• Andrew M. Trauger

Chapter 18: White Roses to Red


Annabelle screamed first, followed by many other women within earshot. Within seconds of the first arrow, an avalanche of mass pandemonium engulfed the courtyard. As frightened people scrambled to flee, they flung Lady Astriase’s perfect arrangement of white chairs about the yard. Many of the older guests found themselves tripped up in the chaos and overrun by the younger and more agile. They pressed and pleaded; they begged and clawed. But the iron gates remained closed. They were trapped. Atop the walls, guardsmen trained their crossbows on the crowds below in a fervent search for the shooter.

Duke Lenair grabbed Karlina and forced himself not to dwell on her wounded shoulder. “Get down!”

Responding to the urgency in his voice, Karlina fell upon the steps, huddling near the wounded cassock.

Lenair stood above her with sword drawn, his teeth clenched through the pain of the arrow grinding against his back muscles. He drew his ceremonial sword and scanned for the source of the arrows, but he saw only a small group of freeblades he could not recognize. None of them wielded a bow of any kind, and they looked as confused and shocked as he. Beyond that there was only the outer wall and a hedgerow at its base.

The duke burned with fury. His castle infiltrated, but the assailant unknown and undetected; his daughter accosted on her wedding day, shot down in her bridal gown; the gates locked tight and the courtyard filled with frightened men and women, his guests and envoys from many nations—this was an act of war. Or, it would start one.

At Lenair’s feet, the pontiff writhed in agony on the steps, his hands, face, and vestments thoroughly soaked in blood. He choked and sputtered, clinging to the marble steps stained by his blood.

Karlina clutched her shoulder and hissed through the pain. Her dress was ruined. White roses had fallen from her hair, and now the delicate flowers lay bruised and spattered with scarlet. Her eyes brimmed with tears as she reached out a hand to the dying pontiff. “Why?” she wailed. “Why?”

The duke felt a bump at his side and he whirled. Sir Ross stood with him, his sword also drawn and a fierce anger in his blue eyes. “My men have escorted the ladies into antechambers along the colonnade. I shielded Lady Annabelle and the duchess and saw them to safety.”

Lenair sighed with the welcome news. “Good. Now, take my daughter through the side entrance, and see that she receives healing quickly. Make haste, man!”

Sir Ross picked up his bride-to-be and hurried with her down the colonnade.

“Rossalo!” the duke called.

The minor lord stopped and spun about. “Sir?”

“Find who did this, and show him no mercy!” The Duke of Alikon paced across the portico, scanning the chaotic scene in his courtyard, striving to find someone—anyone—he could deem responsible. But he saw nothing. Who shot those arrows? Not one of my men, surely. Not from one of those freeblade-types over there—who are they, anyway? Pain rippled through his back with every movement, and vengeance darkened his eyes. Justice will be swift and terrible for the one who dared this treachery!


* * * * * * * * * *


In the topmost room of the highest castle turret, the Watcher knelt on one knee within a ring of rusty red powder, his shrouded head bowed low. Echoes of chaos floated up to the room through a small circular window opened and overlooking the courtyard below. He breathed deeply and rose to his feet in silence.

A petite woman stood motionless beside him, blonde and fair-skinned, with clear blue, unblinking eyes. On her head she wore a thin silver circlet, but her plain clothing suggested it was no crown.

The Watcher raised his head and spoke in a low rumble. “Settle the masses.” A silver ring on his finger emitted a faint green glow, and the woman’s circlet responded with a matching aura, illumining her hair.

She padded forward on bare feet to the open window, eyes wide in an impassive gaze. In one long breath, she sang a single note—a high soprano tone that pierced the air like the clarion call of a golden trumpet. Rippling waves spread across the courtyard, shimmering through the air like a heat mirage and settling as a blanket of baleful compulsion on the panicked crowd.

Hundreds of people clamoring at the gate ceased their frenzy, resting in calm reprieve. Soldiers along the ramparts lowered weapons, and guards relaxed their struggle to retain order. Peace permeated the grounds and brought with it a tranquil hush.

In the quiet, a second tone warbled, faint and breathy but clear and melodic. Glowering in the darkened depths of his cowl, the Watcher strode to the small window and shoved the unblinking woman aside. She collided with the curved wall of the room, scratching her cheek on the rough stone. She was a useful tool.

From his perch atop the castle, the Watcher looked down upon a scarlet-haired woman beneath a baylis tree. She stood with open mouth and raised head, projecting a clashing countersong to the blanketing calm. He cursed to himself and backed away from the window, returning to the circle of red powder. There was no telling how many people she may have released. And no time to waste.

His silver ring glowed a second time. “Scream,” he said, covering his ears.

The woman expelled a brief but excruciating screech. The small round window shattered, spilling fragments of glass to the parapet below.

“Come,” he said, and the woman obeyed.

The Watcher spoke an arcane word, and the pair disappeared within a cylinder of coruscating crimson.


* * * * * * * * * *


Cora sang her countersong until her last breath was expelled, then she fell to her hands and knees, gasping and clutching her chest. She knew magical song by its resonance, timbre, and inflection. But never had she heard one so powerful, so piercing, so beautifully obstreperous. It reminded her of the rotlark they had encountered in the forest, only this was a compulsion far greater. What was it, and where did it come from?

Countering the note was instinctive. But as she looked around at the peaceful calm infusing the audience, Cora wondered whether her instincts were correct. She certainly felt no more at ease herself; if anything, her sense of danger had grown. The freeblades with her agitated but held steady, and the duke remained on the portico, staring daggers at them. He was on high alert, and his deepest suspicions appeared aimed at her.

She pushed up from her knees, but she was not prepared for the scream that followed, splitting the skies with a wretched, teeth-jarring shriek. Her hands flew to her ears, as did her freeblades and several dozen around her. Beyond that, no one else responded except to slip into a dreamlike reverie.

With sudden and ominous clarity, Cora realized the truth, and it crushed her hope into powder. She scrambled to her feet and grabbed Cuauhtérroc’s arm, fear filling her emerald eyes. “Look at me. Look at me, Cuauhtérroc!”

The savage averted his attention from the duke to her, a deep frown creasing his brow.

“Are you still angry?” she asked, shaking his arm. “Please be angry.”

“Yes…but why—”

“Good!” Cora released his arm. “They didn’t get through to you.”

“I do not understand.”

“The whole castle is under a spell. Deep magic, Cuauhtie! I countered some of it, maybe a fourth—”

“Cora!” Elric and Kiyla began to dance and weave around a growing number of crossbow bolts jabbed into the ground.

Cora glanced up to see the majority of soldiers along the walls freely shooting into the courtyard. With careless disregard for life, they fired their crossbows at random into the crowd. A violinist fell over dead, her splintered instrument pinned to her chest. An ambassador from Arvoria fell beside one of Cer Cannaid’s nobles. Dozens of unarmed and defenseless men and women from all parts of the continent—wedding guests all—fell in a brutal and persistent carnage. The calm dissipated, and in its place arose a cacophony of screams.

Cora flung herself behind the interposing trunk of the baylis tree. “What the cripe! What are they doing?” Beside her, Elric and Kiyla had resorted to crouching behind his upraised shield. The soldiers might exhaust their ammunition at some point, but not before everyone was dead.

From the portico, Duke Lenair pointed his sword at Cora’s group. “Who are you? Is this your doing?”

Cora blanched, her mouth agape. “No!” she screamed. “A million times no! We’re here to protect you!”

Lenair cast aside the ceremonial sword. “Then do your bloody job!” He spun on his heels and beat a hasty path to the front doors. He grabbed the handles and threw them mightily outward to his left and right. And there he paused as his arms fell limply to his sides.

The hail of bolts slowed, replaced by the clash of steel. Elric peered out from beneath his pin-cushioned shield. “Hey! They’re fightin’ each other!”

A ray of hope broke through Cora’s fearful gloom. “I did save some of them with my song. Thank the Maker of Music!”

One of the soldiers fell from the wall with a fearful wail, landing with an ugly thud on the ground. Kiyla raced to him. “You all right?”

The soldier attacked her, and Kiyla punched him in the face until he stopped moving.

“Elric,” Cora said, “there are going to be a lot of men falling from these walls. Some will be unharmed, but others injured or even dead. Some will be under the curse, but others freed by my countersong. You and Kiyla need to rescue the ones who are mentally free and physically able, but—”

“Whoa, whoa, Cora!” Elric said with his hands up. “Too much.”

“Okay…I need you and Kiyla to sort through the fallen soldiers. Help those that need it. Tie up those that are confused. Don’t kill any of them.”

Elric gave a firm nod. “Got it!” He dashed off to the brawler’s side.

The sickening sounds of mass battle raged all around as soldiers attacked each other and defenseless weddings guests alike. Those without weapons resorted to fists—men and women, old and young—without once questioning their actions. Chairs became weapons and tables shields. Dresses ripped, tailored suits tore, and all became stained with growing blotches of grass, dirt, and blood.

Cora staggered at the senseless, chaotic combat. “Cuauhtie, what do we do?”

Out of a hedgerow beneath the wall, a dark-skinned woman emerged, scattering leaves in her wake. Shirtless and covered with war paint, Mattawonah raced across the open courtyard, leaping over fallen bodies and broken chairs as easily as tree roots of her jungle home.

Cuauhtérroc gave chase.

Cora cursed.


* * * * * * * * * *


From her place on the second-floor landing inside the castle, Gretchen Lenair curtsied in a bright pink dress. “Hello, Father.” Then, with a sneer, she tugged the leather ties holding up her tapestry, pulling the slipknots free and exposing the massive patchworked piece of art as it unfurled to its full length.

Her father the duke, standing in the open front doors, felt all hope, joy and life itself flee his body, leaving him an empty, soulless husk. All his words and actions as duke, his marriage, three daughters, alliances with neighboring nations and the Cerion Forest, brokered peace—all of it unraveled, destroyed by Gretchen’s wedding gift to her sister. Hanging from the ceiling was a quilt work of canvases in solid scorching red background behind an enormous three-pointed black ring. On full display in the very castle halls hung the infamous sign of the Nephreqin, proudly proclaiming ownership for the deaths and destruction all around him, while also strongly insinuating new ownership of the whole of Alikon.

Destrend, the butler, stood at attention by the open doors, but his knees faltered at the sight. “By the Maker!” he exclaimed in breathless despair.

Gretchen reached behind her and retrieved a primed crossbow and aimed the weapon at the duke. “The All-Father owns Alikon now!”

Click.

In a moment of final lucidity, loyalty, and extraordinary bravery, Destrend launched himself in front of the duke, taking the crossbow bolt to his chest. He crashed to the floor on the other side of the doorway, where he quivered through the throes of death. Foam seeped from his mouth. Brave, faithful Destrend. The duke’s heart swelled with a powerful and clashing admixture of pride and sadness. May the Maker give you all comfort…

Profound anger pushed aside grief as the duke’s glare lifted to the balcony. He wanted to lash out with instant vengeance, to kill someone for fomenting such insurrection. But the obvious perpetrators staggered his mind: his trusted advisor, Leydon Bray, was a Nephreqin operative, and his own daughter, who crafted the maligned symbol, was his pupil. Bray he could hunt down and kill. But his daughter, his precious Gretchen…his knees buckled as he comprehended her likely end: he would have to sentence her to death. Assuming he was still the duke when this was over. He marched up the stairs, growling at the hideous tapestry. I will die before they take my country! With an escalating fury, Lenair bounded up the stairs, shouting curses at the quilt, his daughter, Bray, the Nephreqin, and at himself.


* * * * * * * * * *


Selorian stopped running once he reached the servants’ chambers, the topmost floor of the residence hall. Partly driven by the Slayer but always fighting to maintain control, the savant enjoyed a moment of clarity in one of the bedrooms overlooking a majority of the castle grounds. And a chance to catch his breath. Sparsely furnished, the room held basic necessities for two maids, with room for few personal effects. Selorian picked up a small hand-painted portrait in a frame; the woman depicted was kind, with graying hair and—

His eyes rolled back, and he dropped the frame to the floor.

Why do you waste my time?

A shroud of impenetrable darkness enveloped the room. Violet energy burned from vacant eyes. His body trembled as blood dribbled down his cheeks. Selorian pulled at his hair and clawed at his face, his mouth gaping in a silent scream of agony as he grasped for control. But the Slayer turned him, slowly rotating him as the savant’s vision penetrated multiple walls.

Find him. Kill him!

Words escaped as feeble breaths of compliance. “I am trying.”

Down through layers of guest rooms and common rooms, Selorian’s vision swept through the residence hall, out into the plaza, and through the castle proper. Military armories, offices, meeting rooms—Schumann was in none of these. The kitchen swarmed with servants, many hunkered down beneath preparation tables, in cupboards, and under sinks. Others scampered about with rags and various bottles. The infirmary swelled with people lying about and many others trying to get in.

“What happened?” he asked aloud.

What does it matter?

“So many hurt…bolts, sword wounds…these are not soldiers.”

Focus! Kill him!

The grand hall of the castle contained a marble inlay in the floor of a—Selorian’s body stiffened, his muscles seized by the rapturous joy of single-minded mania. The Slayer saw him. Standing in a bed chamber decorated in bleak grays and deep reds, Schumann watched a young woman in a pink dress on the second-floor landing pull the trigger of a crossbow aimed at the Duke of Alikon.

KILL HIM!!

The command screeched in Selorian’s head with such vociferance that he clasped his ears, pining for an end to it all.


* * * * * * * * * *


Mason Rutland trudged through Tenebrae on the heels of another. He had seen the visage several times earlier, but it had always vanished before he could close any distance. It was not a Grotesque; of that he was certain. The form was not composed of the wisps, but it seemed to swirl among them as one moving through a fog. He wondered if this was another shadow-walker and if this was what he looked like to others.

Each time Rutland noticed it, the fluid movements tracked through the city on a path toward Castle Cannaid. With a good roll of the Bones, Elric’s freeblades were already there to interpose a suspected threat. But what if this shadow-walker is the threat? I might be able to save them all! Rutland beat a path to the castle, encouraged by intermittent sightings of the hazy image along the way.

Inside the castle walls, a wave of sonic energy fluttered through Tenebrae. Something like a high-toned, piercing note, but he could only guess what it was. Everything in Tenebrae mimicked an indistinct form of reality. For a brief moment, the figure ahead of him shimmered, but it held. The wave cascaded over him, but he felt little more than a zephyr. Which was something, considering wind was meaningless in the shadow realm.

He approached the figure, more distinct now that he was closer. It was a woman, he thought. He knew of only one woman who traveled here. If only she would turn around; if only he could speak to her.

A trio of Grotesques crept along the darkened foundations of the realm, their forms blending with, stealing from, diffusing shadows with every movement. They closed in on the woman, but as Rutland drew nearer to her, the creatures backed away as if his presence repelled them.

The woman scanned left and right, then she twisted around to Rutland. Even in the haze of the realm, Rutland discerned shock in her wide eyes. Eyes that he recognized.

She held up a hand as if she wanted to say something. But she stepped into the shade of the colonnade and disappeared.


* * * * * * * * * *


Cuauhtérroc raced after the Amurrak, gaining ground despite the debris of fallen bodies, wrecked furniture, and ruined decorations lying everywhere. Mattawonah struggled against the iron gates, pulling on them in a desperate attempt to escape. Cuauhtérroc raised his arms, hoisting his manaca overhead, and bellowed a roaring war cry. Blood fury coursed through him, and he surged forward with a leaping attack.

The Amurrak spun about as Cuauhtérroc’s airborne body overshadowed her. She ducked away and ran back toward the castle as the savage crashed down onto the gate. He propelled off the iron bars, shouting Audric curses as he pursued.

Ahead of her, a wispy swirl of darkness briefly occluded the colonnade, and a woman in flowing black clothes stepped out of shadow onto the paving stones. Her brown hair, tied back in a ponytail, bobbed with each step. Mattawonah veered off in her direction.

Cuauhtérroc reached deep for added strength. With a fierce growl, he spurred himself forward, closing the gap more quickly. He raised his manaca to strike.

The ponytailed woman lifted a hand, and with a motion like flicking water from her fingertips, she spoke a quick burst of syllables and produced a series of coruscating balls of icy blue energy. Each one pounded into Cuauhtérroc’s chest, throwing him backward with the violence of a battering ram. He roared in pain and tried to scramble back to his feet, but his body refused to cooperate with his mind.

Mattawonah neared the colonnade, and Cuauhtérroc forced himself to stand. He pushed through the mental anguish, slowly restoring control of his faculties. But he was numb, and he needed help. “Cora O’Banion!”

“I see you!” she shouted in response. From the midst of the courtyard, Cora dug in a heel and filled her lungs to capacity. She released a concussive shout that rippled the air like still water disturbed by a rock. Nearby chairs flipped over and unfortunate bodies rolled in place, pushed by the blast. The ponytailed woman met the impact with futile upraised arms as her body hurtled across the colonnade and onto the musician’s stage.

Mattawonah rushed to the woman’s side, but as Cuauhtérroc regained his motor skills, he returned to the chase.

He saw it coming; he even knew it was coming. But his mind, intent on killing his enemy—the scourge of his homeland—clouded his thinking with the drive for bloodlust. He was powerless to avoid a second series of energy bolts that ripped through his nervous system and sent him rolling along the ground in a quivering mass. He cried out in agony as his limbs alternated between clutching in the fetal position and flying outward to maximum extension.

“That does it!” Cora yelled. “Nobody messes with my savage.” She prepared a second blast of sound, dug in, and released it toward the stage. The ponytailed woman rolled off the stage into a shaded area beside it, where, in the midst of a roiling pile of wispy black tendrils, she disappeared.

The stage splintered and instruments scattered across the lawn. With nowhere to go, Mattawonah’s body was crushed against the stage, battered by the full force of Cora’s concussive energy.

Cuauhtérroc groaned. “Do not let her get away.” Jerks and spasms wracked his body.

Cora knelt beside him and felt his skin. “You’re fevered, Cuauhtie. You need to calm down.”

“I cannot move—erk—and I move when I do not—arg—want to.”

“I’m sorry. And I’m sorry I didn’t believe you earlier. That is definitely the same Amurrak. And the other one, I think, is the same shadow-walker we saw in Wilder Tower. I have no idea why they’re working together, but I won’t let them get away. The Amurrak is collapsed by the stage, and I’m going to see if I can expose where the other one went.”

Arrows flew past Cora as she scampered toward the wrecked stage. The clash of conflict continued, muddled in Cuauhtérroc’s head, but his focus on Cora remained clear. As the songsage selected a violin and bow from the scattered instruments, he saw the fiery warrior in her—a woman who had tasted death and feared it no more. She was strong and brave, fierce and courageous. She was his protector and avenger. Cuauhtérroc smiled.

She was the beginning of his army.

A haunting melody wafted over the area as she played, repeating more loudly beneath the colonnade. When the woman did not appear, Cora sang a harmony atop the notes she played.

The ground tremored with a thunderous boom. Several clay tiles fell from the colonnade roof. Cora lowered the violin and clamped her mouth.

“I don’t know what I did,” she said as she returned to Cuauhtérroc’s side. “I haven’t played that one in a long time, so I might have gotten it wrong. Sure hope I didn’t damage anything.”

Cuauhtérroc grunted.

Cora pulled a healing analeptic from a pouch on her belt. “Here, Cuauhtie, maybe this will help.” She patted his shoulder and stood. “I’m going to tend to the wounded. Maybe I can keep some of the guests alive. I hope so.” She dashed away to the castle steps.

Cuauhtérroc struggled to his feet. As before, it was torture realigning his movements to his thoughts. He plodded forward, retrieved his macana from the ground, and stood over a bruised and battered Mattawonah.

She looked up at him with cold dispassion.

“Today you die, Amurrak,” Cuauhtérroc said in his native Audrian tongue. The panther warrior felt nothing, no emotion whatsoever. It was the way of the jungle.

He unsheathed his blue-fire sword and raised it overhead.

Mattawonah closed her eyes.

Turning it over Mattawonah’s wrecked body, Cuauhtérroc plunged the blade through her chest and into the ground beneath her. Then, he lifted his head to the sky and bellowed in victory.

Seconds later, he pulled his blue-fire sword from the Amurrak’s chest. He sliced off her right ear with it and placed the organ in a small leather pouch on his baldric. “Mazachtitlán is avenged.”


* * * * * * * * * *


At the top of the grand staircase, the duke wheeled on his daughter. “Gretchen!” he cried out with profound sadness. He swept his arm upward toward the vile tapestry. “What have you done? This is not a wedding gift. This is an abomination!”

Gretchen scoffed. “Happy birthday, then.”

The scorn cut deeply. Still, he fought for her. “It’s the Nephreqin! How could you not see…how could you do this!”

“Whatever do you mean, Father? I see more clearly now than ever. The confusion is gone, and I am at peace with myself. Master Bray has shown me the way of obedience.”

The duke’s heart ripped in two. How did I fail you, my daughter? How could I be so blind?

Gretchen smoothed wrinkles from the front of her pink dress as she walked along the balcony to the duke. “Father…”

“Don’t ‘father’ me. You are not the daughter I raised.”

“Correct. You didn’t raise me. Master Bray did.”

“I will not stand for this! You have sided with our enemies! You have given them the castle. People are dying, Gretchen—ambassadors, noblemen, soldiers, elderly women—for the Maker’s sake, look around you!”

Her eyes displayed pity. She approached him with arms open for an embrace. “Father…you don’t understand. I harbor no ill will toward you. You are not my enemy. I love you. But I must obey.”

For a fleeting moment, Duke Lenair thought he might embrace her, but she was likely concealing a dagger intended to finish what her crossbow had failed to do. He scowled at her, turned, and fled to his chambers. The castle reverberated with a slammed door and his anguished cry.


* * * * * * * * * *


Standing alone in Tenebrae, Rutland pondered his next move. From the hazy mimicries of the material world, he could tell the castle was near. It was also becoming clear to him that the Grotesques avoided him. Even now, the three that had closed in on the other figure remained nearby, watching him but not attacking. They could have easily overpowered and destroyed him—an unnerving thought. But they withheld, hovering at a perimeter like hounds awaiting a treat. Or an order.

“Back away,” Rutland said. It was worth a try.

The three Grotesques retreated several paces, and Rutland’s jaw fell open.

In the material world, chaos abounded. He could see it through the swirling tendrils of this realm, like a twisting, howling black snowstorm. A conflict of some kind raged around him. But he was distracted, intrigued with an overriding curiosity. They obey me?

“Stay.” Rutland held out a hand and walked away from the trio of creatures. None of them moved.

“Come,” he said and readied a quick removal of the scarf if they approached too closely or quickly.

The Grotesques crawled forward, stopping of their own accord when Rutland held out his hand. What is going on? How is this possible?

Out of the chaos popped a swirl of shadow that formed into the gentle curves of a woman. It was her; she had returned, and she was several yards away. The Grotesques turned and catapulted toward her.

“Stop!” Rutland shouted. Though his muted voice sounded like a hoarse whisper to him, waves of shadow spread from him as far as he could see. The Grotesques froze in their attack, leaving the woman standing alone and untouched. “Come here!” he demanded, and his pets obeyed.

A wailing descant of sound tore through Tenebrae, shifting, stirring, and ripping bonds. The Grotesques evaporated into nothing. Rutland felt suddenly detached, as if the ground had dropped from his feet. The woman shivered and shrieked.

“Are ya all right?” he asked, running to her.

She brushed off his concerns but gazed at him with a mixture of intrigue and alarm. “Who are you?”

“I’m Mason Rutland. What’s yer name?”

She said nothing for a time. Her visage shimmered—once, twice, then a third time—but she went nowhere. “I see. You asked me that once before, and I told you very few know my name. Apparently, I misjudged you. You are some kind of shadow lord. The Grotesques obey you, and now you have trapped me in Tenebrae. Why or how I do not know, but clearly I must honor you. I am Katrina Vatterly, known as Kavee by those who deem me fit to live.”

Rutland cocked his head. “Nice t’meet ya, Kavee. But…I didn’t trap ya in here.”


* * * * * * * * * *


In his chambers, the Duke of Alikon gripped the armrests of a chair and grieved with heavy heart. Gretchen was complicit in the coup and her transformation had occurred at the hands of a trusted servant in his own house. He had failed at every point to secure his family; the fault lay solely with him and the burden crushed him. He would gladly give up all claims to his seat and flee to the Cerion to have his family whole. It might take that. But he would give up nothing without a fight. Redemption was still possible; was it not always a hope? Was this not the constant message for the Zenith of Orthodoxy? His father, a cassock at the minster, taught redemption was never too late while he still had breath. Though it cost him everything, Lenair resolved to win. The trouble was he knew how to fight for a nation, but he would have to learn how to fight for a daughter. And that with all expediency.

Lenair grabbed his prized bow, Ataraxia, from its stand and slung a full quiver over his shoulder. He shuddered in pain as the quiver brushed against the arrow protruding from his back. Gritting his teeth, the duke reached around and ripped the arrow out. Blood streamed afresh, but he clutched his bow close to him and whispered a short prayer across the bowstring. Shimmering vibrations danced along the string and into his body, flooding him with a surge of healing power. Sighing with relief, he fastened a proper longsword to his belt and stormed out of his room.

On the balcony, Lenair paused abruptly at the sight of Vincent Schumann, the alderman of Westmeade, standing next to his daughter and holding her hand. Where did he come from? He struggled to make sense of it. “Schumann?” With cautious suspicion, he pulled an arrow from his quiver and placed it on the bowstring.

Schumann smiled warmly and released Gretchen’s hand. “Yes, m’lahd?”

Lenair nudged his readied bow toward the hideous tapestry. “What do you know of this?”

Schumann glanced at it and returned to the duke an affable smile. “It’s rathah vibrant. It don’t quite match the cullah scheme ye got heah, but I reckon a few jahs of v’million on the walls will fix that.”

Lenair pulled his bow to eye level and stared down the length of the shaft. “I don’t have time for chit-chat. Lines of loyalty are being drawn. Tell me now, old man, do you stand with Alikon, or are you involved in the Nephreqin infiltration?”

“Now, why would ye be suspectin’ me o’ that? I’m jis heah comfortin’ yore daughtah, who tells me she’s nevah felt yore love all her life…until now. I find that remahkable, considerin’ how ye hate what she’s done.”

The duke pulled back the string. “Nine Hells, Schumann! I don’t want to kill an alderman, but right now I will run this arrow through your eye socket if you don’t give me a straight answer. My duchy is on the line, and I will not tolerate you rinkin around with words. Tell it plainly—are you for me or against me?”

Schumann released Gretchen’s hand and ambled toward the duke, staring straight down the arrow’s shaft at Lenair’s eyes. “Tell it plainly, ye say….my name is Vincent Schumann, an’ I’m heah to assassinate ye. An’ when that’s done, an’ when half yore ahmy is lyin’ dead, yore precious duchy will know it can no longer rest on its laurels. Fah too long has Alikon rested in the delusional confidence that they ah safely tucked away from hahm’s reach. Theah pride an’ false sense of security only increased as the Nephreqin toppled king aftah king in Ahvoria, Trelini, Yilasa, Lothania, the Pirate League. It’s time the duchy woke up from that dream o’ security. We ah the ones pullin’ the strings ‘round heah…evahwhen we want. It’s time y’all acknowledged the Kedethian Decree an’ our superiority. The Nephreqin will have fealty from its nahthern kinfolk in Alikon. An’ as I know you will nevah bow, I’ll have yore head an’ make yore lovely wife an’ chil’ren bow instead.”

Visceral fury boiled the duke’s blood. But the declaration, no doubt intended to stun and enrage, made no sense. Schumann was an alderman in Westmeade; he had been so for years. He helped control the thieves’ guild in Westmeade and had enhanced the Brewer’s Consortium to rival that of any big city. He had represented that farming town many times at the nation’s high council in Everglade. He had dined with the duke’s family, played with the children when they were younger, and delighted the family with stories. It makes no sense…unless… Lenair’s brow lowered in a deepening scowl. Unless…

“Nine years of setup, gaining my confidence, learning my family’s loves, desires, secrets…you smoked my pipeweed and counseled my daughter. You ate my wife’s flaming tortes. All of that for this moment?”

“Why, m’lahd, ye done told me t’say it plainly. An’ I don’ even like tortes.” He continued his slow advance toward the duke, further closing the distance.

Lenair nudged his bow. “Stop, or I will kill you.”

Schumann smiled and with hands outstretched took another step. “I am unahmed.”

With Ataraxia nocked and pulled back to his ear, Lenair softly exhaled and loosed the arrow at Schumann’s head. He hoped he was not gravely mistaken.

With a flash of motion, the old man caught the arrow in his bare hand without so much as blinking. “My liege,” Schumann said in mock affront, “is it propah fer the duke to be launchin’ arrows at a loyal suhvant an’ a duly elected alderman?”

Lenair’s eyes narrowed, both in surprise and a fresh wave of fear. He rarely missed with Ataraxia, and old men rarely caught arrows. “You describe yourself falsely, old man,” the duke replied. He quickly pulled a second arrow from his quiver, nocked it, and pulled Ataraxia tight. “No loyal servant of mine would threaten me or my family. No loyal servant of mine would be involved in this coup.”

Schumann sneered as his final steps closed the gap between them, his eye mere inches from the arrowhead. “I did not say I was yore loyal suhvant.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “No, Kuhtis, I am very much a loyal suhvant, but not to you.”

Lenair pushed emotion aside. He released the string, but to his utter horror, Schumann twisted aside as the arrow bent and sprang forward with the bowstring. Fletching brushed the old man’s nose as he spun away, and turning with the spin, he lifted a leg and landed a booted foot across Lenair’s jaw.

The duke careened to his side and crashed into the balcony railing. Ataraxia fell from his hands to the marble floor below. “You’re…you’re not Schumann, are you?” His voice revealed his fear.

The elderly alderman from Westmeade smiled, bowed low and swept his arms wide. When he righted, his visage had completely changed to that of a middle-aged man with dark, closely cropped hair and a neat anchor-style beard. “What gave it away…was it the accent?”

Lenair gasped as resolve fled, taking his color with it. “Bray…” he whispered, and the words slid like a cheese grater across his tongue.

Bray sneered with foul contempt as his features altered once more, this time in full view of the duke. Now he was a youthful man, albeit one with exceptionally tight skin and not a single hair anywhere. No eyebrows, no shadow of a beard, nothing. “That’s Master Bray to you, slave.”

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