Chapter 21: The Wedding, Again
Time heals even the most grievous of wounds. A week had elapsed, and the doleful sounds of funeral processions had finally subsided when Lady Karlina determined that she did, in fact, still want to marry.
Though the days were stained by heartache and haunting memories, Castle Cannaid prepared once more for a wedding. Inside locked doors. With magical wards. Duke Lenair insisted upon the highest levels of security.
Three ambassadors from the Border Lands remained, as did a handful of noblemen from around Alikon. Instead of returning to Westmeade as planned, the Dragonslayers also stayed as guests at Lenair’s invitation. The duke insisted and, not wanting to miss out on a noble wedding, Cora obliged.
While they worked to restore the castle and prepare once more for a wedding, Cora’s heart warmed with satisfaction at their continued presence in the duke’s employ. In the wake of much sadness and destruction, there was still room for grace and kindness. Kiyla stayed with her mother, who remained on staff as a notable exception to the rule, joining her in the kitchen as a scullery maid. Elric fell in with the castle guard and honored those who had fallen in defense of the duke. He exhibited remarkable maturity and poise, speaking highly of those whose minds had been warped by the wave of compulsion. At Lady Karlina’s request, Cuauhtérroc served as her bodyguard, shadowing her every movement. He provided her not only security but also a source of information about lands and peoples she had misjudged her whole life. And Cora sang before the ducal family on several occasions, lifting their spirits with hopeful songs set to heartening tunes.
On one such occasion, as Cora set aside a borrowed violin to polite applause from a half-dozen people, Duke Lenair approached, his brow furrowed with the portent of something serious. “Miss O’Banion, may I speak with you for a moment?”
Cora dropped a quick curtsey. “Certainly, my lord.”
“Not here.” The duke glanced over his shoulder at the small assembly of guests sipping an evening port. “Would you accompany me to the library?”
A wave of dread swept over Cora as she studied the duke’s stern expression. She was thrown back to her early school days, as if she were about to receive a tongue-lashing from a stodgy schoolmarm. What have I done? She raced through recent memories—dinner etiquette, titles of address, dress decorum. Did Elric say something stupid? Did Cuauhtérroc break something? Though she could not assign a reason to it, her shoulders sagged beneath a burden of guilt.
In the library, Lenair closed the door behind them and gestured to a semi-circle of plush reading chairs in the middle of the room. Cora took one and settled in with a frown as she bit her lip.
Lenair pulled a pipe from his vest pocket. “Do you mind if I smoke?” The pouch of pipeweed was already in hand.
Cora shook her head and waited, her hands turning clammy against the leather armrests.
The duke puffed a rolling cloud of white. “Who is Selorian?”
Cora’s personal burden of guilt rolled from her back, but the question grabbed that burden and hit her in the face with it. Oh…him. Cripe. She blinked hard. “What do you mean, my lord?”
Lenair’s eyes narrowed as he chewed the end of his pipe. “I’m not sure how to make that question any simpler. So let me tell you what I know. When the battle began, I ran inside to acquire Ataraxia. On the balcony stood my youngest daughter beneath the Nephreqin banner she created, aiming a crossbow at my heart. Behind her, pulling her strings, was the puppet master, Leydon Bray. Only…he had the appearance of Vincent Schumann, alderman in Westmeade. I challenged him and learned the truth. We fought, Sir Rossalo Brighton joined me, and we three became locked in a sort of draw.”
The duke drew on his pipe and exhaled heavily. “In walks Selorian—a tattooed squit I had never seen before—carrying a piece of scrap iron like it was a sword. I would have dismissed him as a waif, but his very presence commanded my attention. The room went dark, the air chilled, and he spoke not with forked tongue but with divided voice, as if two persons uttered his words in unison. That, Miss O’Banion, was terrifying enough, but he also carried on a running argument with these voices, like he was divided in his mind as well. Then, for no apparent reason, he announced to the room that the Lady Gretchen was dead and whoever in the Nine Hells he was talking to had killed her. Now…”
A long pause followed as the duke collected his thoughts. Cora felt pressed into her chair, her guilt no longer assumed but entirely real. It had a name. She had brought the man with her, and all the evil that accompanied him. What did I think would happen?
Amidst a plume of white, Lenair stood and paced. “Here’s the rub: my daughter certainly is not dead. Rather, she appears more alive than she’s been for a decade. She seems genuinely happy for the first time in memory. What’s more, she claims Selorian saved her life, which is the complete opposite of what spilled out of that man’s blood-filled mouth. So, I ask again: who is he? Where did he come from? Why was he in your freeblade company? And what the rink is possessing him?”
Cora closed her eyes and sighed, wishing the chair would swallow her. “Selorian has a rare talent, my lord.”
“You don’t say.”
“What I mean is…well, he’s what they call a savant. That means he produces magical ability from within himself. Unlike arcanists who learn the craft in academy, the savant has no teacher and doesn’t draw upon Creation for his power. His soul is the source, his body the fuel, and—”
“Miss O’Banion, I’m not interested in an academic lecture. I want to know who Selorian is. He has either saved or killed my daughter, and I have a duty, therefore, to reward him or execute him. Or is death the greatest reward I can give him?”
Cora fidgeted beneath the duke’s growing vehemence. “My lord, I can certainly appreciate you not knowing what to make of him—”
“What to make of him?” Lenair stabbed his pipestem at Cora. “I don’t want to make anything of him. I want him gone. Whether he’s on a never-ending journey to the east or lying in a coffin, I don’t rinkin care. But you brought that dark soul into my castle—” He paused. “He did come in with you, right?”
“Yes, my lord.” Cora hung her head and stared at the floor between her feet.
“Then, the least you could do is explain him.” The duke poked the pipe back in his mouth and crossed his arms as he leaned against a reading table.
Cora breathed deeply. “Your Grace, I don’t know where he’s from. We met him in a village south of Westmeade. After creating a scene in the tavern, I wanted nothing to do with him, but he claimed to have incriminating knowledge of Schumann, whom we suspected of being involved in something against my lord. With reluctance, I allowed him to join us, hoping his testimony would placate the Council of Westmeade, which I expected would jail us for breaking probation.”
Lenair sighed and shook his head.
“I know it’s an ignoble beginning, my lord. But Selorian proved to be a valuable addition: he’s the reason we’re here. Because of his comments to the Council, we were commissioned to apprehend Schumann before he could enact his plan. As promised, I gave Selorian first pick from our collected treasures, and he chose the abused sword he later called the Slayer. It consumed him, controlling his mind I’m afraid, though he displayed as many lucid moments as not. I often wanted to dismiss him, but the sword drove him to kill Schumann, and I was trapped into keeping him close. I did not want to release a man bewitched by his weapon. So, when we arrived at the castle—”
“Yes, my lord?”
“Did you break out the wall in the wine cellar and enter through the kitchen?”
Cora lay helpless and floundering on the Beach of Shame as waves crashed over her, one after another. Overhead, gray skies poured.
“Miss O’Banion?” the duke prompted.
“Yes, my lord. Yes, we did. We lost our letter of commission from Westmeade and couldn’t come through the front gate. We hired an Alliance member to disarm your labyrinth of traps. I’m afraid we’re not very good at freeblading.”
Lenair chuckled. “On the contrary. Your persistent actions saved this nation and exposed our vulnerability to the Nephreqin. You also saved my family. Furthermore, I now know there’s a labyrinth of traps beneath the castle, and we’re not safe from the Alliance.”
Rays of hope burst through the gloomy clouds of Cora’s mind.
The duke rubbed his chin. “You say the sword controlled him? That piece of bent hardware?”
Cora nodded. “It was a sentient sword, my lord. It spoke to him, perhaps even through him.”
“I see. Does he still have it? Is he still…possessed?”
“I haven’t seen the sword with him since the battle. Where he was previously protective of that blade in the extreme, he now goes about without it. Also, he used to toy incessantly with his eldritch power, but I have not seen him do that in many days.”
Lenair returned to his seat, grunting and holding his abdomen as he sat.
“Is everything all right, Your Grace?” Cora asked.
“Yes, I’m fine. I don’t suppose after being eviscerated by a man’s severed arm I will ever be quite the same. But thank you for asking. So, if Selorian was possessed by his sword, but now he is rid of it, it should follow that he is no longer possessed.”
The duke’s eyes wandered about, glancing randomly across the library. “Even with that problem possibly resolved, I don’t know what to do with him. Did he kill Lady Gretchen or save her, or are both statements the empty claims of two people equally detached from reality?”
“I think both are true.”
“What?” Lenair squinted at Cora. “That makes no sense.”
Cora weighed her options, but there was only one, bottoming out the scale to one side: tell the truth. “Elric, Kiyla and I came across Lady Gretchen’s body after Selorian had entered your chambers. She was, in fact, dead at that moment. Elric joined your fight, and Kiyla and I carried her body away into the next room. Kiyla ran to find help, and while she was gone, the violence raged. Then, with a sudden calm, the oppressive gloom lifted and the Lady choked, sputtered, and lived. I cannot say what happened, my lord, but the Lady Gretchen has since told me that she was protected by Selorian while he wielded the Slayer. I don’t know how; I’m not sure what she meant. But she said there was a connection with Selorian, a mental bond of some sort. She says he saved her.”
The duke grunted, but not from pain. “Perhaps that explains why she appears enraptured by the man. Selorian may have saved my life and contributed to the preservation of Alikon, but that does not give him access to my daughter.”
“No, my lord. Whatever good he has done, I do not think he is a good man.”
Lenair fell back in his chair. “I have a lot to think about. Thank you for your time and your testimony, Miss O’Banion.”
Catching the hint, Cora stood, curtsied, and left the duke alone with his thoughts.
* * * * * * * * * *
Days later, when the restoration work was finally completed, the duke held a ceremony in honor of those who gave all in service of the duchy. As many of the ducal army as could be spared filled the castle courtyard. Over several somber minutes, Duke Lenair read the names of the fallen soldiers of Alikon, the ambassadors from every foreign nation, and many others.
Cora’s tears flowed freely as the count ran well past one hundred.
All remains of the bonfire had been removed, and in its place stood a granite obelisk engraved with their names. At the base of the monument, it read: In memory of those who died to preserve Alikon against Nephreqin tyranny. Phoca 15, 3549.
Following the memorial, Lenair acknowledged the heroes of the day, including several notable actions of the castle guards, the Sentinel League, Sir Ross, and each of the Dragonslayers, Selorian included. The duke’s demeanor and tone remained steady as he named him among the heroes. Whatever thinking he needed to do regarding the savant, it was settled at the very least in his own mind.
Afterwards, he invited all to remain for a period of socializing with light refreshments. The mood brightened, and Cora gloried in the chance to mingle with nobility.
An hour later, Duke Lenair brought the evening to a gentle close. As the guests trickled through the gate, he bade goodnight to each with warm gratitude. Finally, only the Dragonslayers remained behind, waiting beneath the baylis tree as he had commanded.
Lenair strolled toward them with arms locked behind his back, his eyes scanning the leafy branches of the baylis. “I first saw you beneath this tree, and I remember thinking, ‘Who in the Nine Hells are these people, and how did they get into my castle?’ I have since learned who you are, and, incidentally, how you got in. Nevertheless, I owe you my eternal gratitude and my life. So…come.” He extended a hand toward the castle doors. “Follow me.”
Selorian remained beneath the tree. “I deserve nothing, my lord.”
The duke reached a hand toward the savant, beckoning him. “Nonsense. Despite whatever else you may have done, you deserve a just reward for your service to Alikon. Do not deny me the privilege of bestowing honor.”
Once inside, Lenair indicated five chairs situated around marbled sheaves of wheat in a field of green—the inlaid Seal of Alikon in the vestibule floor. “Please have a seat.” He nodded to servants standing nearby, and they peeled off into the hallway and returned moments later pushing a cart covered with a blanket.
Elric leaned over to Cora. “What’s goin’ on?”
Cora shushed him. He then leaned over to Kiyla with the same question.
Kiyla also shushed him.
With the cart beside him, Duke Lenair stood atop the seal. “I stand here to represent the nation of Alikon. We have seen the Nephreqin take down other nations, but you have saved ours. For now. It would be naïve to think Bray was working alone, and I suspect there are more of his kind positioned to strike in their time, perhaps in Everglade or Freycoast or Westmeade. Maybe again here in Cer Cannaid.”
“We ain’t gonna let that happen!” Elric blurted out.
Cora pinched her nose. He has no filter.
“I know that,” Lenair said, “and that is why I propose to keep you close, as freeblades officially in the service of Alikon. There are many things that cannot be resolved with military might. I believe freeblading is important for handling the intricate cases that require closer…and freer investigation.”
“My lord,” Cora said, “I should inform you that we are still under probation in Westmeade. I’m certain we—”
Lenair held up his hand and smiled. “Miss O’Banion, I will have no trouble commuting whatever sentence remains.”
The final cloud lifted and great beams of radiant sunshine filled Cora’s soul with the warmth of hope. She felt like singing, and a glorious song it would be. With soaring heart, she grinned broadly at the others. “We accept!”
“Good,” the duke said. “You will need to find a place to live in Cer Cannaid. I suggest you look among the properties along Coastal Way north of here. I can have someone assist you with this as well.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Cora said. “You are most gracious.”
“It is nothing.” A smile crept across the duke’s face. “This however…” He rested a hand on the cart. “This is something.”
Elric sat forward with wide, eager eyes. “Tray-sure!”
Lenair lifted a corner of the blanket and retrieved a pair of thin leather gloves. He nodded toward the brawler. “Kiyla Muroe of Cer Cannaid.”
At Cora’s urging, Kiyla stood and approached the duke.
“These are adaptive gloves,” Lenair said. “Since you like a good fisticuff, these will be useful to you.”
Kiyla accepted them with guarded suspicion.
“Don’t let their appearance dissuade you. Inside one of them is a list of arcane phrases, which, when spoken while wearing the gloves, will activate the latent magic, transforming them into a variety of uses—weapons, grappling, climbing, and even storing a spellslinger’s magic to deliver with your fist.”
The brawler held the gloves to her chest. “Thank you, milord. Never had a gift like this.”
Lenair turned to the next chair. “Elric Reichtoven of Westmeade.”
Elric hopped up and strode forward, his hand extended.
The duke pulled the blanket off, showing a reddish-hued shield. A brief squeak escaped Elric’s throat.
“I think you’ve been wanting this red dragon shield for a while now,” Lenair said with a broad grin. “After you defeated the young dragon beneath Wilder Tower, you delivered some of its scales and hide to a leatherworker in Westmeade—your own father, I believe. This shield was ready; the armor will be soon.”
Elric leaped for joy and strapped the shield to his arm. He pranced about the vestibule, showing it off. “Pa made this! Lookit it! I can smell the smoke comin’ off it like that ol’ dragon was still tryin’ to breathe on me.”
“Elric,” Cora hissed, “sit down and behave.”
With a quick glare at Cora, Elric resumed his seat, running his hands across the scaly leather with childlike glee.
“Your father is truly skilled at leatherworking,” the duke said. “He was able to retain some of the inherent properties of the leather. It will provide you with a natural resistance to fire while also warming you against cold climates. He did warn that you may experience heartburn from time to time, and your belches may smoke a little.”
Kiyla laughed, but Elric’s face froze in wonder. “Really?”
The duke nodded.
“Oh great,” Cora groaned. The last thing we need is Elric belching smoke.
Lenair pulled a pair of wooden clubs from the cart and held them toward Cuauhtérroc. Made of a darkened wood, each had a flattened edge that extended from tip to grip. “Cuauhtérroc, panther warrior of the Audric Jungle.”
The savage stood.
“These are called ‘brother cudgels,” the duke said. “You may wield them one in each hand, but if placed together along the flat edge while speaking the Old Kedethian word for brother—deartháir—they will bind together and become many times more powerful in two hands. You long to avenge your brethren in the Jungle, so I thought these would be useful.”
Cuauhtérroc bowed as he accepted the gift. “I weel use dees brothers for dees Alikon and for keeling dees Amurraks. Thank you.”
“My lord,” Cora reminded.
“Thank you, my lord,” Cuauhtérroc said.
The duke lifted a rosewood lute from the cart. “Cora O’Banion of Lorenvale.”
A lump formed in Cora’s throat. Standing proved difficult for the songsage. Given the quality and value of the other gifts, this was no ten-gold lute, and her mind raced with the possibilities. With trembling hands, she accepted the instrument and gawked with admiration at the artistry, mother-of-pearl inlays, and richly hued woodgrains.
“This is Lysanthir’s Lute,” the duke said.
Cora’s mouth slowly fell open as she struggled for breath. “You mean…the Lysanthir’s Lute? The very one?”
Lenair nodded. “The very one.”
Forgetting all protocol, Cora jumped forward, lute in hand, and flung her arms around the duke’s neck. Before she realized it, she had planted a kiss on his cheek. She backed away, red-faced with shock. “I’m…I’m sorry.”
The duke smiled. “You’re welcome.”
Cora returned to her seat before she embarrassed herself further, and Lenair turned at last to the savant. “Selorian…”
The vestibule fell quiet as Selorian stood.
The duke cleared his throat. “It would be hypocritical of me to neglect you in the doling of rewards. However, I could learn nothing about you. I don’t know who you are or where you are from. You possess an ability I neither understand nor trust. But, it is apparent that you enjoy tattooing your skin, so I thought you might appreciate having a fresh one applied by an artist who infuses his inks with magical properties and creates, shall we say, ‘wearable’ magic.”
Selorian bowed to the duke. “I would relish that immeasurably, my lord. You have my gratitude.”
At Lenair’s nod, servants wheeled the cart away. “Again, I thank you all for your service and sacrifice. Now, it has been a long day, and I am still healing. I must retire.”
Though she wanted to jump for joy, run about the room, and squeal with glee, Cora stood and delivered a long, low curtsy. She knew when to be dignified.
Before he went upstairs, Lenair turned to Selorian. “We will speak again soon.”
* * * * * * * * * *
When Cora reached her room that evening, an envelope had been slipped under her door. She recognized the handwriting, and her heart skipped. Monty. She tore open the envelope and read the note:
My dearest Cora,
It has been too long, and I have missed you. Please honor me with your presence for dinner tomorrow at The Saffron Jewel in the High District. I will arrive at Castle Cannaid at sunset to pick you up.
Cora clutched the note to her breast and collapsed on the bed.
The following day flew by in a frenzied rush, but by sunset she was ready in a dark blue sleeveless dress and lace shawl. With her scarlet hair pulled to one side and pinned with a sapphire brooch, she received several compliments from the duke’s servants and family alike as she waited in the sitting room.
Montpeleón arrived as promised, in a creamy-white suit trimmed with red accents. A prominent silver ring graced the index finger of his right hand, which provided him with a decided air of status.
“My, you do look dashing,” Cora said as he entered.
He swallowed, then cleared his throat. “Not nearly so much as you.”
The hansom ride to the Saffron Jewel was hardly long enough to make conversation, and Cora remained content to bask in her good fortunes—the favor of a duke, the arm of an alderman, the Sword of the Coast. She wondered if now was the proper time to end her stint at freeblading. One look in Monty’s dark eyes nearly swayed her to drop all previous promises.
The Saffron Jewel occupied a former chateau on the cliffside overlooking The Deepening. Made of worked stone and heavy timbers, it resembled a small manor, amplified by a row of cedars to the left of the entrance and the soft churning of a fountain on the right. The smoky aroma of roasted meats filled the air as the strains of stings instruments wafted across the way.
The aristocratic atmosphere, elegant seating, and Trelini styling filled Cora with both a sense of wonder and contrast to her life thus far. Though her father was Lord of Lorenvale, they never displayed their wealth or afforded high-class accommodations. “Monty, what is this place?”
Montpeleón smiled at her and flashed his ring as they entered.
“Right this way, deCorté,” the waitron said with a bow. He pushed the door open and ushered them inside.
Cora’s breath caught. Dapper men and white-gloved elegant women dined in Trelini suits and evening gowns, their speech muted and reserved. Musical notes flowed throughout the building, doubtlessly emanating from an unseen source, as it did in Cer Halcyon. The light clinking of stemware and silver utensils punctuated the atmosphere, and Cora sagged beneath the grandeur. Her dress felt like a ragged cast-off by comparison.
Cora studied her suitor as he slipped a gold coin to the waitron. It intrigued her that an alderman in Westmeade was known by name at a sophisticated restaurant in Cer Cannaid. But as the waitron led them through the busy front rooms and onto an empty back patio overlooking the lake, she stopped and gawked at him. “You reserved the whole patio for us?”
Montpeleón smiled and tipped his hat. “Yes, my dear. For you, I would reserve all of Arelatha.”
“I…I don’t know what to say.” He has more power and influence than I thought.
“Then say nothing. Only kiss me and order wine.”
Lobster tail, imported off the coast of Carolan, delighted the palate. Vashanti wine loosened the tongue, and before long, the two songsages engaged in duets along the railing at the patio’s edge, their rich harmonies sailing over The Deepening. Cora laughed as they finished a silly sea shanty about a monkey wreaking havoc aboard ship, then she toppled into Montpeleón’s arms with delight. The night surpassed her highest fantasies and far exceeded their first night atop the battlement in Westmeade.
He held her, gazing deeply into her eyes, then kissed her with warm passion.
Cora swooned and turned aside. “My…it has been a while.”
Montpeleón took her hand. “I’m glad you’re here. My heart broke when I heard you were attacked at the Lord’s Castle back in Westmeade. Imagine my elation when I saw you unexpectedly here!”
Cora pulled back her hair and showed the scar on her neck. “I will never forget that. I think I may actually have died for a moment.”
“By the Maker!” Montpeleón exclaimed. “And then you came right here to defend the duke? What courage!”
“Don’t be silly, Monty,” Cora replied. “I was scared to death every second of the—”
“I mean it, Cora. It was a very courageous thing you did.”
Cora blushed and turned away to view the stars.
“It’s a beautiful night,” the alderman said as he scanned the stars with her.
“Yes, it is. The way the moon bespeckles the water, the cool breeze, being in this amazing place with you…”
“You have been blessed through all this, have you not?”
“Yes. The duke was most gracious. He pardoned our sentence in Westmeade, made us his personal freeblades, and blessed each of us with gifts that I cannot even begin to comprehend. He gave me Lysanthir’s Lute!”
Montpeleón nodded and shoved a hand into his pocket. “So I heard. It’s a lovely instrument, to be sure, but it will never resound with such beauty as your voice.”
Cora giggled. “Stop it, Monty. I’m serious. That lute was fashioned by the Vashanti songsage Lysanthir over three hundred years ago. It never loses its tuning, and it enables me to weave suggestions into listeners’ minds as I play and sing. Plus, I don’t actually have to carry it; I can recall it from wherever it is with but a simple tune. I have wanted to do that for so long. It’s the quintessentially perfect instrument for me!”
The alderman took a step back and retrieved a small pouch from his pocket. He opened it to reveal a thin sapphire-studded ring.
Cora’s heart leapt into her throat. Her eyes widened, and she forgot how to breathe. Cold sweat broke out on her palms.
Montpeleón dropped to one knee and held out the ring, and he looked up with hopeful eyes. “Will you marry me?”
Cora grasped the railing, the hammering in her chest rising to painful levels. Why am I so scared? Haven’t I wanted this all my life? Just say yes, you ninny! The night air grew suddenly stifling hot, and the stars overhead began to swirl around her head. The horizon receded as her vision dimmed. Oh no…you are NOT going to faint. Get a rinkin grip, Cora!
She turned and forced a polite laugh. “M-marry you?” Her tongue was an uncooperative slug. She clutched the rail and spilled the next thought. “I could never marry a rich dandy.”
Montpeleón put the ring away. “I see.” Hope turned to darkness in his eyes.
A flash of heat shot from beneath her collar like the belching of the volcanic Scorighauts. No, no, no! “I mean—what I mean is—you’re not like that, so it’s not—”
The alderman turned away. “I know what you mean. Stop before you say something truly unbecoming.”
“Monty…” Cora paused, staring at the back of his head. What else could she say? “Monty, I do love you. I’m just not ready for this. I thought I was, but now, here, in the moment…I can’t stop what I’m doing.”
“Yes, you can.” Montpeleón turned back and took Cora’s hand. “You have done well by saving the duke, killing the dragon, solving the mystery of Wilder Tower. It’s a happy ending, a good ending. You have your family’s sword, a magnificent lute, and your freedom. You lack for nothing but a husband. Now, marry me and settle into the perfect ending.”
Cora leaned over the railing and stared into the lake below. Being perched on the edge of a cliff struck her as more metaphorical than real. All the roadblocks were removed, and she could say with complete honesty that she had accomplished all that she set out to do. And more besides. She could go home and bring much happiness to her parents, not only by leaving the dangers of freeblading but also by announcing an engagement to a respectable man. She squeezed his hand and gazed into his eyes, not wanting to let go. “I have dreamed of this moment since I was a little girl. I imagined all of this—a handsome man, a beautiful setting, and a perfect offer…” She shuddered with indecision and turned back to face the “Cradle of Storms.”
Montpeleón’s voice held overtones of disappointment. “But?”
Cora sighed and released his hand. “But I’m a Dragonslayer.” The Maker help me…
* * * * * * * * * *
In the dining hall of Castle Cannaid late in the evening of Fregata 1, Sir Rossalo Brighton and Lady Karlina Lenair were finally wed. Only a hundred guests attended, and without exception all were fully and properly armed. The room was decidedly more subdued, solemn, and serene. It hardly seemed fitting to indulge.
At the ceremony’s end, Lady Karlina and Sir Ross kissed, a sweet and lingering kiss filled as much with relief as affection. An enormous burden lifted from their shoulders, as that kiss signified their triumph over the Nephreqin.
The atmosphere lightened only little after that, for the memory of many deaths was never far from the minds or conversations of those in attendance. An aura of sobriety reigned over a reception that normally would be an event punctuated by cheers and dancing. Conversations remained muted and faces a blend of happiness and weariness. Cora wandered about with a glass of wine, speaking briefly with the bride and her family. The need to dance around recent history made dialog difficult, and soon she slipped into a corner beside Montpeleón.
“This is unlike any wedding I’ve ever attended,” she whispered.
“Same,” the alderman replied with a somber nod. “It may be years before this city heals from the damage.”
“I’ve heard rumor that many of the soldiers are abandoning their service. Some have even taken their own lives in disgrace.” Cora sighed and stared into her wine. “Their pride outweighs any pardon the duke has given.”
Montpeleón tipped his glass toward Lady Gretchen. “On the other hand, someone seems to have no issue with pride in the slightest.”
Across the dining hall, Gretchen laughed aloud in response to something Selorian had said to two soldiers standing with him. She placed a light hand on his arm, her eyes gleaming with adoration.
Cora shook her head sadly. Yet again, the Lady Gretchen exhibited misplaced devotion. “We’re not the only ones to notice,” she said nodding toward the duke, who had set his drink aside with extra firmness and strode across the room.
Montpeleón raised an eyebrow. “She is fragile. I hope the duke is gentle with her.”
“I’m not sure the Lady Gretchen is his target. From Selorian’s expression, I’d say—”
“Excuse me.” Montpeleón turned quickly and handed his glass to Cora. “I’m so sorry, but I have nearly forgotten an appointment this evening before I return to Westmeade in the morning. Please forgive me. I will find you to say goodbye before I go.”
Cora blinked in stunned bewilderment, holding two glasses and watching the alderman hasten out of the room.
* * * * * * * * * *
Duke Lenair had seen and heard enough. That fawning look of adulation had clouded her senses once before, and Bray had taken full advantage. It would not happen again, certainly not with a savant channeling dark powers. As he approached, their appearances bore a striking resemblance to him: pale skin, multiple piercings, dark clothing, and black body paints. To the casual observer, the Lady Gretchen had not changed. She still refused to comply with societal conventions, and now she had found a kindred spirit. But those who knew her could see something was different. How long had it been since she had laughed? Was she genuinely happy, dressed in awful blacks like this enigmatic figure? Lenair argued with himself as he drew close. There had to be a better way, and a much better man.
“Excuse me,” Lenair said, his glare boring into Selorian’s skull.
The savant bowed. “Certainly, my lord.”
The duke studied the black outlines of his eyes. Three small silver rings ran through his left eyebrow. How hideous. “I need to speak with you, Selorian. Alone.”
The savant turned to his present company and nodded. “We will continue this intriguing line of reasoning forthwith upon my return.” He saved a second look for Gretchen and followed the duke to the library.
Lenair closed the door, isolating them in the quietude of old books and leather chairs. The smell of old pipe smoke hung in the air. “Have a seat.”
Selorian found a comfortable reading chair and settled in.
The duke studied him for a moment as he strolled about the room. He leaned back against a reading table and folded his arms across his chest. “It may come as no small surprise to you, Selorian, that very few people trust you. I number among those who do not.”
Selorian nodded slowly.
Lenair continued. “I acknowledge that you saved my life, and that is the sole reason I have not thrown you in the dungeons. Had you not killed Bray, I would be calling for your life. The powers you displayed in my house are born of foul spirits from the nine layers of Hell. You must understand that in a good-loving nation as Alikon, this simply cannot be tolerated. But more than that—far more than that—I will not tolerate you influencing my daughter. You are an evil man, Selorian, and for all I know, you have sold your soul to the Great Dragon. For reasons I’ll never understand, you chose to save life rather than destroy life. I am truly grateful, and that is why I also choose now to spare your life. But that is all I can do. I want you out of my house in the morning. Is that clear?”
Selorian was quiet for a moment, staring at his slender hands. He looked up at the duke and set his hands aside. “My liege, I fully ascertain the gravity of your position and would doubtless reach a similar conclusion were I to encounter myself. But there can be no misunderstanding: the similarities between the Selorian who battled in this castle and the Selorian speaking with you now ended with the fatal blow that took Schumann’s head.”
“What in the whole of Kreth are you talking about?” Lenair asked.
“To put it simply, my lord, I have experienced a conversion. May I garner permission to indulge you with an explanation?”
“I joined the Dragonslayers on false pretenses. Cora is ignorant of this detail. I was a drifter in search of an effortless target. When she dragged into Heavener, distraught, haggard, and sullied with stains and stench, I concocted a scheme for kyping from her something of value by playing into her need of information on the Nephreqin, about which I possess no practical knowledge. For this ruse, I demanded their choicest treasure, which she freely and foolishly gave. To my eternal detriment, I selected the Slayer. Though crudely fashioned, it radiated immense power beneath my eldritch vision. Had I known the true nature of that weapon, I would have retracted my hand as if it were a venomous asp, for I have no desire for moral conundrums. I detest the spilling of blood. That sword was nothing more to me than power; my gain was their loss. I had no intention of using it.
“I cast a loathsome eye upon my actions, and I fully comprehend the sideways glances and fear that bystanders exhibit when I perambulate a room. I have contemplated removing myself from their vicinity, but alas…I find it difficult to extricate myself from the Lady Gretchen’s presence.
“My lord, I possess few reliable memories of that gruesome day. The sword had my mind in such a vice of control that I was barely cognizant of my own existence. Nevertheless, there was one solitary moment of clarity, one distinct ray of light. It was that moment the Slayer severed Bray’s mental stranglehold on the Lady Gretchen. Inside my umbral sphere, I sensed the tie dissolve, and I perceived that she was secure—safe—so long as she was with me.”
“You said she died…” the duke countered. “During the battle, you screamed out ‘you killed the Lady Gretchen.’ The grating in your voice, blood dripping from your black lips…I will never forget the horror of that moment.”
“Yes, my lord. That was my accusation, but you may also recall the sword’s retort. As it compelled me to action, I realized—perhaps the sword imparted this understanding—that Lady Gretchen was not victim to the Slayer; rather, the sword had preserved her. Saved her against the present danger for a greater purpose tomorrow. She lives, does she not?”
The duke was silent for a time, glaring at the floor. With his daughter alive and bearing no wounds, it was useless to speak of her death. What then could he say against him? Was there reason to imprison him or banish him? Dark auras aside, had he not performed valiantly?
“Following that moment,” Selorian continued, “my mind returned, and the truth of my deed crushed me beneath an avalanche of revulsion. Grief haunts me; misery is my only companion. I climbed the tallest tower with the intent of jumping to my well-deserved death, but there was the Lady Gretchen, casting off her ignoble deeds into the fire. If she could be redeemed, perhaps there was hope also for me. Thus, I divested myself of the sword into that same inferno.”
The duke looked up with interest. “You don’t have the sword anymore?”
“No, my lord. It perished in the same fiery perdition that eradicated the Lady Gretchen’s lamentable connections to Schumann. A fitting end. Now, I have a rehabilitated perspective on life. I am infused with courage and an aspiration to extend as much benevolence to this world as I have thus far proffered gloom. I exuviate my former ways. I am a changed man, my lord.”
Lenair frowned. “Anyone can say that for the hand of a lady.”
Selorian recoiled in surprise. “My lord, I have no such intention.”
The duke blinked hard. “Do you deny having romantic interests in my daughter?”
The savant paused. “Your Grace, while I do find the Lady Gretchen interesting, compelling, even admirable, I harbor no particular affections for her, nor have I given her reason to entertain such with me.”
“Did you not say, hardly a minute ago, that you find it difficult to leave her side?”
“Not quite, my lord. I believe my exact words were ‘I find it difficult to extricate myself from her presence,’ which is to say, I always seem to be in her presence, wherever I go. If I may be so bold, I believe she is smitten with me, but I have done nothing to promote these feelings.”
The duke mumbled “I doubt that” under his breath and returned his gaze to the floor. After a time, he pushed away from the table and strolled to a bookcase of leather tomes. He absently fingered the gold-filigreed spines, his mind churning through the various options of the chaturanga board.
He turned to Selorian and clasped his arms behind his back. “I have inquired of you already. As your statements are corroborated, I must presume for the moment that you are being honest with me.”
Selorian looked up with hopeful expectation.
Lenair sighed heavily. “Perhaps my previous decision to banish you was premature. But I cannot in good conscience allow you to roam freely, either. There are some who call for your head, and others who would take it given the chance. Besides that, I really don’t know whether you are conning me as you did Cora simply to get what you want. On the other hand, I feel compelled to protect you and reward your service. You do see the conundrum I’m in.”
The savant nodded, and Lenair continued. “So, I propose this: you will remain in my castle under close supervision. You may not leave the compound until such time as I determine.”
“Very good, my lord.”
“And…you are not, in any capacity, to engage further in a relationship with the Lady Gretchen. Am I clear?”
Selorian bowed his head. “I have tasted the edge of self-destruction, my lord. Now is the time for rejuvenation. If I am rejected, let it be my former self only.”
Lenair walked to the door and laid his hand on the knob. “Remember: keep clear of my daughter, or you will be banished. Forever. And I won’t object if you are waylaid on the road. If you truly are a changed man, I will know soon enough. That is all.”
Selorian stood and bowed low. “Your word is my command, my lord.”
The duke opened the door. “We’ll see.”
As Selorian rejoined the wedding reception, Lenair observed his youngest daughter light up with joy. The smile that had been missing for many years now brightened her youthful face. Because of Selorian.
Lenair closed the door and sat in one of the leather chairs. “Gretchen,” he muttered to the empty room. “What am I going to do with you? First Arcen Orfalor, then Leydon Bray, and now Selorian. Can you, for once, not cling with such devotion to a domineering man?”
He pulled a pipe from a nearby rack and stared at it, his mind wandering back to the sacrifice of his butler. “You tried to kill me, my daughter.” He slipped the pipe between his teeth and chewed on the stem. No one knows of this besides her, me, and faithful Destrend. How long can I keep it that way?
* * * * * * * * * *
That evening, Cora found Cuauhtérroc sitting alone in the courtyard, his brother cudgels lying across his lap. She sat beside him and traced a finger along the dark wood of the cudgels. “Do you like these?”
The savage nodded. “Dey weel be very good when I return to my homeland.”
“But first, we head back to Westmeade to pack our belongings and pick up Elric’s armor. Are you ready?”
“And then we come back here, as commissioned freeblades of Alikon. This is…really exciting! Don’t you think?”
Cuauhtérroc shrugged. “I think Montepele want you to be hees weemen.”
Cora spun around her finger the emerald ring her father had given her upon graduating the O’Banion School of Performing Arts. She wore it proudly…instead of the ring Montpeleón had offered her. It helped her remember—family, home, and from where she had come. After all she had been through, she wanted never to lose that connection.
She sighed and looked out over the courtyard. “Yes, he does. He wants me to marry him.”
“Dees is a good theeng in dees lands. But you are not happy.”
“I told him no.”
Cuauhtérroc paused. “You can do dees?”
Cora looked up at her savage friend with surprise. I keep forgetting how different you are. She laughed softly. “Yes, I can. I can tell him to go jump in The Deepening if I want to, but I didn’t say that. I just told him the truth: I am the leader of the Dragonslayers, and there’s no way I’m going to marry a…a rich dandy right now.” Cora place a hand to her forehead and looked to her friend for help. “I actually said that to him. I have never wanted so badly to eat my words. The look on his face—more offense than disappointment—haunts me. Am I just making another mess of things?”
Cuauhtérroc showed no emotion. “You are being dees leader. You are doing what you theenk is right.”
Cora expected more of a reply. She wanted more, something to guide her, correct her, or show her the way. But for the first time, he had no jungle wisdom to share, no comforting analogy from his wild world of survival. His response was empty of reassurance, perhaps as he intended. Of course…he wants to go home. With an army. He has endured this with extraordinary patience, while I have gained much. And now I’m being petty. She placed a hand on his thick arm and stared with all earnestness into his dark eyes. “Look…I’ll get you an army. I promise.”
“I know…in dees right time.”
Cora leaned against his broad shoulder. “In dees right time.”
* * * * * * * * * *
From a distant balcony overlooking the courtyard, Montpeleón studied the pair with narrow eyes. He had not expected Cora’s refusal, for that made things…complicated. He sighed softly as he considered his options, then turned abruptly away from the railing, his red cloak fluttering behind him as he entered the chambers inside.
The Watcher sat in a chair in the far corner of the room, his cowl pulled low to obscure his face. His elbows rested on the arms of the chair with hands folded under his chin. “She’s pretty,” he said in a smooth baritone.
Montpeleón closed the door behind him and faced the floor. “Yes, Watcher.”
“Can I expect she will not provide a distraction?” the Watcher asked. “That could be…unhealthy.”
The alderman swallowed. “No, Watcher, she will not divert me.”
“Good. I must admit you were not the one I expected to be talking with today. Bray failed to subdue Alikon, and now he is dead, and the nation is alerted. We can deal with the nation in due time. The Assiduous Company of Ind—Indefat—what a pompous name.” The Watcher growled. “The Dragonslayers was Bray’s other failure, one which I expect will be remedied quickly. This is the day you have been preparing for, Brother deCorté. You are Westmeade now.”
Montpeleón bowed low. “Yes, Watcher. I will obey.”