Chapter 17: The Wedding
Morning dawned on Castle Cannaid bright and fair. As the sun cast golden rays upon a courtyard glistening with dew, servants scurried about to prepare for the wedding. Chairs received a final alignment, decorations hung in full display, and food, fresh from the larders and cold boxes, filled the tables with a cornucopia of colors and aromas. A new Vashanti vintage, specially crafted for the occasion, stood ready for pouring in collected bottles—Atta’fea Amnae, or “Two Hearts” wine—a gift for the newlyweds that sparkled in the rising sunlight.
The city swelled with anticipation; the streets crowded with early risers hoping to obtain a favorable position in the recessional. Throngs of people pressed the castle gates for a close look at Lady Karlina, forcing a contingent of the Sentinel League to ride in on armored steeds and clear a path for the ducal coach. To the clamor of eager onlookers, three pairs of high-stepping white stallions, snorts of breath billowing steam in the crisp morning air, pulled the lacquered vehicle through the wrought iron gates.
Throughout Cer Cannaid, patrols from the Southern Watch, the city’s regular guard, enforced even the pettiest of rules with uncommon strictness, particularly along the designated coach route. Within an hour, the Watch gathered up and hauled any vagabonds, drifters, and drunkards who refused to leave. Litterers received stiff fines, as did last night’s revelers who could no longer hold their drink. Along Lady Karlina’s recessional route, the Watch permitted nothing short of idyllic perfection.
* * * * * * * * * *
Mason Rutland awoke to a harsh kick in his side. A bucket of cold water followed. He jolted into bewildered consciousness and backpedaled in a direction that felt like getting away. Hitting a wall, he sat up and wiped water from his eyes. A second bucket of water ruined his progress.
“I’m awake!” he screamed. “What the rink!”
“You gotta leave,” said an angry voice. “The Watch is comin’, an’ I ain’t payin’ a fine ‘cause of you. Now, git.”
Rutland cleared his vision and shook his head. A portly man wearing an apron atop his clothing hovered over him with a lantern and a scowl. His extended arm held a bucket and pointed down the alley toward a busy street.
Guarding against another bucketload, Rutland rose to his feet and scanned his surroundings. It looked and smelled of a stable, but he had no memory of this place or how he arrived here. Visions of darkness, pocked by Grotesques, flashed through his mind, inciting cold shudders along his spine. He had shadow-walked all night, covering well over two hundred miles. And he had survived it unscathed.
He dusted bits of straw from his black clothes and gathered his cloak, which had served as a blanket for the night. “What time is it?” he asked, stretching his arms.
“I reckon it’s time for you to leave.”
Rutland wrapped himself in the cloak and pulled up the hood. “I’m workin’ on it, man. But I’m askin’ ya what time it is.”
The man scowled. “Do I look like I’m carryin’ an hourglass?”
“Mister…” Rutland pulled back the cloak and laid a hand on his sword. “Jis answer the rinkin question.”
“It’s mornin’,” the man said, his wary eyes fixed on the weapon. “I don’t know beyond that.”
Rutland frowned. So much time wasted. He pulled a silk scarf from his pocket and tied it around his eyes. Details of his surroundings sharpened while colors faded. An eerie combination that had taken some effort to acclimate to, it had felt more natural lately. He felt more at home in the coterminous realm of Tenebrae, and straddling the edge of its influence filled him with a flooding peace. A dangerous peace.
The aproned man studied him with growing consternation. Glancing about, he grabbed a rake. “Don’t try nothin’ stupid, man.”
Rutland smiled, pulling at several of his deep scars and splitting his lip yet again. He groaned and covered the old carnage with his mask. “Ya ain’t got nuttin to worry about. I’m jis leavin’.”
Under the man’s watchful eye, Rutland exited the lantern light into the alley shaded by tall, closely spaced buildings.
And there he disappeared.
* * * * * * * * * *
After breakfast, Duke Kurtis Lenair adjusted his formal coat, checking his appearance in the looking-glass. Hale, his valet, waited nearby.
“Looks like Jaethan has earned his keep for another day, Hale,” Lenair said with a smile. “These alterations are perfect.”
“Yes, my lord,” Hale replied.
The duke snapped his shiny black shoes together and whipped his ceremonial sword from its sheath, lifting it against his shoulder in a military salute. The sword shifted in his hand and angled slightly off true vertical; the maneuver would have never passed muster with the Sentinel League. But it would work well enough for the wedding. Shaking his head, he relaxed and replaced the sword. “I really don’t miss the League that much.”
Hale stepped forward and dusted a hair or two from the duke’s shoulder. “You always did well, my lord.”
“It never suited me. When’s hunting season again?”
The valet smiled. “Not today, my lord.” He motioned to the door. “Are you ready?”
Lenair took a final glance in the mirror and adjusted his coat again. “As ready as I’ll ever be, I reckon.” He nodded, and Hale opened the chamber doors. Lenair strode into the hallway and turned sharply on his heels before heading down the grand staircase to the entry hall below, where Lady Astriase greeted him with a beaming smile.
At the sight of the duchess, Lenair’s heart swelled. A pair of white roses adorned her dark blonde hair, gathered in braids atop her head and crowned by an open-top, wide-brimmed, lacy chapeau. A triple-strand pearl necklace, displayed by a wide-necked dress resting on her shoulders, glistened white with a hint of pale blue. The dress, a much deeper blue, hung in lacy pleats to the floor and swirled about her with each step as she approached her lord.
“You are resplendent,” the duke said with a polite cheek-to-cheek kiss.
“And you are the very image of nobility, Kurt.”
The duke shrugged. “If by nobility you mean plump and sedate. I had the tailor let two inches out of these trousers.”
“Try wearing a corset.”
Lenair laughed under his breath and took the lady’s hand. “What we do for our children. And our nation.”
Lady Astriase looked up the grand stairs. “I am giddy with excitement for our Karlina. She will represent Alikon well. But, if she doesn’t emerge soon…”
* * * * * * * * * *
Sir Rossalo Brighton of the Border Lands fastened the last button of his military coat. He tugged at the neckline as if needing room to swallow. His palms were sweating. “A towel, please.”
Sir Ross’ footman grabbed a nearby towel and handed it to the groom. “Nervous, sir?”
The minor lord chuckled as he wiped his hands and dabbed his forehead. “I’ve been in over twenty battles. Been wounded twelve times, once nearly to death. I’ve faced roving bandits, minor jinadaars, deranged creatures of The Shadowashes, and the walking dead. I’ve stared unmitigated evil in the face and prevailed. ‘The Shield will rise again,’ right? But never have I been this anxious.”
“Just think about tomorrow, sir. It will soon be here, and all this pomp will be a fading memory.”
Sir Ross shook his head. “Not so. Tomorrow and the next day and the next we entertain guests who couldn’t attend the wedding today. Then, the journey home is many times interrupted with celebratory engagements at Kralencaster, Gralen, Dar Mareth, and of course Coventry City. And I suppose my hometown of Alhaster will have a celebration…if they can be spared the time to break from warding off skirmishers. No, Balfor, this is just the beginning.”
“And yet you endure it, sir.”
“I can think of no better reason than Lady Karlina’s hand.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Lady Karlina Lenair sat with her sister Annabelle in her room—dressed, powdered, and perfumed. She had skipped breakfast to allow for extra time to prepare, but the preparations had been completed far more quickly than expected. Her brilliant white gown sparkled in the mid-morning sun from diamonds bespeckling the bodice. A lace crown of starched silk rested delicately upon her light brown hair, which was braided and looped upon itself in flowing latticework. White elbow-length gloves covered arms otherwise bare. She sat stiffly upon a chaise, hardly able to breathe under her corset. An impossibly long train of handcrafted lace stretched out behind her and wrapped around the side of the chaise into the center of her chamber. With everything done, she had dismissed her maids, and now there was nothing to do but wait.
Everything was just as her mother wanted. Karlina would not have minded a simpler wedding, like Annabelle had enjoyed—fewer guests, less pomp, and a more practical dress—but Lady Astriase demanded no expense be spared. This wedding was to represent the union of two nations as much as it was the union of two lives. According to her mother, that is. Karlina purposely rejected several suitors of higher station for the very reason of avoiding the extravagance of ceremony. But spectacle found her anyway.
An hourglass on her bedside table quietly sifted the sands of time. Thirty minutes to go. Karlina sighed and cast an impatient glance at her elder sister.
Annabelle smiled. “Just a few more minutes.”
* * * * * * * * * *
At the other end of the wide hallway from the bride’s chambers, Gretchen Lenair closed her sewing kit and stood over a quilt-work of canvases. The easels stood empty, and the collection of works that had been scattered throughout her room were gone, all sewn together into a composition, rolled and bound by leather cords.
“You have done well, my child,” the hairless Master Bray cooed. “The All-Father will reward you, as will I.”
“I exist to obey,” Gretchen said, her voice as hollow as her soul.
“Good. Now, let’s place this into position.”
Lady Gretchen opened her door and lugged the forward end of the long, rolled-up canvas into the hallway. Ten feet behind her, Leydon Bray—once more displaying gray hair and an anchor-style beard—carried the other end of the roll. They reached the top of the grand staircase, and with canvas in hand climbed a pair of long ladders that flanked either side of the steps. Near the top they tied leather binds to eyehooks screwed into the ceiling and let the canvas hang there in a roll, the leather cords dangling in arm’s reach.
The duke and the duchess looked up from the foyer with curious eyes.
“What’s going on?” Lenair called.
Lady Karlina stepped from her chambers with her sister Annabelle carrying the lacy train behind her. For a moment, the duke’s question hung unanswered in the air as eyes and attention diverted to the young bride.
Gretchen groaned as a sickening wave of disgust swept through her. Whether she wanted to rip the frilly laces away from her sister or vomit on them was a toss-up in her mind. Either would do.
The duchess swooned. “You’re so beautiful,” she said to her daughter. Karlina answered with a brief curtsy and a broad smile.
Duke Lenair pointed to the rolled canvas. “I say, Bray, what are you doing up there?”
As he climbed down the ladder, the ascetic replied with a soft voice that carried clearly across the entry hall. “My lord, the Lady Gretchen has fashioned a commemorative painting for the Lady Karlina’s wedding. It is her masterpiece and the culmination of all her work.”
Karlina frowned at the roll. “Such…dazzling reds. How…sweet, sister.”
Gretchen’s mouth pulled into a sly smile. Forced politeness was more effective than outright conflict, and she lived to get under Karlina’s skin.
“What a splendid idea, Bray,” the duke answered cheerfully.
Bray bowed low. “Thank you, my lord. I believe once this ceremony has concluded, my work here will be finished. Your daughter seems no longer to require my tutelage. I should return to my home when the day is done.”
“Very good. You have done well with our Gretchen. So, when do we get to see it?”
“It will be unfurled at the appropriate time, my lord, I assure you. We wouldn’t want to spoil the effect.” He climbed down the ladder and bowed again to the duke. Turning to face Lady Karlina, he bowed a second time. “My lady.”
Karlina’s acknowledgement registered only to the trained eye, a well-practiced maneuver to show a decided lack of acknowledgement. “Can she at least wear something pastel for the wedding? A…light gray, perhaps?”
Bray turned to the younger sister. “You are to remove the black make-up and multiple piercings. You are permitted to retain one set of earrings only. You may paint your lips red and your cheeks may be brushed with rouge. You are to find a suitable dress from your sister’s wardrobe in accordance with her desires. And you will hurry, for the wedding begins within the hour.”
Gretchen thought briefly about slapping her sister, but the notion vanished, replaced with nothing. Her mind wiped, as if a brush had swept clean the slate of all thought—rational or capricious, real or spurious—leaving her with no sense of where her ideas ended and Bray’s began. Her body relaxed, the antagonism melting into compliance. She stood straighter, as is proper for a lady, and dipped a perfect curtsy toward Karlina. “I will obey.”
Karlina’s jaw dropped with incredulous disbelief.
Bray extended a hand toward his accomplishment. “Do you think so little of my ability? Or is it her potential you doubt?”
Karlina pursed her lips and nodded. “Yes.”
“Then you will be most surprised.” Bray pressed a hand against Gretchen’s shoulder. “Go now. Make yourself ready.”
As Gretchen passed her sister, she flashed the hint of a smile. A sly, devious smile.
* * * * * * * * * *
Water dripped along the narrow corridor carved into the bedrock beneath Castle Cannaid. Cora’s light cast long shadows of Cuauhtérroc leading a delicate path through twisting passages, around open pits and past holes in the walls that promised death by poisoned dart, caustic gas, or worse. He had already stepped on at least a half-dozen pressure plates connected to lethal devices born of sadistic masterminds disturbingly creative when it came to death and dismemberment.
Cora ducked beneath a circular blade jutting partway from the wall, precisely at neck height. Thus far, Aynon Shayn had been true to his word; the traps had been disarmed, but seeing up close the potential for a ghastly demise unnerved her. “For the love of Beauty, who made all this?”
Elric slid a hand along the slick wall and shook the limey water from his fingers. “I reckon the folks what made the castle.”
Cuauhtérroc paused before jumping over a gap in the floor. “No.” He reached out a hand to help Cora cross safely. “It do not make dees sense. Why weel dey make dees? Dey can not make it, and it is easier to protect dees castle.”
Cora leaped the opening and caught the savage’s arm. “Do you think the Alliance guild bored through all this rock and lined it with traps? That defies reason, too.”
“I do not know,” Cuauhtérroc said, reaching out to help the others cross. “Dees is not a good place, and we must hurry.”
“Agreed,” Cora said. “Keep moving. Aynon gave us an hour, and I’m sure we’ve used half of that already.”
At the end of the passage, the hallway opened to both the right and the left. Cuauhtérroc turned to Cora, and the songsage turned to the others. “Have we made two left turns or three?”
“Two,” Elric and Kiyla said.
“Three,” answered Selorian with a sniff. “Indubitably.”
Cora huffed and shined her light down the corridor each way. The watery sheen looked the same on either side. “Well, it makes a difference. Right, left, right, right, left, left. Right?”
Elric shook his head. “Naw, it’s left.”
“I meant was I correct.”
The savage traced a finger on the wall. “I theenk it was right, left, den dees two rights, and den only one left.”
“No, I’m sure it was two lefts,” Cora said.
Selorian growled. “It was three, and if you—”
Cora stamped a foot. “No, no…there are no three left turns in a row, but—”
The light in Cora’s hand wavered as a scowl formed on the savant’s brow. “You inquired about the number of sinistral circumductions; I merely provided the answer without conflation.”
“Why you always gotta talk like that?” Elric asked.
Selorian raised a pierced eyebrow. “It would be altogether too easy to ask the same of you.”
“Well, for the sake of time…” Cora gave each option a final look and pointed left. “This way.”
As her light brought details into sharper focus, the chosen path ended abruptly at a brick wall. Cora placed her hands on her hips and blew air through her scarlet bangs. “This was supposed to lead to a cellar, not a dead end. I hope…I hope that breaker didn’t double-cross us.” An ominous silence settled over the Dragonslayers. In the distance, water dripped into a shallow pool. “Were we fools to trust a thief?” she asked.
Kiyla whipped her head to one side, cracking several vertebrae. “He stole our money.”
“Point taken.” Cora scurried past the group. “Let’s go back the other way.”
The other path also ended in a brick wall, and Cora’s mind spun. Right…left…right, right…left… She pointed back to her original choice. …left. But that goes nowhere. “Did we miss a turn?”
Kiyla shrugged and Cuauhtérroc shook his head. Selorian flashed an amethyst globe in his hand and toyed with it.
“Mebbe we oughta backtrack a bit,” Elric suggested. “We mighta got lost.” As if struck by a sudden idea, he scampered back to the middle passage and across the gap to their last directional choice.
“Cripe!” Cora shouted. “Don’t go rushing into things!” Sonuvacrap.
As Cora came flying around the corner, her light showed Elric standing at the top of a wooden staircase descending into darkness below. “Would you stop doing that?” she hissed.
Elric pointed down the stairs. “Wasn’t there an open pit down there jis a few minutes ago? Mebbe that was somewhere else.” He extended a foot to descend the steps.
In a flash of panicked realization, Cora grabbed the back of his armor as his foot pressed on the top step and it collapsed, along with all the steps below it, forming a declined plane. A yelp escaped Elric’s throat as his footing gave way. Cora screamed as his weight pulled her forward. With his foothold gone, Elric plunged down the incline, and Cora fell headlong after him, her white-knuckled grip clutching the neck of his armor.
With bone-breaking strength, a hand clasped Cora’s ankle, arresting her fall. Her body lurched to a sudden stop, and her grasp on Elric slipped.
Elric’s arms and legs flailed as he started to slide. Beneath him, the floor opened as plates fell away into the sides of a deep pit. He spun and threw his arms up, reaching, grasping for anything.
Cora remembered that pit. The edge was a precarious, nerve-wracking balancing act to get around, and it hadn’t helped in the least when she peered into the depths to see several skeletal remains amongst a variety of metal spikes. It was a horrible, gruesome sight, and Elric was not going to be the next victim. She stretched forward, trusting that the painful clamp on her ankle would hold, and wrapped both hands around Elric’s arm. “I’ve got you!” Only then did she look back to see Cuauhtérroc straining to keep hold of her foot.
Moments later, Elric and Cora sat on the moist floor at the top of the collapsed stairs, chests pounding and nerves trembling.
“We cannot go back,” Cuauhtérroc said. “Dees traps are working again.”
Cora growled. “That was not an hour. That buggard did double-cross us. So now what? We’re at a dead end and we can’t leave.”
Elric scanned the stone wall across from the stairs. “Mebbe there’s a spot we can tie a rope to…an’ let ourselves down real slow like.”
Selorian enveloped himself in impenetrable darkness, and Cora watched with trepidation as the black blotch wandered back down the passage toward the dead end.
“Ya think we can chip out a place in the rock to tie a rope?” Elric asked.
Kiyla smirked at him. “With what?”
“Well, my sword’s purty sharp.”
“But not your brain. I don’t use a sword, but I can tell you that’s a dumb idea.”
A flash of violet energy lit up the corridor from two corners away, accompanied by a small explosion and the rattle of crushed masonry. Cora and Cuauhtérroc exchanged anxious glances, and the savage took off. Cora jumped up and ran after him, causing the other two to forget their spat and follow her. She dreaded whatever it was the savant was doing, especially since it involved a cloak of utter darkness.
At the dead-end passage, rubble littered the floor and brick dust coated the wet walls. Selorian dissipated the veil of darkness around him, extending his hand to a jagged hole in the brick wall. “Why do you seek extrication when the inscrutable has been illuminated?”
“Would you care to elaborate on your enigmatic idioms,” Cora quipped, “or must I always translate your poly-syllabastic poo-bah?”
The savant closed his eyes with measured patience. “I said there is no sense in leaving when we have arrived at our destination. We are at the cellar.”
To Cora’s amazement, a hand reached through the hole in the brick wall. “Hold, please,” said a voice on the other side. “You don’t need to destroy it; we’ll get it open.”
With a low rumble, a portion of the wall slid into the rock, revealing a castle guard silhouetted by torchlight behind him in the small room. He beckoned them to hurry in. “Didn’t he tell you the password?”
Cora glared at the turncoat guard. “There’s a lot that breaker didn’t tell us.”
He turned to his partner and cocked his head at the tunnels. “Jig’s up, Merl. We gotta go.” They squeezed past the freeblades and dashed down the passages beneath the castle.
Cora squinted at the savant. “How’d you know?”
Selorian turned smug. “Ironically, my visual acuity reaches its zenith amidst the absence of light, and in that condition of heightened awareness I discern the indecipherable.”
“Go figure,” Cora muttered, shaking her head. Why does he still frighten me when he always ends up helping us?
The cellar was filled primarily with casks, large and small, for wines and ales of all kinds, and the air was heady with the aroma of fermented drink. A few laying on their sides were plugged with spigots.
Through the kitchen they rushed, weaving past a bevy of maids busy with food preparations for several hundred guests. Kiyla slowed her pace, scanning the faces of over a dozen ladies in identical garb. “Ma?”
“Not now,” Cora said.
Elric grabbed her arm. “C’mon, Ki. If she’s here, we’ll find her later.”
Kiyla pulled free. “I wanna see my ma.”
Elric held her broad shoulders and forced her to meet his gaze. “I promise ya, Kiyla. We ain’t leavin’ this castle ‘til ya seen yer ma…on my life. But after we find an’ catch Schumann.”
As they ascended steps to the main floor, a pair of guards with halberds blocked their way. “Who the rink are you?” asked the one.
“And where the rink did you come from?” demanded the other.
Cora hustled to assuage their concerns. “We’re on a mission for the duke,” she blurted, hoping the ruse would hold. She shucked her pack and presented the forged documents. They had better be right. After everything else, she fully expected the forgery to fail. By design.
The first guard scanned the parchment with a frown. He raised his eyes to Cora, glaring harder than before, and handed the document to his partner. “Whatcha make o’ this?”
The other guard studied it, his countenance morphing from suspicion to respect. He handed it back with a look of wonder. “It checks out. I think they’re clear.”
“But that would mean…”
The first guard handed the parchment back to Cora, bowing stiffly as he pointed them to the castle grounds.
Cora struggled not to show her surprise. Cripe, they’re perfect. Who’d have thought I could trust a thief? She gathered her wits, reshouldered her pack, and led the freeblades to the front lawn.
The castle courtyard quickly filled with people, most of which entered through the large, wrought iron main gates under tight security. Around the perimeter of the courtyard, gonfalons depicted the coats of arms and heraldry from six different nations and at least one representative from every minor barony or lordship in those nations. Many of the men dressed in official regal or military attire, with white dress gloves and ceremonial swords. Ladies displayed the finest of gowns, arrayed in muted colors, sparkling jewels, and elaborate headdresses. They walked with an air of arrogant dignity, politely conversing with those of equal station.
Outside the courtyard, the Sentinel League kept the thronging masses of onlookers at bay, while six chief officers remained seated atop their steeds inside the walls. At regular and close intervals along the top of the battlements and the castle turrets, the bulk of the ducal army stood at attention. Banners depicting the crests of the Duchy of Alikon and the Border Lands hung at equal height down the front porch colonnade, signifying the equality of union between the two nations.
The small ensemble of instruments provided an ambiance that created the frustrating paradox of desiring to speak in hushed, reverent tones while needing to raise their voices to be heard over the music. Glasses of wine were cradled in many a hand, and servants passed between the attendees with silver trays bearing both drink and food.
A crier announced important dignitaries as they entered through the wrought iron gate, his voice hardly competing with the din of music and milling guests. Some of the guests had already found their assigned seats, and a few grumbled about their placement.
Cora stopped short before entering the courtyard. Somewhere in this growing crowd was Vincent Schumann—one old man among a veritable sea of cotton-tops. He could not have been in a more homogenous horde. Hopefully, they still had time to find and capture him. Hopefully, Lady Karlina was still alive.
She tugged on Cuauhtérroc’s arm. “Do you see him?”
The savage’s dark eyes darted to and fro. “No, but I see dees Amurrak.”
Cora huffed. “Don’t start that again.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Within the swirling mists of Tenebrae, Mason Rutland crept along the streets of Cer Cannaid. An ill-defined haze had settled over the city, blurring his vision in many parts and turning dark corners into haunting vacancies. The inner city was not like open countryside at all—not in the material world and certainly not in the shadow realm. Waves of nausea churned his insides.
Already he had seen over a dozen pairs of white beady eyes glowing like tiny flames inside the twisted forms of Grotesques. In just a few streets he had seen as many of these nightmarish creatures as his entire journey from Westmeade. A dribble of acid crept into his mouth, and he rushed to the shaded side of a wall and yanked off the silk scarf.
A servant girl screamed as he stepped from the shadow of the tavern wall, materializing within a few feet of her. He would avoid encounters like this if he could, but in a crowded city that was impossible. The girl’s scream faded as she ran through a nearby door.
“Sorry!” he called after her. Then he threw up behind a rain barrel.
Something was different with Tenebrae. He had felt a presence, like someone else was in the realm. Like the swirls of shadow were agitated. Is that possible? There was only one way to find out that he knew of.
The nearby door opened again, and the servant girl stepped out, wide-eyed and pointing at him. A large man exited behind her with a cast iron skillet in one hand and a butcher knife in the other.
Rutland wiped his mouth and slipped the scarf over his eyes.
* * * * * * * * * *
Cuauhtérroc unclasped his macana. “She is dees same Amurrak. I keel her in Westmeade; I weel keel her again in Cer Cannaid.”
Cora put a hand to her forehead. “She’s not the same one, Cuauhtie, and you can’t just go killing every equatorial woman you see.”
The savage spun on her. “Yes, she is dees same Amurrak. Dees mainland people do not leave dees dead in dees ground. Dees Great Father is angry when you do dees. When I keel her dees time, I weel destroy her so no one can make her alive again.”
Surveying the courtyard full of ambassadors and foreign dignitaries, it should have been easy for Cora to spot a tribal woman with skin dark as the night sky, shirtless, and brandishing a spear. Whole swaths of people should have been disturbed, alarmed, and making a ruckus. But a tranquil din of pleasant voices filled the grounds with no agitations in sight. Elric and Kiyla wandered together toward the front gates. But there was no Amurrak.
“Where’s Selorian?” she said with sudden panic.
“Close enough to kill you both,” said a multi-layered voice.
Cora and Cuauhtérroc spun, weapons drawn. A swell of sonic energy formed in Cora’s throat.
Selorian chuckled. “Relax. Only someone soaring atop the pinnacle of stupidity would attempt such a foolish thing, and I am no moron.”
“What is wrong with you!” Cora barked.
“If clarity is wrong,” the savant said with a sniff, “then I am in grave error.”
A shudder coursed down Cora’s spine, and her voice faltered. She felt cold, but not to the touch. Her bones were ice. “Y-you need to s-stop that.”
Cuauhtérroc cursed and raised his macana. Selorian tossed a roiling ball of lavender energy into the Audric’s torso, sending him helpless and quivering to his knees. “You have held me back long enough, songsage,” he said with eyes aglow. “It is time. Now, at last, I will fulfill my intended purpose. Touch me, and it will be the last thing you do. I am the Slayer.”
The words came from Selorian’s mouth, but the voice was not his. His glowing eyes rolled back into his head, his movements an inhuman mixture of fluid and jerky. “You have brought my wielder here. Now stand aside.”
Cora recoiled in terror. The sword has taken over!
Selorian strode into the courtyard and dashed with uncommon speed along the colonnade until Cora lost sight of him around a far corner of the castle.
She wanted to cry. Everything they had endured to arrive at this point would be undone by this crazed, possessed savant with a crude sword intent on spilling Schumann’s blood. It pained her that he, too, was trying to find Schumann, for it forced them to work together. Though she often wanted to dismiss him, she had reasoned that keeping him close would allow them to control him. That clearly had failed.
Cuauhtérroc groaned as he stood again, his eyes filled with fury. “I weel keel heem.”
He stepped toward the colonnade, but Cora laid a hand on his thick arm. “Cuauhtérroc, my friend. I was wrong about him in every possible way, and now the danger is magnified. But we cannot be distracted by Amurraks, Selorian, or anyone else. We are here to capture Schumann first and foremost. And, if the alderman has arranged for an assassin to target Lady Karlina, we must be ready to foil that plan as well. Do you understand?”
The savage drew in a long, slow breath and released it a short burst. “I am angry.”
“I know. And I know you’re probably about to do something destructive. But I need you to focus. Let’s fan out and find Schumann. If we can get him out of the castle grounds before Selorian finds him, then we’ve saved his life. Frankly, I prefer to leave that savant here to fend for himself against the whole Sentinel League.”
Cuauhtérroc nodded and started off down the colonnade. Cora sighed in relief and headed straight into the middle of the gathering attendees, weaving down a row of chairs. To her left, Elric and Kiyla slipped past the food tables, scooping up handfuls of snacks as they went. Cora veered toward them to deliver the plan.
The musicians changed pieces, and the choice took on a decidedly militaristic feel. On cue, a dozen officers from the Border Lands and Alikon exited the front doors of the castle, marched down the grand steps, and swept across the colonnade to the right. Also on cue, the guests each began to quickly find their seats and settle in for the ceremonies.
Cora blanched. The wedding has begun! In the midst of the seating, she was out of place, an unwelcome distraction amongst the honored guests. She expected at any moment for armed security to order her departure. As if also prearranged, a pair of guards hustled to her side and escorted her to the main gates where Elric and Kiyla were waiting.
“Banana muffin?” Elric mumbled with a full mouth, holding out the offering to Cora.
Kiyla elbowed him, though she also enjoyed a mouthful.
The heavy iron gates closed, and a medaled officer at the gate approached Cora, a scowl etched in his forehead. “Can you vouch for these two?”
Cora nodded and fetched the forged documents from her pack. The gate officer pored over the parchments with exacting scrutiny, his scowl deepening. When he held them up to the sunlight, Cora doubted their integrity anew.
The guard returned the documents with a disapproving glare. “State your business.”
Cora stole a quick glance at the medals on his coat, then looked him square in the eyes. “My good Captain,” she said with a practiced bow, “our presence was commanded almost as an afterthought. The reasons for such a military assembly cannot be lost on one so experienced in the tactics of war. Surely, with such a gathering of well-trained officers—the finest in all the Duchy—it has occurred to you that every possible effort is being made to protect the lives and well-being of this congregation. Look at the collection of dignitaries, ambassadors, and representatives of every noble house from eight nations. If there ever were a ‘perfect’ time for a brigand militia or a guerilla group to strike, it is now. Even with this unprecedented collection of arms, my lord the duke thought it expedient to hire freeblades as personal protection.”
The captain studied her. “You will be roaming freely, I presume? Or will you accompany the duke when he makes his appearance?”
“Perhaps some of both, Captain. For now, we are assuring the integrity of those in attendance.”
“Very well. You may go, but tell your lackeys here to keep their hands off the food.”
Cora nodded thanks. As they were walking away, she pulled Elric and Kiyla aside. “I swear, Elric, would you please behave?”
“I was bein’ have. Kiyla took it!”
“You asked for a bite!” the brawler retorted.
Cora huffed at them. “Stay on task, you two. Selorian has completely turned. He took off around the castle and will certainly kill Schumann when he finds him. So…we have to find the alderman first. Cuauhtie is working the front of the castle, and I’m searching the midst of the assembly. I want you two to remain along the perimeter walls. If you find the alderman, you get him out of here as quickly as possible.”
“Got it,” Elric said. Kiyla nodded and punched a fist into her hand.
Cora found Cuauhtérroc beneath a large baylis tree near the corner of the castle. “How’s it going?”
“I do not see heem. I theenk Veencent Schumann weel try to keel dees girl when we are not ready…when no one is ready.”
“I’m afraid that’s the whole point of an assassination,” Cora replied. I should know… “They hit you when you least expect it. Keep your eyes open. Have you seen Selorian?”
“No. He weel do something bad, Cora O’Banion.”
“I know. I just hope he doesn’t kill anyone important. If we’re not around when he snaps, maybe all these soldiers can stop him.”
Cuauhtérroc shook his head. “Dees men cannot help.”
Cora looked at her friend with alarm. “What do you mean? They all have crossbows.”
“When Selorian keel dees peeple, he weel be covered weeth dees darkness and dees peeple weel run everywhere. Dees men weel not shoot dees crossbows into dees peeple, and dey cannot attack dees darkness.”
“Cripe…” Cora whispered. “We’ve got to find Schumann.”
The military march finished and switched to an elegant tune, pastoral and sentimental. The castle doors opened again, and several young ladies glided out, gracefully descended the grand steps and took positions along the colonnade to the left, each a match for the men standing along the right. Each held a bouquet of white roses and wore a glittering pale blue dress, sleeveless with a tasteful neckline, white arm-length gloves, and a small corona of roses worked into her hair.
Cellos thrummed a driving rhythm beneath the swell of violas. Violins in three-part harmonies soared in pitch as the clear tones of horns and winds trilled and blasted, building to a full crescendo. Sir Ross stepped onto the porch in full military uniform. He walked stiffly, but the highly decorated suit provided an air of distinction. A small ripple of applause broke out across the attendees as Sir Ross took his place with the row of men.
Just as the instrumental ensemble reached the climactic apex of the piece, Kurtis Lenair, Duke of Alikon, stepped onto the porch leading the Lady Karlina by the arm. The duke radiated power and authority in his military dress, his breast pocket laden with medals of various sorts. But he paled into a meaningless prop beside the bride. Her diamond-studded dress—the train stretching twenty feet behind her—sparkled and glimmered in the sun. A silk mesh veiled her face, and a triple strand of pearls graced her neck. Her sandy brown hair, piled in intricate braids upon her head, held a dozen white roses, matching the bouquet in her arms.
In a single motion, the audience stood to their feet in honor, and Cora lost momentary sight of the procession. She grabbed the baylis tree and half-climbed its trunk for a better look.
The duke led his daughter down the grand steps to thunderous applause, where he took his place between her and the hero of the Border Lands. A pontiff of the House of Order entered from the colonnade and assumed a position on the third step. The large front doors of the castle closed, the music stopped, and the audience resumed their seats in quiet expectancy.
Still no sign of Vincent Schumann. Cora wanted to scream, to arrest everyone’s attention, to rush in and cover Lady Karlina. Anticipation of an imminent attack sent her nerves into a frenzy.
Elric and Kiyla joined her and Cuauhtérroc under the baylis tree. In hushed tones, they listed people from Westmeade they had seen—Lady Annabelle Gable, Sir Anthony Prisido, and Lucella Calloway. Notably absent was Montpeleón, who was also supposed to be here. Cora pondered this for a moment, and her thoughts diverted to their last evening together over a nice roast duck with minced—she shook thoughts of the dashing songsage from her head. Still, it would have been nice to see him, to draw comfort from his presence. But she had to focus.
Schumann was their target. Preferably before Lady Karlina became his.
Under an amplifying spell, the pontiff of Order lifted his voice in welcome. But before he could finish his second sentence, a muted twang rang out from the far left of the portico, and a split second later, an arrow protruded through his neck. His sentence ended in a sickly gurgle as blood poured from his mouth. The pontiff dropped to his knees, wide-eyed and clutching his throat.
A second arrow embedded in Lady Karlina’s shoulder under her collarbone, tearing through the veil and missing her face only because she had turned to view the pontiff’s plight. Crimson bubbled from the wound and trickled down the shimmering diamonds.
A third slammed into the duke’s back.
Cora’s mouth flew open in shock.
For one very long second, the courtyard experienced profound silence.