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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Chapter 10: The Council's Decision

In a large room dominated by deep blues and greens, Sir Reginald Hunt leaned against the wall near the doors, a duo of sturdy oak panels towering twelve feet high and stained a golden-brown. The Council of Westmeade filled the room, quietly waiting as their Chancellor pored over a tattered tome. Hunt watched over them with an ear on the hallway beyond the doors.

Sir Anthony Prisido III sat behind a hand-carved wooden desk that gleamed with a high polish. Darkly hued bookcases flanked either side of a bay window behind the Chancellor, each containing priceless curios from all corners of Arelatha amongst the leather-bound tomes. Four plush chairs faced the front of the desk in a semi-circle, and in them sat Calloway, Sebastian, Pinehurst, and Baskin. Robert Baskin, the Protectorate of the People, rested an escritoire in his lap for taking notes of the conversation, waiting in silence. With pinky extended, Sebastian sipped camellia from a gold-trimmed porcelain cup, the aroma of the hot brew wafting throughout the room. Lady Tarnistorel slowly paced the room from one marble-topped side table to another, pausing at the artwork on the walls or the décor on display.

As Prisido studied the worn journal of Blanchard’s duplicate with a furrowed brow, Hunt pulled a long-stemmed pipe and a pipeweed pouch from a pocket of his vest. Soon, he had filled the stately room with the pleasing aroma of smoked brandy. He puffed away, observing the roomful of aldermen with a scrutinizing eye.

Marcus Sebastian leaned over to Calloway. “What do you think of all this? Is the redhead making it up?”

Calloway shot a glare at his fellow alderman. “First of all, her name is Cora O’Banion.” He fingered a decorative brass statuette on the side table between them. “But I honestly don’t know what to think just yet. My sources bring me more stories of Nephreqin agents every week. Some of them are legitimate, but most are just the phantoms of a frightened people—exactly what the Nephreqin wants. In the end, I don’t believe Miss Cora would stake her entire reputation on a flimsy document. She knows something.”

“But…Schumann? The charge is preposterous.”

A light tapping on the desk brought everyone’s attention around. Prisido scanned the room and then settled his gaze on Sebastian. “Without any form of proof, I would agree with you—the charge is preposterous. But, we have this.” He held up the journal. Several pages began to fall out, but he caught them and slid them back in place. “I believe these are the ramblings of a madman. However, it corroborates certain facts borne out by our own prior investigations, and it sheds important light on many unsolved cases from our recent past. Perhaps it should not be thrown out entirely. If we are to give it some measure of credence, then we must allow that other, more unbelievable things are, perhaps, also worthy of consideration.”

“Sir?” Sebastian said with rising skepticism.

Prisido ignored the alderman as he scanned the room. “Can any of you attest to the limitations of Blanchard’s ability before he was murdered?”

“Is it fair to limit what Blanchard knew?” Baskin asked.

“How do you mean?” Prisido said.

“Well, we have thus far concluded that Blanchard died without the knowledge of an incantation that would duplicate a person, and that he had never crafted a magical sword.”

“A sentient sword,” Hunt interjected, pointing to Baskin with the stem of his pipe. He and Baskin were often adversaries in the Court of Justice, and that relationship continued here. “There’s a big difference.”

Baskin swept his gaze around the room. “Had he, to anyone’s knowledge, ever crafted a magical sword?”

Several heads shook in the negative. Baskin provided one of his customary smiles of victory often displayed in the courtroom, and Hunt responded with one of his customary sneers.

“Sentient or not,” Baskin continued, “just because Blanchard never enchanted a sword hardly means he was incapable of the feat. We know Blanchard was skilled in the arcane. We also know he was a secretive man for most of his life. So, is it not possible that he knew of many powerful spells about which we had no knowledge and he had no reason to use? Why not the ability to duplicate himself upon death? If he were following some leads that would indict a fellow alderman of so heinous a charge, doesn’t it make sense that he would provide a recourse in case something happened to him?”

“So, you believe the text, then?” Prisido asked with one eyebrow raised.

“I am not entirely sure,” Baskin answered. “I am simply doing what I am trained to do: ask questions and arrive at the truth.”

Prisido nodded. “Of course.”

Doc Pinehurst sat up from what had appeared to be a deep slumber. “There is truth in that journal. I know the history of Clan Stonebridge what built Wilderness Tower. Aye, they included tunnels below and tapped into caverns of the deep. And it’s true that Clan Greystone are gemmers what ply the waters of the Grottoes. These things are true, but I see no truth of Schumann being in league with the Nephreqin.”

“Agreed,” said several others.

“What was it the writer said about the Nephreqin plot?” Baskin asked. “Would you read that part of the text for the record, Sir Prisido?”

“There’s no ‘record,’ Robert,” Hunt remarked dryly. “Save your procedural talk for the court.”

Prisido searched for a few seconds and, finding the reference, read:

Before I died as August Blanchard, it seems I had stumbled upon a sinister plot by a group known as the Nephreqin, a plot to upend the Duchy of Alikon. Their agents have infiltrated governments and societies at every level. And one of them is among us. His name is Vincent Schumann, though I doubt seriously that is his true name. It seems I found him out and was about to act on this knowledge when he had me killed.

“Thank you, sir.” Baskin scratched his chin, looking reflectively at the interlocking beams supporting the ceiling. “How long has Schumann been on the Council?”

“Nine years and some,” Prisido answered.

Baskin nodded. “By my reckoning, that would be about the same time the Nephreqin entered the Wars of Attrition, showing itself to the world by conscripting the pirate lords and forming the blockades of the Southern Seas, of which we all have since grown accustomed. How many nations imploded in the year and a half that followed? Lothania, Arvoria, Trelini, the Border Lands, Yilasa—all were infiltrated by a Nephreqin agent. We’ve known about this insidious order now for…what? ‘Nine years and some’? Perhaps there is more here than we realize. We’re no better able to divine an agent in our midst today than we ever were. So, who’s to say we haven’t been infiltrated?”

“That’s absurd!” Sebastian exclaimed.

“Is it?” Baskin asked.

Hunt’s throat went dry, and he studied his pipe, wondering whether the pipeweed had turned sour. To clear his head, he cracked open the doors and peered down the hallway. It would be the death of them all if Master Bray were hovering nearby.

“Baskin makes a good point,” Calloway said.

Sebastian recoiled. “He makes no such thing. How can you even countenance the idea?”

“I am only suggesting there may be more than coincidence to the timing of Schumann’s appearance on our Council. There may be a conspiracy.”

“That’s a wild theory, Calloway. You surprise me.”

“It’s not a theory if it’s true.”

“Well, it’s not that,” Sebastian countered, rising from his chair. “Schumann has spent the past nine years acting only for the benefit of Westmeade and its people. And if you continue to assert that he is Nephreqin, I will have you brought up on charges as well.”

Calloway shifted in his chair and lightly rubbed his chin. “This is a fine game that two can play. Perhaps you are trying to protect him. Why else would you refuse to consider the facts?”

Sebastian’s face reddened. “I do no such thing! I believe in the sanctity of this Council. It is a grave thing to disparage our members. But perhaps you are fully in league with that redhead. That was quite the sham of a trial you gave her for burning down Wilder Tower.”

Calloway laughed and turned aside. “You wouldn’t know a fair trial if it bit you in the arse.”

Hunt pushed away from the door. “I’ll be the first to say the sentence was a crock,” he said, jabbing his pipe stem in Sebastian’s direction, “but I’ll be hanged if I let you suggest the trial wasn’t fair.”

“Hear, hear!” Baskin shouted.

“Oh, don’t be such a lackey,” Pinehurst scoffed. “And the lot of you stuff a rag in it. You know full well our system is chock full o’ holes.”

That quieted the room a bit.

Pinehurst twisted around in his chair, craning his neck to meet each person’s eyes. “Well? Did you forget how we let Derelan of the Border Lands, that robber-baron and twice-convicted murderer, onto this very Council thirty years ago? Wretched oversight that was. Or what about the sniveling, self-serving Coletta Barwick, who had Sarvelle district is such a tizzy that we gave her the boot and brought on Montpeleón?”

“Coletta was a mess,” Hunt added with an eyeroll.

“So, that proves we aren’t perfect,” Baskin implored. “It may be that we are too lax in our standards. One of the replacements for Blanchard was of questionable standing, if I recall. He would have been added to our numbers if he hadn’t gone missing. Maybe Schumann slipped through as well.”

“I can’t believe you!” Sebastian yelled, wheeling on him. “I thought you would be his staunchest supporter, since you ‘defend the people.’ But you are sounding more like Hunt by the minute.”

Baskin bristled. “Hunt and I take opposite sides to get at the truth, Marcus. He pulls one way and I the other, but we both want the facts. Right, Hunt?”

With threats on his life and his family rushing forth in his mind, Hunt drew hard on his pipe and exhaled slowly. “Yes, but I’m going to keep my thoughts to myself, if you don’t mind.”

Celdorin Tarnistorel stopped her pacing, which had increased in both speed and agitation, to stand directly in front of Prisido’s desk. “If you would kindly permit, sir, I must leave. I have business in the Cerion Forest.”

The Chancellor studied her with furrowed brow. “Now, my Lady?”

“There are other details in the Dragon Slayers’ account that are of grave concern to me and my people.”

“You realize this is highly irregular, Lady Celdorin. We are in the middle of an investiga—”

“Which simply will not matter if I do not attend to this.”

The room fell silent as Prisido and Lady Celdorin locked gazes. Hunt glanced at the aldermen’s annoyed expressions as his hand closed about the hilt of his sword. The Chancellor had locked horns with her many times in battles of will, pride, and influence. Hunt had been forced to separate them before, and it appeared now he would have to do it again.

Prisido sat back and closed Blanchard’s journal. “You mean the prophecy…you know what I think about that.”

Tarnistorel placed her fair hands on the desk and leaned in. “And you know how little I care what you think.” She spun away and marched toward the doors.

Hunt blinked in surprise but stepped aside. He nodded as the Vashanti brushed past him and exited without another word. The door closed with a soft rattle, and a roomful of stunned faces turned to see how Prisido would respond. Never had she shown such brazen defiance.

The Chancellor stared at the journal, a dark cloud shading his countenance, but he said nothing.

Calloway chuckled to break the awkward silence. “Now Montpeleón—there’s one you should watch out for.”

Doc Pinehurst added a deep rumble of laughter. “No, the women-folk should watch out for him.”

“He’s a young bachelor,” Baskin said, rolling his eyes. “Nothing more. We chose well when we added him to the Council.”

“Oh…I see,” Sebastian mocked. “Now you’re going to give an alderman the benefit of the doubt? Where was this graciousness two minutes ago?”

“Are you serious?” Baskin asked, his eyes narrowed in offense. “Do you wonder why you’re never picked to sit on the Tribunal?”

“Silence!” Prisido exclaimed in a booming voice that rattled the windows.

There was immediate stillness.

The Chancellor glared hard in turn at Sebastian, Calloway, and Baskin until they each returned to their seats. “That is quite enough. From all of you. Your behavior is disgraceful, and I have half a mind to toss the whole lot of you on the street. Schumann has been a father figure to us all and the perfect model of kindness and gentility. But it is possible—I say it is possible—that Schumann is an agent of the Nephreqin. If the Nephreqin could infiltrate Arvoria, we would be fools to believe we are immune.”

An uncomfortable silence swallowed Prisido’s office.

Calloway raised a finger, and Prisido acknowledged him. “But why Westmeade? Aside from the Brewer’s Consortium and my market, this little farming community hardly carries any import in Alikon. Not saying anything bad about our fair town—I love Westmeade’s charm and unpretentious grace—but I hardly see how we are a strategic target for the Nephreqin. They could completely take over Westmeade and gain basically nothing. The Sentinel League and the seat of political power is based in the capital city of Everglade, and the duke’s palatial castle is in Cer Cannaid. What would they want with us? Free ale once a year?”

“Your Emporium might very well be the target,” Prisido said, rubbing his chin. “It is completely out of place for this town. How’s your security?”

Calloway cocked his head to one side. “Let’s just say that there’s a dozen ways to die trying to find the vault and a hundred ways to die trying to get in.”

Robert Baskin’s face turned ashen. “Hang on a minute…Schumann left town two days ago. Where was he going?”

“Cer Cannaid,” Prisido answered, and then his breath caught. “He was going to represent us at the Lady Karlina’s wedding. You don’t think…” His sentence faded into a whisper of confused thought.

Sebastian’s eyes darted between the two men. “What are you saying?”

Prisido tapped the journal. “I’m saying that if—if—there’s any truth to this charge, Cer Cannaid might be the target, and we have precious little time to do anything about it.”

“What of the intelligent sword,” Calloway asked, “this ‘Schumann Slayer’? Do we know where it is?”

Hunt answered from the back of room where he had resumed leaning on the doorpost and savoring another pinch of pipeweed. “I would have expected Cora’s crew found it, but my men searched through the gear in their coach, and they didn’t find anything close to a sentient sword.”

“How would you know if they had?” Calloway asked, turning around in his chair.

“For starters, nothing was oozing ichor and calling out ‘Kill Schumann.’”

Calloway shifted back around and rubbed his forehead in embarrassment for the captain. “Seriously, Hunt. You need to train your men better than that. Some of the most powerful weapons are nondescript. You could have a world-shaping artifact in your hands and toss it aside as a useless piece of junk. We need to find this sword and make sure it doesn’t get used for its intended purpose. We certainly don’t need another murder.”

“I agree,” Hunt said, “but you are taking a bold leap of faith in assuming there even is such a sword to find.”

Prisido stood up from his chair, and several of the aldermen did as well, mostly from habit. “We are to reconvene with the—” Prisido glanced down at his notes “—the, um, Assiduous Company of In…Indef…In…cripe…the Dragon Slayers…in only a couple of hours, and we have a weighty decision to make before then. I suggest that we stop speculating and search for additional evidence. If Schumann is performing his duties as an alderman the way he should, he will have a log of his activities, an expense record, and other documents that will attest to his reasons for traveling to Cer Cannaid. I recommend that we look through his office.”

In somber silence, each of the Councilmen filed out of Prisido’s lavish accommodations and into the considerably smaller office belonging to Vincent Schumann. The room was furnished to hold a maximum of four or five people comfortably around a small circular table. The desk was well made but simple in craftsmanship. A trunk sat where one might have expected a bookcase. There was no window; instead, the back wall was decorated with a large tapestry that depicted a multi-masted cutter on the open sea.

The smallish room quickly filled, and Captain Hunt volunteered to remain at the doorway. Prisido went straight for the desk and began opening drawers and flipping through thin stacks of parchments. Calloway traced a finger along a polished silver sextant on a marble pedestal, its prominent display suggesting it was more than an ordinary instrument. Sebastian studied the spines of the books in a small case, then turned his attention to the contents of the trunk.

Pinehurst and Baskin sat at the small round table, the latter’s eyes drifting aimlessly about the room, from ceiling to door, around the walls, and across the floor. He paused at what looked like a faint dusting of red chalk in a circular arc in front of the desk. “What’s this?”

He received a pair of disinterested shrugs for a reply, but Hunt gave Baskin a half-smile. The two argued continuously on every point, but the man did have a keen eye for evidence.

“I don’t see his log,” Prisido grumbled while shoving a drawer closed a bit harder than necessary. “Hunt, go to his Estate House and see if he left his logbook over there.”

“Yes, Sir,” Captain Hunt replied, and with a snap of his boots, he turned and marched down the hall.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sir Reginald Hunt stood on the front porch of Tussex House and flipped through an endless ring of keys. After several failed attempts, he found the correct one, and with a quick check over his shoulder he let himself into Schumann’s house.

In the dark interior, Hunt searched out a lamp and lit it. Thoughts of Carver’s ghost or Master Bray suddenly appearing out of a shadowed corner lifted the hair on his neck. Calm yourself, Hunt. There are no ghosts in here. Just the home of an old man who’s gone to Cer Cannaid. There’s no reason Bray would be here, either. Just find Schumann’s log…

The front room of Tussex House was furnished much like every house in the Estates. A hat-and-coat rack stood in a corner and a side table with guest book and ink well stood near the door. Hunt flipped through the pages briefly—no guests for two weeks…the last ones were a family from Freycoast.

Hunt moved into the living room, noting the precise arrangement of every piece. Best not disturb things. A decorative screen blocked the fireplace. The mantel held a pair of matching brass candelabra that flanked an oil painting of Schumann and his late wife from a time when his hair still had color. Bookcases held tomes of higher education, theoretical discourses, and esoteric arcana with titles like “Relativity in the Void: Does Lucid Dreaming Lead to Dreamscape?” and “The Disparities of Erlcana Explained: A Study of the Various Sources of Magical Power.” Hunt shook his head. How does he read this stuff?

The kitchen was tidy and neatly organized, and it was surprisingly clean for an elderly widower. The wood stove contained a light dusting of leftover ash. Spice racks were alphabetized, as was a small collection of recipes in a wooden box. My wife could learn a few things from this man…

As expected, a door in the back of the pantry opened onto a staircase leading to the basement, and Hunt crept along slowly, careful not to bump his head on the low clearance. At the bottom, he righted himself and held up the lamp. At first glance, everything was in order—perhaps a mite too ordered.

Like the other estate homes, the basement was cool and musty. Pipes ran along the floor joists to provide the Dareni marvel of running water to the kitchen and bath. Various items were stored in crates—seasonal decorations, childhood keepsakes, and similar things. Hunt rummaged through these items until it felt as if he was intruding on Schumann’s personal life.

In the far corner of the basement, in a small alcove hidden behind the stairs, sat a rickety desk. Had he given the basement only a casual glance about, he might well have missed it. He ducked behind the stairs for a closer look.

The desk faced the outdoor staircase which led to the back yard and a wooden door lying flat over the exit. A faint dusting of a red chalk ring colored the floor in front of the desk. Interesting…just like the one in his office. This has to mean something. Pushed neatly beneath the desk was an abused chair, recently mended by the looks of it. A quill in an ink pot showed drip lines along the outside that had stained the desk’s surface. Hunt followed the drips to a short stack of papyrus sheets on the desk.

A knot formed in his throat. The topmost sheet contained a series of notes regarding Cora O’Banion; the second was about Cuauhtérroc. There was a sheet for every member of the Company, including Elric and Ordin but not Selorian. Details were listed on each person—favorite foods, contacts in and around the city, physical characteristics, possessions, frequented shops, religious affiliations, and a wide assortment of seemingly unconnected factoids and rumors.

The blood drained from Hunt’s face. All of it was in Schumann’s handwriting.

With trembling hand, Hunt opened one of the drawers in the desk. Inside sat Schumann’s logbook, the item he had been sent to find. He pulled it out, and his eyes fell upon something that lay beneath the log: a single papyrus like those laying atop the desk. In Schumann’s hand were written the names and addresses of those in the Company of the Dragon Slayers, and beneath them a simple note: “You have your orders; these are your marks. Nightly, beginning Phoca 7.”

The captain’s heart stopped. Phoca 7 is today!

He adjusted the lantern light to its brightest setting, his ears straining to hear the slightest movement and his sword arm at the ready. He braced himself against the desk, his mind clouded by dread. This is my doing. This is the result of my meeting with Master Bray. I told him the Dragon Slayers had to go, and this is it. And now Schumann is arranging everything for him. I set these wheels in motion.

Hunt’s jaw set, anger burning in his chest. And I have to stop it.

* * * * * * * * * *

The highway between the free city of Cer Cannaid and the town of Westmeade passed through some of the most beautiful countryside known in Arelatha. Fertile soil, frequently watered by the sudden storms that arose from The Deepening to the north, sprouted an abundance of grasses, which fed an array of cattle, sheep, and other livestock throughout northern Alikon. The fields between the settlements swayed with the cool autumn breeze carried across the Cradle of Storms. For travelers along this highway, there was hardly a more pleasant journey to be imagined. Many said the Maker himself had blessed this land.

Amid these rolling hills, the pastoral town of Meadowvale nestled against the meandering Rae Gheti, a stream noted for abundant trout fishing. As evening approached, a small hansom entered town from the west. Painted a glossy black and accented with polished brass railings, hardware, and lantern posts, its elegance spoke of the power and wealth of its passengers.

A lone driver sat in the open high seat, and black curtains hung over the windows of the cab. Dressed in fine livery, the driver commanded a pair of sleek, black quarter horses, perfectly matched and striding along in a tightly locked cadence of hooves on cobblestone. A third matching horse led the pair and supported a female rider with a tail of chestnut hair swaying across her back in time with the horse’s canter. Besides a red scarf around the rider’s neck, she sported no color in her matte black clothing. Even her face, from the eyes down, was concealed behind black wrappings.

This rider held up a single fist when they reached the center of Meadowvale. A side curtain of the hansom parted. Master Bray’s head, devoid of all hair, appeared in the window, and his dark eyes scanned the town square. Without looking back, the lead rider pointed forward to an inn named The Trumpet Swan.

Bray nodded and closed the curtains.

Near the entrance, the lead rider dismounted and hurried to the hansom’s side. She opened the door, then stood stock still and looked down at her feet.

Bray stepped from the coach and quickly glanced about. He was clothed in loose-flowing breeches with a linen wrap for his torso. Behind him, with eyes trained only on Bray’s heels, the Amurrak Mattawonah, his slave, exited the hansom and walked in lockstep with him. Bray lifted a hood over his hairless pate, and together they strode past the rider and into the inn.

When the doors closed behind them, the rider remounted her horse and led the hansom driver to the stables in back, where she made her bed with the horses.

In the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness and silence, the rider arose from her bed of hay and stepped from the stable onto a dewy patch of ground. She looked up at the loft, her eyes peering above black wrappings that covered her face and glinting in the moonlight. Tendrils of tangible shadow swirled around her, enveloping her and transporting her instantly into the loft. She stepped out of shadow and crept into the apartment where the stable boy peacefully slept. With a small flash of icy blue light from her extended hand, the young man expired where he lay, transported directly from his temporary respite to eternal sleep.

In another umbral cloak, she vanished from the loft and returned to the ground, then entered the nearest stable. With gentle hands, she embraced her horse’s neck and held tight as wisps of shadow enclosed both woman and animal. Seconds later, only the woman returned from the realm of Tenebrae.

Within a minute, the matching pair of black steeds was similarly dispatched, and the rider took a fresh pair of stabled horses to drive the hansom. Then she saddled a new mount for herself and rode away from Meadowvale and into the night.

* * * * * * * * * *

In his second-story room, Master Bray released the curtain and stepped away from the window overlooking the stables. “It is done,” he said, turning to Mattawonah. “Katrina speeds to Cer Cannaid tonight to make ready our arrival. Let us clear the inn of witnesses; we leave within the hour.”

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