• Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 17: A Justice Primer

Updated: Jul 4, 2021

At Cora’s behest, Montpeleón joined her at the Folk Centre for an entirely different form of entertainment. The converted warehouse was filled to bursting with rustic, unpretentious music straight from the lower hill country to the southwest. Three different musical groups were lined up to play, and each of them opened with an arrangement of the local favorite, Golden Westmeade. Not that anyone minded the repetition; the music was loud, fast, and accented with a heavy backbeat, a relatively new trend in “common” music. It was a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, ale-drinking good time.

Pork ribs turned on a spit, and baked beans simmered on a griddle, filling the room with the heady aroma of hot and spicy foods. A half-dozen varieties of ales, lagers, and beers—all straight from the casks—lined the back wall. Most would be gone by night’s end.

It was mid-Arini, the Ides of Summer, known derisively as “Loafer’s Day” for the precious little work anyone did. To celebrate the end of summer, everyone closed their shops and joined in the pageantry and festivities. The night was warm, and many of the revelers glistened with a light sheen of sweat, but joy and laughter filled the dance hall.

“Dance with me!” Cora shouted when the sea shanty Storms of the Depths began. It was a well-known tune frequently accompanied by dancing the high-kicking and energetic shimmy-shaker. And as any sailor would say, especially of the ladies, “The higher the kicks the better.”

Montpeleón refused the dance politely but firmly, holding fast to his mug of ale. In several years of living in Westmeade, he had never engaged in the Ides of Summer traditions, and he wasn’t certain he wanted to.

With a teasing frown, Cora shrugged and found another young man to pair with. Together, they weaved haphazardly throughout the crowded dance floor, their arms and legs flailing about as they careened into the other dancers, laughing and shouting merrily the whole time.

Montpeleón shook his head and returned to his ale. How anyone managed to escape five minutes of such barely controlled chaos without injury was beyond him. When Cora returned to his side at the song’s end short of breath and dripping with sweat, he frowned and recoiled from her. How unlike a lady she can be; almost childlike.

After she had calmed down and quaffed some ale, Cora grabbed Montpeleón’s hand and pulled him to the dance floor. The new song was considerably more subdued, practically a ballad by comparison, and many of the dancers had retreated to their tables for a breather. Still, he resisted to the point of embarrassment.

“What’s the matter, Monty?” Cora winked at him while pulling on his arm. “Is this place too ‘common’ for you?”

He stiffened slightly at the thinly veiled accusation. “Absolutely not.”

“Well then, what is it? Something’s holding you back—you’re not ashamed of me, are you?”

This time he drew back a bit. “Of course not, my dear—”

Cora leaned in and raised up on her toes to plant a playful kiss on his cheek. “Then dance with me, you silly buggard!”

Resignedly, he tried to fall in. He attempted to mimic her movements, and when that didn’t work, he tried to anticipate the next steps and at least pretend to lead in the dance. His heart pounded in his chest and his palms began to sweat even more than his brow. Finally, after tripping over Cora’s feet yet again and nearly falling, he threw his hands into the air. “All right! I’m done. Are you satisfied?”

Cora grabbed his hand as he tried retreat to their table. She spun him around to face him, a mixed look of mirth and sympathy in her emerald eyes. “You…you can’t dance, can you?”

Montpeleón sighed and shook his head. “I never could. I look like a drunk man on a storm-tossed sea. It might be part of the reason I’m still a bachelor. When I attended all those courtly balls, I remained against the wall with my wine glass, rejecting every offer to dance.”

Cora hugged his arm and leaned on his shoulder. “Your secret’s safe with me. But we will have to work on that. Ballroom dances don’t actually require that much coordination, only a good memory for the many movements.” She slipped her arm around him in consolation. “We can still play some of the most beautiful music together.”

Into the late evening, they did play together, filling a brief gap in the arranged schedule with a three-song set of their own duets, followed by a lively romp of improvisations that brought thundering applause from the crowded Folk Centre. Cora provided the chording and syncopated rhythms while Montpeleón picked out a melodic line to layer over the top, often blazing through the notes with astonishing speed.

On the way back to the Kotting’s house, the two songsages laughed and sang duets as if the night would never end. Eventually, Montpeleón was forced to bid her good-night. He escorted her to the front step and took her hands, his adoring gaze becoming lost in her emerald eyes.

“My dearest Cora, I had a most wonderful evening.”

Cora blushed and squeezed his hand. “Me too. I can’t remember a night I enjoyed more.”

“Clearly, I would not have been there without you.”

“You wouldn’t have danced without me, either,” she said with with a gentle laugh.

Montpeleón swallowed hard, and pulled her closer. “I would not have known joy without you.” He placed a tender hand on her shoulder.

Her arm trembled under his hand, but she leaned in. “Well, I wouldn’t have known improv without you.”

“And I would not have known love…”

Montpeleón’s last words ended with the meeting of their lips. The kiss began simply enough, but it became impassioned and lengthy, and their arms entwined about the other. Quickly, all sense left them and they neither reckoned nor cared who could see them.

Their passion might have crossed into the realm of inappropriate, but the front door swung open and a scowling Velma Kotting emerged. “That’s entirely enough, Montpeleón, sir! Unhand Miss Cora this very second!”

The alderman blushed three shades of crimson and backed away, sputtering his apologies. Cora gasped and covered her mouth, her frantic eyes scanning the yard as if looking for a place to hide. But the lady of the house was fully in control, and the two songsages separated and stood at opposite sides of the porch.

Mrs. Kotting remained on the porch as Montpeleón bade Cora good-night, her gaze keenly fixed on the councilman. Before he left her, he reached into the breast pocket of his coat and produced an envelope stamped with the seal of Westmeade’s Council.

Cora raised an eyebrow. “What’s this?”

He retreated to his waiting hansom and rode away into the night, but Cora barely had attention enough to watch him leave. She raced to her room with letter in hand as Mrs. Kotting locked the door for the night.

* * * * * * * * * *


The door to the root cellar of Tussex House opened with a slight creak, and Mattawonah crept down the wooden steps with care, her eyes ever before her feet. As she reached the basement floor, she chanced a quick but forbidden look ahead. A gaunt figure sat behind a simple wooden desk, hunched over and frail. The area was secluded in shadow, and Mattawonah could make out none of the details. But the figure did not look like her Master Bray, and for the briefest of moments she was confused. If Master has been discovered then I am also in danger. She readied a small dagger and entered the cellar cautiously.

“Put away your blade, slave,” came a familiar voice.

Mattawonah startled, not expecting her master’s voice. “I have news you like,” she said impulsively, her voice raspy from a damaged trachea. She quickly looked down at her feet as she slid the dagger back into its sheath. Making eye contact with her master would bring swift and horrible pain. Her mind continued to churn. Something failed to make sense. The figure in shadow did not belong to her master, but the voice did. She knew better than to look up.

“Tell me this news,” Bray said.

“White Skin now live with Vashanti woman in small house.”

“In Overdale Preserve?”

“Yes, master.”

“Interesting. What of the others?”

“Panther Warrior live in White Skin’s old house. He is alone, but he walk soon. Red Hair live with old man and woman. She make friend with noble man.”

“Yes…Montpeleón. So…” Bray let the word hang in the air as he contemplated. “Cora and Montpeleón are romantically involved.” He chuckled softly. “Foolish girl. She has no idea what she’s getting into. I will speak with the alderman.”

The master arose from his chair and walked into the dim light near the door in which the Amurrak woman stood. “You have brought me good news, slave. Now, tell me: why did you not kill the savage in his sleep? Why did you not take the life of the pretty redheaded skirt?”

“Master say do not.”

“That’s right. And that is why I haven’t killed you now for raising a dagger against me. Despite your many errors, slave, you are useful to me yet. Now, hand it over.”

Seething immensely but having more fear than anger, Mattawonah unclasped the sheath of her dagger and passed it, handle first, to her master. With a quick motion, he bade her leave, and she obeyed without hesitation. As she ascended the steps, Mattawonah pondered what she had seen. Though she dared not look at her master’s face, his legs and torso were in view when he had approached her, and they were thin, wrinkled, and frail. The voice belonged to Master Bray, but the body…

She paused before lowering the cellar door.

Not all was right with the body.


* * * * * * * * * *


Sir Reginald Hunt stood at the base of Wilder Tower. The many clouds burned with red and orange from the setting sun, which threw his shadow against the doors of the tower.

After sending away on furlough those men who had witnessed the tower’s horrors—with honors of course—he was satisfied that Wilder Tower would receive little discussion amongst the Council. Hunt glared. Unless that fink Reichtoven starts talking. I’ve got to figure out how to keep him quiet.

The Council’s attention was on other things, particularly the upcoming wedding of Duke Lenair’s second daughter, Karlina. Already, they were posturing for choice seating at the dining table in the Duke’s Castle in Cer Cannaid. The Brewer’s Consortium was approaching in two months. Westmeade would once again become the regional center of attention as brewers from all parts of the southern continent would congregate in Penefeld Arena to display their wares.

It gave the Council something else to focus on instead of the recent rumors surrounding Wilder Tower. And that gave Hunt the freedom to pursue this more pressing matter. He needed a quick resolution; the coming Consortium would bring his investigation to a complete halt. With thousands of people flocking to Westmeade for the festivities, his time would be consumed with security matters, petty thefts, and drunken reveling.

The Captain viewed Wilder Tower with a mixture of perplexion and respect. He couldn’t figure the thing out. The darkness, the fiery traps, the animated armor, huge komaci, flashing lights—all signified something of great importance, but his men had found nothing. More troubling was the fact that this had been happening right under his nose. Tales of lights and smoke, thunderings, and ghostly visages had filtered through the impoverished district practically from the day their alderman, August Blanchard, had been murdered. He had not taken the rumors from Wilder District seriously, especially the bit about August Blanchard returning. He had discounted those tales as the fanciful and wishful dreams of a grief-stricken people whose last ray of hope had been snuffed.

Hunt didn’t believe for a moment that Blanchard had returned. For one thing, the alderman’s gravesite was undisturbed. His body was still lying in the ground. They could say what they wanted; Blanchard was dead. Something—or rather someone—had caused all this ruckus, and perhaps this someone was even behind the other mysterious murders, sicknesses, or disappearances of those who had tried to replace Blanchard. Sleuthing this someone was now the focus of Hunt’s investigation. Had it not been for Cora’s company burning out the top floors, I might have uncovered all the answers. And yet, had it not been for them, the whole thing might still be empty rumors. Cripe…

It chafed him that Cora’s band of freeblades was not locked up in the dungeons and the Audric extradited. Justice had been dealt an insulting blow in that mock trial they had received. Calloway and Tarnistorel were already biased toward them, and Schumann was a tottering old man with barely a grip on reality, much less the complexities of legal matters. I always deliver justice, but this time it was ripped from my hands. Maybe Cora was onto something…maybe so. But they shouldn’t be wandering around freely.

Hunt shook his head to clear his thoughts and sorted through a ring of keys to produce the one he needed. There were rumors about this tower that he had unwisely ignored. He would not lay them aside so quickly this time. No, this time he would begin with the assumption that strange things were afoot, and though he did not believe it, the option of a resurrected Blanchard yet remained a possibility.

With a final sigh, the Captain stepped inside Wilder Tower. The ground floor was dark again, and a chill swept over him. What the…

“I thought we had cleared up this infernal darkness,” he growled aloud.

He hadn’t become Captain of the Guard by possessing nerves like wet rags; nevertheless, the idea of being alone in a magically-darkened, desolate place was unnerving. Muttering a short epithet, he pulled his short sword—the one obtained from Carver—he whispered an arcane word over it. Within seconds, the darkness dissipated as the sword flared with a momentary solar brilliance before settling into an easy glow. He liked this new blade as far as he understood it, and beneath the sword’s magical light, a satisfied smirk illuminated the Captain’s usually grim face.

Hunt slowly crossed the floor of the tower until he reached the fountain in the center, which had served as the only source of water for Westmeade during its founding. An underground stream flowed beneath the city, and many parts of town tapped into that flow. As he investigated the pool, contemplating whether to drink the water, a nearby door closed. He stiffened and held Carver’s sword at the ready.

“Hello?” he called out, noting with a shudder the muted echo of his voice.

The silence was broken only by the distant sound of footsteps, which quickly faded. He hastily scanned the lower floor. Except for a wardrobe and a writing desk, plus a table and chairs that his men had brought in last week, the entire ground floor was empty. It must be coming from upstairs.

Hunt dashed around the pool toward the nearest staircase, but before he could get there, a greenish-gray image, translucent in the light of his sword, floated down through the ceiling to intercept him. It was a phantom, the ghostly remains of one wrongly slain. The hollow eyes, little more than black holes in the visage, matched the distended mouth affixed in a silent scream. Tattered shreds of cloth, dripping with blood, trailed in an absent breeze. Entrails dangled from a gaping wound in the phantom’s abdomen, which it held in place with a sinewed claw devoid of any skin.

Wisps of ether trailed behind the form, showing briefly the path it had taken. But Hunt was hardly interested in where the phantom had been, for it was coming straight at him. And the closer it got, the more it looked like one of his men who had perished in the tower.

The Captain was not normally a fearful man. He had ridden in the Sentinel League and faced perilous situations on several military fronts. He had rescued citizens in dangerous conditions and driven unsightly creatures from the periphery of the Duchy back to the mountainous regions. But he had never before faced a phantom in any place but his darkest dreams.

“Be gone!” he shouted. The trembling of his bones was evident in his voice. “In the name of everything holy, be gone, I say!” Wisps of vapor swirled from his mouth with every breath.

The phantom made no reply but continued to approach. Hunt backed away, his frightened gaze fixed on the apparition. Carver’s sword continued to shine, and Hunt waved it erratically in crisscrossing paths, hoping to ward off whatever the phantom intended. Losing his nerve by the second, he made a feeble attack at the phantom. Though the blade swished right through it, the ghostly form seemed unfazed and hovered before Hunt’s face.

“Captain…” the haunt moaned.

Hunt’s body was a tortured mix of indecision. His legs tried both to flee and to stand firm, his hands equally gripping and releasing his sword, his mind issuing a plethora of contradictory commands. He forced his mouth to speak, though it really wanted to scream. “What? What do you want with me?”

“Blood for blood. Life for life.”

“I…I have done nothing wrong.” It was a lie, but it was all he had.

The phantom pointed at cruel claw at Hunt. “I must be avenged.”

“Avenged? For what?”

“Treachery!”

Hunt stepped back, but only to keep from falling over. “What treachery? If there is injustice, I will set it right.”

The phantom sped forward and jabbed its skinless finger in Hunt’s face. “The treachery is yours!”

Captain Hunt’s knees buckled. He swung his sword in desperation, but the effort was just as futile as before. “Leave me!”

It laughed at the feeble attempt, a hollow and mocking chortle that rattled with the sound of chains. “The sword is not your own.”

“Carver…” Hunt hoarsely whispered, backpedaling from the visage. His hands trembled violently as his willpower eroded. When his foot struck against the side of the pool, his nerve failed him completely. The once brave captain emitted a small squeak, turned on his heels and fled from the tower as Carver’s sword tumbled into the depths of the fountain.

Once outside beneath darkening skies, he had enough presence of mind remaining to stop and relock the door, but to keep from screaming he bit his tongue so severely that he drew blood. As visions of the apparition passing through the front door harried his mind, it was his only recourse.


* * * * * * * * * *


The next day, Cora slid into the booth at Crossroads Tavern and laid the letter from Montpeleón before her allies. She nursed a mug of ale as the four of them silently looked at it. Ordin read it once through, then he sat back and folded his arms while Elric turned it over to see if there were more on the backside.

“Well?” Cora said after she could stand the silence no longer.

“Well what?” Ordin replied.

“What does it mean?”

“What do dees say?” Cuauhtérroc asked.

“Are you serious?” Ordin asked Cora, his pale forehead wrinkled in disbelief, “It seems pretty clear to me.”

“But…is it good? Or bad?”

“Where’s my name?” Elric asked.

Ordin shrugged. “I don’t think it has a good or a bad. It just is.”

“What do dees say?” the savage interjected, a bit louder.

“You know that’s not what I mean, Ordin,” Cora scolded. “What are we supposed to make of it?”

“Don’t be stupid, Cora. We’re not supposed to make anything of it; we’re supposed to show up.”

Elric held up a hand. “How come I ain’t on it?”

Cora took a long draught and set her mug down with extra force. “But I can’t show up without knowing what I’m going to! What are their intentions? How are we supposed to behave?”

“You’re readin’ way too much into this,” Ordin answered.

Cuauhtérroc slammed both hands hard on the table. “Chatiman! What do dees paper say!”

“Cripe,” Elric exclaimed as he jumped in his chair. “Don’t get yer knickers in a wad.”

Both Cora and Ordin looked at the savage with some surprise. He had never cursed before, if that was what he had just done. Since it sounded like one, Cora grabbed the letter and quickly read it to him.


Concerning Cora O’Banion of Lorenvale, Cuauhtérroc of the Audric Jungle, and Ordin Austmil-Clay of the Cerion Forest:

You are summoned to appear before the High Council of Westmeade on the 21st day of Arini at one hour past noon.


When she had finished, Cuauhtérroc rose from the table and said, “Dees paper say we meet weeth dees Council one hour after meed-day, after four days. Dees is all it say.”

“But why?” Cora insisted. “Are we in trouble? Is it because we left town?”

“I told you that was stupid,” Ordin mumbled.

Cuauhtérroc placed a large hand on Cora’s shoulder. “Cora O’Banion, when dees sun shines in dees sky, you do not say maybe it weel rain. You hunt in dees light of dees sun. But if it rains, den you get wet.”

Elric held up the parchment. “So…what am I s’posed to do?”


* * * * * * * * * *


“You did what?” Sir Reginald Hunt burned with anger as he paced frenetically across the study of Sir Anthony Prisido’s private chambers.

The Chancellor of Westmeade sat calmly in a soft, high-backed chair beside an empty fireplace. His dark red evening jacket contrasted against crème linen trousers. A short-stemmed pipe dangled between his teeth, and small tendrils of white smoke curled upward in the still air of the room. A single book lay open in his lap. Prisido regarded the pacing Captain through partially closed eyes, but he answered nothing.

Hunt stopped his pacing and glared at Prisido. “How many were present when you made this decision? Two? Five? Everyone but me?”

“You assume too much,” Prisido said calmly.

“And you assumed that I would—what? Sit quietly while you upend our entire justice system?”

“Mind your tongue, Captain.” The Chancellor was ordinarily a patient man, but the way he shifted indicated his patience might be wearing thin.

But Hunt pressed the matter. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice a complete upheaval of our laws?”

“You’re out of line, Hunt. Sit down.”

Hunt closed his mouth, but he remained standing. He knew that taking a seat would also take the edge off his speech.

Prisido puffed on his pipe, stoking the embers in the bowl, and forcibly blew out a cloud of fragrant smoke. It was a thinly disguised sigh. He inserted a ribbon into the book, closed it, and set it on a side table. He folded his hands in his lap and studied the irate Captain as he formed a response.

“You are aware of the many rumors springing up around Wilder Tower. If anything, these rumors are more plenteous and more improbable now than ever. This Council, to be frank, has been plagued by that tower ever since Blanchard’s death, which, if the rumors are true, seems to have been a temporary inconvenience. I, for one, am sick and tired of dealing with this distraction. What is preventing us from closing this matter? Fear? Are we afraid, Captain Hunt? But if not fear, then what? Superstition? Should I go on record as the first Lord of Westmeade to engage in rule by superstition?

“Of course not,” Hunt muttered.

“So, something must be done. The people of Wilder District demand it. If August Blanchard truly has returned to life—or worse, is an undead horror of some kind—then this must be dealt with, swiftly and finally. If he is still safely in the ground, then the source of this infernal distraction must be rooted out and prosecuted. I understand you lost some men in that tower, Hunt. I also understand you sent the survivors away. I find that intriguing, especially for you, Captain.” His eyes locked onto Captain Hunt, giving the alderman ample time to think about the unspoken implications.

The Chancellor continued. “Given the need for a swift resolution, I convened the Council last week, but Gable was in Cer Cannaid, Pinehurst was in The Grottoes, and no one knew where you were. So, to answer your impertinent question, there were eight present—plenty enough for a quorum. The Council spent three hours discussing the matter and debating our options. We agreed that we cannot continue to throw the good men and boys of Westmeade at something so dangerous, and that we need to hire a freeblade group to delve into the tower and uncover its secrets.”

Prisido puffed on his pipe, then pulled it from his mouth and frowned at it, for the embers had gone out. “Personally, I would raze the rinkin thing to the ground, but you know how far that idea would fly.”

Captain Hunt’s mind reeled. He vehemently objected to so much of what Prisido had said. His next question was not the best one to lead with, but it was the one that trumped all others: “But why them?”

“Why not?” Prisido asked with an offhand shrug. “They have experience with the tower already, and according to their unchallenged testimony, they’ve already encountered the mastermind behind the rumors.”

Hunt shifted on his feet. “May I remind you, Sir, that the members of Cora’s company are under house arrest—a ridiculously lenient pardon—and under strict orders not to come within fifty feet of Wilder Tower. This is—”

Prisido closed his book and set both it and his pipe on the side table. “I know…I know. That was a major hurdle we had to overcome.”

“A hurdle!” Hunt shouted, “Since when did justice become an obstacle in this fair city?”

The Lord of Westmeade’s brow furrowed as he received the overt accusation.

“It wasn’t that long ago,” the Captain continued, “that we Kedethian people understood our heritage and our birthright. We knew that this land was destined to become the new Kedethian Ascendency. I expected you would defend that heritage. But what I’ve seen here concerning that…that motley crew of strawswords runs completely counter to the Decree.”

Prisido raised an eyebrow. “I assume you are referring to the savage?”

It never once occurred to Captain Hunt that he had been drawn out. “Absolutely!” he cried out. “I can’t believe he’s still here! Why haven’t we extradited him—or better—enslaved him? You know what the Decree says about the Audrics. There’s only one end for those people…subjugation.”

Prisido stared at the Captain for some time until Hunt grew uncomfortable under his gaze. Beneath this scrutiny, it slowly became apparent that he might have overplayed his hand. As he reran the conversation in his mind, he wondered if he might have presented his case in a more controlled manner. But he could hardly contain his emotions when he recalled the utter perversion of justice that he had witnessed in the Tower of So-called Truth.

“Prisido, Sir…” the Captain reasoned in a more subdued tone, “it would make more sense to me if we sent a different group of freeblades in there…perhaps the Blade Masters? Their base is in Cer Cannaid.”

The High Lord’s expression shifted from one of accusatory scrutiny to warm graciousness. “My good Captain, supposing the Blade Masters were not already engaged, it would require a five-day journey to present the summons, and likely more for the freeblades’ return. Bringing them here would squander almost two weeks. And in case you’re thinking it, transporting them in by magical means is off the table. The coffers cannot afford that kind of expenditure, which would be emptied for their retainer and reimbursements. To say nothing of their anticipation of reward—they are an expensive company.”

Prisido held out his arms. “But look at what we have here: a freeblade group of some experience already in town, entirely beholden to our wishes, and ill-positioned to bargain for reward or reimbursement. We would be fools not to use them. And besides, if they are killed, then your ideas of justice will have been satisfied.”

The Captain held his breath. He disliked the universal Kedethian system of justice being referred to as “his ideas.” He would have preferred that Prisido accept the Decree and implement it. Still, the High Lord’s logic was sound, even if the situation vexed him.

“My lord, I can’t escape the feeling that we’re granting to the criminals unfettered access to the scene of their crime. How do we, as councilmen, prevent the notion, in the convicted as well as the general citizenry, that we are already rewarding them? How do we keep this from looking like we have sanctioned their behavior?”

“This, Captain Hunt, is the hurdle of which I previously spoke,” Prisido said. “It is why the commission they will sign compels them to report to this Council at the end of each week, and more importantly, it explicitly forbids their possessing anything of value they find. They will be under strict scrutiny and a heavy hand. One small slip, and it’s off to prison.”

The Captain reflected upon this for a time. It was a better arrangement than he could have hoped for, almost designed for their failure. He had never heard of a freeblade group operating under restrictions such as these. Cannot possess anything they find? Impossible. They will surely run afoul of that edict and—finally—reap their just rewards. If they accept the commission in the first place. “And you’re certain they will sign it?” he asked with some doubt.

Prisido smiled and pressed his fingers together. “They are in no position to refuse.”


Later that evening, long after the sun had slipped behind The Grottoes, Sir Reginald Hunt was startled by a knock at his back door. It was unusually late for visitors, for only moments earlier he had stepped out of his bath and prepared for bed. The summons coming at his back door made him oscillate between curiosity and wariness. Either this was the most peculiar guest he had received in many years, or something terrible and secretive was taking place.

The possibility of an intruder crossed his mind, and he scanned the room for his new sword, the one he had taken from Carver. But he cursed instead. Dropped it in the blasted Tower. Hunt reasoned that a thief or a marauder would not be so kind as to knock first. Yet, for safety’s sake, he took up his old sword and edged toward the window.

A quick glance past the curtains revealed only a thin figure covered by a hooded cloak. Even a bright moon revealed little about the guest. He appeared lithe, his careful movements measured and efficient.

With some caution, Hunt unlocked and opened his back door, and he laughed in relief at who was standing there. What he had taken for a lithe frame was instead a frail old man; the calculated movements were little more than his most basic efforts at remaining upright. Ah, how the moonlight tricks the senses. Standing before him, and growing more impatient by the second, was the alderman of Tussex District, Vincent Schumann.

“Well,” Schumann said in his genteel drawl, “ah ye gwinna let me in, or ain’t ye?”

Hunt swung the door open and stepped aside, sweeping his arm inwards in a gesture of welcome. “Please, Honorable Schumann, and welcome.”

It took considerable time and effort, but Schumann eventually made his way through the kitchen and took a seat on a comfortable rocking chair in the living room. Hunt stoked a fire in the stove and put some water on to boil. “Do you like anything in your tea, Schumann?” he called out.

“I puhfer green teas, if ye got ‘em.”

Hunt wrinkled his nose. Green teas were far too bland for his liking, and too expensive to import from the Janwyn Chersonese, what with the blasted Nephreqin embargo. But even if he liked the brew, Hunt wouldn’t drink it. His coin was not going to support the land of the Nephreqin, even though the land was peopled with his Kedethian kin. They took the Kedethian Decree seriously, but the got it entirely—and dangerously—wrong.

“I’m afraid I don’t have any green tea, Schumann, but I have a nice pekoe blend from the lower Pinkerton region of Carolan.”

“At’ll do,” Schumann said resignedly.

Hunt dashed upstairs to his chambers to change into more presentable attire as the water heated to a boil. When he returned, Schumann was sitting quietly in a rocking chair, hands folded beneath his chin as he studied the Kedethian coat of arms above the mantel. Once the kettle had reached the right temperature, the Captain prepared the ceramic pot with the dark, aromatic leaves and poured the steaming water.

“So, what is the reason for your visit?” the Captain asked after he had poured the tea and eased into his leather chair.

Schumann slowly inhaled the warm aroma. He stirred his small spoon in the cup for a while. In the accompanying silence, the Captain steadily grew more uneasy.

“I have it on good author’ty,” Schumann began, “that ye ain’t none too happy wit’ the Council’s decision.”

A lump formed in Hunt’s throat, and he wanted to unleash a heated reply. But he had already crossed a line or two with Chancellor Prisido earlier in the day, and he could ill afford to continue that trend with the elder alderman. How could word of that have gotten to anyone, let alone so soon? Is Prisido upset with me? Or are you?

“Where did you hear that?” he asked, hoping his voice was steady.

“It don’ mattah. The fact is ye think ye got a keen undahstandin’ of the Kedethian Decree, an’ I s’pect that’s got ye all riled up. Now, I can trace my heritage through House Lambrick all the way back to the Ascendency, but ye don’ see me pitchin’ a royal hissy-fit, do ye? No sir. Ye gotta stay calm, Cap’n Hunt. Keep ‘at wagglin’ tongue o’ yers in yer pietrap. Don’ be shoutin’ down the Chancellah, ye knucklehead. Whatcha tryin’ to prove, that yer rocks are made o’ sternah stuff? Bah. All ye get fer that is a black mahk and a hahd time next election. Ye gotta keep greasin’ the skids, boy, an’ takin’ yer knocks as ‘ey come.”

“That’s all well and good, Schumann, but if you’re so proud of your heritage, then why would you vote to let Cora’s gang back into the tower? Better yet, why did you approve of their house arrest instead of imprisonment in the first place? You sat on that Tribunal and gave your approval to commute their sentence. Where’s the justice in that?”

Schumann sipped his tea, his eyes never leaving Hunt’s angry glare. “I approved it puhcisely b’cause it’d put ‘em exactly where they are.”

The Captain wrinkled his nose at the old man. “What?”

“Tell me, Cap’n Hunt, are ye more worried ‘bout the Decree or…‘justice’?”

The question completely unsettled Hunt, and he lowered his gaze into his cup. He had always seen the Decree as justice. He knew the correct answer, but it was some time before he could give it. Plaguing his mind were questions of where all this was headed.

“The Decree,” he answered as firmly as he could.

“Then why in the Nine Hells do ye keep babblin’ on ‘bout justice?! What’s justice, boy, when ye got highah powahs at work? A pawn, that’s what. An’ don’ ye fahget it. Ye been playin’ wit’ a pawn, Hunt, an’ attachin’ an awful lot o’ pride to it, too, I might add. But all that’s a waste o’ time. Now, ye still have to act like justice is important, ye know. Ye still have to be the tight-arse prosecutah that delivahs justice to the people, an’ all that rot. But there’s a highah goal heah, Hunt, one ‘at ye can’t even begin to undahstand. So, I’m heah to give ye an option: ye can quit wit’ the rinkin hawgwash ‘bout the Decree, ‘cause ye plainly know nothin’ ‘bout it. Ye go on ‘bout yer bis’ness o’ bein’ the Prosecutah, an’ ye don’ mention the Decree agin...or ye don’ wake up the next mornin’.”

Hunt’s eyes narrowed. “Are you threatening me, old man?”

Schumann flicked his wrist.

Something brushed by the Captain’s ear—he thought a fly—and he waved the air near his head. He looked at Schumann, who was taking another sip from his tea, and noticed an empty space where his saucer had been, though his hand was formed as if he still held it. The old man’s eyes were focused past him, and Hunt slowly turned around to find what he was seeing.

On a bureau against the far wall a tapered candle shifted slightly, then the top third slid cleanly to the floor. Behind it, unbroken and embedded into the wall, was the saucer.

When Hunt turned back around to face the elderly alderman, all traces of anger were gone. His heart palpitated with dread. Schumann?

“Or…” Schumann continued, “ye submit yerself to the Decree, which ye plainly know nothin’ about, an’ align yer actions with the highah powahs that are orchestratin’ these events. In short, ye get wit’ the program or ye get out o’ the way.”

Hunt summoned all the courage that had not already left him, but it could not quell the tremor in his voice. “You’re Nephreqin, aren’t you?”

“Bah! Don’ be a complete fool, Hunt. I’m a wizahd, an’ a rinkin old one at that. I ain’t no flamin’ Fathah or Brothah or nothin’ like ‘at. But I am as Kedethian as ‘ey come an’ I believe the Decree entirely. An’ for that, I am well connected.”

Hunt’s body trembled. He knew the stories of the Nephreqin that sprang up during the Wars of Attrition ten years ago. The whole of Arelatha had regarded the organization as little more than a political entity that claimed the Janwyn Chersonese. They were a nuisance, mostly, orchestrating a naval blockade of the whole Bluhusk Sea from the Audric Jungle to Ogria. But during the Wars, they had thrown off all pretenses, coming out of hiding to reveal their true nature as spies, infiltrators, and assassins. They were rumored to be behind the fall of every major nation during the wars and possibility the instigators of the whole conflict. Kings had died, nations rent asunder, whole cities razed.

And the Nephreqin supposedly were pulling all the strings.

On the other hand, the Nephreqin were his Kedethian kinsmen, and that made Hunt’s attitude toward them…complicated. They were racial purists as he was, but they arguably had stretched the intent of the Decree beyond good sense. Hunt liked that they were actively enslaving the Audric folk, and it was good that they were infiltrating and subjugating the backward peoples of Ogria. But assassinating the King of Lothania? Conducting a subversive overthrow of Arvoria, their long-standing ally? If the rumors were true—and who knew which ones were—they were taking the Decree to an unintended and nefarious extreme.

Thus far, the Duchy of Alikon had been spared their seditious schemes. But now, as the elderly Schumann sat across from him, Hunt wondered if the safety of Alikon had been as much a machination of the Nephreqin as the splintering of the Kingdom of Lothania had been.

Hunt had known Vincent Schumann for many years, and had worked with him for nine years on the Council. In all those years, he had never seen this side of the man, the plotting and scheming side. Schumann had always been the kindly, quiet hermit that mostly studied his arcane tomes, the grandfatherly guide who told stories of “the golden age” of Arelatha’s prime.

Now, having been posed the ultimate question of obedience, Hunt’s ears rang with Schumann’s words: “Get with the program or get out of the way.” It was the kind of ultimatum the Nephreqin was known for making, and yet another reason the Captain detested them. By the Maker, I am Kedethian, and of House Lambrick, too! Is there no distinguishing one race from another? Is there no room for family or friends? Are we only allied so long as we obey? Apparently, it mattered not; he had been given a clear choice, and he had also been given a clear demonstration of how quickly he might be controlled or even killed.

“Well?” Schumann prompted.

Sir Reginald Hunt closed his eyes and resigned himself to the only answer remaining. “I will obey.”

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