’ll never know now, will we?”

“I deed not mean to burn dees tower,” he insisted.

Cora collapsed on her bed. “Then, for the love of Beauty, why did you have to go completely berserk?”

“He don’t know what that means,” Ordin mumbled.

Cora sighed and rephrased it. “Why did you destroy everything?”

“I was angry,” Cuauhtérroc said.

“How is that the proper response?”

Cuauhtérroc looked at her with uncertainty in his eyes.

Cora tried again. “How is destroying everything the right thing to do when you’re angry?”

Cuauhtérroc glanced briefly at Ordin, then gave Cora a puzzled look. “Because now I am not angry.”

“Cripe…” Cora moaned. By now, the rumors were surely spreading faster than the fire that had gutted the tower, and all would be speculating about the freebladers who had broken in. “I’m sure there’s guards crawling all over the place by now. Maybe we stirred up a hornet’s nest, or maybe we accidentally shed some light on a four-year-old unsolved mystery. Who knows? Maybe all we did was displace an old, retired arcanist.”

“Someone that folks think is August Blanchard out buyin’ salt and pepper,” Ordin added with a grunt.

Cora’s eyes fell to the oversized tome they rescued from the fire. It sat atop a small table beside her bed. Leaning against the table was the greataxe and the longsword Ordin pulled out of the inferno. She closed her eyes and sighed. Valuable items like these were supposed to be exciting—the prize for all the risk-taking inherent in freeblading. But to Cora they were only unsightly reminders of their misdeeds.

“So, all we got out of that fiery wreck was that book and a couple of weapons?” she asked, pointing to the table. “No documents or personal effects?”

“I’m afraid not,” Ordin said with a nod. “Unless you wanna count all that dandy tripe in the wardrobes. That might still be up there, if the fire didn’t break through the stone and burn out the fourth floor, too.”

“I deed not mean to burn dees tower,” Cuauhtérroc repeated yet again.

“We know,” Cora and Ordin answered in chorus.

“I know you’re a good person, Cuauhtérroc,” Cora added with measured thought, “and you’ve got a bigger heart than many people I know. It’s just that you pretty much validated every stereotype I’ve heard about the Audrics. Savages have—well, it’s hard to put this delicately—savages are known for being pretty brutal and, frankly, unpredictable. They tend to break stuff and kill people. So, you just gave people a lot of reason to hate you.”

To her complete surprise, Cuauhtérroc lowered his head. “I am sorry for dees.”

After a pause, Cora asked, “What exactly did that old man say to you, to get you so riled up?”

Cuauhtérroc’s remained motionless, quietly staring at his lap. His hands no longer busied themselves with his macana, but now slowly flexed into a pair of fists. His breathing shortened, growing louder and punctuated, until his shoulders rose and fell with each agitated burst. Cora began to edge toward the door. She glanced quickly at Ordin, but he was inching his hand toward the hilt of his scimitar, his focus entirely on the Audric. Finally, Cuauhtérroc looked up at Cora and said, “Dees man say I am dees failure.”

“Well, you’re not that.”

“I was lost in dees darkness; I was burned in dees fire; I was dying by dees spider; and I was made not moving by dees man. All of dees make me—how do you say—frusted.”

“Frustrated?” Cora suggested.

“Yes, frustrated. I want to keel him, and den he say I am dees failure. And den he walk through dees purple door and he is gone. I theenk he is right and it make me very mad. But I deed not mean to burn dees tower.”

After a moment of quiet thought, Ordin shifted his gaze to the songsage. “So…you think that old man really is this August Blanchard fellow? What’d he say when you asked him?”

“He didn’t say one way or the other.”

That evening, Cora lay awake in bed, tossing restlessly as she tried to anticipate the questions people would ask. She pounded her pillow into a myriad of different shapes, trying to create one that felt right for her aching head. She didn’t know what the laws were in Westmeade, but common sense said that a building marked “Condemned” would be off-limits. Finally, she tossed the blankets off and started pacing the room. So, what do we say…we were conducting a casual inspection to see if the rumors of a phantom were true? Certainly, exposing an undead infestation is considered a good deed in Westmeade! The fire was a pure accident, a result of scuffling with a trespasser who was interloping in the tower. That’ll work. Since the structure is condemned but not actually unsound, there was no real danger, right? Except for the traps, banespiders, and magical darkness. Something secretive was definitely happening in there; the only question is, like Ordin said, did the city know about that old man.

It was a puzzle she could not piece together, but it was all she could come up with. She collapsed onto the only chair in the room and dry-scrubbed her face. Who was that old man…? She heaved a sigh and opened the escritoire that sat on the small table by her chair. After recording all her thoughts, she blew out her lantern and went to sleep.

The next morning, she awoke to a light knocking on her door. Through half-closed eyes, she noticed the sun was barely up, tinting the sky a pinkish hue. Glowering at the door, she threw on a robe and shuffled to answer it, but before she could reach the latch, a small envelope slid underneath into the room, stopping against her foot.

She quickly unlocked and opened the door, but the courier was already gone. Intrigued, she scooped the envelope off the floor and sat down on her bed to read.

Miss Cora,

You will be interested to know that your Audric friend has been delivered to the Tower of Truth. He will be questioned for his part in the burning of Wilder Tower. If he does not have good counsel, he will likely be condemned for his crimes. You and the white Vashanti are advised to remain in Westmeade.

It wasn’t signed or addressed, and Cora turned the sheet around in her hand, frowning at it. She could not ascertain whether the message was intended as a friendly warning or a veiled threat. Regardless, her heart went out to the savage. He’ll never get a fair hearing. Whoever wrote this already thinks he’s committed crimes.

Glumly, Cora O’Banion slipped the note into a pocket in her trousers and walked silently to Riverwalk Park to share the news with Ordin, who had started spending nights there almost immediately after arriving in town.

“There’s no rinkin way I’m goin’ to jail over this, Cora,” the mystic emphasized after reading the note.

“It’s just questioning. Nobody’s going to jail.”

“I’m tellin’ you right now, if they so much as hint at a jail cell, I’ll kill every last one of them.”

Cora raised an eyebrow. “How exactly does that help your cause?”

“Look, I didn’t do nothin’ wrong, and I ain’t goin’ to jail.”

“I just said you’re not going to jail. Were you listening?”

“I’m just sayin’…”

Cora rubbed her forehead. “I know…you’ve led a hard life and endured some pretty horrific stuff deep underground in a cage at the hands of the Roark. None of that has anything to do with breaking into a private residence and trying to kill the owner, or burning down his house.”

“You know good and well that wasn’t his house,” Ordin said.

“But how do we prove that?”

“You’re lookin’ at it backwards, Cora. They should have to prove that it is his house, this ‘August Blanchard’ fellow who’s been dead for several years.”

“True, that would be a tough argument. But, here’s the case they’re going to set against us: trespassing on either public or private property, destruction of that property, and maybe attempted murder.”

“Well, he attempted to murder us!”

“Not really.”

“What? Fire traps, komaci?”

Cora ticked off counterpoints on her fingers. “Common feature of towers, out of his control. When it came down to a face-to-face confrontation, he didn’t try to kill us, which would have been easy for him to do.”

Ordin folded his arms and glared at her. “Well, this town with all its rules is just stupid. I’m leavin’.”

Cora thrust out a hand, detaining him with firm grip. “Ordin, we need you. If you leave, they’ll hunt you down. I’m sure you can stay well out of sight for the rest of your long life, but we can’t. If you leave, that’s one less witness on our side, which makes it all the harder to make our case.” She looked him squarely in his blue eyes. “If you leave, you put Cuauhtérroc in jail. I might be able to argue my way out or maybe my father can pull a few political strings for me. But Cuauhtérroc’s got nothing. He’s got no one but us.”

The mystic resisted, testing her hold. But as they locked stares, his resolve slowly melted away, and he sighed in resignation. “Fine. I’ll stay. But I’m tellin’ you, if they put me in jail, someone’s gonna get hurt.”

“Okay. Now, let me suggest one last thing. Stay in the tavern with me. If they have to find you, it’ll look like you’re trying to avoid them. If you’re easily accessible, you won’t look guilty.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. You city folk are always makin’ things way more complicated than it needs to be. Look, I’m right here, and I ain’t gonna run away. I ain’t hidin’ from nobody any more than I always do because I hate crowded places and most people.”

“But they don’t know that,” Cora said in explanation. “Trust me, Ordin. It’ll go much better if you just play the game for a little while.”

The mystic sat down on a rock and methodically picked blades of grass. He was thinking hard, and Cora let him have all the time he needed. When he had plucked nearly everything within arm’s reach, he looked up at her with sullen eyes. “I don’t much like this whole rinkin mess, Cora, but I like Cuauhtérroc. If playin’ your little game will help keep him out of jail, all right. I’ll do it.”

Cora’s relieved smile shone with pride in the mystic. She knew what a sacrifice this was for him.

“Thank you,” she said warmly. “Now, I’m going to speak with Calloway, first to find out how the process works, and then to plead Cuauhtérroc’s case.”

“Is he also a judge?”

“I don’t think so, but he sits on the Ruling Council of Westmeade, so maybe he can exert some influence over matters. Also, I want to find out more about the late August Blanchard.”

“What do you want me to do?”

Cora was elated at the question. She had begun to doubt she would ever hear it, but here was proof she was finally becoming a leader. A good one, she hoped.

Later that morning, when Cora entered Calloway’s Emporium, the bell over the door could not have sounded more melancholic. As she entered the galleria of wonders, she cast not even a glance at the displays, marching with purpose to the back of the shop.

A liveried man slid into her path, blocking her. “May I…help you?” he asked, the pause indicating warning.

Cora hesitated. In a well-warded shop of magical artifacts, even this shopkeep could be powerful. “I need to see Calloway. Please.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

It was a question she anticipated, so Cora whipped out the unsigned letter. “It’s official business.”

The clerk’s eyebrows raised as he scanned the note. “Right this way, milady,” he responded with sudden deference. He led her to a solid wall near the back of the Emporium, breathed an arcane phrase, and waved his hand over a random area.

A panel of the wall suddenly shifted forward and left, revealing a passage through the wall. The man extended an arm. “If you please. The stairs are to your left.”

Moments later, Cora knocked at a heavy door at the back of the loft.

Artus Calloway appeared and offered a professional smile. “Good day, Miss O’Banion. What can I do for you?”

Cora’s tone was all business. “Calloway, we need to talk.”

The brusqueness of her statement hardly fazed him. “I see you got my letter. Come into my office.”

Calloway closed the door and offered Cora a chair and a glass of water. “I heard your Audric friend broke into Wilder Tower and burned it down.”

Cora took the glass and sat. “It wasn’t exactly like that.”

“I thought not. Please tell me,” the merchant said. He pulled a curved pipe from his desk drawer, filled the bowl with pipeweed and lit it.

“First, what’s to become of Cuauhtérroc?”

“He’s being interrogated by Sir Reginald Hunt, our Chief Prosecutor. Hunt will probably detain him overnight at the very least—standard protocol and all that. At least we’re not in Lothania; I was there several years ago looking for the rare violet winterberry that grows on the slopes of the Skymounts. One taste of that delicious berry makes all the hazards completely worth it. If you’ve never had a violet wint—”

“Excuse me, Calloway,” Cora interrupted, “but you were telling me about Cuauhtérroc?”

“Yes, of course. He’ll be fine, I assure you. Hunt is the consummate gentleman. Now, please, tell me your story.”

Cora was no stranger to telling stories, but she was also no stranger to politics. She knew now was not the time for spinning yarns, and though her natural instinct was to embellish the truth, she made every effort to relate only the facts. She told about the old man’s fanciful ghost story concerning Wilder Tower, and how when he pointed upwards to the structure, a light could be seen darting about behind the top-story window. With some reluctance, she mentioned the ridiculous notion that August Blanchard was returned from the dead and haunting the tower. She emphasized that she didn’t want to enter a barred and condemned building, but felt compelled to when her friends entered and disappeared into total darkness. She described being lost in that unnatural darkness, encountering banespiders, and setting off deadly traps. She questioned aloud how those things could be present in a “condemned” building. She described the magical prowess of the man on the fifth floor who seemed to have set up residence there. In her words, it was lamentable that they failed to introduce themselves first and might had come across as attacking when they were simply trying to escape. A slight stretching of the truth, but hopefully it would put Cuauhtérroc in a positive light. Finally, and with some hesitation, Cora told of the savage’s angered response, but insisted that he had no intention of setting anything ablaze.

When her story was complete, she drank her glass of water.

Calloway blew a smoke ring into the air and asked, “Can you describe the arcanist for me?”

It was an unexpected first question, and it gave Cora pause. But with great attention to detail, she described the old man they had encountered, right down to the clothes he was wearing and the diamond ring on his right hand. Calloway sat in stony silence, but the mention of the ring caused him to grow slightly pale. Wisps of smoke fell softly from his pursed lips, and the pipe hung limply between his teeth.

“What is it, Calloway?” Cora asked. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No,” Calloway said, slowly pulling his pipe from his mouth. “But you have just described August Blanchard perfectly. At least, how I remember him.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Sir Reginald Hunt, Captain of Westmeade’s guard, studied the dark-skinned warrior standing before him, but he was at a complete loss for what to do. He was by no means inexperienced in meting out judgment.

As a proud Kedethian, he had served his country faithfully all his life, attending military academy at Cer Cannaid and joining the Sentinel League, Alikon’s elite cavalry. He ascended quickly through the ranks and at twenty-five was one of the youngest commanding officers in the League during the Wars of Attrition. When his term of service with the Sentinel League was over, Hunt gladly accepted a post in the Kedethian-settled city of Westmeade as Captain of the Guard. And, he was honored to serve his country again when the people of Wescott District nominated him as their alderman.

Four years after accepting that role, Hunt was knighted by the Duke of Alikon, Kurtis Lenair, in a grand ceremony honoring nearly thirty of the commanders during the Wars. Shortly thereafter, Westmeade commissioned the hanging of his portrait in the Hall of Heroes in the Lord’s Castle.

Yet, with all his lineage, training, accolades and honors, nothing had prepared Sir Reginald Hunt for the dark-skinned jungle warrior that stood before him now. On the contrary, his high station, military training, formal education, and proud Kedethian heritage—all this had predisposed him to mistrust and even hate the Audric people. They were backward heathens who knew little of—and cared less for—the Maker, civilization, or even basic morals. By the Kedethian Decree, they were meant to be ruled.

Today, he had been called upon to prosecute one of these men. The Council would expect fairness, as he had always delivered. But most of his cases involved his own people and the occasional Lothanian or Arelathan native who wandered through. The sea-plying ragamuffins were occastional difficult cases, but the ancestor-worshiping savages of the forsaken Audric Jungle—they were something altogether different. How could he show fairness to people who routinely pillaged, burned, and raped each other? They ate one another’s babies, for crying out loud!

Standing before him now was an Audric savage, looking exactly as they had always been described—thick, disheveled black hair, shirtless and sun-bronzed. Frankly, it was surprising that he wore pants and boots, given the tales about these people. The city would expect the same degree of justice, but Hunt found the very thought grating.

The obsidian-studded club lying on Hunt’s desk interested him. He picked it up and traced his forefinger along the black studs embedded in the wood. The craftsmanship was impressive, even if the weapon itself was crude. It could certainly kill a man—crush the skull outright.

“Well,” Hunt began, “do you speak the common tongue?” It was the first order of business, for without a common language, he would need an interpreter, and he doubted seriously anyone in Westmeade spoke Audrian, never mind any of the more obscure tribal dialects from the jungles.

“Alton Myrick teach me to say your words, but I do not read. Cora O’Banion say she will teach me dees.”

Hunt jotted down both names, as best as he could make them out through the man’s thick accent. He hoped he got the spelling right.

“I’m glad we’ll be able to communicate, then. It’s always much more trouble than it’s worth when I have to fetch an interpreter. Now, what do they call you?”

“My name ees Térroc. I am called Cuauhtérroc. ‘Cuauh’ means dees.” He pointed to the black panther pelt lying on the table beside the obsidian club. “I keel dees panther to be a panther warrior for my people.”

Hunt ran his fingers through the fur of the pelt. Judging by the size of the skin, he estimated the panther was likely five feet in length, not counting the tail, and probably weighed two hundred pounds.

“I bet you ate its heart, too.” It was meant as a cutting barb, but when Cuauhtérroc affirmed the fact, Hunt’s expression grew dark. He’s a real savage.

* * * * * * * * * *

“What’s with the ring?” Cora asked.

Calloway sat back in his chair and searched his memory. Cora leaned forward in anticipation.

“August Blanchard was born about sixty years ago in Wilder District, and like every other child in that part of town, he was born into poverty. He lived by meager means, made worse when his father abandoned Blanchard’s mother and his five siblings. He grew up a nobody—a dirty, skinny boy with a bland past, a dismal present, and a bleak future. But all that changed when he solved a local riddle. A jeweler had posted a particularly difficult puzzle on a signboard that several of the brightest minds in Westmeade could not solve. But the young Blanchard solved the thing in less than thirty minutes. Everyone who witnessed the event was astounded at his insights, and the jeweler promptly gave August the prize: a solid gold ring inlaid with an exquisite diamond.”

“The one on the arcanist’s hand,” Cora interjected softly.

Calloway nodded. “As you might expect, that day changed Blanchard’s life. A noble who had witnessed the event contacted August’s mother and offered to pay for the boy’s general education and apprenticeship at Rillis’ Guild of Magicks. Young August went on to become an arcanist at the Guild. He stuck to his books, mostly, living as a recluse. Some thought he was wasting his gifts. Then, shortly after his forty-second birthday, when the post for Wilder’s aldermancy came up for election, he campaigned for the office. After a close race, August Blanchard became Wilder’s fifty-third alderman.

“His tenure was a profitable one, shortened though it was, with several promising changes enacted. He fought for the commissioning of Wilder Tower as a monument and a museum, saving it from probable demolition. The citizens of Wilder came to appreciate Blanchard and considered him a good leader and champion of their plight. He had a lot of plans for that tower, so it doesn’t surprise me to find him up there.”

Cora frowned. “Wait…Blanchard died. You’re not saying that was actually him…are you?”

* * * * * * * * * *

“So, Térroc, why are you here?” Sir Reginald Hunt asked.

Cuauhtérroc frowned. “I do not know. Dees men take me out of dees lady Weelkins’ house and bring me here.”

Hunt shook his head. “No, I mean why are you here…in Arelatha?”

Cuauhtérroc looked around him. “Where is dees Arelatha?”

Hunt felt exasperation welling up in him. “Okay, why aren’t you in the jungle where you belong?”

“Dees Amurraks burn my veelage, and I come here to get dees army so I can keel dem.”

“I see,” Hunt mumbled as he scribbled down notes. “And why are you in Westmeade?”

“We find dees lost things for Calloway in dees temple in dees woods. Calloway give us dees meeny bottles because we do dees job.”

“You know Artus Calloway, do you?”

“Yes, we have his commeeshun in Cer Halcyon to find dees lost things.”

“So, you’re part of a freeblade group. Which agency? Pathway, Huntsfield House, Swords and Boards?”

“It is Pathway.”

Hunt scribbled down the name. “Running around the countryside finding stolen goods…that doesn’t help you get an army, now does it?”

“No. I have only two weemen and a half of dees Vashanti. He has a wolf friend, too. But one of dees weemen run away. I do not think she like me.”

Hunt rubbed his forehead. This line of questioning was going to take all day. “Tell me about this ‘Cora O’Banion’ person,” he said, leaning forward.

As best he could, Cuauhtérroc described his first encounter with the woman with red hair and bright green eyes on the streets of Cer Halcyon, his subsequent meeting with her in Pathway, and several of his impressions of her, including her musical talents and beautiful voice. He mentioned that she could create light and bursts of sound, as well as music. “She ees a good female,” he concluded, “but she do not know how to be dees leader.”

“So, you like this girl, do you?”

“She is my friend.”

Hunt wrote more on his ledger.

Cuauhtérroc pointed to the pad. “She say she will teach me dees, too.”

Hunt looked up at him. “What…writing?”


Hunt added more notes.

* * * * * * * * * *

Cora reflected upon the implications of Calloway’s story. “The old man in Wilder Tower was not a phantom, like they said.”

Calloway shook his head. “No, I should say not.”

“But everything is just as I told you.”


Cora studied the merchant and thought harder. “It wasn’t an illusion.”

“To be sure.”

“Then, someone is pretending to be him, an imposter who’s wearing Blanchard’s clothes and ring.”

“That’s possible.”

Cora sat back in her chair. “I suppose he could have faked his death.” That’s been done before…


“What else would explain it?”

Calloway smiled and blew a cloud of aromatic smoke into the room. “High magic.”

“You mean,” Cora began hesitantly, “returned from the dead?”

“Perhaps…but doubtful,” Calloway said softly. “For one thing, his grave is undisturbed. And I am fairly certain that if a ceremony of that kind had taken place, the Council would have known about it. There may be another explanation, but that would require some research.”

After another period of silence, Cora said, “You know people are saying they’ve seen him.”

“Yes, I’ve heard. I had originally cast those rumors aside as the vain hopes of a hopeless people. They have not had representation on the Council since Blanchard was murdered.”

Cora sat thoughtfully for a moment. “What happened?”

“Here’s what we know.” Calloway said, “Three years ago, Blanchard turned up dead, stabbed several times behind Marley’s Tankard, and a dragon-blood and two locals were tried and convicted for the crime.”

“Did they actually do it?” Cora interrupted.

Without missing a beat, Calloway continued, “Like I said, they were tried and convicted for the crime…and later executed. Some praised the quick response and tenacity of the guard, but others said it was rushed and a bit too convenient, suggesting the real killer was still at large. The Council launched a second investigation, but nothing turned up. Justice was served.”

“So why haven’t you elected his replacement?”

Calloway shook his head sadly. “We’ve tried. By the Maker, we have tried. For two years following Blanchard’s death, we held elections six separate times to fill that post, but each time the nominee died or went missing before he could be sworn in. Now we can’t even get a volunteer.”

“That’s horrible,” Cora commented.

Calloway paused here to savor his pipeweed.

“Recently,” he continued, “rumors have begun to surface that the arcanist is alive. Lights and sounds in the old tower, and a few dubious sightings of the spellslinger himself. I say ‘dubious,’ because most of these rumors are perpetuated by drunkards and busybodies. There were a few early investigations into the rumors, but nothing ever came of them. Eventually, the Council voted to condemn the tower but has yet to determine its future. Wilder Tower predates the town; it would be a shame to raze it for so small a reason.”

“So, the tower’s not about to fall apart?” Cora asked.

Calloway shrugged as he blew a roiling cloud of smoke. “You were in it. You tell me.”

Cora shook her head. The tower was old but in no danger of collapse, so far as she could tell.

“I didn’t think so,” Calloway said.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sir Reginald Hunt questioned Cuauhtérroc through the entire morning, learning much of his travels to and within the mainland. Through all these accounts, Hunt continuously jotted down notes on his pad. He was nothing if not a thorough transcriber. When Cuauhtérroc was about to launch into the tale of Wilder Tower, Hunt excused himself for a break.

Sergeant Reimart, a thick, muscular man with light blonde hair and gray-blue eyes, entered the lavatory just as the captain refastened the closures on his trousers. The sergeant’s casual manner suggested a circle of friendship with the Captain most of the guardsmen did not enjoy.

Reimart leaned against the wall and shook his head. “I don’t know why you put so much effort into this guy, Sir. He’s an Audric savage. This should be your easiest prosecution.”

“Reimart,” Hunt said as he washed his hands in a porcelain basin, “quite the opposite: this is my hardest case ever. Our Nephreqin brethren to the south have long controlled the Bluhusk Sea, taking slaves from the Pirate Crags and the Audric Jungle for many decades. But this one got away. This one escaped his homeland and invaded ours…except, instead of destroying everything in his path as he should—as we would expect—he’s helping to retrieve stolen goods.”

Reimart looked surprised. “Well…maybe he’s different.”

“But I don’t like him, Reimart.” Then the captain chuckled. “Our people are meant to rule Arelatha, and his people are meant to be our slaves. There’s so much at stake here that the Ruling Council can’t possibly fathom. Naturally, they will want justice served—and I always deliver justice.”

“Why is this so difficult, then?” Reimart asked.

Hunt folded his arms. “The Tribunal will speak of justice on the small scale, the insignificant speck that is burning out Wilder Tower. They will completely miss the larger picture that is the reestablishment of the Kedethian Ascendency. Who cares about the tower? That man’s very freedom undermines justice. I want to enact the greater justice—enslaving him—the Tribunal will focus only on the guilt of the minor case at hand. Knowing that, I actually have to shed the Kedethian Decree when it’s staring me squarely in the face. I can’t obtain the greater justice unless he’s guilty of a major infraction.”

Reimart smiled at his captain. “So, just make sure he’s guilty.”

Hunt clapped his sergeant on the back as they left the lavatory. “That, my friend, is exactly what I intend to do.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“By the way,” Calloway said, “I suspect that you and Ordin will be next in line for questioning, and if there’s enough evidence, a trial will soon follow to determine guilt or innocence. But I wouldn’t worry too much about it if I were you.”

“It’s Cuauhtérroc I worry about,” Cora said softly. “He knows nothing of civilized ways, though he tries so very hard to fit in. I’m afraid he won’t get a fair trial if it comes to that.”

“Let’s talk no more about it, Miss O’Banion. Actually, I probably shouldn’t be discussing this matter with you at all, come to think of it. I may be randomly chosen to sit on the Tribunal… Oh yes, there will be a trial. It wouldn’t help your case at all if it became known that we were conferring beforehand.”

“I can be discreet.”

“Yes, of course. All the same, I think you should probably go now. Don’t worry about it. Justice will be served.”

That night was dreadful for Cora. She had visited the Tower of Truth that afternoon to speak with Cuauhtérroc, but she had been denied access to him—something about keeping the witness intact. Arguing accomplished nothing but a threat of her being detained as well. So, with concerns for Cuauhtérroc plaguing her mind, she forced herself to bed early. Sleep came with great difficulty and only through the coercion of several strong drinks. It was during nights like this that Cora most hated one of the great songsage ironies: she could put others into a peaceful slumber with a lullaby but not herself.

Morning came early and brought a headache with it. Ordin sat waiting for her at a table in the common room with a cup of steaming hot kaffe between his pale hands. “You look like somethin’ a hodekin chewed on,” he said.

Cora plopped down in the chair opposite the mystic. “I need some of that,” she said, pointing to his drink. Then she folded her arms across the table and laid her head atop them.

Ordin motioned to the bartender to fetch Cora the drink. “So, what do we do now?” he said to the top of her head.

A muffled “I don’t know” barely escaped the barrier of Cora’s folded arms, but when the hot drink was placed beside her, she sat up and cradled it in her hands.

“Rough night?” Ordin asked with a slight chuckle.

Cora nodded and sipped her kaffe. “I couldn’t stop thinking about him. He’s so unaware of our customs and culture that they could make him confess to eating his own mother if they twisted his words just right. As soon as they find out he went berserk, he won’t stand a chance. They’ll try to prove insanity, dementia, unbridled chaos…anything to condemn him. And depending on the system in Alikon, that could mean imprisonment, extradition, maybe even execution. I don’t know.”

The mystic folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. “Yesterday you said nobody’s goin’ to jail, and now you’re frettin’ that Cuauht could be jailed, sent home or killed? I’m playin’ your game, Cora, but I’m startin’ to lose a lotta confidence in it. I stand by what I said; if they so much as say the word, I’ma bust somebody’s head.”

“I really wish you could hear how stupid that is—to use one of your favorite words.”

Ordin smirked. “Your talk with Calloway didn’t go so well, did it?”

“Well, I learned a lot about August Blanchard, but Calloway seems to think that the man at the top of the tower might actually be him. No, not an undead Blanchard, a real live one back from the dead. If that’s true, we attacked a councilman. And the tower? It’s not really condemned.”

“I knew that.”

Cora nodded. “It turns out that it is an exceptionally old and historically important structure that Blanchard planned to turn into a monument or a museum or something.”

Ordin chuckled. “Well, those plans just went up in smoke.”

Cora groaned and turned to her kaffe. It was going to be a long day.

She didn’t leave the table until nearly noon, switching from the hot brew to a cold one as the lunch crowd began to form.

* * * * * * * * * *

Cuauhtérroc spent the day in solitude on the third floor of the Tower of Truth, in a room hardly larger than the straw mattress and chamber pot it contained. The single window was open and barred, and the interior walls were made of the same masonry that formed the whole tower. He lay on the mattress staring at the ceiling, quietly passing the time.

He spent much of that time remembering his friend Cuauhmegmoh, who had died battling the Amurraks. He recalled the giant lizard that tore through the battle, the pained look in Cuauhéntax’s face as they huddled. He remembered watching Mazachtitlán burn. But he had been spared, saved out of that wretched fate to raise an army and avenge his people. That was the last command given him, and it needed to be done.

He reminisced for some time about his people, the family and tribe he had left behind. Had Cuauhtoolah, his father, perished in the battle or the fire? What had become of his mother and sisters? What of his younger brother? What of the Elder? What would the shamans of Zilopochtlán have said about the raids and destruction of their homeland? Did they survive? Surely the Great Father of the Fire Mountains would not have let the shamans perish. Surely, he had not abandoned them!

Cuauhtérroc rolled off the mattress and lay prostrate on the floor with his arms stretched above his head, his nose pressed against the stones. Without the mediation of the shamans and without the confidence he would be heard and not burned in angry fire, Cuauhtérroc prayed to the Great Father for help. For the first time in his life.

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