• Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 13: New Contacts

Updated: Mar 3, 2021


The next week, Harold Kotting received in his regular post a very irregular envelope. “Miss O’Banion?” he called up the stairs, an obvious lilt of curiosity in his voice.

“Yes?” she answered from her room.

“There’s a post here for you. Pretty fancy, too, I’d say.”

Cora bounded down the stairs while Velma Kotting looked in from her sandwich preparations. Harold passed the vellum envelope to Cora, all the while eyeing it with fascination. The paper was stiff but smooth, and filigree curled along the edges of the lace-cut flap. Nothing so elegant or of such obvious importance had ever graced his stoop before.

Cora recognized the handwriting. Calloway. There was no insignia in the wax seal or return address, which meant he intended to keep this private.

“Well,” Velma said from the kitchen, “are you going to open it?”

Cora nodded and broke the seal. The message was simple and unsigned:


Miss O’Banion,

It has come to my attention that some of your testimony has been recently corroborated. This means, if proven true, that you were possibly wrongly convicted. However, there is nothing to be done about that for the moment. I share this simply to inform you that some are standing with you, if only in the background.

Visit me on the first day of the week if you wish to discuss. Also, it is important that you exercise continued discretion.

“Well?” Velma Kotting asked again, wiping her hands on her apron as she walked in from the kitchen. Her curiosity demanded answers.

“It’s nothing, really,” Cora lied.

Velma huffed and frowned. “I don’t believe that for a second. That’s some fancy paper there and nice manuscript. I just know that’s from some rich young dandy up in Penchard District or maybe Overdale. You never said you had a courtier, Cora. Are you seeing someone? You know, I raised two lovely daughters, and I could help y—”

“Now Velma,” her husband chided, “if Miss O’Banion don’t want to tell us who it’s from, then we best let her be. She’s a guest in our home, and we shouldn’t be meddlin’ in her affairs.”

Cora smiled appreciatively but noted his inquisitive look. “Thank you, Mr. Kotting.”

His return smile carried a hint of disappointment.

But Cora bounded back up the stairs, where she buried her face in her pillow and screamed with joy.


On the appointed day, as soon as Cora had finished breakfast, she walked briskly across town to Calloway’s Emporium, her mind racing with possibilities. After passing through the requisite clearance, she waited impatiently in the upstairs lobby for Calloway to emerge from his office.

Just as she was beginning to grumble over his lack of punctuality, the office door finally opened, and the merchant beckoned her in.

“I suspect that you have a bright future ahead of you,” he said, gesturing to a chair. “I hope so, anyway. But it does seem to be a rough beginning.”

Cora nodded.

“I remember, in my younger days, trekking across the open plains of Elandra in search of the rare mo-sket beetle, prized for its iridescent shell—but the taste! Cooked over mesquite wood, about the only thing that grows in that land, and flavored with a mixture of black pepper, cumin, and the ground bark of a clearmont tree—” Calloway closed his eyes and kissed the tips of his fingers. “Exquisite. Now, that shell…that is a thing to behold, and an intact mo-sket shell is worth well over a thousand gold stallions.”

Cora patiently waited for the story to resolve.

“But if you break it,” Calloway finished with a resigned shrug, “well, then it’s completely worthless. So…” He nodded, almost expectantly.

“It was a rough beginning for you, too?” Cora offered.

Calloway pulled a gnarled pipe from his pocket and poked it in his mouth. “Not really, but that particular journey was disappointing. At any rate, I believe I have some news for you.”

“Please tell me, Calloway,” Cora said with great patience. “Curiosity is positively consuming me.”

“It would appear that much of your testimony has been corroborated. Some of the more, er—shall we say—outlandish elements of your story may prove to be not nearly as embellished as we might have expected, coming from a songsage.”

Cora frowned. “Wait…what? Did you just typecast me?”

“Yes, but not only you, Miss O’Banion…Cuauhtérroc, Ordin, and practically every person ever tried in the Tower of Truth. It’s actually part of the process.”

Cora felt bitterness welling within her. This wasn’t how things were handled in Lorenvale, or anywhere else west of Cer Halcyon. She had not expected presumptions to play a role in determining someone’s guilt. “That’s really not fair,” she said after mulling it over. “I mean, just because I’m a songsage, that doesn’t mean I can’t tell the truth. Or that I don’t.”

Calloway smiled. “I also knew you were an honest person, Cora,” he said as he prepared the pipe. “And I used that presumption alongside the notion that your Tower story was a little far-fetched.”

“It’s not far-fetched! The evidence was all there. In Wilder Tower! You only had to go see it for yourself.”

The merchant’s face glowed with the orange flicker of his lighted pipe. He blew a plume of fragrant smoke. “That’s not our place. All the evidence was supposed to be gathered already and presented at the trial. Hunt prosecutes and Baskin defends; the Tribunal judges. That’s how it works.”

Cora folded her arms and muttered under her breath. “We should be free.”

“Perhaps,” Calloway replied, “and perhaps not. Do you deny burning out the top floors?”

“No.”

“Then there is some guilt remaining. But I did not call you here to retry your case. I have what I think you will deem to be good news.”

“So, you found something? Can we have our sentence commuted?”

Calloway shook his head. “Probably not right away. It seems Hunt’s men fought a suit of animated armor, and it killed some of them. Certainly, the city does not employ such things in its monuments, or anywhere else. So, it lends some credence to your story that an arcanist took up residence there.”

“I see. And what is Captain Hunt saying now?”

“He remains fairly tight-lipped, as expected. No one on the Council has brought this forward yet, but I suspect someone will soon.”

“Why don’t you?” Cora asked, sitting forward in her chair.

“I tried your case. It would be unlawful for me to present further evidence. I’m telling you so that you won’t despair. But I must emphasize that it’s only rumor at this point, and we are councilmen. We don’t entertain rumors.”

Cora nearly laughed out loud. And I don’t stretch the truth…

Calloway noted the hint of mirth in Cora’s eyes. “Well, at any rate, Sir Hunt has replaced the front doors and stationed armed guards at the base of Wilder Tower. He has a crew combing through the findings. I do not think I’ve known a man of greater integrity, so I would expect he is weighing everything very carefully. Still, I haven’t heard anything yet, but I will keep my ears open on your behalf.”

“What can we do?”

“In light of your sentence,” Calloway continued, “probably not much. Sit tight and let the Council do its work. It may seem slow and tedious, but that’s because—well, I won’t pretend—we’re slow and tedious. In the meantime, I will commend your company to any job openings I hear of.”

The news was hardly satisfying, but it was something. Maybe even hopeful.

Calloway stood and politely excused himself. “I am expecting a delivery of precious cargo from north of the Dragoncrests to arrive any moment. Have you ever been to the Frozen Pinnacles? It’s a land unlike any other—nothing but snow and ice, a vast sea of starkness and white…everywhere. A rare violet-colored flower grows there—I have no idea what it’s called—of the most sublime beauty. Why does the Maker put something so incredible in a place where no one will see it?”

Cora shook free of her thoughts long enough to realize he was waiting for a reply. “Well, I suppose you saw it.”

The merchant blinked at her and rubbed his chin. “So I did…”


That afternoon, Cora gathered her two allies together in the common room of the Crossroads Tavern. As she savored a foaming mug of ale, she read Calloway’s letter to them.

“So, I talked with Calloway today, and he believes us. He says there’s a rumor going around that a suit of animated armor killed a bunch of the city’s guards. Captain Hunt isn’t talking, and I suspect that’s because he’s trying to figure out what to do. It looks like we’ve got a political friend.”

“Ain’t that an oxymoron?” Ordin asked.

Cora shook her head. “There are good rulers, too. And we need them to stay good. So, we’re not asking Calloway to lie for us or break any of the Council’s rules. All we need is for the evidence to speak for us, to show the Council that Hunt got it all wrong.”

Both men sat in stony silence.

“I know it’s a long shot. There are some pretty strict rules about redoing a trial, but…Calloway says it might happen if the evidence is there. Oh, also…they might hire us to do some jobs around town, too.”

Ordin shrugged.

“Well, I could use some work,” Cora said with a sigh. “I’m running out of funds. And, sadly, I can’t exactly play at the taverns right now.”

The mystic rolled his eyes, and Cuauhtérroc took a sip of water.

“You two are hopeless. Doesn’t it excite you to know that someone on the Council is taking our side? He didn’t have to send this letter, you know.”

“Fine,” Ordin said at last, “but I’ll be happier when I can leave this place without a price on my head.”

“‘Scuse me,” said a short, stocky, blonde man as he approached their table. “I’s sorry to innarupt ya, Miss O’Banion…”

At first, Cora thought it delightful that he knew her by name. Then she recognized him as the soldier who had called her down when she tried to get Ordin released. Her delight quickly gave way to grouchiness. “What?”

The blonde man slowly put forth his hand. “I wanna formally ‘pologize to ya fer hollerin’ at ya in the Court o’ Justice the other day. It’s been weighin’ on me sumpin fierce, so when I seen ‘at y’all was sittin’ in here, I jis had to come over an’ make it right.”

Cora studied him. His fair skin and blonde hair spoke strongly of Kedethian lineage, but he stood barely her height, which made him entirely too short to be Kedethian. And he was stocky, too, which was a Lothanian trait. The lengthy blonde handlebar mustache was different, not at all a common form for facial hair in Kedeth. Or anywhere, for that matter. A light stubble of a beard graced his chin and cheeks, which could only be seen if the sun glinted off the tawny hairs at just the right angle. Politely, Cora slipped her hand into his and shook it. “Apology accepted, Mister…”

“Oh, cripe…sorry, name’s Elric. Elric Reichtoven. Born an’ bred right here in Westmeade.” He absentmindedly twirled his mustache as his gaze quickly became lost in her eyes.

“You’re staring,” Cora said impatiently.

“Sorry! It’s jis ‘at…well…I ain’t never seen eyes like yers. Truth be told, I ain’t never seen green like ‘at.”

Cora folded her arms and stared back at him. “Well, quit it.”

He nodded ashamedly, “Yes, ma’am.”

“Listen, Elric Reichtoven, I appreciate you coming over. I’m sure the Captain is proud of you.”

“Prolly not,” he replied, “I quit the Guard three days ago.”

Cora regarded him with curiosity. Strange things were moving within the ranks of Westmeade’s guard.

“I cain’t say ‘at I really enjoyed bein’ in the Guard,” Elric continued, “but it was a way to get outta my pa’s leatherworkin’ business. Course, he didn’t cotton much to me leavin’, but at least it weren’t a bad career to pursue. But cripe, nuttin’ ever happens ‘round here. Do ya know what it’s like standin’ fer six hours straight at the southern gate an’ watchin’ a gran’ total o’ twelve people enter the city? I cain’t jis stand around an’ watch people. I need some action, or at least sumpin t’ do. So, when y’all come through the Tower o’ Truth an’ I seen ‘at you was all up inna sumpin mysterious right here in my hometown, I thought, ‘Lookie there! Adventure! Right under my nose, an’ I cain’t miss out on ‘at!’”

Cora questioned the man’s rambling. Nothing ever happens? What about several murders over a political post, ghostly sightings in an ancient tower, and a council that seems indifferent to it all?

The look of expectation in his eyes couldn’t have been more obvious. It strongly resembled that of a puppy when its master is about to throw a stick. She grimaced and took a drink of ale. “Well, in case you were sleeping during our trial, we were convicted as trespassers, arsonists, public nuisances, and all-around worthless vagabonds in that little Court of Justice of yours. The adventure is basically over, Elric. I’m sure you’ve got a great future ahead of you. Don’t squander it.”

The blonde soldier leaned in closer. “Ya know, the guards been swarmin’ all over Wilder Tower ever since y’all burnt it down.”

“Oh, for Beauty’s sake, we didn’t burn the thing down, all right? Cripe!”

Elric nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“But what about it?”

“Well, several o’ the guards was injured by some fire what shot up from the floor. Then ‘ere’s the empty suit o’ armor what come alive. That did four of ‘em in. They fount a bunch o’ stuff, too. I could tell ya more iffn ya wanna know…I might could even get ya back in ‘ere.” The twinkle in his eye invited a response.

Cora sighed. “I’m sorry. We’re convicts; we’re not a freeblade company anymore, at least not for the next year. If we go back into that Tower, or even start asking questions about it, we’ll go from house arrest to full imprisonment. We don’t want that, and you don’t want to start out your new career path in jail. I appreciate the offer, Elric Reichtoven, but your timing is a little off.”

“Please. I believe y’all was onto sumpin ‘at the city either don’ believe or is tryin’ to hide. There’s sumpin goin’ on all up in my hometown, an’ if’n y’all done exposed it, then I wanna help ya root it out. So…mebbe ya haffa wait a year ‘fore ya can dig into it again. There’s still a lotta truth in the rumors floatin’ ‘round. I jis wanna help when y’all get back ‘round to it.”

Cora fixed her gaze on him. She was thinking.

“Gimme a try,” Elric pleaded. “Lemme join yer team for the time yer stuck in Westmeade, an’ ya can judge my skills an’ my lo’lty. If’n ya don’t like what ya see, then I reckon I’ll leave ya be.”

“I don’t know. You see, we aren’t really a team anymore.”

Elric spun an empty chair around and sat backwards in it, his arms crossed over the backrest. “I don’ reckon ya unnerstand,” he said in hushed tones as he quickly scanned the tavern, “Cap’n Hunt told me to leave town on account o’ me knowin’ what happened.”

“What?” Cora raised an eyebrow.

“That’s right. He’s tryin’ to silence me, but I aim to dig up what he’s hidin’. I jis cain’t do it by my lonesome. So I figgered on hookin’ up with y’all.”

Cora glanced over at Ordin, who had leaned forward in his chair, a single hand cradling his chin and his narrowed eyes staring at the side of Elric’s head. She turned back to Elric.

“Well, that’s interesting, I’ll admit.”

“I ain’t lyin’. This thang with the tower? It ain’t over. Cap’n Hunt knows y’all was right, an’ I reckon he’s coverin’ up some evidence. Ya know he sent away all the soldiers what cleaned out the tower? Yep, the ones that weren’t dead he shipped off to faraway places…so they couldn’t talk. Tried to ship me off, too, an’ ‘at’s why I quit.”

“I told you the city was hidin’ somethin’,” Ordin muttered.

“Yeah, but y’all didn’t know all that, did ya? Now, Hunt ain’t never pulled a stunt like this before, an’ ‘at’s prolly why he’ll get away with it. But I agree he’s hidin’ sumpin, an’ ‘at makes y’all in the right. Course, that makes him wrong…an’ he ain’t never wrong. But I seen ‘at stuff what went on in Wilder Tower. I seen Thomason get all slashed up an’ Carver deal that finishin’ move what kilt the armor. I seen the traps an’ got me some scars from gettin’ too close. I seen men die in there, an’ I know this ain’t the work o’ some freeloader or a good-for-nuttin prankster. There’s real magic in ‘ere, an’ ‘at means a real spellslanger. Folks say they done seen Blanchard, so I say we got ourselves a genuwine mystery, an’ everwhere there’s a mystery, there’s opportunitoi.”

“Do you mean opportuni-tee?” Cora asked with a puzzled frown.

“Yeah. Sorry, ‘at’s a old habit from when I’s a kid. I used to try an’ mis-pronounciate words on purpose, jis fer fun.”

Cora raised an eyebrow at him. Used to?

Elric scooted in much closer and lowered his voice. “So, get this: Hunt pulled all the stuff out the tower an’ locked it up in the storehouse. But when I was puttin’ my quittin’ letter on his desk, I seen through his winder that he was burnin’ all ‘at stuff. Everthang but a sweet little sword he took a shinin’ to. Now, accordin’ to the law, ‘at stuff’s evidence, but there he was burnin’ it all to the Nine Hells.”

Cora grew contemplative. “Burned it all?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And sent the witnesses away?”

“Sho nuff did. All of ‘em ‘cept me. ‘Cause I quit.”

“Well…” Cora finally replied after a long thought, “I think your captain has at least that much to answer for, even if it doesn’t change anything. I thank you for telling us, Elric.”

Clearly, Elric had hoped for more. He stood abruptly and extended his hand once more. “I can help ya.”

Cora and Elric locked eyes for a moment as she read his countenance. He was a talkative one, an open book almost. And that could be useful for gleaning inside information, which there seemed to be plenty of. Proving anything while on probation would be highly improbable. But on the other hand, Calloway had already hinted that there were others “on their side,” as he put it. It would be nice to have someone physically on their side as well, even if for a short time.

She took his hand.


Cora fully expected Elric to quit them as well after several days of inactivity. She assumed he would grow so terminally bored with their inability to do anything that he would quietly and conveniently forget to show up one day. But he never did. Every evening, the young soldier occupied the same corner booth at Crossroads Tavern and waited expectantly for Cora to arrive for dinner. Like a faithful, tail-wagging puppy.

Finally, there was news that erased another day’s doldrums and gave Cora something else to fret about. Cuauhtérroc and Ordin walked into the tavern during the middle of a song set by a local minstrel. Cora sat with Elric, watching the young talent fumble his way through a few rudimentary songs. When her teeth weren’t gnashing at the all-too-frequent sour notes tripping out of the man’s recorder, she gnawed her way through an over-cooked steak, probably made-to-order for a convicted arsonist.

The savage carried an ash walking stick as he and Ordin ambled over to Elric’s corner booth. Cora gladly pushed her sad meal aside and sat up. Ordin’s presence, in particular, meant there was something of importance to say. He generally loathed places where there were people.

“Have you ever heard such terrible music?” she asked as they slid into the booth. “What’s going on? What’s with the stick?”

“Dees Amurraks,” the savage said, laying the stick across his lap. “Two of dem are here in dees ceety from dees jungles in my homeland.”

Cora stared at him, hardly believing her ears. “What?”

“Two of dem are here in dees c—”

“I heard what you said, Cuauhtérroc. But I don’t understand it. Deep equatorial tribes from the Audric Jungle? In Westmeade?”

“Yes.”

She grinned and glanced at the mystic. “Surely they’re not real Amurraks.”

The savage’s eyes burned with sincerity. “Dey are real.”

“I ain’t seen ‘em,” Ordin said, crossing his arms, “But he’s been goin’ on about this all week. It ain’t likely for Amurraks to be all the way up here in Alikon, not by themselves. If they’re real, somebody brought ‘em here.”

“What’s a Amurrak?” Elric asked, squinting at the others.

Cora remained silent, taken aback by this news.

“Why are they here?” she finally asked.

Cuauhtérroc pulled a small knife from his boot and began slowly whittling one end of the stick. “I am dees one panther warrior dey deed not keel.”

Cora noticed the sharpened point, and a lump formed in her throat. “You’re not going to attack them!” she cried in alarm.

The savage quietly carved a crude face into the stick. He glared across the table at Cora, his dark eyes made darker still with vengeance. “I weel keel dem.”

“Hey…” Elric said, holding up a hand, “What’s a Amurrak?”


* * * * * * * * * *


In the root cellar of the Tussex House, two dark-skinned women stood before a rickety wooden desk. Seated in an equally rickety chair behind the desk was a middle-aged man resting his chin on folded hands. He was completely bald and devoid of all facial hair, including his eyebrows and lashes. He looked gaunt, like his skin was stretched too tightly over his frame, but all his movements were fluid and precise.

The two women stood silently and motionless, staring at the floor and waiting for permission to speak. Their leather trousers and linen blouses were plain and unadorned, and they each wore a single dagger sheath on their hips. Jet black hair hung thick and straight to the middle of their backs; one in multiple dreadlocks and the other a single tuft of hair jutting from the base of her skull, which was otherwise shaved. Small bones pierced their wide noses, and their dark downcast eyes burned with enmity.

“What news do my Amurrak slaves bring me?” the man asked in a voice dripping with venom.

“We know house of panther warrior,” answered the dreadlocked woman, her eyes locked onto her feet.

“That’s hardly news, Mattawonah. Tell me something I don’t know.”

Mattawonah hesitated before speaking. “Master Bray, I not know what you not know.”

Master Bray sighed heavily and pinched the bridge of his nose. When he looked up at the women again, it was with narrow eyes. “You were brought here for a specific purpose. Now, you will perform that purpose or your lives are forfeit. Do you understand?”

Both women nodded earnestly.

He stood up from his chair and began a slow, thoughtful walk around the desk. “You know, it is possible that with obedience to my commands, you could earn your freedom. You could leave your miserable life in that infested jungle you call home and rise among the ranks of the Children. Of course, given your heritage, your ascension would be limited, but even a single step out of slavery is freedom, no?” He paused to study them. “But you don’t care about that, do you? No, you’re too ignorant, too steeped in your backward ancestral worship, much too gripped by emotion to ever be truly free.”

Master Bray began the slow walk back to his chair, his hands folded behind his back. “Am I right?” he asked.

Both women remained silent, conditioned by enough abuse to know when a question was to be answered or not.

“Since, then, you are certain to remain slaves,” the master said as he stood behind his desk, “do what I tell you!” He slammed his palms on the desk, rattling its timbers and making both women flinch.

“Learn…what is the panther warrior doing here? Find his weakness, his habits…what does he like to eat, what color is his loincloth? You should know him even better than you know yourselves. Then…when the time is right, when the pieces are in place and the obstacles removed, you may have his heart. But not before. Much is at risk if you act too quickly. You have an opportunity, slaves, to show your worth, to curry favor with the All-Father, to obey. Make the best of it. Now…go.”

The Amurrak women bowed low as they backed up the stairs and out of the cellar, closing the doors over the entrance as they exited.


* * * * * * * * * *


After a light breakfast with the Kottings, Cora grabbed her escritoire and lute and headed out to Riverwalk Park to think. Cuauhtérroc’s need for revenge was going to end very badly for him, and Cora needed a quiet place to figure out how she was going to calm his murderous impulse.

She settled upon a wooden bench beside one of the many rose bushes in bloom, drinking in the sweet aroma of the late morning breeze and listening to the bubbling of the nearby stream. Her optimism from the day before had been quickly squashed by anxiety over Cuauhtérroc. Who are these Amurraks? Why are they here, of all places? Are they really here to gather an army? What if Cuauhtérroc kills them? What if he doesn’t and one of them kills him? How is Ordin going to respond to all that? What am I supposed to do?

The worrisome thoughts roiled until she could no longer make sense of them. She needed music to soothe her troubled mind, to bring clarity and focus to her concerns. With a weighty sigh, she took out her lute and began playing some of her softer tunes.

Within minutes, those strolling by stopped to listen, and soon she had a small audience. A dozen or so sat quietly on the grass around her to hear the soothing melodies and soft plucking on the strings that added a transcendent layer to the peaceful ambiance.

Midway through her fourth tune, a male voice joined hers, blending a tight tenor harmony to her soprano. Cora was surprised to hear a man singing the lyrics to the feminine song, Evergreen Glades, especially out loud and in public. However, the harmonies he added were from an unfamiliar arrangement, and it excited her musical senses. When the tune ended and she turned to acknowledge the man’s fine performance, her tongue stiffened and her mind blanked.

Standing behind the park bench was a handsome young man dressed in fine apparel of deep reds trimmed in silver. His medium-length, wavy black hair neatly framed his face, along with a closely trimmed mustache and goatee. There was kindness in his brown eyes. And confidence.

“Good morning,” he said. His voice rang with the clean notes of a bell held aloft by a birdsong.

Cora’s heart fluttered. He’s gorgeous!

“I do apologize if I have intruded,” the dapper stranger said. “I was out for my morning walk when the most delightful refrain wafted in on the breeze. I have not heard music so fine since I was a young boy.”

Some of the people in Cora’s audience began to whisper, their hushed comments suggesting something of importance was happening.

“I…I…thank you,” Cora stammered. “Who are you?”

The man’s shoulders slumped as he realized his breach of etiquette. “How rude of me!”

“No…” Cora protested.

“My name is Montpeleón deCorté. I’m an alderman of Westmeade. I am sorry to have startled you. Please…continue. If you like, I shall go elsewhere.”

“No!” she said more emphatically than she intended. “I mean, please stay. I’m Cora O’Banion of Lorenvale. I was just trying to clear my head. I find singing helps.”

“May I continue to sing with you? You have an amazing voice, if you don’t mind my saying.”

There was nothing Cora would have enjoyed more, and for that reason she thought she might be acting like a little schoolgirl. But she quickly regained her composure and nodded. “Yours is a better harmony than the one I’m accustomed to hearing, and I would like to hear it again.”

She started Evergreen Glades again from the beginning, contentedly floating on Montpeleón’s masterful harmonies. When that song was done, their small audience politely applauded. Cora grinned broadly and dipped her head to them in appreciation.

As morning gave way to midday, they finally exhausted their repertoire of shared songs and found a small café to share a meal. The young songsage from Lorenvale felt a juvenile giddiness welling in her breast. She had long ago forgotten the concerns plaguing her conscience just hours ago. Dreams were becoming reality: singing for hours with a handsome and influential man with a mellifluent voice.

After a light fare of baked bread, grapes, and cheese, Montpeleón became suddenly animated. “Shall I retrieve my violin? I would like to play some improvisations with you.”

Cora nearly swooned. “You also play the violin? I…I would enjoy that very much.”

“Meet you back at the park bench?” he suggested.

She nodded and watched with mystified wonder as he hurried away.

“I must confess I’m no good at improvisations,” Cora said when Montpeleón returned several minutes later in a sleek, black hansom. He tipped the driver and then hurried to Cora’s bench with a dark case in hand. In moments, they had tuned and he set the violin to his chin with a boyish exuberance.

“Just play from the heart,” he explained, “anticipate the lead, match the chording, toss in a few extra notes, and see where it takes you.”

Cora felt sheepish. “Yeah, I’ve never been able to do that.”

A twinkle formed in Montpeleón’s eye. “Then allow me to show you. Play something. Something with energy.”

Cora thought for a moment before her fingers danced up the fretboard of her lute, then settled into the rhythmic strumming for The Night I First Kissed Sara Lou. And as she played, Montpeleón’s bow raced across his strings, playing the melody at first, then dropping into a harmony that quickly deviated from anything recognizable. And yet, buried within his notes was a hint of the original tune, hidden behind a bevy of syncopated scales and harmonic descants.

She loved it. The sounds were fresh with intervals and scales she had never before heard, for they flowed from the wellspring of the performer’s soul rather than the printed text. It was an approach to music like nothing taught at the O’Banion School of Performing Arts. Devin Rhynn would be proud.

They played together and explored this uncharted territory of musical improvisation long into the afternoon, stopping only when Montpeleón’s bow string began to fray. He quickly offered to fetch another, but Cora was forced to admit that her fingers were tired. Indeed, the fingertips on her left hand were raw, but she would have continued anyway, so great was her enjoyment. Reluctantly, they returned their instruments to the cases.

Cora sighed with immense satisfaction and strolled with Montpeleón along the waterfront. The day had been spent doing what she loved best, and it was made better by sharing it with someone she found attractive. It occurred to her that he might be playing her like a violin, using his charm and position to obtain a pretty girl for the evening. She would not be that easy, but she would enjoy his attempts. Even if the attention lasted only a few days, spending those few days with him might be worth the letdown in the end. On the other hand, perhaps he was thinking of courting her, and that possibility filled her with wistful excitement.

They continued to amble through the streets of Westmeade as Montpeleón shared with Cora the city’s points of interest and history, until the sun began to dip behind the city walls, casting long shadows across their path.

“Miss Cora,” the alderman said as they neared Crossroads Tavern, “I must confess that when I arose this morning, I did not expect today would have turned out quite this delightful. I have truly enjoyed sharing this time with you.”

“As have I, Montpeleón.”

He smiled warmly. “Would you mind if I walked you home?”

“I should like that,” Cora answered, but a sudden concern gripped her. “You…I…we probably shouldn’t. People will talk.”

Montpeleón laughed softly. “People are always talking, especially about me. As the only unmarried alderman, I am known as ‘the most eligible bachelor’ in Westmeade. Just by spending most of the day with you, I would expect rumors already to be flying about town in abundance. Everyone will want to know who you are.”

Cora frowned and withdrew from him. “Everyone already knows who I am, Mister deCorté. I’m the infamous arsonist of Westmeade. Don’t be so certain that you spending a day with me expunges the people’s low opinion. Rather, you should be concerned, if you are so enamored of your reputation, not to sully yourself with my company.”

“I am sorry to offend,” he said with furrowed brow. “I only intended to quell your apprehension, but I can see how that might have sounded quite self-centered.”

“Quite.”

The alderman offered the crook of his elbow. “Allow me to try again: I would be honored to walk you home, Miss O’Banion. And though my name be dragged through the muddy, cobblestoned streets of Westmeade, trampled underfoot by the unwashed masses, and bathed in the runoff of many sewer grates, yet will I hope for the joy of a sunset stroll with you this evening.”

Cora rolled her eyes and huffed to keep from laughing at him. She slipped her arm through his and all was forgotten once more.

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