• Andrew M. Trauger

Chapter 14: Cer Cannaid


Dark clouds rolled in off the rocky coast of The Deepening, filling the air with a fine mist whipped about by winds the “Cradle of Storms” generated. Lightning crackled through the hearts of the darkest clouds, stretching jagged tendrils of electricity from one end of the horizon to the other. Cora was well acquainted with these sudden squalls, and they reminded her of home. Through eyes squinted from a blinding headache, she studied the piling clouds infused with electricity.

“Nice,” Elric said. “If Ordin was ‘ere, we’d all be duckin’ fer cover.”

“True,” Cora replied, “and somehow you’d get struck in the arse, and I’d have a rinkin F-sharp ringing in my—” Her voice caught and her eyes welled with tears.

Cuauhtérroc laid a hand on her shoulder. She wiped her cheeks and nodded appreciation. “Thanks. It just snuck up and got me, that’s all. I’m all right.” She rubbed her temples and groaned. “Except for my throbbing brain. I need some kaffe.”

Cuauhtérroc led them to the main road. “I tell you do not dreenk dees poison ale. But you do not leesten.”

They left the clearing for the eastbound road and joined a procession of travelers funneling toward the city. After an hour of inching along, they passed through the western gate. Taverns flowed with patrons and ale, and the streets swarmed with people, nobility and commoners alike, jostling and pushing in a slow but steady stampede. The large gathering of political officials and excessive crowds required the full presence of the Sentinel League from Everglade. At every corner, Cer Cannaid’s militiamen patrolled the streets. The city’s reputation as a haven for pickpockets would either be greatly amplified by the presence of so many foreign travelers or greatly hampered by the presence of such a military force.

In brilliant blues and vibrant reds, flags, signs, and banners hung throughout the city streets, prominently displaying the insignias of Alikon and the Border Lands. Music wafted up the countryside as choirs from the Arthouse dotted the city with their expert harmonies. Minstrel groups from miles around played their signature tunes, and dancing filled every village quarter outside the city. A continuous din of conversation rippled through the teeming masses, filling the air with an undying noise like the constant cascade of waves on a rocky shore.

As the castle came into view beyond a surging flow of people, Cora groaned. “This is madness.”


They entered the flow of eastbound traffic, and the city of Cer Cannaid gleamed up at them. Cora pointed a finger. “See the castle? That’s where we’re headed. Lady Karlina marries tomorrow night. Two nations coming together via the union of duchess to lord. Imagine the pomp, the splendor of the ceremony! Banners, pageantry—ah, the music!”

“Why is this important?” Selorian scoffed, and his face twitched as if he had been bitten.

Cora glared at him. She wanted to deliver a stinging retort, but her brain pulsed against her skull. With a muted groan, she settled for rote explanation. “Because…thousands will be attending from all around, including ambassadors and dignitaries from every friendly nation. The city is likely already filled to capacity with visitors, and lost in that sea of humanity is our alderman. Besides all that, tomorrow is also the duke’s fiftieth birthday celebration, but we haven’t been invited to that.”

“We are not in possession of a wedding invitation, either,” Selorian quipped.

Cora stared at the savant, not directly but in his general vicinity. Her eyes wouldn’t focus, her head throbbed, and her stomach churned. “I don’t feel well.” Suddenly, she covered her mouth, dashing off the road to a secluded place behind a row of bushes.

Moments later, she emerged from behind the bushes, warm and woozy and wiping her mouth on her sleeve. “I think maybe I drank too much.”

Cuauhtérroc shook his head at her.

“Selorian,” Cora said, “are you telling me we don’t have access to the Duke?”

The savant sniffed. “A careful recollection of my exact vocabularic selections will reveal nothing of the kind.”

Cora groaned. “For the love of Beauty…”

“Dees Council geeve us dees letter when you were seeck,” Cuauhtérroc said. “Dey say it is for dees duke.”

“Thank you,” Cora replied. “Who has it?”

Elric held up a hand.

“Let’s see it. If we can reach the castle gate before I die of old age, that will get us in. Surely, the duke can arrange a place for us to stay.”

Elric shucked his backpack and rifled through it, pausing to think before searching again. “Mebbe I done stuck it in my britches…” He stood up and shoved his hands into various pockets in his clothing, all the while his face grew more frantic.

Cora folded her arms. “Tell me you packed the letter.”

“I know I did.” Elric’s countenance showed considerable doubt in the truth of those words. “It’s gotta be ‘round ‘ere…oh, I ‘member. I stuffed it in ‘at purple bag. I figgered out the inside’s bigger’n the outside, so I stuffed all my clothes, food, an’ ‘at letter in ‘ere.” With a grin, Elric pulled out the velveteen bag and untied the yellow-gold drawstring. From its appearance, it was no more than elbow-deep, but as he reached in, his arm disappeared to the shoulder.

His smile also vanished, replaced with a horrified gape. He turned the bag upside-down and shook it with panicked vigor. “It’s gone!”

“What do you mean?” Cora barked. “Where’s the letter?”

“It’s gone. It’s all gone. Someone stole all my stuff!”

For a short moment, three pairs of eyes stared unblinking at him, then Cora erupted in a loud, disgusted growl.

“You had one job! Hold the letter. That was it. Just hold the rinkin letter.”

Elric stiffened. “Now hang on a minute, Cora. I done my job. I done told ya I put it in this ‘ere sack, but somebody stole it.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. Nobody stole your rinkin clothes out of a magic bag. One job, and—how could you be such a moron!”

Elric’s face grew a deep red. “Well, you can go to the Nine Hells,” he shouted. “I didn’t lose ‘at letter.” He stormed off, cutting across the swarming crowds, which parted readily for an armed soldier with venom in his eyes.

Cora tossed up her arms. “What the rink are we supposed to do now?” She wanted to string together a sordid collection of taboo words, things she had only heard flowing from Ordin’s irate lips. Maybe it was therapeutic. “We can’t get in without an invitation. If we try to slip in or break in or force our way in, we’ll be arrested. This is really unfortunate.”

Selorian eyed her with honest surprise. “I presume that, as our leader, it is your job to formulate preparations for this eventuality. Perhaps you should have had a backup plan.”

Cora wheeled on him, her eyes afire, and Selorian backed a step.

“How do we talk to dees duke,” Cuauhtérroc asked, “if we do not have dees letter?”

“You shut up, too,” Cora growled. “Everybody…just shut up.”

Cuauhtérroc’s eyes narrowed. “You need to sit down. Dees is not good.”

“I have to think, and my head’s pounding. I can’t concentrate in this rinkin chaos.” The pressing crowd, her aching brain, and the continual din of a thousand voices eroded any calm she might have clung to. Cora spun on her heels and pointed away from the castle. “This way! I’ve got to find some quiet.”

She stopped and gestured across the street. “And, somebody fetch Elric.”

Another hour of earnest searching passed in vain, and Cora brought their wandering to a pause at an outdoor charcuterie bar away from major roads and most of the crowds. The meals were light on quantity and heavy on price, but the atmosphere was conducive to quiet meditation. Cora ordered an exotic juice blend and a double kaffe to counter the ale. Though still fuming over their predicament, she set pored over a crude map of the city hand drawn by the bar’s owner.

She turned the map around and held it up to the east where masts and sails cluttered the horizon of The Deepening.

“All right,” Cora said, laying the map on the table, “now that I’ve got my bearings, here’s the lake. This curved bit is the city wall; here’s the castle, the Temple District—that’s good to know—docks, markets…”

“Look on the bright side,” Elric commented with a finger pointed to the sky. “I don’t reckon the storm’s gonna hit us. Looks like it’s gonna push on into Arvoria.”

Cora glared at him. “Shut up. Don’t talk to me for the next—I don’t know—year.”

She redirected her focus on the map. “So, we’re…here. We must be in Trellan District in the southwest corner of the city, which is apparently the home of expensive food.”

Selorian twirled tendrils of purple energy between his pale fingers. “Given the panoply of garish décor and habiliment, I would conclude it’s also well-known for its artisans and thespians.” He casually flicked the ball of energy from his fingertips, splintering the boards in a nearby wooden fence.

Elric scrunched his nose. “Known fer what?”

“Painters and actors,” Cora said. “And you’d know that if you’d ever…” She sighed heavily and left her thoughts unsaid. Elric wasn’t a bad person; he was just an ignorant one. But spilling her frustrations all over the charcuterie wouldn’t help anything, not even her.

“But we don’ want painters an’ actors,” Elric replied. “We want Schumann.”

Selorian reflexively gripped the hilt of the Slayer. His eyes flashed lavender, and his mouth formed a pair of words that Cora could not decipher.

She slapped the table. “Can you not shut the rink up?”

Elric dropped his head. “Yes, ma’am.”

Cora collapsed back in her chair. “I thought we might plead our case to the castle guards, but even if they let us in—which is doubtful—and even if the Duke grants us a hearing—which is a long shot—the chances they hand Schumann over to us is nigh impossible. They would certainly want to conduct their own investigations—assuming they believed us for even a second—because we don’t have any proof. So, my hope is he’s not actually in the castle…” Her voice tapered off as the enormity of the task overwhelmed. She sat forward and pored over the map, begging it to provide the scrap of an idea.

After several long minutes, Cora wadded the paper and tossed it onto the ground. “Cripe. There’s no way we can do this. How do we find someone in the middle of all these people?”

Selorian sniffed. “Contrary to popular belief, it is unlikely, in a crowded metropolis, that the very person you seek will by happenstance cross your path.”

The songsage glanced at him. “So…you’re intelligent, and your brain isn’t baking from a hangover. What do we do?”

“Perhaps you are not privy to the state of my brain, but your previous assertion is accurate. We should formulate an alternate method for gaining entrance to the castle.”

Cora rolled her eyes. “I’ve already rattled off all the reasons we’re not getting through the gate. But that’s the one thing we must do. Everything hinges on that.”

The savant half-smiled at her. “Never endeavor to ascertain the numerical count of feathered foul within your possession before the period of incubation has fully materialized.”

“What?”

“It’s foolhardy to devise a schema built upon a singularity.”

Cora sighed wearily. “That’s not any better.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose and drew in a deep breath. “The lesson unlearned: you still need a backup plan.” Whether the skies darkened because of a fresh wave of storm clouds or because Selorian dispersed the ambient light was unclear.

“You need information,” he continued, “and in a bustling, coastal conurbation as this, there exists but one source of reliable udání.”

“And where, pray tell, is that?”

Cuauhtérroc’s eyes lifted with inspiration. “I meet dees man in Cer Halcyon dat geeve me dees eenformation when I cannot find dees Pathway. I geeve heem two coins weeth dees eagles.”

The savant nodded. “The illiterate one has a more lucid grasp of things than the certified erudite.”

“The thieves’ guild,” Cora said.

“Precisely.”

“They can help us track down Schumann.”

The savant shuddered and bit his bottom lip. Lavender swirled through his fingers. “Rather, they can help us enter the castle.”

“You’re talking about a covert break-in.”

Selorian held up a hand glowing with pulsing energy. “There are other methods.”

Cora downed the last of her kaffe. “Much as I hate the idea, it looks like we’ll be consorting with the underbelly of Cer Cannaid. Selorian, thank you for working us out of this jam. I’m starting to think bringing you into the Dragonslayers was a good idea.”

“It was my idea,” Elric grumbled under his breath. His folded arms and deep scowl said the rest.

Cora opened her mouth to retort but stopped, stabbed suddenly by pangs of conscience. She sat back with a deflated huff. “I’m sorry, Elric. I’ve been rude to you.”

“Ya been a turd.”

“I’m sorry I yelled at you and called you a moron. I believe you did the right thing. The stress of this situation is pressing hard, and I guess I snapped.”

Cuauhtérroc shouldered his pack. “Dees Elders of my homeland say when you shake dees cup, den what it holds is what speels out of it.”

Guilt etched a grimace on Cora’s face. “Ouch. My apologies to you all. Really, I mean it. Now…” She stood and held her hand out over the table. Each man put his hand on hers. “Let’s go get Schumann.”

Elric nodded.

Selorian’s eyes flashed, and Cuauhtérroc laid a ready hand on his macana.


* * * * * * * * * *


His Most Lordly Grace, Kurtis Lenair, Duke of Alikon, tugged on the edges of his jacket with white gloved hands. Various medals hanging from the left breast pocket jingled as he pulled it down. He turned to his valet with a puzzled frown. “This blasted thing doesn’t fit anymore.”

“Yes, m’lord,” the valet replied. “It would seem, Sir, if I may say so, that during the years you have occupied this castle, you have grown…perhaps a bit…portly. Sir.”

The duke chuckled. “I suppose you are right, Hale. I eat well and have little activity, not like when I hunted in the Cerion. I suppose the body cannot retain its youthful vigor forever.” He glanced ruefully in the mirror at his thinning blonde pate. “Gray does me well, don’t you think?”

The valet smiled warmly. “Yes, m’lord.”

Lenair unfastened the buttons of the jacket. “Take this to the tailor, and have him let it out an inch.”

“Yes, m’lord.”

“Make that two inches.”

“Yes, m’lord.”

“At least the sword still fits.” The duke eyed his sheathed saber at his side in the full-length mirror. The intricate metal scrollwork of the basket hilt glistened around the ivory grip. Pure silver engravings in the black-lacquered wooden scabbard spelled “House Lenair” under the family crest.

“It suits you well, Sir,” Hale offered.

“Thank you, but you know I’d rather have a bow—my bow—slung over my shoulder. Ah, but what am I saying? It’s my daughter’s wedding tomorrow. I should gladly give up the hunt for her.” Lenair slipped out of his pants and handed them to his valet with a sigh. “Have the tailor let an inch out of these, too.”

Hale bowed. “Very good, m’lord.” He turned with a snap of his heels and left the duke’s chambers.

Duke Lenair collapsed onto a settee at the foot of his bed, his eyes distant and his thoughts extending even farther. My daughter…stately and beautiful, dignified without being pretentious, well-mannered but never prim, lovely and graceful…my darling Karlina. Lady Karlina had been the hopeful catch of many a bachelor for many a year. But she rarely spoke of marriage and showed little interest in any of the suitors that had frequented Castle Cannaid.

She surprised her father—and the nation—when, on an excursion of mercy to the war-ravaged Border Lands, she met and accepted the courtship of a minor lord, Sir Rossalo Brighton. Sir Ross, as she called him, owned only a small parcel of land, less than an hour’s ride across in any direction. Though small, the tract was a grant for his unyielding struggles against the tide of dragonspawn from The Shadowashes. His fealty to the Knight Commander of The Shields of Valor was matched only by his passion for the Bastion of Faith. He was renowned for his exploits, devoted to his cause, and famed around The Deepening. As genuine as he was zealous, Sir Ross became distinguished in Lady Karlina’s eyes, and her heart yearned to aid him, to work with him, and eventually to love him.

Duke Lenair understood little of the notions driving his daughter to love the rugged feudal lord. But he knew a noble heart when saw one, and a finer Shield of Valor none could find. In exchange for giving his daughter a seat of political authority in the Border Lands disputes, the duke promised funds to support the Knight Commander’s continuing struggles against the ever-present threat of evil from the north. It will be a good union, I suppose. I do believe Karlina will be happy, even though her life will be filled with trials and the miseries of endless conflict and reconstruction. I would have saved her all that, but she didn’t want my intervention. She wanted him…with all that his life entails.

Lenair clapped his knees and stood. “Oh well,” he said to his reflection as he buttoned up his informal suit, which chaffed slightly less than the formal wear. “Who can understand the heart of a woman?” He adjusted his collar and smoothed the front of his jacket. With a final look and a shrug, he exited his chambers for the castle courtyard where the wedding rehearsal was underway.


* * * * * * * * * *


Rutland slipped on the silken scarf and opened his eyes. The realm of Tenebrae surrounded and suffused him. Colors melted away in a gray haze, sounds dulled to faint echoes. He passed through the wall of his room, beyond the stables and well past several city blocks. In a single stomach-churning step, he traversed a quarter-mile, stepping out of the long shadow of the city wall.

A grin broke across his face. He no longer needed a slop bucket. Through long evenings of endless suffering, he had conquered the secrets of Tenebrae. Finally, he had given meaning to the deep and abiding scars latticed across his face. He might even be able to avenge the horrific attempt on Cora’s life. Perhaps he could stop the shadow-walkers before they emerged.

It was a thought.

But first, he had to find his limits. Stepping back into the wall’s shadow, Rutland re-entered Tenebrae and willed himself several miles down the road toward Cer Cannaid. Every step through shadows left him feeling empty, as if the Void were trying to extract his soul. As he exited into the living world, the sensation evaporated, leaving him whole and unscathed. And a long, long way away from where he started. It was a good trade-off.

Remembering his near-death encounter with a Grotesque, the unnatural inhabitants of Tenebrae, he dared not tarry long in that foreboding place. Each step through the gloaming mists chanced a deadly attack. He would need a way to counter such a thing, but that was something to solve later.

For now, he had to reach the Dragonslayers, to warn them of the shadow-walker, the woman with the ponytail and no name, the one whose life he had saved. She had boarded a coach with a hairless man and a dark-skinned woman, and after days of fruitless badgering the coach dispatcher, Rutland had finally summoned the courage to shadow-walk into the office at night and find out for himself. They were headed for Cer Cannaid.

He had waited as long as possible to master the silken scarf, and even now he could not know whether he was ready—truly ready to traverse Tenebrae for so long and so far. But if not now, he never would go. Elric needed him, and this was the only way.

Mason Rutland set his sights on the free city and disappeared into a swirl of blackened vapors.


* * * * * * * * * *


“Where is dees theeves’ geeld?” Cuauhtérroc asked.

Cora snorted. “They’re not out in the open, you know. Normally, they find you, and that is an unpleasant encounter.”

“Well, there ain’t one in Westmeade,” Elric said with his nose lifted higher than normal. “So I cain’t help ya there.”

“Yes, there is,” Cora replied.

“No, there ain’t. I done lived there all my life an’ ain’t never seen no thieves’ guild.”

“That’s because they operate underground.”

“But we done crawled all through the underground, an’ we didn’t find nuttin but hodekin’.”

Selorian his eyes in disgust. Minor flashes of pale purple illumined his eyelids as he quietly mouthed something to himself.

An idea occurred to Cora. It was a long shot, but it would keep him engaged. “Selorian, you ferreted out the Nephreqin’s headquarters in Everglade. Would you also happen to know where the thieves’ guild in Cer Cannaid is located?”

The savant smiled, and the gesture morphed into a brief chuckle. He spun slowly in place, hand on chin, and then pointed at the shipping wharves. “Were I to debase my existence to an unwholesome life of dishonest gain, I would surely choose as the locus for my league the seediest, most rat-infested tenement I could find.” He paused and turned his grin back to Cora. “Or, would it become that because of my sordid lifestyle?”

“Hard to say,” she replied, trying not to feel tainted by the savant’s unusual glee. Slinging her lute over her shoulder, she stepped into the quiet street. “But, it’s as good a place to start as any. Let’s go find us a fingerdip.”

Cuauhtérroc squinted at her. “What is dees feengerdeep?”

“A thief,” Cora explained. “Fingerdips, cutpurses, street urchins, lifters, pickpockets—there’s a lot of names for those who steal. Guard your things.”

They meandered through side streets toward the water, their progress ever slowing as they approached Coastal Way, the main thoroughfare that cut Cer Cannaid into eastern and western halves. Travelers continued to pour into and meander about the city, clogging the streets and making passage against this tide difficult. For a journey across town that should have taken fifteen minutes under normal circumstances, they had squandered an hour.

Masses of people thronged about, congregating chiefly at the numerous eateries that flanked both sides of the avenue, many of which sprang up overnight. The aroma of grilled meats, spicy sauces, and sizzling sides filled the air, and Cuauhtérroc responded predictably.

“No, we’re not going to stop for supper,” Cora said. “We’re losing time, and soon we’ll be losing light.”

Selorian tapped her on the shoulder. “You do realize I possess the capability of un-obstructing this path.”

Something in the savant’s eyes—or maybe it was a hint in his voice or the massive shudder that raced up her spine—told Cora that what he had in mind would not turn out well. “No, thank you. We need to keep a low profile. We’ll be at the wharves soon enough.” And I’ll be keeping a close eye on you.

The wharf district was little more than a collection of abused warehouses and rundown storage facilities. Taverns, brothels, gambling houses, and the offices of powerful quartermasters dotted the district like pimples on an unwashed adolescent face. The air reeked of rotting fish and swarmed with gulls seeking a quick meal.

Down the sharply sloping ground lay the shipyards, filled with working dry docks for building and repairing vessels of all kinds, shapes, and sizes. Here, highly skilled artisans pushed the limits of shipbuilding—both rugged naval warships and ostentatious sailboats. Flamboyant colors, exotic hardwoods, and inlay filigree of the dandies’ yachts floated at the piers alongside the sleek and sturdy cutters, the elegant caravels, and the massive galleys.

Cora gaped at the endless rows of ships and the “ribcages” of curved beams that would someday become the supporting structures of another fleet. Long, perfectly straight tree trunks lay in pyramidal piles waiting to be debarked and lathed into masts. And barebacked men crawled over it all in perfect synchronization like ants building their mound.

“Do you see dees Veencent Schumann?” Cuauhtérroc asked as he stood over Cora’s shoulders.

“Oh, sorry,” Cora said, peeling her eyes away from the scene. “You’re right; we have a job to do.” She turned to Selorian. “So, where’s this thieves’ guild?”

The savant shrugged.

Cora puzzled over him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Ordinarily, when a man shrugs his shoulders, the intended conveyance is a lack of knowledge.”

“That’s not what I—oh, never mind. Come on; let’s see what we can find.”

A frustrating three hours passed, and as the sun was beginning to set, they had given up. There were plenty of seedy-looking people, and many that probably were thieves, but no way of telling who was a guild member and who was merely a hardscrabble case. Nightfall would surely bring out the best of thieves, but not in pleasant or controlled ways.

“Cripe,” Cora muttered as she sat down at a small table outside a tavern near the Rae Swamy. Directly across the river, high atop the bluffs that overlooked The Deepening, rose the towering walls and turrets of Castle Cer Cannaid. Schumann could be in that castle this very minute wreaking havoc, slaying innocents, or assassinating Lady Karlina. She knew there was a way into that castle, but without an informant, there would be no entrance for them. A forged document might do the trick, but short of that they needed some hidden passageway in the back. She ran fingers through her hair and exhaled a long, dejected sigh. “We’re getting nowhere.”

“Well,” Elric responded, pointing across the crowd, “mebbe he knows.”


* * * * * * * * * *


Duke Lenair walked down a grand staircase of marble slabs that spilled into the equally grand entry hall lined with marble pillars. His boots echoed with each step. As he slipped on white dress gloves, he surveyed the lavish decorations hanging all around. Multi-colored streamers draped between the pillars. Banners—each depicting a regal symbol of Alikonian or Shields of Valor heraldry—hung on long, silver ropes from the ceiling far overhead. He wondered how anyone could have reached the hooks at that height.

With a sharp snap of his heels, the butler greeted Lenair as he walked across the marbled and gilded symbol of Alikon inlaid in the floor—a sheaf of grain beneath the constellation Phoca. “Good evening, my lord.”

Lenair nodded to him. “Good evening.”

The butler opened the heavy hand-carved door. “Maker’s blessings, my lord.”

“Thank you.” The duke stepped onto the portico, and the great door latched loudly behind him. He scanned the courtyard spread out before him. White marble pillars glinted in the setting sunlight beneath a red-orange painted sky. Potted fruit trees lined the walkways, and six-foot-tall brass candelabra flanked either side of a hand-carved altar. The accoutrements of the House of Order were everywhere, splashing black and gold throughout the decorations.

To the side, a raised dais, decked in white linen and tasseled in silver, supported a twelve-piece ensemble—strings, woodwinds, a rare clavichord, and a harp. Musicians rehearsed a difficult section from a serenade composed for the wedding. White roses lay everywhere—bouquets on every flat surface, singles atop each chair, ten-foot-wide arched arbors over the entrance to the courtyard…filled with them. Lenair shook his head; everywhere he looked, he saw the castle’s treasury being drained.

As he strolled across the courtyard, his wife, Lady Astriase, darted from one harried group of laborers to another as she worried over trifling matters to the duke—the precise placement of a corsage, the pesky fern leaf that didn’t hang just right, the curl in someone’s bangs that broke the symmetry of her hair, and other issues of national importance.

Annabelle, the second daughter and a lady of grace and poise, assisted her mother with calm assurance, counteracting endless frantic worries of the duchess. Lenair admired her common sense and steely composure.

In stark contrast, Lady Gretchen, the duke’s youngest daughter, dressed in inappropriate blacks and grays with black leather boots laced to her knees. Her dark maquillage promoted a decidedly sinister appearance. She was an artist, but her paintings had taken on a cruel or sadistic theme lately. Some dismissed her attitude and outfits as a phase she was going through, but others believed, despite her high-priced mentoring, she was entertaining dangerous thoughts.

Lenair spotted beneath a baylis tree the lovely bride-to-be, his eldest, his delicate flower. Though Karlina wore simple clothing with her hair tied back in a ponytail, in the duke’s eyes she glowed with the aura of an avatar. With a final tug at his jacket, Lenair passed beneath an aromatic pagoda covered with white roses to speak with his daughter and future son-in-law.

Sir Rossalo Brighton bowed stiffly as the duke approached. The knight fidgeted as he looked about, continually tugging at his formal wear. “Good evening, my lord,” he said with bow of his head.

“Good evening, Sir Ross,” the duke answered. He preferred using the lord’s surname, but his daughter insisted. “Damnable clothing we must wear.”

Sir Ross laughed. “My plate armor fits better than this.”

Lenair shared in the laughter. “Looks better on you, too.”

Karlina beamed at her father and embraced him. “I am so happy.”

The duke held her close. Knowing it was perhaps the last night he would hug her as his precious daughter, Lenair clung longer than usual. “My darling child. The evening sun sets beyond the horizon, and yet you continue to glow with radiance.”

Karlina squeezed her father’s arm. “Thank you. I know all this is overblown in your sight, but—”

The duke held up a hand. “Stop. There will be no guilt on your wedding day. Only joy. After all, you are marrying a Shield of Valor. Why shouldn’t the celebration fill the city?”

Sir Ross nodded at the recognition.

Lady Karlina reached for and squeezed her suitor’s hand. “I have long been waiting for this moment. How are you coming along, father?”

Lenair brushed a stray hair from his daughter’s face. “I’m all right. I know you’re in good hands. I suppose I’m more concerned about who’s going to look after Gretchen now that you’ll be gone.”

Karlina sighed. “I thought Leydon Bray had finished her tutelage. She should be released to live without assistance.”

The duke nodded. “I agree.”

“Really, father…” Karlina looked away. “You should require her to live as a Lenair, as a duchess. Not this…this petulant and rebellious child.”

The words went down like broken glass.

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