Chapter 20: In the Wake of a Storm
Peace settled over the castle courtyard, but only because the racket of pitched battle and chaotic screams of fear had quelled to an imperceptible lull. Lady Karlina surveyed the wreckage of her wedding assembly—her mother’s perfection destroyed in half an hour—with a profound ache welling in her heart. The grounds were littered with the slain and injured. Some moaned and clutched their wounds, while others lay silently, their vacant eyes staring into the sky. White roses lay cast about and trampled; chairs upended and broken; tables overturned, their wares spilled and smeared across the lawn. Musicians’ instruments lay smashed amongst the shattered stage. Karlina had no idea at whose feet to lay the charge for all this destruction and senseless death, but her mind burned with plans to execute a thousand different sentences upon them.
Soldiers still at arms—brother fighting brother—threw down their weapons, and most of them fell to their knees in grief. Moans of self-loathing, shouts of self-imprecatory curses, and anguished cries of disbelief echoed from the tops of the battlements, valiant men reduced to mourning in shame.
Karlina forced herself to focus on the grim task before her. Her duty was to her people, both the citizens of Alikon and the many guests in her care. She tore another strip from the plenteous folds of her wedding dress and wrapped the wounds of a woman she did not know. There were many such faces in the crowd, many people for whom the day had begun with joy and ended in tragedy. How will I ever assuage their grief?
As she worked, the Audric savage stood over her, a blue-fire sword in his right hand and an obsidian studded club in the left. He crouched low, his dark eyes alert to every movement, his taut muscles prepared to spring at the slightest hint of danger. He was her guardian, moving with her across the lawn, and wherever she knelt beside a fallen body, the Audric provided a protective circle around her, like a lion guarding its cubs. His presence comforted, quite the opposite reaction she expected to have in the shadow of a jungle savage.
She stood to stretch and tear additional bandages from her dress. “Thank you for guarding me. What’s your name?”
His dark eyes met hers, and she flinched at the depth of ferocity. “I am Térroc, panther warrior. I am called Cuauhtérroc.”
Karlina nodded. “You are very…devoted…Cuauhtérroc, for a savage. I think I may be guilty of having misjudged the Audric people.”
“Sometimes you cannot see dees worm in dees apple if you do not have dees bite. Dees outside do not tell you about dees inside.”
Karlina cocked her head. “Yes…I think you may be right, but I would use a better example. There is no worm in you.”
A woman’s scream scorched the castle chambers and sailed out into the courtyard.
Karlina spun about, her eyes wide and locked onto the open front doors.
A chambermaid dashed onto the portico. She gasped and held a hand to her mouth as she took in the carnage spread across the lawn. Finding Lady Karlina standing in the Audric’s protective shadow, she fell trembling to her knees. “Milady! Come quick! The duke is dyin’!”
The duke’s daughter shot a quick glance over her shoulder at Cuauhtérroc. “Come with me.” She gathered what remained of her tattered train and ran with all haste for the castle.
* * * * * * * * * *
“He’s goin’ into shock!” Elric’s hands pressed against the duke’s gaping belly wound. Despite the duke having drawn every vestige of healing power from Ataraxia, blood, thick and dark, trickled between Elric’s fingers as Lenair’s body quivered on the floor. “We need a cassock!” The duke’s pallid skin chilled beneath the passing touch of Death. “Now!”
He scanned the room, expecting a flurry of urgent actions. Beside him on the floor, Sir Ross moaned, his voice like the distant rustle of wind-blown leaves. Without immediate care, he would soon follow the duke to the Maker’s Realms. The room marinated in the stillness of sorrow.
The duke’s wife, Astriase, and his other two daughters huddled together near the fireplace, their arms entwined in a fear-filled embrace. Selorian sat alone in a far corner of the room, his face buried in his hands. The dismembered body of the hairless ascetic lay in various places across the blood-stained carpet. Voices echoed from the vestibule below as footsteps scurried hither and yon, but none came to help. Inside the jagged opening in the wall stood the redheaded songsage, dismay darkening her face. She now wore the expression of somehow overcome with despair. Elric locked onto her. “Cora! Do somethin’!”
Cora’s emerald-green eyes flashed, and she jolted as if awoken from a gripping nightmare. She reached around for the lute that wasn’t there. A curse spilled from her lips, then she closed her eyes and inhaled a calming breath. Her mouth opened, and a soft, soothing tone escaped, growing into a melody that swelled to blanket the room with serenity. Long-held burdens fell from Elric’s shoulders, as if the songsage’s voice lifted and carried them away.
As she reached a crescendo, Cora walked forward and stood between Duke Lenair and Sir Ross. She knelt and placed a hand on each man’s forehead as her song faded into quiet.
The duke’s body stilled under Elric’s hands, and he feared the worst. He fell to the duke’s side and placed an ear to his mouth. Soft, nearly imperceptible sounds filtered through Lenair’s throat, and his breathing relaxed as he slipped into a deep slumber. Blood continued to seep from the hole in the duke’s abdomen, but less now as his heartbeat slowed.
Elric regarded the songsage with a measure of respect never granted her before. “That was…” He searched his limited vocabulary for the right word. “…awesome.” It would have to do.
Cora nodded acknowledgement. “Thank you. I wish I had more elixirs. The spellsong only placed them into a deep slumber. It won’t heal them, but it just might keep them from dying.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Silence blanketed the duke’s bedchamber, pierced only by the duke’s unnerving moans and desperate gasps for air. An abbot of the Solarium worked with fevered urgency, accompanied by a team of cassocks and rectors, to preserve the lives of Duke Lenair and Sir Ross. Lady Astriase stood at her husband’s side, clutching his hand and covering her trembling lips. Lady Annabelle, the eldest daughter, embraced her mother with comfort and support. On the other side of the bed, Lady Karlina wiped Sir Ross’ forehead with a damp cloth. Lady Gretchen stood with her, staring wide-eyed at the two men teetering on the brink of death.
Near the fireplace, Cora leaned against the far wall with Cuauhtérroc and Elric at her sides. Kiyla crouched beside Elric, a scowl darkening her scar-lined face. Waves of relief swept over Cora with each healing success, but anxiety rushed in with every painful groan from the duke or the knight. Many lives had been ended, and these two hung in the balance. So convinced was she that Lady Karlina had been the target that she had given no thought for shielding the duke. Cuauhtérroc had spent all his time guarding the daughter, but it was unnecessary; he could have been adding his mettle to Lenair’s salvation. She replayed the day’s events repeatedly in her mind, knowing she would second-guess her decisions for years if these men were to die.
Scores of people lined the perimeter of the chamber—servants, soldiers, and wedding attendants. Many others pressed in at the doorway as word spread of the duke’s condition. Worry lined their faces, and tears traced their cheeks as quiet prayers floated upward to the Realms.
On a settee pushed into a corner, Selorian cradled his face in his hands. Cora puzzled over this distraught figure who, only a couple of hours earlier, had stormed across the courtyard uttering dark speech. The grisly remains of his goal had been gathered in a bag, but even with a room cleared of reminders, the savant was far from restored.
A dull cry from the duke elicited a fresh surge of urgent prayers from the worried onlookers.
Selorian’s head shot up from his hands. His rapid breathing and chary eyes suggested a restless soul laden with guilt. He stood as if burdened with a massive weight, and with his gaze fixed on the floor, he trudged through the growing crowd and out of the room.
“Will…will he live?” Lady Karlina’s voice cracked as she daubed her eyes with a kerchief.
The abbot nodded, but his face was grim. “He is strong—they both are.”
Karlina’s knees wobbled, and she grasped the headboard for support. “Please…I cannot lose both father and husband on the same day.”
Lady Gretchen took her sister’s hand. She gazed upon Karlina’s anguished face for a time before returning her tear-filled eyes to her father and Sir Ross lying on the blood-stained bed, their skin pale and breathing labored. She lifted her face to her mother’s wetted cheeks as Annabelle embraced her.
Gretchen’s face contorted with pain as tears freely flowed. She trembled and dropped to her knees, gripping Karlina’s shredded wedding dress. Though she buried her face in the fabric, the room resounded with her wails of profound grief. “I am so sorry!”
* * * * * * * * * *
Selorian’s shuffling walk turned to a hurried pace and finally into a full run. He retraced his steps across the castle grounds and up the stone steps to the last place he could remember—the tower where the Slayer had burned his eyes to find Schumann. Everything following that moment was like a dream that fades with the morning, but he knew what he had done. Fury welled within him, hatred and loathing consumed him. He fled, wanting to leave the pain of death behind him. But a greater pain chased him down the halls. It circled him around the spiraling stairs of the tower; it pierced him at the summit. He had killed a man. Driven by the compulsion of a sentient sword, he had done the one thing he swore would never stain his conscience.
The strain of wrestling with the Slayer had taxed the limits of his mental fortitude. Often, he had retained control, but when he had needed greatest clarity, he succumbed. He lost, and the agony of guilt flooded his mind. As he burst through the final door onto the highest castle pinnacle, he fell to his knees and spread his arms to the skies. Lifting his head, he screamed long and loud, hoping to purge away the repugnance of his deeds.
Though his breath was spent, the shame remained. He pulled the bent, malformed Slayer from its sheath. It no longer spoke to him. It felt lifeless and cold in his hand, as if it no longer had any purpose, as if it had accomplished the one thing it was created to do. He shouted dark obscenities at the sword and slammed it repeatedly onto the parapet. Sparks flew outward with each clanging blow, but nothing relieved his pain.
With a final curse, the savant cast aside the weapon that had so recently owned him. It clattered against the stone and came to an ignoble rest against the open door to the stairs. Wracked with oppressive guilt, Selorian crawled to the parapet and pulled himself to his feet. He surveyed the castle complex and the free city that lay beyond. Misery settled upon him, a despondent loathing for who he had become. His focus narrowed onto the ground below him, nearly a hundred feet down.
He leaned over the parapet; a flagstone walk stretched far beneath him. Two seconds perhaps…yes, that should be sufficient. A shudder swept through his body, and he backed away from the edge. He slid down the half-wall, pulled his knees to his chest, and wept.
* * * * * * * * * *
The abbot released an exhausted breath and hung his head over the duke’s body. When he lifted his head, a peaceful smile lighted his face. “It is done. He is well enough now to finish healing on his own.”
The room filled with spontaneous praises to the Maker. Lady Astriase wavered, and Annabelle guided her into a chair.
“I must ask you all to leave,” the abbot said, turning to the crowd. “All but the family, of course. These men need much rest.”
The freeblades filed into the sitting room and onto the balcony with nearly thirty others. Cora’s heart soared at the realization that their actions had saved the duke’s life, his family, and an entire nation. Her decisions were not foolish or futile as she had feared; unlike her meltdown in the thieves’ lair, she retained her composure and took decisive action. There was only one item remaining to attend: Selorian. He had slipped away under a metaphorical cloud of darkness—much better than the real one he frequently conjured—but she would need to confront him about…everything. But first she needed to settle a few—
“Cora?” A sonorous voice called out across the crowd of happy people. She recognized the lilt and timbre, and a rush of elation swept over her.
“Over here!” Montpeleón deCorté stood near the grand staircase, waving and craning his neck to see through the passing throng as Cora approached.
Cora turned to Cuauhtérroc. “See what kind of help the Dragonslayers can give toward cleaning up around here. I’ll catch up soon.” She peeled away from the crowd and joined Montpeleón at the door to Karlina’s chamber. Without warning, she flung herself into his arms. “I am so glad to see you. It was awful! Everything was horrible!”
Montpeleón held her close, pressing her head into his shoulder. “I know. I’m sorry you had to see all this. But I’m glad you’re alive.”
For several minutes, Cora never moved or spoke as the dam broke and the reservoir of pent-up emotions poured from her in a torrent of tears. When she calmed, she sniffed and backed away, wiping his formal jacket where her tears had soaked in. She looked up into his brown eyes, seeking and finding comfort. “It was all so hideous, Monty. So much…so much death. Schumann’s dead…chopped into pieces. At least, I think that was him. Selorian said he was.” She shuddered. “There was a beautiful tone lofting over the courtyard—I knew it was a magical note…I knew it! Like something from a rotlark. I countered it as best I could, but it wasn’t enough. Good men turned evil and they…they…killed each other. I didn’t know what to do, Monty. I’ve never felt so helpless in all my life. Where were you? Were you here this whole time?”
Montpeleón nodded. “I was inside the castle assisting the groomsmen. After they stepped into their places for the wedding, I slipped along the perimeter to watch. I saw you and your team across the courtyard standing beneath the baylis tree, but I couldn’t draw attention to myself. I didn’t expect to see you here, so that was a pleasant surprise. But when the chaos began, I ushered as many people back inside the castle as I could and lost sight of you. I was worried for you. I always worry something will happen to you.”
Waves of comforting relief washed over her, as his words acted as salve to emotional wounds. “I know. After I got the Sword of the Coast, I thought about disbanding. It was the reason I set out. But the Nephreqin plot had just been discovered, and I couldn’t in good conscience walk away from that. They would have toppled Alikon if not for us.”
“Yes. I believe they would have. It’s hard to say how long they have been planning this only to have it upended…” His voice trailed off into a whisper.
Cora cocked her head. “What is it, Monty?”
He shook his head and smiled. “Nothing. The very notion of Alikon being overthrown boggles the mind.”
After a moment’s pause, Cora leaned in for a second comforting hug. “I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve missed you.”
“Truth be told,” Montpeleón said, “I’m quite glad you’re here. There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
Cora stepped away. “Oh?”
“Yes. It would have waited until I returned to Westmeade, but since you’re here, I would like to take you out for dinner.”
Indicating the Nephreqin banner that hung nearby and the chaotic scene in the vestibule below, Cora scolded him. “Montpeleón, this is hardly the time or place to continue courting me.”
The alderman held up a hand. “No, of course not. There are certainly more important matters to attend. But I meant when we have a moment. Surely, we will be able to slip away one evening in the next few days? I think once the city empties of all the visitors and we cleanse the castle of this mess, we would be glad for a brief respite. Don’t you?”
The idea warmed her, and she nodded. “Yes, I think that would be nice. I think it’ll be a few days at the very least before we are summoned to return to Westmeade.”
Montpeleón leaned in for a quick kiss on her forehead. “Good. Then let’s plan for a quiet evening together in the near future.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hours passed as many dozens of people convalesced upon every mattress that could be spared inside Castle Cannaid. Mats and cots filled the vestibule and dining hall, and every cassock from the city had heeded the summons to provide healing supplications.
While Cuauhtérroc and Elric helped pile debris into a burn pile and gather bodies into rows on the front lawn, Cora and Kiyla attended the wounded scattered throughout the castle. The number and severity of wounds broke Cora’s heart. She softly sang a comforting melody. Though she could not affect herself with the power of a spellsong—an oddity all songsages endure—the tune gave her something else on which to focus. Soon she was singing to the wounded, her voice a salve to a multitude of aches.
As the sunlight began to fade outside, the abbot finally emerged through the wrecked walls of the duke’s chambers onto the balcony. Conversation across the vestibule ebbed, and Lady Karlina’s eyes shot upward in expectation.
“He’s sleeping,” the abbot announced with a tired smile.
Karlina bowed her head and sighed. “Thank the Maker.”
“It’s going to be all right, milady,” Cora said.
“No, it’s not,” Karlina replied, her face suddenly somber. “I’m thankful for my father’s healing, but it’s not going to be ‘all right.’ Soldiers are dead, women and children made widows and orphans, and some of them dead, too. Every nation in Arelatha will demand an explanation for their slain ambassadors. Alikon is weakened and ripe for ruin. I know you mean well, but they are empty words to me.”
Cora frowned. That’s not what I meant. It was neither the time nor place to quibble. Bodies and debris littered the courtyard, and the scent of a bonfire filtered through the open doors that revealed the final vestiges of a graying sunset. Perhaps there was a portent in that.
The abbot, his face careworn and haggard from constant vigil over the duke, descended the stairs to attend the other wounded. As Lady Karlina turned aside to speak with him, Cora left the vestibule for the courtyard. Lanterns cast an orange glow on the grisly rows of the dead. Normally she would have averted her eyes, but tonight Cora forced herself to look at each one. Hundreds lay lifeless…far too many of them castle infantry, brave and loyal servants of Alikon. If only I could have countered the whole compulsion, shielded the entire grounds as the sonic wave blanketed it. Perhaps they would still be alive…
Ardents of the Nexus—ministers of the sect devoted to Death—wandered in solemn silence among the bodies. Entombed in gray shrouds and faceless white masks with openings only for the eyes, they drifted along the ground like a personified risen soul. The rune of death, an hourglass laid on its side, marked their foreheads in crisp black lines.
Cora shuddered at their presence, and as they drew near, the hairs on her neck stood upright. Beneath the blank masks, they voiced recitations over the bodies, chanting in a language isolated to that sect. The ardent nearest her turned suddenly to face her, and in the lantern light, his eyes glimmered inside the eyeholes of the mask. Cora bit off a yelp.
“You have tasted death,” the ardent said.
Cora’s knees buckled, and she fought the urge to run. She swallowed hard and fingered the scar on her neck. “Y-yes. The Solarium revived me.”
“Patrons of Light ought not to obstruct the Maker’s Calling. You have shed a portion of your soul for such interference.”
“But I am alive, and Alikon is saved because of it.”
The ardent stared at her through the mask. “All our days are numbered. We all await the day of our returning.” He pivoted to the body laying at his feet, muttering once more in the ancient language of Nexus prayers.
Cora scooted away, content to let the remaining bodies lie.
* * * * * * * * * *
In the castle dining hall, Kiyla tied off the bandages on yet another wounded soldier. She brushed loose strands of ash blonde hair from her eyes and wiped a sleeve across her brow. The day had been long, filled with intense emotions, and she was near to collapsing with a fatigue not felt even in many years of pit fighting. She poured a glass of water from a nearby pitcher and drained it in one breath. There was one thing still to do.
Leaving the wounded recuperating under the expert care of a dozen cassocks, she stepped from the dining hall into a smoking room. Haggard faces of weary guests looked up as she hurried through. She hustled down a hallway to stairs leading to the basement, where servants scurried to keep a fresh supply of clean cloths moving through laundry to the wounded upstairs.
Kiyla slowed her pace and scanned the faces of the maids. Many of them were young, but others showed the gray hairs and crow’s feet of advanced years.
An older maid looked up from her washtub. “Are you lost? You need something to do? I can give you an armload of towels if you’re lookin’ for work.”
Kiyla shook her head. “Tryin’ to find my ma.”
“Your ma?” The maid frowned at her. “I’m sorry, dearie, but there ain’t no mothers workin’ here. There’s a reason we’re all maids. It’s against castle policy to—”
“My ma works the kitchen.” Kiyla widened her stance and folded her arms. “Name’s Alerynne Muroe.” Don’t make me beat you.
Sudsy water splashed from across the room, accompanied by a muffled squeak. Heads turned and eyes widened as a middle-aged woman stepped forward. She looked left and right at the faces of curious gossipmongers all around, each one neglecting the monotony of yet another load of bloody towels for this exciting piece of intrigue. The woman flung suds from her arms and shook off the water, hastily wiping hands on her smock. “Kiyla?”
Kiyla nodded, feeling both welling joy and a desire to bolt and run. Five years ago, her mother had left her and a younger sister in an orphanage with the promise to visit often. But Kiyla only saw letters, brief messages hastily scrawled, and eventually those stopped. Three years had passed without a word, and her sister Valerie had run away. All Kiyla knew was her mother worked as a scullery maid in the castle. The runners had fetched that much. Seeing her mother now brought all the heartache, pain, and anger rushing to the surface. The long-sought meeting failed to bring the anticipated joy and relief. She felt her toughened fists clenching, the brawler’s blood beginning to boil.
“I’m your mother, Alerynne,” the woman said.
Gasps rippled across the laundry room from the mouths of inquisitive maids.
Alerynne placed a soft hand on Kiyla’s shoulder. “Come with me.”
Down a lengthy hall and past several doors, Alerynne grabbed a candlestick and led Kiyla to a small anteroom containing only a writing desk and two chairs. She placed the lighted candle on the desk, closed the door, and turned to face Kiyla. Her eyes glinted with moisture as she stepped forward with open arms. “My girl!”
“Don’t!” Kiyla widened her stance and held forth a hand of warning. “Don’t act like it’s all good.”
Alerynne’s jaw began to tremble. “I’m sorry, Kiyla. I…I tried. I sent money as I could.”
“Never saw it.”
“But the orphanage said—”
“The Alliance owns it, ma. They took your money.”
As if noticing for the first time, Alerynne studied Kiyla’s face. Slowly and gently, she reached up a hand. “What happened?” She traced delicate fingers across Kiyla’s scars-lined cheeks, pausing to view with pity her mangled ear. “What did they do to you?” A tear escaped Alerynne’s eye.
Kiyla brushed away her hand. “What do you care?”
“You’re my daughter.” Though her voice cracked, behind the concern was a growing defense.
“Then why did you leave us? We escaped the orphanage, ma. Me and Valerie ran away. I stole food to survive. For two whole years. But I got caught. The Alliance sold us. I busted noses in the pits. That’s why I look like I been through a meat grinder. I know I ain’t pretty, but I’m alive.” A swell of defiance filled Kiyla’s heart. “Not that you care.”
Alerynne sat at the desk and stared vacantly at the floor, her shoulders shaking softly. She sniffed and wiped her eyes on her apron. “I do care, Kiyla, and it wounds me terribly to hear you think otherwise. What else was I to do? Your father left us, and I had far more dignity than to sell myself.” She sat up suddenly. “Where’s Valerie?”
Kiyla paused for a time before answering. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean? She’s not with you?”
“No. She ran away last year. I ain’t seen her since.”
Alerynne’s jaw fell open, then she collapsed in a heap against the table, wails of grief muffled by her folded arms.
Kiyla’s stony heart cracked. Years of longing for her mother could not end with hatred or bitterness. Here she sat, a broken vessel longing for renewal. It was not a time for heaping abuse. She knelt beside her mother and provided the comforting embrace desperately needed by both of them. Alerynne turned and enwrapped her daughter. “I’m sorry, my girl.”
“Can you forgive me?”
Several minutes later, Kiyla pulled away from the hug and stood. She wiped a tear from her own eye, one she didn’t know had formed. “I forgive you, ma. And I’ll find Val.” She folded her arms, flexing the strength in her shoulders. “I know the man that took her. When I see him, I’ll beat his face in.”
Alerynne looked up with reddened eyes. “No. No more violence, Kiyla.”
“It’s all I got, ma. I bash heads. That’s what I do. I’m with the Dragonslayers now. We’re gonna find Valerie.”
* * * * * * * * * *
As the evening darkened into night, stars emerged in full splendor across the moonless sky. Workers dwindled in number until there were only a dozen figures silhouetted against the crackling bonfire. Cora stood with Elric and Cuauhtérroc, staring into the dancing flames. They had been given a place to sleep inside the castle, but Cora wondered if sleep would ever come after a day like this. She had lost count of the carts hauling away the slain, including several soldiers that had taken their own lives after learning of their treasonous attacks against their brethren. The courtyard remained littered with debris, as if an entire day spent gathering the wreckage had accomplished nothing. A portion of the injured were in their own beds, either at home or at various inns, but many remained under the constant care of the cassock army in the castle.
Kiyla had retired in the servants’ quarters to spend the night with her mother. Rumor said it might be Alerynne Muroe’s last night here, since she had lied about being childless. But sufficient for one day was the grief borne by all; there would be no dismissals on top of everything else.
Of Selorian, Cora knew nothing. Perhaps that was for the best. He did what he was destined to do, but his actions were accompanied by such questionable auras and motives that some called for his detention despite delivering the killing blow to Bray. Without doubt, the Slayer had much to do with that, but even in his more lucid moments, including before he had obtained the sword, Cora questioned Selorian’s reliability. She was glad to be rid of him.
A chill wind blew in off The Deepening, sending a shower of sparks from the bonfire into the blackened sky.
Elric shivered. “I reckon I’m gonna turn in. We got lots more to do inna mornin’.”
Cuauhtérroc nodded. “I weel turn into dees bed also.”
Cora smiled at him. He’s starting to get the hang of it. “I’ll see you two tomorrow.” As others went inside, she soon stood alone before the ebbing flames, watching the remnants of Lady Karlina’s wedding turn to ash. What a wretched day…
A voice called from the castle doors. “You there…Miss O’Banion?” It was Lady Gretchen.
Cora hustled to her side. “Yes, milady?”
The cosmetics Gretchen had worn under Bray’s compulsion now lined her face in a smudge of reds, pinks, and blacks, and the pink dress was stained with some of the runoff. Despite this, she stood erect and regally, chin lifted high. She pointed to a large roll of dark red quiltwork—the Nephreqin symbol—lying on the vestibule floor. “I’ve dragged it here, this work of evil I crafted, but I really could use some help getting it onto that fire.”
Cora nodded, and together the two women lugged the despicable artwork out of the castle and around the side to the bonfire, where it rekindled the smoldering embers and illumined the courtyard with brilliant reddish-orange fire. Two trips later, they had added to the fire every painting Gretchen had created in the past two years, her bedsheets and comforter, her curtains, and anything else she could find that reminded her of Leydon Bray and his controlling influence.
Gretchen faced the flames for a time, silently watching a significant portion of her life vanish in the flames.
Cora stood with her in the evening twilight, hoping her presence was comfort enough. After nearly an hour of quiet contemplation, with the cleansing of mind that meditation on a fire can bring, Gretchen finally sighed long and loud.
“Is everything all right, milady?” Cora asked. “Is there something I can do?”
Gretchen shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’m better than I would have expected. I’m very conflicted right now.”
“I can understand that.”
“I’m not sure who I really am. Master—er, Leydon—Bray had a grip on my mind for longer than I can recall, but it’s gone. The grip, I mean. Bray no longer pulls my strings. On the one hand, I feel the wasted vacancy of past years. On the other hand, I see with more clarity than ever before. It’s as if I have started over, like I experienced a rebirth.”
Cora smiled at her. “I think perhaps you have.”
“And I can’t stop thinking about that tall, dark man…”
Cora raised an eyebrow. “Cuauhtérroc? The Audric savage?”
Lady Gretchen recoiled and bit off a chuckle. “No, not hardly. I mean the tall, thin one…with the tattoos and the dark…I don’t know…aura, I guess.”
Cora raised both eyebrows in alarm. “Selorian?”
“The one who rescued me and shrouded me in concealing darkness so that Mast—I mean, Leydon—Bray could not reach me…that one.”
“Yeah, that was Selorian,” Cora muttered, shaking her head. “But you probably ought to put him from your mind. I’m afraid he may have run away; no one has seen him for several hours.”
“I don’t think he has. Run away, I mean. I think he’s close.”
Cora pitied the girl. Her mind must be a soft gel after years of compulsion, and now, with no one to control her thoughts, she immediately sought someone else to fill the role. “Milady. Selorian is not a good person. He may have killed Schumann—or…Bray—but he did it with gloaming darkness and foul speech.”
“He saved my life.” Gretchen folded her arms and shot Cora a look of defiance.
Cora grimaced. Poor lass. “But when I reached you, you were dead.”
“I don’t think so. I mean I have no memory of death; rather, I recall vividly being connected to Selorian, soul-to-soul, in a desperate fight against that horrible Bray. I think Selorian somehow preserved me. Possibly even partnered with me in the struggle.”
“I’m not sure what to say, milady. Your body showed no signs of life as you lay on the balcony. We dragged you away from the fighting, into the adjacent room, and onto the bed. You were not breathing, you had no heartbeat, and the color had drained from your face. I am certain you were quite literally dead.”
Gretchen’s eyes narrowed. “But I wasn’t. Dead, I mean. Selorian preserved me.”
Aware of both the subjective nature of the claim and the station of the one making it, Cora relented. “Perhaps he did.”
“Well, there’s no telling,” Gretchen said. “I know I was infused with him for a time. Selorian was in a vicious battle with Bray…and with a dark entity that reached tendrils into his mind. I could feel it. I could feel him. Selorian, I mean, as if our minds were one. Even now, I can’t get him out of my head. I know he’s close.”
The songsage bit her bottom lip. The last thing Gretchen needed was someone else in her head, especially that savant. “So…,” Cora said, changing the subject, “how does it feel to burn the past?”
Gretchen snorted with disdain. “I am appalled at what I did. Not the painting so much, although that was bad enough. I mean the carnage, the destruction, the lives lost.”
“You didn’t do all of that,” Cora said, not certain how much truth there was in the statement.
“I killed the butler,” Gretchen said with a shrug.
Cora blinked hard as her breath vanished. “Wha—ahem—what?”
“But only because he threw himself in front of the duke. I was going to kill my own father, Miss O’Banion.”
“Surely not!” Cora forced a swallow and cleared her throat. What a horrid thing to do. Why is she telling me this? “Surely you didn’t mean to, not really.”
“I suppose I’ll be hung for my treasons.”
“Let’s not entertain such notions, milady. You said you were under Bray’s compulsion, right? He stole and abused your mind, Lady Gretchen. Those were his actions, not yours.”
“You are too kind. And also naïve.” The duke’s daughter fell silent and stared into the flames. “One thing’s for certain, though,” she said with surprising cheerfulness. “I’ll be hanged if I’m going to wear this rinkin pink dress any longer!” With that, she shucked the dress and tossed it into the dying fire, standing in her petticoat and chemise to watch it burn.
* * * * * * * * * *
High atop the battlement of Castle Cannaid’s tallest tower, Selorian’s brain pounded a driving rhythm against the inside of his skull. A crick stabbed at the side of his neck, and pain pierced his back. What the rink? Was I so soporose, so intensely somnolent as to collapse in an inflexible heap? Everything hurts, and it is night. But which night?
Through grinding pain, he forced himself to stand. The blood-stained Slayer lay where he had discarded it against the open door to his tower parapet. Vague memories slowly returned, struggling through the thick syrup of his brain. He shuffled to the blade and picked it up, staring at it with growing confusion and frustration. It remained silent, no longer exerting influence. The mental duel, that constant struggle for dominance, was over. But he could not tell who had won it. His memory was muddled about a great number of things, and that bothered him.
The last thing he recalled clearly was climbing a rock cliff with Elric’s infernal buttocks always in view ahead of him. There was some vague memory of a cave and a tunnel, but then only darkness, a massive hole of nothingness. He remembered the Duke of Alikon lying on a bed with a huge group of crying onlookers surrounding him, and a wrenching sadness filling his own heart.
That whelming grief remained, and he searched frantically for its source. He was covered in dried blood, as was the sword, which meant he had been involved in a battle. But he was a trickster, not a combatant. Certainly not a killer. He had chosen the sword because it contained an inherent power. It was a wonderfully high price to extract from a set of fools, but he had never planned to use it. A pea-sized mote of lavender energy danced on a fingertip. This is what I use. He squelched it with dismissive indifference. Whatever.
With a heavy sigh, Selorian returned to the parapet. Smoke filled the night air, adding to his growing gloom. He only meant to take advantage, not to become embroiled in a bloodbath. How many lives had he taken? How many hearts broken in his destructive wake? Given his bloody clothing, the one line he vowed never to cross seemed to have been obliterated by a lethal spree he could not remember. There was but one remedy.
The savant climbed the crenellation, balancing against a gentle smoke-filled breeze, and stared down at the flagstone walkway far below. Two seconds to peace.
A pair of feminine silhouettes moved before the dying embers of the fire burning in the castle courtyard. For a moment, Selorian’s attention diverted as a new memory broke through. He watched with growing interest at the women dragging a large roll of fabric into the fire, rekindling the embers and creating a reddish hue to the flames. They followed with a wide assortment of other objects, and the resultant blaze brought color to their shadowy forms.
The Lady Gretchen in her pink dress and the red-haired Cora O’Banion—the two women who had altered the course of his life. Cora was his guide, patient to a fault with him, oddly willing to endure his chicanery. She also served as his focus, his lock on reality, always bringing him back around when the Slayer threatened to overcome him. Gretchen…he had no memory of her, and yet he felt he knew everything about her, as if she were in his head. He could not pinpoint exactly why or how, but he could sense it.
He watched the women until Gretchen ripped off the pink dress and flung it into the fire. Selorian climbed down from the edge and leaned against the stonework. That action of hers was significant and liberating. He understood. His life could be restarted instead of ended.
He pushed away from the parapet and descended the tower stairs in deep thought, wandering through the darkened castle halls until he emerged onto the courtyard where the embers of the bonfire dwindled again. The women were gone, and Selorian stood alone, transfixed by the glowing ashes. He noticed a charred and sooty corner of the pink dress lying near the edge of the smoldering pile. With the tip of the Slayer, he snagged the scrap and flipped it out of the fire near his feet, stamping the rag free of flame. A wry grin curled the corner of his mouth. “Clearly, Slayer, if you retained a modicum of control over me, you would have at that juncture thrown a hissy-fit, as the mustached one might say. I trust, therefore, that I am absolved of our relationship?”
Upon receiving no reply, Selorian chucked the Slayer into the cinders, picked up the pink remnant, and walked away.