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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 14: An Unexpected Offer

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

For much of the following week, Cora enjoyed several “random” encounters with Montpeleón, mostly at Crossroads Tavern, where he began to frequent. It was not a place the alderman normally spent much time, but now he seemed to be passing this way much more often. During these visits, they would talk long into the nights about their childhoods, upbringing, and the paths that led them to Westmeade. Implied was the notion that they had been brought together, but they skirted this subject skillfully, almost daring the other to speak of it first. Cora was entirely content to be courted by the alderman, if in fact that was what he was doing. And if not, it was still a pleasant little fling. And his attentions had netted her some income. As an alderman, Montpeleón had persuaded the tavern owner to give Cora the opportunity to provide regular evening entertainment.

One evening, as she was finishing up a song set to a crowd that had grown larger since she was added to the rotation, Montpeleón raised his glass to her and said, “You know, you never did play your graduation song for me.”

Cora pondered the comment for a few moments, then chuckled and shrugged. “Well…I think I overplayed it around the campfires of our travels and maybe wore it out.”

“It would be a shame if I never heard it.”

With a faint blush, Cora stroked the opening chords. “It’s called The Ballad of Tanasha’s Keep,” she said over her playing, “written by Colbarah, high minstrel of Arvoria, about a hundred years ago. It is said he wrote the ballad to inspire courage, but I find the lyrics rather depressing myself.”

Montpeleón sat up in keen interest, his eyes full of expectation.

When the water is not high,

Where the river tells you why,

There look up unto the sky

And see your calling

Open eyes and open ears,

Know that death is very near;

May your mind be ever clear

While doom is falling

Older age is not so old;

Stronger wills are not so bold;

All that glitters is not gold

Wherein you enter

Many servants will assist

In the dark and gloomy mist;

Pray your angels you have kissed

And heed your mentor

Then with blessings do depart,

Walk ye tall and stout of heart;

See the finish from the start

And do not waver

When the keep is obsolete

And your foes lie at your feet,

Then your task will be complete

You are the savior

Montpeleón listened with rapt attention while Cora performed the melancholic tune. When she sounded the final note, the audience provided polite applause and returned to their meals. As Cora put the lute in its case, Montpeleón congratulated her on her skillful performance. “You have an angelic voice, Miss Cora,” he said with conviction. “You should ever keep that song close to your heart.”

“Thank you, Montpeleón.”

“I expect that you graduated with honors for a performance like that.”

Cora blushed. “Well, I actually play it much better on the harp. I had to adapt it to the lute for my travels, and I think it took away some of the tonal inflections.”

Montpeleón’s eyes widened. “You also play the harp?”

“Yes, that was my chief study, but for obvious reasons I can’t take it with me.”

“Then you shall come to the castle and play ours!”

Cora nearly dropped her lute case on the floor. “Don’t toy with me, Montpeleón.”

“I wouldn’t dare, Miss Cora. And please, call me Monty. In fact, I am officially inviting you to perform at the Lord’s Castle. I would think the stuffy halls of that interminably suffocating building could use some glorious music like this. Please. It would do us all some good.”

Cora hardly knew what to think. Her heart threatened to leap from her chest, and her palms were beginning to sweat. Pulling together the last vestiges of self-control, she curtsied. “You are too kind.”

“Nonsense,” Montpeleón laughed, “Westmeade hasn’t seen talent like this in years; I would be remiss not to allow you the chance to show off before the Council.”

The Council.

Cora paused at the mention. “You do know the Council has convicted us—”

“Don’t worry yourself about that,” the alderman said with a wave of his hand. “I’m sure the only one who will mind is Captain Hunt, and he can just lump it. In fact, I’m inviting you to stay for a night or two, as our guest.”

Despite Cora’s ardent desire to accept such a grand proposition, her mind continued to pump out protestations. “And what about propriety? What would people say if they thought we were…you know…”

Montpeleón laid a gentle hand on her arm, which sent jolts of electricity through her skin. “My dear Cora, I would never dream of anything so untoward. I live in Sarvelle House in the Estates adjacent to the castle. You will stay in a guest room in the castle. We will be far from anything deemed inappropriate. Besides, we have guests visit the castle all the time. As a matter of fact, there’s a freeblade group—the Blade Masters, I think—staying with us already. On top of that, dignitaries from southern lands should be passing through day after tomorrow, and you would have the opportunity to play for them as well. Now, do you want to toss out any further objections? Should I rescind my offer?”

Cora quickly shook her head. “No, of course not! But…may I invite the others in my group as well?”

A thin line of disappointment shaded the alderman’s countenance. But he smiled and swallowed. “Of course. That’s a splendid idea.”

“Then I gladly accept…and thank you!”

Montpeleón pulled a small parchment from his vest pocket and handed it to her. “I had hoped you would, so I prepared an invitation for you. Present this to the guards at the front gate of the castle grounds.”

She watched with wonder as the dapper alderman weaved through the tables, nodding to various people in the tavern as he walked by, and slipped out the door. With a mind swirling from this sudden turn, Cora took up her lute and joined her allies at their usual booth.

“You’ll never believe what just happened,” she said with trembling joy.

Ordin raised an eyebrow. “Did he finally kiss you?”

“What? Out in the middle of the tavern? No!”

“But you wanted him to…”

Cora grabbed a leftover roll from a nearby plate and tossed it at him. “Shut up, Ordin. No, what happened is Montpeleón invited us all to stay a couple of nights in the castle. Now, what do you think of that?”

“I think he shoulda kissed you,” the mystic said, chuckling.

“Stop it,” Cora hissed. “Really. He’s not courting me, and it’s none of your business anyway. I thought the offer was magnanimous and strictly professional.”

Ordin shrugged. “I got no reason to walk into that oppressive building. There ain’t nothin’ in there I wanna see, nobody I wanna talk to, way too many self-important people I’d have to avoid. Sounds like a waste of time.”

Elric recovered the roll that Cora had tossed and inspected it for possible consumption. “What’ll we do the whole time?”

“For cripe’s sake, Elric. It’s a Kedethian castle—the castle of your home town. If it’s anything like the castles back home, there’s an armory, tapestries depicting Alikon’s history, a library—”

“Ya want me to read?”

“Yes, actually. It’s good for you. But if you’d rather just sit around and eat, there’s a lot of rich food, too.”

Elric rubbed his belly. “Now yer talkin’!”

Cora turned to the Audric, who had grown more somber with the passing days. His casual observances of the so-called Amurrak women had lately turned to obsession. “Cuauhtérroc? What about you? Perhaps a couple of days in the Lord’s Castle will help?”

“I weel go,” he said, but he did not look up from the ash walking stick, now covered with carvings.

“So, Ordin,” Cora said, “everyone wants to visit the castle but you. I wish you’d reconsider. I’d like us to present ourselves as a unified company. Perhaps if we all make a showing, behave ourselves, and leave a good impression upon the Council, they will exercise leniency toward us. Maybe our sentence can be shortened or even removed.”

The mystic folded his arms. “This is more of your political games, ain’t it? I don’t remember it turnin’ out so well for us last time.” He paused and regarded the songsage. “But you’ve stuck with me at my very worst, so I reckon I won’t bail on you now. Just don’t expect me to be cavortin’ with no aldermen.”

Cora rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Tucked away in the northwest corner of the city amidst towering trees of every variety, The Lord’s Castle was the pride of Westmeade. The castle’s turrets and the embattlements around the outer buildings loomed above the stone wall surrounding the city. Surrounding the castle grounds to the north and west, the inner wall formed a compound and segregated the castle from the city. Beside the Lord’s Castle, inside these walls were ten stately manors of sturdy timbers and slate roofs. The esteemed Estate Houses of the city’s elected aldermen were a gift from the city, a comfortable place to live near the castle while they conducted Westmeade’s affairs.

The freeblade company stood at the iron gates along the inner wall, waiting as the guards provided routine inspections. Cora presented Montpeleón’s invitation, and with a metallic squawk, the gates opened and the guards touched their helms as Cora entered the campus. Het heart sang and her feet skipped lightly along the stone walkway, but she could find no words to express her excitement. Elric simply saluted the guards as he walked past just to make certain they saw him.

A pair of castle guards escorted the group down the stony lane, bordered on both sides by stately maples. A reverent hush settled over the freeblades as they approached the granite steps leading up to twin ornately-carved, oaken doors recessed in the stone walls atop the portico.

Without announcement or even so much as a knock, the great front doors shuddered and slowly swung inward, creaking on centuries-old hinges. Their escorts stepped aside to the left and the right before the high steps leading up to the doors, and Cora’s company walked inside.

The entry foyer was a tall chamber that echoed with every sound. Cavernous halls ran to the left and right. Straight ahead, across a long Trelini rug and underneath a sparkling chandelier, was a courtyard being readied for a mid-day meal.

A trio of attendants approached them, liveried men- and ladies-in-waiting. An older man, dressed in the finest attire with coattails to his knees, stood tall and proper among the servants. He stepped forward after the massive twin doors closed with a dull thud.

“Welcome to the Lord’s Castle,” he said with perfect diction and more than a hint of snootiness. His demeanor suggested he might have been from Trelini, a land where everything was overly absorbed by a sense of decorum and form. His eyes paused briefly on Cuauhtérroc, clearly disapproving of an Audric gracing his hall, and his brow lowered and he sniffed the air at the sight of Ordin and his wolf.

“I am Sir Belvedere, and you are our honored guests,” the lord-in-waiting continued. “I trust that you will find your stay here a pleasant one. We are here to assist you in any way you need. To that end, you may call upon any one of us at any time. However, in order to assure that each of you is afforded the respect you deserve as our guests, you must first become acquainted with a few rules of the house.”

Sir Belvedere belabored the house rules to the point of discomfort. But like all things, his droning orientation finally came to an end. The servants took up their belongings and led them to the guest wing. As they followed, they passed many gleaming suits of armor from various eras. Artwork from around Arelatha graced the walls, providing splashes of color down the stony hall.

Cora waved to her allies as a maidservant led her in a different direction from them. Soon she was standing before a thick wooden door labeled “Cora O’Banion.” Monty thought of every detail.

The maid inserted a skeleton key and, with a small grunt, pushed the door in. “This will be your room, Miss O’Banion,” she said.

Cora’s jaw dropped as she slowly scanned the lavishly furnished room. An enormous four-poster, canopied bed commanded the central half of the room, flanked on one side by a marble fireplace and by an ornate vanity on the other. The mattress was several feet off the floor and covered by plush blankets and a dozen pillows of every size. Almost hidden in the corner of the room was a wash basin, but like everything else, it was highly decorated and obviously expensive.

The songsage turned to her attendant. “This is…amazing!”

The servant curtsied. “We like it here.”

Cora quickly fished a silver coin from her pouch and handed it to the woman. “Thank you.”

The servant accepted the coin, curtsied again, and backed out of the room, closing the door as she left.

The songsage of Lorenvale squealed as she danced a jig and leaped upon the bed. It was an unrefined moment, but elation overrode all the previous frustration, worry, and dread. Concerns about the loss of Celindria, worries about her reputation and the prerequisites for the Sword of the Coast, and even her despondency over their recent conviction—all this began to melt away as she soaked in the opulence of her surroundings. She had finally earned some fame. And the attention of a gorgeous man to boot.

* * * * * * * * * *

While Cora enjoyed her lavish accommodations, much of it was lost on the savage. Cuauhtérroc turned up his nose at the fragrant soaps beside his wash basin, and the bed was much too soft. He had no use for the plush robe and matching slippers, or the many grooming accoutrements he found in the vanity.

Instead, the savage sat on the floor and laid the ash walking stick across his lap. He had been carving on the stick for many days, decorating its length with the faces of people, animals, and hideous forms. He studied his project thus far, then he pulled a knife from his boot and whittled away at another portion, creating a small scattering of shavings on the floor by his feet. Gradually, the image of another face appeared, and Cuauhtérroc drew it near to examine his work. He blew on it, scattering tiny fragments into the air. After scanning the entirety of his carvings, he breathed a few whispered words over the stick, pressed the sharpened tip to his lips, and closed his eyes.

* * * * * * * * * *

A long banquet table spread out across the courtyard, richly supplied with a wide variety of meats, vegetables, and fresh fruits arranged to be as pleasing to the eye as they would soon be to the stomach. There was enough food to satisfy a king and feed his army.

The four freeblades entered from the front atrium together. Elric rubbed his belly as he beheld the table. “Cripe, I thank I done died an’ gone to the Skrattafell Feast!”

Cora shook her head. Only the Hall of Champions believed that the Maker prepared a “resting place of eternal battle” followed by eternal feasting. The Samantekt suggested there would be feasting with the Maker, but Cora believed it was clearly a poetic feature of the text.

Several other guests had gathered at the table already, as had many of the aldermen. Cora’s eyes fell to Montpeleón, and she exchanged smiles with him. But that was all he did, as he seemed to pay her only as much attention as he did each of the guests. She frowned with disappointment as she took her seat. Maybe he’s just being professional.

At the head of the table stood a handsome, well-dressed man somewhat advanced in years but still clinging to the last vestiges of his youth. Dark blonde hair was dusted with gray, but the sparkle in his eyes was far from gone. Wrinkles in his face suggested much laughter and gladness of heart, and the tightness of his vest hinted at many feasts such as these. And much ale.

“That’s Sir Anthony Prisido III,” said a lithe, long-haired man sitting across from Cora, indicating the elder statesman at the head of the table. “He’s the Chancellor of Westmeade and Ruler of the Council.”

“Welcome to our table,” Prisido announced. “We are honored by your presence, and we hope your stay is comfortable and accommodating—”

“The name’s Moffe, by the way,” the man across from Cora continued quietly, “Moffe Stattalonn.” He was dressed in a casual green shirt draped by a brown tunic. His ruddy skin tone evidenced his many hours out of doors. Maybe he’s a hunter.

She smiled politely. “I’m Cora O’Banion.”

Prisido held up his hands. “Now, let us give thanks for this bounty.” He paused to let the room fall into silence. “Maker of all Creation, we thank you for the harvest and the beasts of the field that you supply for our consumption. May we always have hearts of gratitude for your gracious gifts.”

“So be it!” echoed a chorus of voices in the room.

“O’Banion?” Moffe asked with curiosity as he reached for the buttered carrots. “Isn’t that a Carolene name? You don’t sound like you’re from Carolan.”

“My father is from Carolan,” Cora replied, lifting two slices of roast to her plate, “but he settled in Lorenvale near Cer Vedrys.”

Moffe nodded and sipped from his wine glass. “That makes sense—mm, good wine. I am from the Cerion forest, and am currently a reeve there. I serve as guide to the Duke of Alikon when he fancies a hunting trip. That is, when I’m not leading the Blade Masters.”

Involuntarily, one of Cora’s eyebrows raised. “I see…”

To her chagrin, Moffe mistook her dismissal for interest. “We’re a freeblade company based out of Cer Cannaid. We often work assignments for Duke Lenair. He’s the Duke of Alikon. Perhaps you’d like to meet the rest of my company? To my right is Dehrian, my trusted brother-in-arms and keeper of my life. He and I have a long history…”

Moffe’s story did little to impress Cora. His rugged handsomeness was undoubtedly well-groomed and fully intended to make the ladies swoon, but his obvious self-aggrandizement quickly bored her. She provided the slightest hint of a smile in response and turned her shoulders. Practically any other conversation would be more interesting. What’s the gossip around here?

During the course of the meal, Cora learned the identities of the Council members and town aldermen. Montpeleón she knew, and gladly so, although she did wish he would glance her way a little more often. Those who had adjudicated their trial were here—Lady Tarnistorel, Artus Calloway, the elderly Schumann, Sir Hunt, and Robert Baskin. Besides these, there was Marcus Sebastian, who had recently survived a heart attack and afterward stopped being an Agnostic, Doccatrik Pinehurst, a stout Dareni who never once looked up from his plate, and Annabelle Lenair Gable, the sensible middle daughter of the Duke of Alikon.

Notably absent was an alderman of Wilder District, and as Cora surveyed the company, she was thunderstruck by the gravity of her thoughts. A bite of roast sat cooling on her fork perched midway to her mouth. How can these people just sit here year after year and do nothing to uncover the reasons for Blanchard’s death? There’s a man who by some accounts is the once-dead Blanchard living in Wilder Tower, and they go on like everything is normal. We get charged with criminal activity after we uncover a few of these secrets. An entire town still mourns his death four years later, but they all seem content to leave his post open. Maybe they’re scared to fill it, scared that the next attempt will end with another dead man. But if that’s actually happening, then someone is doing this on purpose. Someone wants him dead and his district ruined…but who? Why? Why doesn’t this Council do everything in its power to uncover the truth?

Their first full day in the Lord’s Castle was open, and Cora arranged a guided tour of the estate and grounds. Led along by a junior butler, they viewed and learned about a variety of antiquities in glass cases, suits of armor worn by champions of old, gifts from dignitaries abroad as well as awards from the capital, and tapestries elegantly telling the tale of Westmeade’s history. A topiary garden bordered by well-dressed flower beds drew the senses outward from the castle walls and onto the grounds where small pools of multi-hued fish bordered the lawns.

As they calmly surveyed these things, Cora noted with relief that the Blade Masters had departed. But she also noted with some curiosity the arrival of the dignitaries Montpeleón had mentioned. They were quiet, hardly speaking a word, yet they communicated perfectly well, as if subtle glances, lifts of an eyebrow, and twitches at the corner of the mouth were sufficient to convey all manner of meaning. More intriguing was their formal attire, almost like matching livery. Loose breeches of deep crimson, nearly black, held in place by a white sash, into which was folded and wrapped a tunic of gray-black. Flowing red capes swirled about the four figures as they walked, fluttering on the gentle currents of air trailing in their wakes. Three men and a woman, all alike—tall, fair-complected, lithe, and purposed. And as they strode past, their fierce eyes conveyed an air of condescension that made Cora cower involuntarily.

That afternoon, Cora and Montpeleón played a small set of duets on lute and violin in the courtyard to an ever-changing audience. Various servants came and went, each obligated to continue with their duties while desiring to stay for one more song. As promised, Cora was given access to the castle’s grand harp in the conservatory, a larger instrument with richer tones than the one she played in Lorenvale. After warming up and playing her preparatory scales, Montpeleón arranged for the Chancellor, all the aldermen, and the four dignitaries to assemble. She, in turn, performed her senior recital on that harp, filling the conservatory with the refrains of The Ballad of Tanasha’s Keep, enthralling a captive audience with its melancholy score.

Cora played a handful of additional tunes on the harp, rather spontaneously, for she had not realized how much she missed the glorious instrument. But, mindful of her illustrious audience’s valuable time, she stood and curtsied after only fifteen minutes of play.

As the applause died down and the room began to empty, Montpeleón approached her and dipped a small bow. “That was lovelier than I had thought possible.”

“Thank you. The harp…that is a gorgeous instrument!”

“Now, if you do not mind, Miss Cora,” he said, “I would like to show you, before the sun sets, something you can only see from atop the Lord’s Castle.” He bowed again and offered her his hand.

Cora hesitated slightly. What is he up to? Can I trust him? Is this moving too quickly? But…an invitation to the top of the castle? What could that mean?

Montpeleón smiled and nodded. “I understand. I’m being too forward.”

“No, please,” Cora said, placing her hand in his. “I would be delighted to accompany you.”

With a quick bow, he led her away from the conservatory. “I will be, in every possible way, a perfect gentleman.”

He led Cora onto the castle grounds, around the side of the fortress, and down a narrow cobblestone passage to a thick iron door set deep into the stone walls. He retrieved a brass key from a collection in his pocket and unlocked the door. It groaned on its hinges but pushed inward to reveal a steep stairwell that curled up and out of sight into darkness.

With a familiar melody, Montpeleón sung into being a mote of light.

Cora froze in wonder and inadvertently squeezed his hand. He’s also a songsage!?

At the top of the winding steps, they emerged onto the outer walls of the castle, and Cora gasped when she saw the countryside beyond Westmeade stretching out before her. Along the distant western horizon, the Grottoes rose up from the flat plains. The High Road from Westmeade meandered through endless fields, becoming a faint line before disappearing in the hills. But the sun held her spellbound. Cradled between the hilltops as a baby in its mother’s arms, the amber orb cast a glow upon the fields below that set the vast seas of grain ablaze in the evening sunlight. Cora had rarely seen anything so glorious.

To the north, the waves of summer grain stood tall, undulating slowly as the warm evening breeze drifted over their upright stalks. It also tossed Cora’s scarlet hair about her face, tickling her freckled nose. Montpeleón, in a rather forward gesture, reached out to capture the wayward strands and tuck them behind her ear.

Cora shuddered with excitement, but she dared not let it show. Outwardly, she gave him a demure smile and fixed her attention on the majestic scenery. “It’s beautiful,” she breathed.

Montpeleón hesitated, watching her emerald eyes. Then he replied, “You’re beautiful.”

Cora had anticipated a reply of that kind. Perhaps she had even prompted it. But hearing his earnest comment made her blush anyway, and she did the only thing she could think of. She turned away from him and walked along the battlement, idly tracing her fingers along the stonework. “Do you ever tire of seeing the sun setting behind the hills?” she asked. She had no interest in his answer; she simply needed to hide her flushed cheeks and, hopefully, change the subject.

Montpeleón frowned at Cora’s back. He adjusted his collar and followed her along the parapet. “I come up here often, mostly to get away from the noise of the castle below. I like to write poetry while the sun goes down to clear my head of the mendacities of politics. I find that poems are often quite honest.”

She turned back to face him. “Do you?” Cora had been around a few politicians, mostly those who dealt with her father. And he was a man whom she had never known to be anything but perfectly straightforward. “If you crave honesty so, why then do you remain in politics? Why not join a troubadour group?”

The alderman laughed. “Ha! They are even more patently false than elected leaders!” He laughed again, as if he had told a good joke. “I have friends from my youth who went that route. All they do is travel the world pretending to be something they are not, singing songs to appease crowds, not for the pure love of the music. To be sure, they are quite talented—in fact, you may see them next week in the public theatre if you are so inclined—but their hearts are not at peace. When I saw them last, they seemed hollow shells of their former selves. It saddened me.”

His evaluation of minstrels puzzled Cora for a time. She actually enjoyed playing exactly what pleased the crowd; in fact, she measured her success by how pleased they were. What is this “pure love of the music” he speaks of? How is that any different from my own experience? I love it, don’t I? Is there something more that even Devin Rhynn hasn’t taught me? Cora dismissed the conundrum for the moment, staring across the golden plains until the last sliver of the sun was gone and the land was cast into shadow.

“Why politics?” Cora asked abruptly. “Why here?”

Montpeleón smiled and drew in a deep breath. “It’s actually a dreary story. I’m the fourth son of the third son of a Kedethian noble, which essentially means I’m not a noble at all. I have no land, no title, and no means. But I like people, and I like the courts. I suppose I might have studied law, but that seemed an exceptionally tedious task when I was young. So, I attended galas at my father’s insistence and learned about courtly intrigue. I frequented taverns at night, played my instrument, and learned the real story behind the tales all the dandies imagined. I guess you could say I sort of fell into politics simply by practicing it for years.”

His gaze drifted out to the shadowed hills. “My father finally grew weary of me spending his money and charged me to find my way, outside his lands. So, I started walking east, hitching rides, playing for my dinner…and I didn’t stop until I landed here in Westmeade.”

“And now you enjoy something of the noblesse,” Cora offered.

“In a manner of speaking, yes, but I still have no official title or post, although that doesn’t seem to matter to all the young maidens in town. It’s a bit tiresome, really.”

“Are you thinking of leaving, then?”

“Not yet. There are things I still have to do.”

“Like what?”

For a time, Montpeleón didn’t answer and bit his lip in contemplation. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a slip of parchment. “Would you like to hear something I’ve written?” he asked abruptly.

Cora politely accepted and as he read, she leaned against the parapet and closed her eyes, focusing on the lovely timbre of his voice. It was a lengthy passage from an epic poem he had penned about the treachery of Tarik the archmage, who slayed the oneiromancer, Elrod the Dreamwise, in an act of pure jealousy and rage. And perhaps a touch of insanity. That Montpeleón could have written something so moving was commendable, but his recitation of the piece was truly breathtaking. Though only an excerpt, it nearly brought Cora to tears.

That…was beautiful,” she said solemnly. She wasn’t quite sure “beautiful” was the right word to describe such a heinous act as Tarik’s, but Montpeleón’s telling of it certainly was.

It was long past midnight when Montpeleón escorted an exhausted Cora back to the guest rooms and bade her goodnight. She couldn’t recall, as she climbed wearily into bed, whether he had kissed her hand or not. It seemed as if he had, but then, maybe it had only been part of a lovely dream.

Early the next morning, Ordin leaned against the wall beside Cuauhtérroc’s room. Elric joined him later, propping himself against the wall.

After only a few seconds of waiting, Elric scanned the empty hallway. “Um…Ordin, what’re we doin’?”

“I’m waitin’ for Cuauhtérroc to come out. I don’t know what in the Nine Hells you’re doin’.”

“Well, I’s waitin’ fer ‘im too,” Elric replied with a grin.

A few minutes later, Ordin pounded on the door. “Are you comin’?” he hollered through the wood.

“No,” rumbled the Audric’s voice from within.

“Bad dreams?” Elric asked loudly.

“I sleep good. Where ees Cora O’Banion?”

“I don’t know where she is,” Ordin answered through the door. “I’ve been standin’ here for half an hour waitin’ on you, but I ain’t seen her.”

“Well,” Elric said, “everwhen I have a rough night, I jis kick the day off with a tall glass o’ apple juice.”

They waited at the crossway of the halls a while longer, until a servant announced that the food was being served. Ordin tossed his arms into the air. “This is stupid. She probably ain’t even got out of bed yet.”

He marched across the hallway into the women’s side. Elric raised his eyebrows. “We ain’t s’posed to go over there.”

Ordin stopped and stared at the door to Cora’s room. He rapped quickly on the wood panels. There was no answer, so he knocked again, vigorously this time.

“Cora!” he called through the door.

Quickly Elric rushed to Ordin’s side. “What’re ya doin’! We’ll get busted.”

“Look,” the mystic said, “Cuauhtérroc is mad about somethin’ and won’t come out, and I bet Cora is still sleepin’. I’d just as soon be outside as dinin’ with those dandies again, so that just leaves you. Are you gonna eat breakfast all by yourself?”

Elric blinked twice in confusion. “Um…yeah? I shore ain’t gonna skip it.”

Ordin rolled his eyes. “Cora!” he yelled again, then turned to Elric, “Did she leave already?”

Elric shrugged.

The mystic was in a quandary: on the one hand, he feared that something might have happened to her, but on the other hand, he suspected she was merely sleeping off a hangover. He honestly did not think getting up early was a serious possibility with her.

“I’m goin’ in,” he said at last.

“What?” Elric gasped. “What if she’s nekkid?”

“Then I’ll get an eyeful.” Ordin slowly depressed the handle and pushed the door in. “Cora?” he said softly as he peered into the room.

Seeing the songsage sprawled out on her back, still garbed in yesterday’s clothing, gave Ordin pause. But her deep breathing meant she was alive, and his concern quickly morphed into mirth as a devious grin spread across his thin lips.

“Watch this,” he said to Elric, waving him in with a hand.

Elric entered Cora’s room somewhat reservedly, as he instinctively knew there was something sacred and forbidden about a girl’s bedroom.

“Quit bein’ a ninny,” Ordin grumped. “It’s just Cora. It ain’t no different than her lyin’ in her tent…and she looked about the same then, too. But I got an idea this time. You’ll like this.”

With quiet care, Ordin crouched near the bed where Cora’s head tilted slightly toward the edge. “First, the visual effects,” he said softly, then uttered the mystic phrases that produced a minor figment, which he crafted into the wispy, shimmering shape of a roaring dragon’s head. With a small twist of his wrist and a little coaxing of his fingers, Ordin moved the illusory dragon’s head directly over Cora’s face.

“And now for a little sound…” Ordin again breathed an incantation, which seemed to draw some of the ambient sound from the room. Ordin’s grin widened as the anticipation of the moment nearly overwhelmed him. He jabbed Cora hard in the shoulder—twice—to make her open her eyes.

Then he released the sound.

In that instant, Cora awoke to see the jaws of Ordin’s figment dragon bearing down on her, its forked tongue reaching out, teeth bared, ears laid back. It roared a bestial snarl from deep within, not particularly loud but quite realistic.

Cora screamed in sheer terror.

Her eyes popped wide and she backpedaled to no effect as the blankets beneath her folded up like an accordion at the foot of the bed. Her arms and legs flailed disjointedly, reaching, grasping, vainly trying to find something to clutch or use as a weapon. She screamed a second time just as soon as she had refilled her lungs with air. She backed into the pile of excess pillows against the headboard, sending them scattering even further. Finding the end of the bed, Cora quickly scampered to the side, never once taking her eyes off the horrifying dragon’s head, and promptly toppled over the edge, landing with a thud on the floor.

Another roar issued forth from the illusion’s gaping maw, but Cora’s third scream deflated into a whimper.

Cautiously, she peered over the top of the mattress. The dragon’s head was still hovering in place, and her eyes slowly began to narrow in a smoldering scowl of darkened anger.

“Ordin!!” she bellowed with a hot mixture of embarrassment and rage.

Ordin clutched his sides as laughter poured out of him.

A pillow sailed over Ordin’s head, crashing against the vanity and shattering something fragile. Another soon followed, much closer to the mark. Then with a ferocious grunt, Cora hurdled the side of the bed and tumbled across it, landing beside the mystic. He feebly put up a hand of resistance, alternating between laughing hysterically at her and trying to block her wildly swinging fists.

“Ordin Austmil-Clay! I can’t rinkin believe you!!”

“You should have…seen yourself!” he chortled, gasping for air. “Your eyes bugged out…and your arms went every which way…you nearly peed yourself! That was so funny!!”

Cora grabbed a pillow and pounded him until it was little more than shreds of cloth and a cloud of feathers. Even when she was done thrashing him, Ordin still chuckled. She remained straddling him for a while longer, catching her breath, but, try as she might to resist, she began to laugh with him.

Until a pair of guards came rushing in and they had to explain everything.

* * * * * * * * * *

Over the past two days, Cuauhtérroc had withdrawn increasingly inward. It was obvious that something bothered him, but Cora could not get him to share any details about it. She worried for him, concerned that he was brooding over his need of an army and sensing that his time was being wasted. But she couldn’t get a word out of him.

“Maybe you can talk to him, Ordin,” she said. “You seem to understand him better, sometimes.”

“I ain’t good with words, Cora,” he replied in a transparent attempt to get out of it.

“What? I’d expect a dodge like that out of him, not you.”

“All right, I ain’t good with people.”

Cora paused. That’s probably true. “Please…?”

Ordin frowned at her and sighed. “Okay, fine, I’ll do it. Just quit starin’ at me with those sad puppy eyes.”

The Audric savage sat on his bed, putting the finishing touches on what had once been an ash walking stick. The end had been filed to a fine point, and all along the shaft he had engraved ancient Audric symbols, totemic faces and characters. His project was now complete. Cuauhtérroc laid the carved spear on the floor at his feet and knelt beside it. Stretching himself forward into a prostrate pose, he muttered a repetitious chant of victory to his ancestors for their support.

After a time, Cuauhtérroc stood and faced the mirror of his vanity. He slipped the small knife from his boot and sliced each palm, remaining stoic as the pain seared through him and the blood began to drip. He then clasped the spear tightly, forcing blood to flow into the etchings and mingle with the totemic faces and runes. Finally, with firm resolution, he opened his door and strode down the hallway with the spear.

Cora was just leaving her room as the savage marched past. “Cuauhtie! We missed you in th—”

Her face blanched when she saw the bloody spear in his hand and his grim focus. “Oh no…what are you doing?”

Cuauhtérroc gave no answer, but a short growl escaped his throat. He strode quickly to the end of the hall and threw open the side door leading to the outer courtyard.

Cora hastened to close the distance. “Cuauhtérroc, wait up.”

Under cover of nightfall, the savage quickened his pace, his long strides speeding him across the courtyard and into the Estate Houses’ property. Cora began to jog behind him. “Cuauhtérroc, where are you going? What’s going on?”

Past three of the Estate Houses, the Audric stopped, checked his bearings, and dashed off toward the back side of the fourth mansion.

Near the entrance to the root cellar of the Tussex House, Cuauhtérroc heard laughter coming from a wooden shed. Flickering lamplight danced through the cracks of the shed. Without checking the latch, he squeezed the handle and pulled the door outward.

Behind him and now on a dead run to catch up, Cora bit off a scream.

Two dark-skinned women were sitting on the edge of a straw mattress, their feet propped up on a small trunk. Their conversation ended abruptly when the door flung open to reveal the Audric savage, his eyes wide with rage and his right hand, stained with blood, raised high and clutching his meticulously carved spear.

Neither of the women flinched when Cuauhtérroc lunged forward, and neither batted an eye when the spear hurtled from his hand with lightning speed, shot clean through the trunk under their feet, and embedded two inches into the wooden floor. Calmly, they lifted their eyes from the wobbling end of the shaft to the dark eyes of the savage, whose threatening stance filled their doorway.

In his native Audrian tongue he said, “I will destroy you both on the third day outside the western city walls at midnight. Do you accept?”

Their nearly imperceptible nod was all the confirmation he needed, and he almost knocked Cora off her feet when he spun around and returned the way he came.

Cora leaned into the shed and her breath caught at the sight of the women. Cripe, they truly are Amurraks! She gathered herself quickly and smiled. “Sorry about that,” she offered, backing away as she spoke. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him. I guess I had better go see if I can settle him down a bit. Maybe that’s his way of giving gifts…” She hastily pushed their door closed and beat a path back to the castle.

“What in the Nine Hells was that!” she cried as she burst into Cuauhtérroc’s room. “Are you crazy? We’re on probation, Cuauhtérroc! We have to be on our best behavior or we go to jail, and you just tried to kill two women! Seriously?! Right here on the castle grounds?”

The savage wrapped strips of cloth around his bloodied hands and gave Cora a stern look. “Dat ees a choltok. I deed not try to keel dem.”

Cora placed her face in her hands and tried to wipe the exasperation away. Taking a deep breath, she looked up at him and asked, “What’s a choltok?” Not that it makes any difference.

“It say dat we fight and dey cannot refuse. I tell dem I weel keel dem in three days outside dees ceety.” He grabbed his backpack, hoisted it onto his shoulders, and readjusted his panther pelt.

Cora’s jaw dropped. “No! You’re…you’re kidding, right? We can’t leave the city! Please tell me this is a joke.”

“No, Cora O’Banion. I weel keel dem in three days.”

Cora was stunned. She could barely believe what she was hearing. “Cuauhtie…why?”

“Dey are Amurraks.”

This time Cora nearly did scream. She threw out her arms at him. “They can’t possibly be the same people that burned your home—”

A white-hot fire smoldered in Cuauhtérroc’s eyes. “You do not know anything, Cora O’Banion! Dey are dees same weemen that burn my veelage! Dey have dees markings on dees faces and dey have cut dees ears. You cannot see dees because you do not want to. You theenk that you can sing and dance weeth dees preety man and everybody weel like you. Dat is not my life! You need to wake up, Cora O’Banion. It ees also not your life.”

Cora’s arms shot down to her side, and she unconsciously backed toward the door. The angry chastisement of a savage was far worse than any she had received from her parents. And Lady Kathryn O’Banion could give a regular tongue-lashing.

“I’m sorry, Cuauhtérroc. I…they…it didn’t make sense how…what I mean is…why would they be here? Doesn’t it seem rather convenient that your arch-nemesis is staying in the same town as you, right on the castle grounds?”

“I do not understand what you say.”

“I mean, why would two Amurraks be all this way north, in Arelatha, in Westmeade of all places? They would have to be here on purpose, like they’ve been following you or watching you and plotting against you. But that’s crazy talk. That would take months of preparation. And even if it were true, how did they follow you all the way here without us knowing it? I mean, Celindria never spotted them along the road, Shinnick never sniffed them out, and you never saw them until last week. How did they get past the gates, for crying out loud?”

“I do not know. Also, I do not care. I weel keel dem in three days because dey keel my people.”

The door to Cuauhtérroc’s room opened and Ordin walked in. “Hey Cuauhtérroc, Cora says I’m supposed to ask you why you’re actin’ weird lately, but since she’s here I reckon you can just tell her yourself.” He sniffed and left just as calmly as he had entered.

* * * * * * * * * *

Montpeleón sat at his wide, hand-carved desk in the library of Sarvelle House, staring glumly at three sheets of parchment. One bore the words “Dear Cora;” a second said, “To the Fairest of Songbirds;” and the third began with “To the Lovely Cora O’Banion.” He scowled at all three and shoved his pen roughly into the inkwell. Nothing looked or sounded right. He swept up the three sheets in frustration, wadded them together into a crumpled ball, and tossed them into a small box in the corner that was already overflowing with similarly crumpled attempts to begin this letter. Why is this so flaming hard? I am a councilman in Westmeade and gentry in Kedeth. I’m used to impressing people and speaking with total strangers. Why can’t I write a simple letter to a young lady? Cripe, has it been that long?

He checked the hourglass at the end of the desk. In about ten minutes, Cora’s freeblades would be leaving the castle grounds. He had to write something—good or bad—or forget it. Keep it simple, Monty.

He picked up his pen, tapped it lightly on the edge of the vial, and began yet again.

My Dearest Cora,

I consider it a privilege to have spent this week in your presence. Beauty this rare comes but once in a man’s life.

Your talent is evident, and already it shines brilliantly. Arelatha needs more artisans with your capabilities, your passion, and your personal charm. Indeed, you have charmed me.

I look forward to more times like those we have recently shared. Would you be willing to further grace my life?

I wish to escort you to the Fraand Theatre two days hence. Some old acquaintances of mine from Kedeth are traveling through Westmeade and will be performing at that time. Songs, dance, and instrumentation are their specialty, and I think you will truly enjoy the evening. With you at my side, I know I will enjoy the performance even more.

I will leave word with the Estate guards to let you in should you wish to reply in person. Present this letter as your proof.

With my heart sincere,


With barely two minutes to spare on the hourglass, he nearly crumpled this one, too. He did not like it much; it came off as overly desperate, pushy, and maybe even a little presumptuous. But what could he do? He loved every minute he had spent with the fair Cora of Lorenvale. He cherished the memories of sitting atop the battlement, watching the sun set the fields of wheat afire, and gazing at stars until the soft sound of her breathing was all he could hear. He longed for another look into those deep emerald eyes and to hold her delicate, talented hand in his.

Montpeleón chided himself severely for being a love-struck fool. He hadn’t come all this way from Kedeth just to get caught up in a romantic fling. He had serious work to do, tasks that had been delegated to him from higher powers, which didn’t allow for men of his station to become distracted by entangling affairs. How was he to do his job, they would ask, if he was always chasing “that skirt”? He knew that’s what they’d call her. Cora O’Banion was different, worth far more than any amount of power. Was she worth more than his position? That was the question.

He paused to think about this as the sands emptied from the top of the hourglass. Cora and her allies would soon be escorted from campus. Montpeleón gave the letter one last look, and with a deep breath, folded and sealed it with wax and his signet ring. He then dashed quickly out of his house and to the guards at the front gate of the compound.

“When Cora O’Banion comes out in a few minutes,” he instructed the guard, “give this to her. She’s the one with scarlet hair.”

He was back in his house before Cora and her company exited, but Montpeleón kept his back to the window.He was determined to maintain control of his emotions; he was not going to act like a schoolboy and gaze longingly after her as she left.She would read the letter in her own time.If she accepted the invitation, good.If not, he had some painful decisions to make.

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