The Émigré Saga Serialisation - Part 5

The Émigré Saga Serialisation - Part 5

The Emigre Saga is a slightly tongue-in-cheek fantasy written by TS Koomar that follows the (mis)adventures of the larger than life pawnbroker Morley as he attempts a daring heist from the Royal Academy Library in order to pay of his fearsome loan sharks.

SFBook is proud to be serialising the novel over the next few months, this time it's Part 5, you can read the previous chapters first if you missed out on Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4

I: In Which Plans are Made

“Now, take them away,” Veeda dropped her satchel in a chair.

She was in her father’s study, having come to deposit the Synergist and the sealed letter Spiro and Finn forged during our last tale. Her father sternly approached from the far end of the room. Instinctively, she stepped behind the chair, as if to say he would have to deal with the stone ere he could get to her.

Stopping in his tracks, he cleared his throat and spoke, “I did not believe you would return.”

“I am not returning,” she placed her hands on the back of the chair, “I wish to prevent you from taking advantage of Finn.”

Delgado’s eyes squinted, focusing his gaze into a sharp spear, “I am afraid your accomplices’ charge is not yet complete.”

“As I knew it would not!” Veeda scoffed, hammering the back of the chair with her palm, “You are like the rest of them: perpetually scheming and politicking. You did a fine job convincing me you were different when I was young.”

“You still are,” her father’s voice was steely, “And full of all the foolishness one expects from a child.”

“Is that how you feel then?” Veeda spat.

“Associating with thieves and charlatans, finding romance where there are but lies and danger, and meddling with power you could not hope to control? Yes, I would say you have made a fine show of just how foolish you are.”

“Power I cannot control?” The anger seething beneath Veeda’s fractured facade began to break through, “I have taught myself, in months, more than you did in years! You did nothing but hinder my progress. Was that your plan all along?”

“My plans for you are all for naught, now,” Delgado folded his arms.

Veeda’s jaw trembled as she clenched it so tight her teeth began to creak. Her dark eyes shimmered with vindictive hostility.

“Was I just a tool to you, Father? Just a plaything you could use to test a hypothesis? Did you ever even love me?” Her voice crescendoed to a shout as her fiery eyes welled with equal parts pain and anger.

“‘Twould be prudent for you to leave,” her father turned away from her display.

“I am not yours to command!” She screamed back with clenched fists.

A sudden rush of force sent her hair billowing about her face. The chair behind which she stood flew off the floor. It flew forward, careening into her father’s back. It knocked him off his feet, pinning him against the bookshelf on the far wall.

He screamed as a shower of heavy tomes fell upon him. The chair crashed to the ground as the Synergist rolled out from the satchel which had sat upon it. With an outstretched hand, Veeda pulled it through the air and into her grasp.

“What… are you doing?” Her father panted, now on his hands and knees.

“Showing you just how successful your experiment was!” Veeda tilted her head upward as her father’s body lifted off the floor and hung in the air.

“Let me go,” he said, looking down at his daughter with pain soaked eyes.

“Why?” She snapped back.

He gulped slowly as his face twitched, “I… I am sorry.”

His eyes welled and his face turned red as he frowned painfully, “I love you Vita, I always have.”

Her mouth slowly fell open as her taught expression loosened.

“I never wanted to do this to you,” His brows furrowed as tears of pity and pain streamed from his eyes.

“Daughter!” A harsh voice called from the doorway.

Veeda turned with a start at the sound of her mother’s voice. Suddenly, her father tumbled to the floor. Veeda snapped her head back in surprise. Dropping the Synergist, she rushed to him, contrite arms outstretched. Again climbing to his hands and knees, he waved her away.

“Veda,” her mother commanded, “You will come with me.”

Without looking to see if Veeda obeyed, she turned through the doorway. Veeda began to follow, ere turning back to her father.

“I’m sorry,” she assured him, “I did not mean to… I don’t know how I lost the channel.”

“’Tis not your fault, child,” he replied, falling backward against the bookshelf, “Now away with your mother.”

Veeda complied, hurrying to catch up with her. She continued to lead the way through the house, until they were in a large laboratory located in the basement.

“You have chosen a dangerous path, Veda,” her mother finally turned to face her, “And you threaten me with ruination.”

“What is your meaning?” Veeda rubbed her hands, her thoughts still with her father.

“You tempt fate,” her mother shook her head, “You shall be discovered. ’Tis inevitable.”

“That is my risk to take,” Veeda choked on her words.

“Indeed, it is. But you risk me as well. Do you think they would not investigate me, should you be discovered? You seem to have forgotten every lesson we taught you to keep you safe.”

“I am not satisfied to survive in the shadows. I wish to live,” Veeda hardened her gaze to fight back invading emotion.

“Then you shall have to live even deeper in the darkness’s protection. I would not shake you from your path like your father, but I beg you have the decency to protect me.”

“I would never reveal you!” Veeda insisted.

“So you say, but you cannot comprehend the horrors the Clerics would work on you, should they reveal you. I ask you to leave, and never speak your true name again.”

“Mother,” Veeda’s heart dropped through her feet, “You wish I had never existed!”

“‘Twould be a lie if I said I did not wish you had chosen a different path, but I will never regret the chance I had to watch you become the woman you are.”

“Mother!” Veeda could not hold back her tears.

She moved toward her mother, arms trembling. Her attempted embrace was rebuffed with a steadfast hand. Her mother’s eyes were desolate, as though drained of all life – unable to grieve further.

“I regret that I cannot go with you,” she stepped back from her daughter, “But our paths have separated, and shall ne’re rejoin. From this day, you are not my daughter.”

“You do not mean this!” Veeda insisted as her wet cheeks grew dark red.

“Your father battled the inevitable too long,” she nodded coolly, “Perhaps we held you too close. If so, our sorrow is no one’s but our own. I have but one final secret to impart you, then I pray I have the strength to never speak your name again.”

Veeda, so long under the careful watch of her parents, never believed she would truly escape it. Now, she couldn’t believe how painful ’twas.

“What secret?” She managed to ask, after no inconsiderable struggle with her hysterical urges.

“The power to block another mage’s channel,” her mother smiled, “As I just did to you. The men here do not connect with the Mystic Tide as you have learned to. In their conceited minds, it is not possible. ’Tis an arduous power, but with the path you have chosen, I know you shall require it.”

“You… shall teach me?” Veeda’s eyes again welled as she realized this would be the final lesson she’d ever receive from her mother.

“Yes, little Veda,” she smiled gently, “Now, clear your mind and focus your breath.”

***

At Veeda’s request, I assembled our little band at my shop the following eve. We sat in my apartment, and she explained what transpired at her father’s home.

“Lass,” I placed a consolatory hand on her shoulder, “I’m truly sorry. I can’t believe they’d do this to you.”

She shrugged to escape my touch, and shook her head, “Do you have something to drink?”

“I should say you need one,” Finn scoffed as I went to the cupboard to fetch some glasses and a bottle.

Spiro, for his part, leaned against the wall in the corner. A scowl was draped across his face. He evidently had yet to forgive Veeda for their recent row.

“If but our task was finished,” she shook her head as I poured three glasses (by now, I knew better than to offer Spiro any).

“What have we to do, then?” I inquired.

“Pecisely what I thought, or close enough. Thank you,” she said as I handed her a glass.

“We’re planting the letter and the stone, then?” Spiro asked.

Veeda nodded as she took a great gulp of port.

“Whom are we framing?” Finn nodded appreciatively as I handed him a glass as well.

“Earl Schirmer,” Veeda replied, “His estate is a day’s travel south.”

“Why?” Spiro’s voice was thin and metallic.

“Why him?” Veeda looked down, instead of toward Spiro, “He is an enemy of the King. He has been elected to both Parliament and the Senate for close to a decade, and is a constant roadblock to the King’s wishes.”

“His wish for more of our money, you mean?” I joked.

Veeda gave me naught but a cool flick of her lashes, “Though no mage, he is renowned as a collector of artifacts. We shall be framing him for stealing the Synergist, and attempting to sell it to the Carmine.”

“How do you propose we do this?” Finn took another drink, “Send Spiro into the man’s house with the letter and the stone?”

“He’s an Earl,” Veeda cautioned, “He lives in a castle. With guards, and plenty of them, to be sure. Our scheme is a touch more devious than that.”

“How so?” I asked, settling into a chair.

“Spiro and I shall slip into the compound and place the Synergist in Schirmer’s quarters,” Veeda said, forcing Spiro’s countenance to grow a shade darker, “The King’s men will require some pretense for searching the castle, however. And, importantly, it seems it must be a very public discovery. The King wants Terrelum to know exactly who stole his precious stone and why.”

“He’s looking to make a new friend, as well as harm an enemy, is that it?” Spiro folded his arms.

“It would seem so,” Veeda again cast her eyes to the ground, rather than toward Spiro.

“I hesitate to ask how we shall make this public display,” Finn sighed, “For I believe I know who the responsibility shall fall upon.”

“Your supposition is correct,” Veeda nodded, “You will need to brush up on your fencing skills. Schirmer holds a competition every year, and you will be attending as a contestant.”

“And I plant the letter on his person?” Finn nodded.

“More or less,” Veeda nodded.

“I believe you are forgetting something,” I interjected, “In addition to needing some time to practice his skills and construct a convincing persona, Finn will stand out in a crowd of nobles with a shaved head!”

“I never said the competition was next week, “Veeda laughed with a sly smile in my direction, “He holds it in the spring. That should give you plenty of time, should it not?”

“It will be sufficient,” Finn nodded.

“What do we do till then?” I looked up to the ceiling in exasperation, “I thought we would be free of the stone immediately after the last crazed errand. Now we have to wait six months?”

“Five and a half would be more accurate,” Veeda shrugged sarcastically, he humor returning.

“This is no joke!” I stood, lifting my chin into the air in a manner I felt gave me substantial gravitas, “You nearly turned this tinderbox of a shop into ashes, and might have committed the unspeakable against your own father.”

Veeda’s eyes widened as she opened her mouth. No words escaped, but her brows furrowed in pain. Setting down my glass, I approached her, placing my hands on her shoulders.

“In the company of that stone, you’re a danger to yourself and everything around you,” I assured her, “And I will not see you come to harm. I cannot.”

“He speaks the truth,” Finn admitted as Veeda’s eyes danced, as if searching for the answer to some riddle.

“I can keep it safe,” Spiro unfolded his arms and stood up straight, “I brought this upon us all, and it’ll be easier for me to keep from getting caught than the rest of you.”

“No!” Veeda pulled away again, “I can control it. I do not need to be protected from myself like a child.”

Finn and I exchanged a worried glance.

“Do you remember,” I turned back to her, my voice softer now, “What I told you the night you returned with the cursed thing?”

Veeda’s lips parted and her face loosened. Her glossy eyes looked far off as she blinked rapidly. Her head began to nod minutely.

“Refusing power requires greater strength than abusing it,” she mumbled.

“Show us how strong you are,” I challenged her.

Gulping down her emotion, she shut her reddening eyes. After a moment of calm, she reopened them.

“Come,” she waved to Spiro, “We shall away to my workshop to retrieve it.”

II: In Which Time Passes

The workshop door clanged behind Veeda as they entered the warehouse. Spiro made his way through the tall maze of crates without a word. Their journey from my shop to the docks had been a mute one. Veeda, distraught over the rejection of her parents and imminent loss of the Synergist, could hardly stand the tension Spiro’s mien created in her.

With a shuddered exhale, she latched the door. Turning around, she leaned against it and closed her eyes. Spiro was surely waiting for her, but she knew he wouldn’t dare to say anything to speed her along. Breathing slowly, she fought to calm the turbulent storm inside her. Her fingers grew taught from the struggle, her nails digging into the wood of the door as she unconsciously clenched them.

Finally resigning the struggle, she opened her eyes with a start. Spiro stood before her, eyes penetratingly examining her.

“I’m sorry,” he said, turning around.

“What for?” Veeda hoarsely replied, following him though the crates.

“For all that’s happened to you. ’Tis more than anyone should have to bear at once. ’Twill make you stronger in the end, though.”

“You must understand that I find little comfort in that presently,” Veeda feebly scoffed, “And are you sure I do not deserve this?”

“Deserve it?” He asked, sitting on the corner of a workbench.

“Do you not believe that everything which happens to a person is deserved, based on their previous actions?”

“The Uncreated don’t keep a ledger, if that’s what you’re saying.”

“I was thinking more along the line of providence and retribution,” Veeda rubbed her neck with a sigh.

“We make our own providence,” Spiro shrugged, “And the only one who can punish us is ourselves.”

“Spoken like one who has never been threatened with death,” Veeda rolled her eyes.

Spiro stared back, his dark eyes steely, “I’ve been jailed. I’ve been tortured. I’ve got a scar wrapped around my midsection longer than I am tall.”

Veeda looked to him with wide eyes.

“They tried peeling me like an apple,” he grew intentionally (and ironically) matter of fact, “Damn lucky all my skin didn’t fall off.”

“I didn’t…” Veeda stepped toward him apologetically.

“You didn’t know,” Spiro interrupted, “You don’t know everything, but you know a lot of things. Must be pretty tempting to jump to conclusions, then.”

“I’m sorry!” Veeda, unable to contain herself further, covered her sobbing face with a trembling hand.

She turned away as Spiro stepped toward her. He took a deep breath and clenched his teeth. She continued to vex him, the way she failed to see beyond herself, but he couldn’t help but pity her. He knew he should forgive the wrongs she made against him, but knew not how. He would find a way soon enough.

Hesitating a moment, he placed a hand on her heaving shoulder. He expected her to pull away. Instead, she leaned in to the gesture. Above all else, she felt abandoned. He understood this well enough, but didn’t expect her to find comfort in him.

Turning back, she peeled her hands away from her crimson-tinged eyes. She sniffled in short bursts, wiping the tears from her cheeks with her palm. Her lashes fluttered, beating back more tears, as Spiro tensed. Comforting crying lasses was far outside his area of expertise.

He gulped as she leaned against him. With reluctant jerking motions, he closed his arms around her. Her head was on his shoulder now, spilling its last few tears upon it. He started to give her back a healthy pat, but thought better of it just as he was about to bring his hand against her. Instead, he strengthened his embrace.

Her breathing steadied, but she stayed where she was. Spiro’s eyes danced about as he wondered how long this would have to last. Suddenly, her arms, which previously hung limply at her sides, returned his embrace. As they wrapped around him, Spiro felt an inexplicable warmth course through him. He moved his head toward hers, burying his face in her lustrous hair.

Her scent sent blood coursing to his face. His cheeks grew roasting hot as he closed his eyes and lost himself in the moment. He only escaped this haze when a furious compulsion pulled his pelvis against her. Bewildered, he tried to lean away.

As he pulled back, Veeda brought her hands up, placing them on his cheeks. Her eyes were burnished, but no longer with tears. They shone with a yearning hunger she did not understand. Her fingertips seemed to sizzle against his skin. Leaning in, she brought her lips to his. A lever was pulled somewhere in his brain, triggering all the baser impulses his training and focus had suppressed.

And so, our naïve young hero and heroine commenced to learn far more than they thought they would when they entered that unassuming warehouse.

***

’Twas nearly a month after the business at the basilica that I finally worked up the gumption to request another audience with Myfanwy. I had not the backbone to call upon her directly, though, so I sent a letter requesting the date. It must have seemed a curious step to her, for her reply expressed a certain amusement at my formality, but she accepted the invitation nonetheless.

I arranged a proper picnic for us, for Finn told me she was fond of the outdoors, taking special delight in strolling Stronthum Park. A large wooded and landscaped area adjacent to the river in the Low Quarter, the park’s trees turn a vivid orange and red prior to the few months in which they lose their leaves. ’Twas this spectacle I chose as a backdrop for our rendezvous.

I met her by the grand fountain at the center of the park just after the clock tolled four. She was dressed in a pale-blue gingham dress (a style which has yet to catch on in these Isles), which set off her rimy blue eyes. Her golden hair hung loose about her shoulders, and swayed gently with her dress in the autumn breeze. I was clad in a pair of well shined shoes and a waistcoat (which seemed to fit much more snugly than I remembered from the last time I wore it).

“Well,” she smiled with the fountain at her back as I approached, “I hope the drink isn’t as poisonous as last time we supped.”

“Don’t worry,” I patted the bottle which protruded from the basket I bore on my arm, “I took a sip to make sure this would prove up to snuff.”

“I’m surprised,” her smile widened as she put her hands on her hips, “I thought you might play it safe and bring water.”

“Water? I never touch the stuff,” I quipped.

“Indeed,” she turned toward the river, “Shall we be off?”

“Surely,” I hurried to catch up as she began to walk.

“Where will we have our picnic?” She asked as we turned down one of the park’s winding gravel paths.

“Well,” I shifted the weight of the basket uncomfortably, “I know there’s a small hill near the water. It has a wonderful view of the High Quarter, if I recall correctly.”

“You mean you don’t oft make it over to this side of town?” She grinned.

“Ah no. My business rarely takes me out of the Longshoreman’s Quarter.”

“I imagine not,” she inhaled the crisp air and continued, “I know the hill you’re talking about. Just follow me.”

“Of course,” I replied, my face growing suddenly hot for some odd reason, “Uh… tell me, what is it you do, exactly”

“What I do?” She tilted her head slightly.

“For Finn,” I shifted the basket once again, “Or, for this ‘guild’ he seems to run.”

“We’re claques,” she shrugged, “We cheer, we laugh and we cry as the theatre owners need us to. We also get a small amount of work out of the ballet and symphony, but the theatres are where they need most of our members.”

“And the owners, they pay you for this… service?”

“You think Finn could live in that house if they didn’t?”

“Do all the theatres employ you then?” I wiped a bit of perspiration from my forehead.

“We’ve done a good job showing them how valuable our service is.”

“How’s that?”

“If they don’t pay,” she couldn’t help but grin a touch, “We send our people in, have them boo and jeer. Costs a pretty penny for the tickets, but we’ve managed to close a few productions in under a week.”

I was rather shocked at her forwardness concerning what was, in essence, extortion. At the same time, I felt some seductive power in the way she gloated. ’Twas clear she felt no threat from anyone, which was a feeling I hadn’t known in years.

“Are we nearly there?” I asked as my arms began to ache once more.

“Nearly,” Myf replied as we rounded a corner in the path.

The trees wore a splendid array of colors that day, and the sun cut through their thinning canopy in great golden columns. Just before us on the path, I could see the river and the bluff leading to the High Quarter framed by the trunks stretching before us. Neither of us spoke for a while. We walked in silence as the ripening breeze poured though the trees and surrounded us.

Finally reaching the edge of the woods, we were standing at the crest of a little hill – exactly where I intended us to picnic. A few trees dotted the grass closer to the river. I indicated one with a tilt of my head, and Myfanwy nodded hers. We headed beneath its shade, and I removed the light blanket I had packed in the basket.

“Here, let me,” Myf took the blanket from me, and began to unfold it.

The breeze was stronger near the river, and as she tried to unfurl the blanket, the wind blew it back toward her. I set my burden down as she tried a second and third time, to no avail.

“Mayhaps I could lend you a hand?” I offered.

“I could do it myself,” she assured me, “If I had four arms.”

“Well, between the two of us, we do,” I took the opposite side of the blanket, and anon we had our little nest beneath the tree all squared away. Myf pulled the basket toward her as we sat, assessing its contents.

“These are some very nice dumplings you seem to have made,” she removed a wrapped piece of parchment which held half a dozen fried cabbage knishes.

“Ha!” I scoffed, removing the bottle of port and a pair of pewter cups, “I didn’t make that any more than I brewed this wine.”

Patting my hand with a wink, she smiled, “I know.”

Her touch sent a rapid chill through my body. I lost my grip on the bottle of wine, and juggled it for a moment, ere catching it upright. Pulling out the cork, I tried to look as though I had intended to fumble it so. A coquettish sidelong grin was her reply.

Pouring us each a cup, I handed her one, “You’ve never asked much about what I do.”

“Haven’t I?” She clinked her cup against mine, ere taking a hefty swig, “You’re a pawnbroker, aye?”

“That’s right,” I sipped from my cup, savoring the rich – almost chocolate – notes of the drink.

“And you know Finn how, then?” She opened the package of dumplings with her free hand and removed one.

“A… mutual friend,” I replied, realizing she most likely knew naught of our illicit activities.

“That squirmy little bugger,” she bit off half the knish, “Spiro.”

“Very perceptive,” I nodded, reaching into the basket, thinking we had already had this conversation once before.

I removed a chunk of very hard white cheese. ’Twas bitter in flavor, but I was told by the grocer ’tis very popular in Cambria (Myfanwy’s homeland, if I have not thus far mentioned it).

“Never liked the look of that fellow,” She ate the second half of the dumpling, “Always seemed like he might walk off with the silverware, or worse.”

“Ah, Spiro’s not a bad sort,” I lied as I sliced off a few pieces of cheese and offered her one.

“I don’t know,” She accepted the offer, “If he’s ever sold something to you, I’d double check ‘tisn’t stolen. He looks like a right filcher.”

“Oh, I’m very careful about stolen goods,” I assured her whilst letting my vague verbiage protect me from any eventual accusation of falsity.

Tasting the cheese, her eyes lightened a shade, “Whereever did you find this? I haven’t had anything like it since I was a child.”

“A grocer in the Longshoreman’s Quarter,” I replied with a suave smile, “He specializes in imports from the Isles.”

“You shall have to take me sometime,” She said warmly as I took a bite of the solid cheese.

Mayhaps ’twas the bitterness of the food, or it may have been some low note in her voice, but I began to cough and choke.

“Are you quite all right?” She asked as my fit refused to subside.

I nodded whilst simultaneously gripping my throat. These conflicting messages brought a bemused look to her eye. Finally growing embarrassed, I began to stand, that I might turn away until I regained my composure.

Unfortunately, as I began to rise, the buttons of my waistcoat liberated themselves from the rest of the garment and soared through the air in spectacular fashion. I could feel my face grow hot as an iron. I gulped, and begged her excuse me. She jumped to her feet, and placed a hand on my arm. My heart began to hammer hardened steel as my nerves frayed.

“Don’t go running off now,” she smiled, her grey-blue eyes shimmering, “It’s been a long time since I made anyone blush like a schoolboy, and I quite enjoy it.”

Smiling meekly and nodding, I retook my seat, and we proceeded to have a pleasant meal under the flaxen autumn shade.

***

Some weeks after my slightly less disastrous rendezvous with Myfanwy, I decided to surprise her by calling on her unannounced. Dressed in my second finest waistcoat, I made my way to the Low Quarter with a bouquet (which was not easy to acquire so late in the year) for the target of my affection.

After ringing the bell of Finn’s residence, I was startled when its owner opened the door almost immediately. His collar was disheveled, and his hair hung in curls around his forehead, as if recently made wet.

“I’m sorry,” I instinctively stepped backwards down the staircase, “I was looking for Myf.”

Opening the door, Finn placed his hands on his hips, “Did she know you would ‘happen by’?”

“Ah– no. ’Twas to surprise her,” I shrugged, realizing the increasing likelihood she was not present.

I had only ever met her at Finn’s residence, so I never considered she must have a home of her own. ’Twas rather silly, but she seemed to have the power to make a fool of me without the slightest effort.

“Well, she shall not be back tonight,” Finn gave his head a lively shake, “Would you care to have a drink?”

“Oh! Aye, I would,” I gratefully accepted the rather unexpected offer from the usually taciturn gonif.

I followed him inside, and stood rather awkwardly with the bouquet I had planned to give to my sweetheart as he closed the door behind us.

“Shall I… put those in a vase?” He asked, taking note of my burden.

“‘Twould be good. Just let Myfanwy know I left them for her,” I followed him through the dining room and into the kitchen.

“I have no idea where the maid would keep such things,” Finn scanned the cupboard.

“You have a maid as well?” I was impressed.

“Something of that nature. She handles my cleaning and laundry. Myf enjoys cooking, so she is here often performing that task for me – in addition to her other duties – though she refuses to allow me to pay her extra for it.”

“How about this?” I picked a pewter pitcher off the shelf, “’Twill be better than nothing.”

“Indeed,” he filled it with water from the faucet (running water is another perk of living in the Low Quarter, you see).

Leaving the flowers on the counter, we headed upstairs, where Finn led me to his study.

“Your hair has gown back quite quickly,” I noted the substantial progress it had made since we shaved it completely following the events in the Basilica.

“Indeed. You are probably wondering about the rather untidy nature of my appearance,” he gestured for me to take a seat in one of a pair of chairs next to a window.

I truly was curious, but more about the relatively lively demeanor he wore. As I sat, I couldn’t help but note the proverbial spring in his step as he retrieved a bottle of barley wine and some glasses from a small cupboard near the door. Holding both glasses in one hand, he filled them rather sloppily (which distressed me a touch, as wasting any good drink does), and he rejoined me

“Spiro always says I ought not to drink this stuff,” he handed me my glass, “He says it will ‘rot yer soul’, or some such.”

“Utter rubbish,” I took a gulp of the warm drink – which, though a favorite of my countrymen, was never my first choice.

“That is what I told him, immediately after I asked why he does not pester you over the bottles of port you quaff every night.”

I do feel I must pause here and assure readers that their narrator is no lush of dubious integrity. Though I may occasionally indulge my fancy for fine drink, I am a connoisseur, not a crapulous barfly. The extent to which I savor alcohol makes it truly impossible for me to polish of two bottles in a single eve. Now, with my sobriety no longer in question (and avoiding the general topic of my integrity), we can continue with the episode.

“What did he say?” I asked, hiding my offense.

“He informed me he says nothing to you because he does not like you as much,” Finn laughed as he took the seat next to me, “But I am sure he meant it as a joke.”

I couldn’t help but stare a moment. ’Twas not only the first time I’d heard this man genuinely laugh, but ’twas the first expression of concern for the feelings of others. Something was off, and I was determined to discover precisely what.

“What exactly were you doing ere I dropped in on you?” I asked, looking out the window and toward the tree-lined street below.

“I had just returned from a spar,” he smiled, taking a drink, “Preparing for my next ridiculous task.”

“You are enjoying yourself, then?” I chuckled a bit.

“I suppose I am,” Finn sighed, “There is so little art in my current trade. I trust Spiro or Myf made you aware of all its intricacies?”

“More or less,” I replied, “Quite the racket it seems.”

“Indeed,” his smile melted away, and his eyes grew distant, “It provides me quite a comfortable life. I cannot help but imagine how events might have proceeded, had I happened upon this carreer sooner.”

“How so?” I leaned forward.

“Did Spiro not tell you of my sordid past?” He scoffed.

“That teetotaler?” I shook my head, “Not a word.”

“Well,” he sighed and took a long drink, “Suffice it to say that I met our friend the burglar nearly sixteen years heretofore. I was rotting in a cell, awaiting execution.”

“But he saved you from that fate?”

“Indeed,” Fin gulped with a frown, “My wife had no such savior.”

This revelation struck me hard. I opened my mouth to speak, but (hard as it may be to believe) could not manage to suss out the proper words. Thankfully, he did not wait on me.

“Ever since, I have been hiding from that life. Hiding from her memory,” he gazed out the window.

“Hiding from it, or a prisoner to it?” I asked with trepidation.

A nod was his only reply. I took a drink and studied his face. His eyes were focused and alert, but there seemed something lost in the way his brows furrowed. Helpless, yet defiant was how he struck me.

Finally, he spoke, “I have begun to realize that. The more aid I have given you… it reminds me of the life I had with her. I cannot help but wonder what she would think of me. I do not believe she would love the man I have become.”

“The only thing we can’t become is what we were,” I looked down at the dark amber liquid in my glass.

“Indeed. But an unceasing question plagues me,” he rubbed his chin, “Can I become a new man? One she could love again.”

“That when you meet her at the Opal Gates of Paradise, she will welcome you?” I asked.

“Ha!” He laughed with a short burst, “The deeds we committed, neither of us will end up there. My question be more about her… memory. I wish to honor it.”

“You say your time with Veeda, Spiro and me reminds you of the way you felt long ago,” I posited, “Mayhaps you have already found the best way.”

“Mayhaps,” he nodded, ere draining his glass.

I followed suit, and handed it back to him.

“Would you care for another?” He offered.

“I had best get home,” I assured him, “But I did wish to invite you.”

“Invite me?” He cocked a brow, “To what?”

“Veeda asked last week if I would like to join her to celebrate the Solstice. I think the holiday will be hard on her, away from her parents and all.”

“I am sure it will,” he blinked rapidly, “You wish to invite me to your home for the celebration?”

“Aye,” I replied, “But, please, don’t feel obligated.”

“On the contrary,” he stood, “It would be most enjoyable if you would both join me here.”

“Here?” I stood as well.

“Myf always cooks a meal for only me and the maid, but it would be quite the ‘treat’ for her if it was a proper celebration.”

“Excellent!” I rubbed my hands together, “I’ll let Veeda know.”

***

Our dinner on the Dark Solstice was awkward, to say the least. Myfanwy prepared an excellent meal of roasted duck and baked carp, and I delved into my stores to produce several bottles of not only port, but spiced brandy and rice wine from the Southland. There was an appreciable tension, however, hanging in the air.

Self-conscious agitation was written all over Veeda and Spiro’s faces. They spoke little, instead electing to stare at their plates as they shuffled the food about them. Finn’s maid, who joined us, made the situation even less tolerable. A sallow looking girl with dark circles under overwrought eyes which darted about, she quietly laughed at everything anyone said. I believe she thought it a polite form of agreement, but ’twas mostly unnerving. She hardly spoke, and I could not remember her name to save my life – now, or at the time.

Both Myf and I lacked any experience at proper dinner conversation, so the task of keeping the meal from dragging on to eternity fell to Finn. He handled the task as well as one could, addressing questions to each if us in turn.

“How are the new recruits progressing?” He asked Myf most of the way through the meal.

“Eh, a couple might have what it takes, but most will have to be dropped if they don’t begin to show some real potential.”

“So, nothing different from normal?”

“That’s right.”

Finn sighed, and turned to look at Veeda. Whenever his inquiry failed to produce a conversation of substance, he would simply levy a question at another of the guests.

“I hope this first Solstice away from your family is a pleasant enough one,” he smiled.

Veeda shrugged, “I miss them a shade less each day, but I can’t seem to escape them.”

“Finally settling on a new name might help,” I interjected.

“A new name?” Finn tilted his head a touch.

“Aye. My mother requested I leave my given name behind me. It has been a struggle,” Veeda looked up, for but a moment.

“Why on earth does she want you to take on a new name?” Myf set her fork down and peered at the witch inquisitively.

Finn’s eyes widened as we exchanged a nervous look across the table. Neither Myf nor the maid knew of Veeda’s forbidden practices, and this was certainly not the proper time to reveal them.

“It… is a practice of her mother’s homeland,” Finn grimaced a bit as he spoke, realizing how improbable it sounded.

“Really?” Myf asked.

“Oh, indeed,” Veeda finally looked up, albeit with an anxious smile.

“What do you think, Spiro?” I addressed him.

“Hmm?” He asked, whilst chewing a large bite of food.

“I believe Morley thinks if anyone knows how to choose a good alias, it would be you,” Finn nodded.

“Me?” The burglar gulped down his food and looked up, “Why?”

“Spiro?” Veeda nodded her head with her hands raised palm up, “How long did it take you to think of that?”

Spiro was now taking a drink, and his eyes darted around the table when he realized we were all staring at him, awaiting a reply.

“Uh, I didn’t think of it at all,” he mumbled, slowly lowering his glass.

“Then who did?” Myf scoffed, “Because they might’ve picked something better.”

Spiro’s brows furrowed a moment and he frowned. After a moment of contemplation, he shrugged.

Turning slowly to Myf, who was seated next to him, he said, “’Twas my parents.”

“They named you Spiro?” Veeda said in disbelief.

“Aye!” Spiro nodded his head in frustration.

“Hmph,” I frowned, “I assumed ’twas a name you picked out for yourself.”

“As did I,” Finn added.

“And I,” Veeda shook her head.

“Nope,” he took another large bite of fish, and spoke with his mouth full, “I’ve always been Spiro. Wouldn’t know who I was if I were someone else.”

“Tehehe,” the maid laughed a touch louder than she had been throughout the previous conversation, ere lowering her head and resuming her moping.

Myf nodded slowly as she attempted to make sense of Spiro’s words. I winked at her with a shrug, and she replied with a coquettish smile.

“Well, then,” Veeda took her napkin off her lap and placed it on the table, “I would like to thank you for the excellent meal, but I am quite full.”

“You didn’t try any of the fish?” Myf turned to her abruptly, “Why, you didn’t have any duck either!”

“Ah…” Veeda grimaced a bit, ere looking away once Spiro cast his gaze toward her, “I do not eat meat.”

“At all?” Myf frowned.

“No,” Veeda’s eyes were fixed evasively downward.

“Why didn’t you tell me this?” Myf turned to me sternly.

“She doesn’t like to make a fuss over it!” I promised, “’Tis just as she wanted.”

“Well, ’tisn’t how I wanted it,” Myf too removed her napkin from her lap, ere turning to face Finn, “ You! Inviting someone into this house without making sure I know what I need to in order to feed them. For shame.”

Finn’s eyes widened as she heaped abuse upon him. Thankfully, this did not last too long, with Veeda quickly stepping in.

“Really,” she stood, “I am perfectly fine. If you will excuse me.”

With that, the lass turned on her heel, and hurried from the dining room. Her footsteps traveled down the hall and up the stairs. None of us spoke until their tromp faded. The silence was, unfortunately, broken by the maid.

“Wonder whatever got into her britches!” She scoffed under her breath.

Myf, her gaze sill fiery, turned slowly turned to look down at the smarmy little waif. The girl gulped audibly, and muttered something under her breath with downcast eyes. Finn couldn’t resist smiling at this as he stood as well.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Myf snapped her head up to look at him as he stood.

“To discover the source of our young guest’s anxiety,” Finn assured her, “The food truly was excellent, Myfanwy. You should be proud.”

“Don’t you even start thinking you can win me with your blarney Hibernian charms,” she shook her head as he sidestepped around the table and fled the room.

I drummed my fingers on the table, struggling for some excuse which might afford me escape as well. After a momentary sigh, Myf turned to the maid.

“I believe you can clear the table now,” she instructed.

“What? Won’t you help?” The waif looked back with accusatory eyes.

“You’re a maid,” Myf again stared the girl down, “And if you’d like to continue to be one, you had best start doing your job!”

“’Twas only jokin’,” she grumbled as she stood and began clearing the plates.

“You aren’t paid to joke, you’re paid to clean,” Myf fired back.

“May… I help her?” I foolishly believed I had a chance at freedom.

“You certainly may not,” Myf clasped her hands, elbows on the table, “You’re going to help me get your slippery little friend here to tell me what he did to that girl.”

“I’m sorry?” I asked as Spiro’s head snapped up.

“I didn’t do nothing!” He blurted out rapidly enough to belie his own claim.

“The way the two of you stared at the tablecloth all night, I think not. And the three of us aren’t leaving this table until we’ve gotten to the bottom of it,” Myf insisted, ere turning to the maid, who lingered in the door between the kitchen and the dining room, “I will let you know when we start paying you to eavesdrop. Until then, you clean those dishes and stay the feck out of here. Is that clear?”

“Yes’m,” the girl scurried through the door with her metaphorical tail between her legs.

Upstairs, Finn found Veeda in his study. She stood by the window. Casting her gaze toward the street, her face was frozen in the gas lamps’ scintillating light as the cold winter drizzle hissed when it struck their hot glass.

“Care to tell me what happened?” He ventured as he stepped into the room.

“Why?” She scoffed, gaze still fixed on the damp pavement below, “You already know, per your prerogative. Do you not?”

He folded his hands behind his back, and walked to the center of the room, “Perhaps. I believe such private deamons may be exorcised by admitting their origin.”

“You speak of confession,” Veeda’s eyes darted to the side as she spoke.

“It is more akin to mediated self-reflection,” he rejoined.

“And you shall be the arbiter of this mediation?”

“I believe ‘mediator’ would be more proper, but have it as you will,” half a smile peeked at the corner of his lips.

“Why did we…?” Her brows furrowed as her eyes moved back to the sizzling gas lamps.

“You are young, and subject to youthful impulses.”

“You mean I was thinking with my loins?”

Finn shrugged, “You were afraid, and alone. Vulnerable.”

“So I…” Veeda turned around and held out one arm in melodramatic mockery, “Fell into the waiting arms of the nearest man?”

“Not any man,” Finn shook his head, “It was a man who – given your cloistered life – you knew better than almost any other. It was a man you cared about. It was a man you wronged, though he did naught to deserve it.”

“So, guilt, familiarity, and foolish youthful vigor,” she mocked him further.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Myf’s voice pierced the dark room, “Giving this lass advice? What in the void do you know about young love?”

“Quite a bit, as a matter of fact,” Finn turned around to defend himself from this rebuke.

“Bah!” Myf entered the room and began to shoo him out, “Fell for girl when you were a lad and never let go. This lass doesn’t need what advice you have to give.”

“Then I take my leave,” Finn knew better than to argue, and did just as he said he would.

“Now,” Myf sighed, and relaxed her voice to a more maternal (and less shrill) tone, “Tell me what you’re afraid of, lass.”

“I fear nothing,” Veeda’s voice was level, and steely.

“We’re all afraid of something.”

“I am not scared! I am… confused,” Veeda admitted.

“About what?” Myf took a step closer.

“What… what happens? Now, I mean,” her eyes danced about.

“Well, for plenty of people, they’d end up at the altar with a father’s pitchfork at their back,” Myf said with a deadpan scoff, “But you’ve a touch more freedom than that, don’t you?”

“Indeed,” Veeda nodded, “So what is right?”

“Do you still fancy him?” Myf asked with a frown.

“Fancy him?” Veeda shook her head, “I don’t think I ever did. I just… Finn was right.”

“Now,” Myf placed her hands on her hips, “That must hurt to say.”

Veeda bit her upper lips as a bemused, yet somber, chuckle escaped her throat. With a sigh, she looked to Myf for the first time.

“I am afraid. Of being alone. He was there, and I knew…”

“You knew he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, resist a woman like you. You knew he found you… what’s the word the poets use for irresistible?” Myf tapped a finger on her chin, “Ravishing, that’s it.”

Veeda nodded, “Is that why I feel so terrible?”

“Men like to think they’re conquerors,” Myf placed a hand on Veeda’s shoulder, “In the bedroom as well as the battlefield. They’ve no idea how we thirst for victory, or how potent our cavalry can be.”

Veeda couldn’t help but laugh aloud. Slowly, her chuckle faded as tears worked their way into the corner of her eyes. A moment later, she sniffled as they streamed forth. She fought them back as they dampened her cheeks, but ’twas little use.

“Will he forgive me?” She asked.

“In time,” Myf nodded, her grey-blue eyes radiating warmly.

“What will I say?” Veeda shook her head, wiping her eyes.

“You may not need say anything. Avoiding uncomfortable truths can get you pretty far. Just ask an Albian,” Myf smiled.

III: In Which I am Cast into Water far Above my Head

I never thought I would experience a dinner quite as uncomfortable as the one we had on that Dark Solstice. Time would prove me quite wrong, however, when ’twas finally time for us to infiltrate the Earl’s castle.

I was playing the role of Finn’s valet for the duration of the tournament, though our plan called for cutting the whole event short. The guests were welcomed to a feast the night before the competition began. ‘Twould be then that Spiro and Veeda would sneak in and hide the Synergist in Schirmer’s study. The following day, Finn would plant the letter on Schirmer’s person. Finally, he had to ensure Lord Burlington, a guest who was highly ranked in the King’s Guard, would find the letter.

For my part, I had great faith in Spiro and Veeda’s abilities. Though Finn had yet to let us down, the lack of a concrete plan for how he would carry out his task gave me a hard case of the collywobbles on the carriage ride to the castle.

“You certain we’ll blend in?” I tugged at the tight cravat my new role demanded I wear.

“Though I am no fencing master, I have maintained my practice,” Finn assured me coolly as the carriage hit a bump in the road, “And with luck, the letter will be uncovered straight away in the morning, and I will not have to draw a blade.”

“I suppose I was wondering more about myself,” I shifted uncomfortably.

“Speak not unless someone speaks to you, and your response should unerringly be, ‘Yes, sir’,” Finn advised.

“And the other servants? How am I to speak to them?”

“As little as possible,” Finn admitted, “It is better you keep your distance, which should not be difficult. You are an outsider to them, and should anticipate being treated as such.”

“You’ve said ‘should’ about a dozen times in the last minute,” I rolled my eyes, “What do I do if things don’t play out the way they should?”

“You perform impromptu,” he grinned a bit.

“I’m not cut out for this like you are,” I gulped.

“I am certain you will conduct yourself admirably.”

“Then you’re the only one,” I peered out the carriage window at the winking stars above.

“What said Spiro and Veeda?” Finn inquired.

“Spiro said I looked like a monkey in a suit, and Veeda just smiled and gave me a pat on the cheek,” I sighed, “I’m not even certain what that means.”

“I would not ‘read too much into it’,” Finn took a deep breath and closed his eyes, “When we arrive, you will carry my bags to my quarters. They will likely have some sort of supper for you wherever the servants eat. Likely near the kitchen. Once we have finished the feast, come find me.”

“Yes, sir,” I practiced my new obedient maxim.

“You learn quickly,” Finn nodded, his eyes still closed, “Make sure you have the letter.”

“The letter!?” I lept from my seat, hitting my head on the roof of the carriage, ere falling back down, “I thought you had it!”

“Hmm,” Finn opened his eyes and reached a hand into his fine tailored jacket, “So I do.”

“That’s not funny!” I placed a palm on my chest as the burning sensation within failed to subside with my momentary dread.

“I believed it was,” Finn shrugged a bit as the hoofbeats outside slowed, “And I believe we have arrived.”

“Indeed,” I gulped.

The carriage wheels squealed as they slowed to a stop. I took a deep breath, and pushed the door open. Clambering from the near total darkness of the carriage, my eyes were glad for the light thrown off by a pair of great braziers flanking the massive entry to the castle. Five times taller than I, at least, the great doors were peaked in the gothic tradition. The coarse grey stone wall was mottled with red and orange lichen which seemed alive in yellow light. A pair of footmen stood at the ready between the braziers, the light casting malformed shadows from beneath them.

I drank this in as fast as I could, whilst I held the door open for Finn. He descended readily as the footmen approached. I closed the door behind him, and went for the suitcases which were lashed to the rear of the carriage. A hand gripped my shoulder and span me around ere I could even take a step.

“Let the footmen handle that, Martin,” Finn said to me, using my alias for this ill-fated endeavor.

“Ah, yes sir,” I nodded contritely, “That’s my mistake.”

“The desire to be helpful is never a mistake,” Finn smiled, nearly gloating, “But these men would find themselves in need of new employment if guest’s valets carried their bags for them, would they not?”

“Yes, sir,” I nodded despite the blatant impracticality which seemed rather a waste of time, as I would be accompanying the bags regardless of who carried them.

The footmen followed us silently as we made our way inside. A doorman (it seems there is a man for every room and part thereof in a castle) ushered us into the grand foyer. Though well lit, the dark stone of the cavernous room made the place feel rather cloistered.

A great staircase stood opposite the entrance, whilst a series of doors lined both walls. Pillars broke up the foyer at regular intervals, a mounted suit of plate armor standing idle watch beneath each. Some were shiny and new, whilst others seemed ancient and worn.

“Exquisite, are they not?” A thin voice said as we approached the center of the room.

I quickly looked toward the sound and beheld a tall man with prematurely white hair waiting for us ahead. ’Twas Shirmer, and next to him stood his taciturn and stately butler.

“I am sorry?” Finn asked as we approached.

“You man was admiring my collection of mail, were you not?” Schirmer held his hand behind his back.

Finn looked to me with a sidelong glance.

“Yes, sir,” I nodded in accord.

“Most assume I would have a particular fetish for armaments,” he approached with bellicose, yet controlled steps, “And whilst my collection of them is quite impressive, there is so little application to them, I find them too… simple.”

“Simple?” Finn asked with a bemused smile.

“A weapon has a single purpose: to kill,” Schirmer said with a twitch of his brows as he said ‘kill’, “The destruction of life. That is easy to understand. But armor has many uses. Certainly it protects, but it also communicates. A sword or lance announces but one, and only one thing: I want to kill you.”

“I suppose it does,” Finn nodded as Schirmer walked over to a particularly old cuirass beneath a nearby pillar.

“But a piece of mail relays so much more. The raw animal skins worn by berserkers are a sign of their savage barbarity. It shows foes that they require no protection, that they do not fear death. Or take this remarkable specimen,” Schirmer brushed the back of his hand against the mass of feathers which protruded from the shoulders of the ancient cuirass, “Worn by a Panian general – not one of the famous ones, but a general of the empire none-the-less. Notice the lion, emblazoned in the center. His ferocious roar seems ready to echo off the walls. Around him are no fewer than six wolves. They snarl and gnash their teeth, but notice the way their ears are pulled back. They are afraid. They know the lion will vanquish them all, standing firm against the horde, just like the Panian empire.”

“An impressive elucidation,” Finn clapped his hands, whilst I gulped at Schirmer’s keenness, which could put a razor to shame.

“Of course,” Schirmer sighed, “But we have dallied too long. You are the final competitor to arrive, Lord Donohoe, and the feast has already begun.”

“Then I shall not keep us waiting any longer,” Finn bowed, “Will I offend the others terribly if I dine in my travel clothes?”

“I should say I could not be less concerned, and any who are shall recover anon. This way,” Schirmer turned, and headed out of the foyer.

The butler looked to me expectantly as they left. I tried a friendly smile, but his cold stare and frown remained.

“Ah, my master would like me to accompany the bags to his room,” I finally spoke up.

“Good,” the butler turned and faced the stairs, even as he began to address the footmen, “Show him to the room, then escort him downstairs that he may sup with the other valets.”

“Yessir,” one of the footmen shot me a smile, and led the way up the stairs.

I followed with quivering legs as the other footman followed behind me. We headed up the grand staircase which curved around the room and led to a long hallway.

“We’ve to put you up in the farthest room, as you’re the last to show. Sorry about that,” the leading footman commented as we tread down the opulent red rug which ran the length of the hallway.

“’Tis no trouble at all,” I assured him with a forced smile.

“Anywho, this is it,” he opened a door and waited for me to enter.

The room (a guest room, no less), was larger than the main floor of my shop. A large bed was flanked by floor to ceiling windows against the far wall of the room. Furniture, from a writing desk to a sofa and four armoires were scattered about the place, all of them carved of ebony wood.

“Where shall we leave these,” the footman asked as I gaped at the opulence of the place.

“Ah, just near the bed. I’ll deal with them later,” I finally broke free of my daze ere having my eye caught by a gleaming white tub in the corner of the room, “Is… that a bath?”

“Why yes,” the footman rejoined as he and his mate left their burdens at the foot of the bed, “But there’s no running water put in yet. You can fetch pitchers of it from the end of the hall when you need. Shall I show you?”

“Ahh…” I puzzled for a moment, before deciding to adhere to Finn’s plan, “I would rather have a quick bite at the moment.”

“Certainly,” the footman bowed, before addressing his silent counterpart, “I’ll show him down, if you’d like to get back to your other duties.”

“Hmph,” the mute footman scoffed before turning on his heel and vacating the room.

“This way,” the footman tilted his head toward the door.

I followed, and we headed back down the hallway.

“I don’t mean to sound improper,” the chatty footman said casually, “But what do you think your man’s chances are? In the tournament, I mean.”

“Well,” I rubbed my hands together, “Why do you ask?”

“The other servants, well some of them, they have a bit of a pool going,” he shrugged.

“Which you aren’t in any way party to, am I right?” I managed to genuinely chuckle.

“None of us would ever pick against Lord Schirmer, of course, but we do wager on the other contests,” he pretended to ignore my comment.

“Truth be told, my master is a touch out of practice,” I admitted as we dismounted the stairs, “I’m sure he can hold his own, but I doubt he is in the running for the trophy or what have you.”

“Really?” The footman frowned with raised brows, “All the other valets assured me their masters would come out on top.”

“Lord Donohoe is not that proud,” I assured him, “He is fairly new to this country, and is here to make connections more than he is to triumph.”

The footman grimaced a bit at the last part of my comment before waving me to follow him down another set of stairs off the grand foyer, “I hope Lord Schirmer doesn’t pick up on that much. He’s a true competitor, and insists his guests take the tourney as serious as he does.”

“My master’s a very agreeable man. I’m sure he’ll sense that and behave accordingly.”

“I’m sure he will,” the footman stopped at the bottom of the stairs.

At the far end of the hallway was the unmistakable bustle of an active kitchen. The talkative footman indicated a door just down the hallway with a smile.

“The other valets are dining just there,” he informed me, “But I’m not welcome in there.”

“Caught dallying?” I asked.

“Something like that,” he laughed, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Nope,” I gave him a nod, and headed down the hall, before remembering Finn’s instructions, and shouting back to the footman, “Wait!”

“Aye?” He spun around on the stairs.

“My master wants me to be informed once the feast is over,” I rubbed my hands together, “Can you make sure someone alerts me?”

“Not a problem at all,” He nodded, before continuing to bound up the stairs.

Moving into the room indicated by the butler, I beheld a little over a dozen other monkeys in suits seated about a table. ’Twas one chair empty near the door, and I took it without a word. An empty plate was waiting before me, and several platters were scattered about the table.

“Help yourself,” the man next to informed me, “Schirmer’s house has never been one for strict observance of etiquette.”

“’Tis a wonder the place doesn’t fall to the ground,” another valet across from me rolled his eyes.

“’Tis probably because of the excellent staff he employs,” the man next to me leaned back to shout out the door, before addressing the prim valet with a hiss, “Don’t go making this more difficult on the rest of us by pissing them off.”

“My apologies,” the prim valet poured himself some more water, “My master’s been ranting about Schirmer for a week straight, and it seems to have permeated my thoughts.”

“Lord Falbraith will but speak of him in hushed tones,” a man to my right interjected, “I’ve never seen him so downright frightened over something as trivial as a tourney.”

“I heard from one of the footman,” the man next to me added, “That he grows… overzealous at the slightest provocation.”

“Indeed,” a man who was gnawing on a chicken leg interjected, “Two years ago, I watched him give a servant a right thrashing for costing him a point in a match.”

“How now?” The prim valet inquired.

“I think ’twas a doorman. He tripped and knocked over a vase whilst Schirmer was dueling Lord Hullsworth. The crash broke Schirmer’s concentration and caused him to give a point up to Lord Hullsworth. ’Twas but the only one of the match, and Schirmer won handily, but let me tell you: he was in a fury. As soon as the match was over, he drug that doorman outside and started in on thrashing him with the broad side of his épée. The poor lad’s clothes were a bloody tatter when he was done.”

I gulped hard, nearly choking on a piece of bread as this little story continued. The man next to me shook his head the entire time.

“I know it isn’t my place to guess the purpose of mine or any of your master’s – but why do you figure they come?” He sighed, “Schirmer always wins. This whole affair’s just a way for him to feel more powerful than the other Earls and Dukes he ropes into coming here.”

“I will have you know,” the prim valet huffed, “My master is the finest fencer in His Majesty’s Guard, and he will not lay down. He is a right gentleman and will show Schirmer just how gracious a victor can be, and why people respect those who are.”

Most of the other valets exchanged skeptical glances at the words of the valet, who I now realized belonged to Lord Burlington. The man next to me but shrugged and nodded.

“I hope you’re right. ‘Twould be a lovely change of pace,” he commented.

I had managed to choke down but a few nervous mouthfuls of food by this point, yet was rather parched. Looking about the table, I saw only a couple pitchers of water.

“Is there any wine?” I addressed the question to no one in particular.

The entire table grew silent, and even minor shuffling ceased. Every eye was dubiously fixed on me, of which I was acutely aware. My collar grew hot as I struggled to understand the mistake I had just made, and my companion’s silence did not help the matter in the slightest.

Finally, the tension was relieved when the man next to me asked, “Your master allows you to imbibe, even when you are performing your duties?”

“Ah! Well… well… In Hibernia, they do things rather different you see. I… I suppose I have grown accustomed to it already,” I grimaced as I fibbed

A few heads nodded, but most of the eyes continued to pierce me skeptically. I could feel beads of sweat running down my temple as the world grew hot-white. My part in the entire endeavor had been a terrible idea, and I was certain ’twould lead to our ruination.

Without warning, the chatty footman stuck his head in the door, “The feast is done, sirs.”

With that, he fled the scene. I jumped out of my seat, and begging the other valets’ leave, followed suit. In a huff, I managed to catch up with the footman at the top of the stairs.

“They’re in the drawing room down that hall,” he informed me as I struggled to control my panting.

“Thank you,” I nodded, and headed across the grand foyer.

Once in the specified hall, I easily found drawing room. The loud hum of patrician dither floated out of it, making it easy to find. The various Dukes, Earls and Counts were standing about sipping on glasses of brandywine.

After a moment blocking the doorway, I spotted Finn – or Lord Donohoe as he was masquerading – across the room. I caught his eye as I approached, and he waved me over. Moving to an empty corner we turned our backs to the rest of the gathering and spoke in whispers.

“The feast went along splendidly,” he informed me.

“Good to hear your supper fared better than mine,” I was finally catching my breath, and realizing that the burning in my chest had grown even worse.

“Be not so dour,” he shook his head, “I believe we can settle this whole affair tonight.”

“Tonight?” I was incredulous, “That’s not part of the plan.”

“Burlington has been at Schirmer’s throat the entire time,” he tilted his head to indicate a tall (and very cross looking) man with a curled mustache who stood across the room, “It would take but the slightest provocation to have them dealing blows.”

“I do not like this plan. Schirmer seems the sort who’d just as soon kill a man as be disgraced by him. Burlington can’t discover the Synergist if he’s dead. Besides, we cannot know whether Spiro and Veeda have yet completed their charge.”

“Have faith in your accomplices,” He sighed, “We have conversed too long. Listen to me well: you will return to our quarters, then come back down. By the time you return, I will be conversing with Schirmer. Trip and bump into me. Can you do that?”

“Trip? I should think so,” I scoffed at the implication I could not handle as effortless a task as falling over, “But I really think you should reconsider. I heard some things about Schirmer…”

“Fantastic!” Finn patted me on the back and spoke with a raised voice, “Go check, and inform me of what you find.”

“Ah… yes, sir,” I gritted my teeth as I exited the drawing room.

I made my way back to our quarters unimpeded. Why he demanded I perform this pointless errand was beyond me, but once within the private confines of the space, I felt I deserved a momentary reprieve from my charade. Collapsing onto a sofa, I steadied my breath and rubbed my searing chest.

After a moment of this, I sat back up and basked in the opulence of my surroundings. A gilded lamp, the sort with a spout such as they use in the Scionist lands, caught my eye. It sat alone one an end table next to one of the armoires. Walking over, I picked it up. ’Twas empty, yet heavy in my hand. It struck me as immensely familiar. Curled vines and leaves were cast in gold on its surface. They seemed to grip the lamp tightly, as if to reclaim the precious metal for the earth from whence it had been pilfered.

Cradling the small lamp in my palm, I could not shake my sense of déjá vu. Soon enough, I remembered my task, and placing the artifact back in its place, hurried down the stairs.

Back in the drawing room, the atmosphere was growing discernibly more lively. Most of the Lords had drained their glasses of barley wine, and the butler himself was making the rounds with a tray of fresh glasses. I easily spotted Finn conversing with Schirmer across the room. Making for them, I must have caught the butler’s eyes. His nose properly in the air, he looked down at me over his beak as he too approached his master.

I would be lying if I were to claim I did not derive some satisfaction from what I did next. As both the haughty butler and your dear narrator approached Finn, I stuck out my toe, just far enough to catch the butler’s step. Had his head been slightly less ridiculously elevated, he might have seen it. As it was, he was caught wholly off guard. He managed to keep his tray from upending, but it came blundering down into the back of Finn’s head.

It provided just the amount of unexpected diversion he required. After careening into Schirmer as though he had been kicked by a mule, Finn begged his pardon. Schirmer, for his part, readily granted him clemency. The same could not be said for the red-faced butler who was then pounded into the ground by Schirmer’s hammering stare. As this scene progressed, Finn grabbed me by the arm and moved us to the far side of the room.

“All is well, I trust?” He asked.

“Ah… yes, sir,” I nodded, “As long as the eve has been a successful one for you.”

“Indeed it has,” he nodded coolly, “And I believe our host will make a little speech anon, I am very interested in hearing.”

I had the distinct impression there was some message coded in his words, but I could not decipher it.

Not a moment later, the thin tenor of Schirmer’s raised voice cut through the hubbub of conversation, “Good gentlemen! May I beg your attention for a moment?”

Other voices ceased their chatter, and all eyes turned to the host as he moved to the center of the room, “I wish to thank you all for participating in this year’s tourney. This crop of competitors has ‘earned’ a prodigious number of accolades, and tomorrow we shall begin to see whether they deserve them.”

His gaze fell to Lord Burlington at the final part of this sentence. The proud Lord inhaled sharply, but held his tongue – proving him to be just the gentleman his valet claimed he was.

“And though many of us have much socializing to catch up on, that is our purpose here. We are here to test ourselves,” Schirmer seemed to command, more than observe, “And the challenge shall begin tomorrow morning. I suggest we give thanks to the Uncreated that all the competitors arrived safely, then retire for the eve, that we may all be at our best in the morn.”

“Here here!” A few voices muttered as a heads nodded and some glasses clinked in the crowd.

“What of the King?” Finn suddenly spoke strongly, startling me, “Should we not give thanks for his patrols, which keep the roads safe?”

The room fell deathly silent. A coldness seemed to fall upon us like the winter chill rolling off the mountains. Schirmer’s immense disdain for my homeland’s monarch was common knowledge, and no one in the room knew just how he would respond to this. No one but Finn, that is, as this was all part of his demented plan.

“I do not require the King’s protection,” Schirmer once again looked at the reddening Burlington as he spoke, “But those whose frailty demands it are certainly welcome to give thanks for its meager benefit.”

This was too much for the loyal and dogged Burlington. He advanced on Schirmer with blazing eyes.

“You, sir, have insulted a great man – our sovereign – and I shall not stand for it!” He shouted.

“Let me remind you all, those who have developed cold feet are still able to retreat without a loss of face, for the competition has yet to start,” Schirmer turned away, as if he were speaking to the crowed.

Burlington positively shook with fury at this implication of his cowardice. The man was physically too furious to speak. Reaching into the pocket of his jacket with jolting precision, he removed a glove and threw it to the floor.

The supple leather slapped hard against the stone floor. The sound seemed to echo off the walls, growing louder with each passing second – like a bell’s reverberation. Even the frosty air of the room seemed to be suddenly driven away by the noise. My mouth gaped, whilst a self-satisfied smile etched its way onto the corner of Finn’s.

Turning slowly about, Schirmer looked down at the glove, ere raising his gaze to its owner.

“It appears you have dropped your glove, sir,” he said factually.

“Mayhaps you could do us both a favor,” Burlington spoke through his teeth, “And pick it up for me.”

Schirmer’s loose expression slowly refined. His lips curled into the fiendish smile of a jack-o-lantern, whilst his brows settled into hard lines above his devious eyes.

“Gladly,” he bent and retrieved the garment, “It seems the competition will start a touch early.”

“No foils,” Burlington ripped his glove from Schirmer’s hand, “Name the weapon.”

“I yield the choice to you,” Schirmer turned away from his challenger, “It shall not matter.”

“Épeé!” Burlington decreed loudly, making for the door.

“Very well,” Schirmer looked to the butler, “Fetch us two.”

“I have my own,” Burlington spun back around, “One of my guards shall fetch it promptly.”

“As you say,” Schirmer now had to shout across the room, “Let us meet in the foyer. It has been some time since it has seen blood drawn.”

Burlington stormed out before Schirmer had finished, and as soon as he did, the room erupted in excited, yet nervous, commotion.

“Can you believe it?” I heard one noble say to another, “Schirmer is a master with the épeé!”

“I believe Burlington is even better,” the second replied.

“Had we best get out of here?” I whispered to Finn.

“We do not know if we are successful, yet,” He cautioned me, “We shall bear witness to the competition.”

“Whatever you say,” I shook my head.

Moving back to the grand foyer, Finn and I kept our distance from the rest of the nobles. In short order, Schirmer and then Burlington reappeared with swords on their hips. The crowed formed a circle about them as they approached one another at center of the hall.

Two royal guards flanked Burlington. Holding out his arms, they helped him out of his jacket, though he opted to leave his waistcoat on.

Schirmer turned to his butler and asked quietly, “Where is Leroy?”

“He arrived from Brimgaet this eve and is recuperating from his journey, master,” the butler replied.

“Fetch him. I wish him here,” Schirmer commanded curtly, ere turning to the chatty footman I met earlier, “Footman, help me from this jacket.”

With a gulp, the footman complied. Removing his waistcoat, Schirmer handed it to him as well as Burlington impatiently huffed at the far side of the arena of Dukes and Earls.

Finn put a hand to his mouth in a slip of composure.

“What is it?” I asked.

“The letter,” his hissed back beneath his breath, “I intended for it to fall out when he took his jacket off. The pocket was so small I hardly stuffed it in unnoticed… I was certain.”

My stomach fell through my feet and down to the groundwater. Finn’s entire scheme revolved around the unlikely happenstance of the letter slipping from Schirmer’s pocket of its own (nonexistent) recognizance.

“What do we do?” I gulped as my heart hammered hardened steel.

“I fear I know not,” Finn gulped, “We shall improvise.”

“That’s bloody easy for you to say,” I wrung my hands, “This couldn’t have gone worse if we’d wished it to.”

I hope reader’s can forgive my ignorance of exactly how much worse our situation would grow ere it improved.

IV: In Which the Burglar Falls

“That’s a tall wall,” Spiro craned his neck straight up as he and Veeda approached the castle’s rear from the surrounding woodland.

“Those battlements appear quite robust… not a veneer of mainland style,” Veeda tugged at the thin cloth wrapped about her face and head.

“This place is ancient,” Spiro recalled, “Would’ve been the largest garrison south of Brimgaet, until Castlerock was constructed.”

“Let us hope there are not too many guards still,” Veeda cast nervous eyes toward her companion.

In truth, ’twas not the sentries which worried her. Spiro was far more communicative than the last time she beheld him, and she couldn’t deduce the cause. ’Twas more than likely that he had come to terms, or simply overcome, the sentiment he had. But, the minds of the young are always self-absorbed. Even affection they wish to avoid stokes this emotion, and they do not enjoy its absence. At some uncontrollable level, they may even try to win it back, to maintain the comfort of knowing ’tis there. This is the reason many a comely young woman ‘strings along’ a handful of suitors for far longer than is polite. Why the suitors endure the torment is (I believe) clear enough, and a credit to the fallibility of the sex.

“Do you have a plan to scale these walls?” Veeda finally whispered as they drew very near.

“I do,” Spiro removed a grapple from his belt.

“I have a better one,” she replied, grabbing him by the shoulder and pulling him close, “Hold on.”

He hesitated a moment, ere wrapping his arms about her waist. Though she had the large sapphire she took from the cleric the night of the heist at the Cabinet of Curiosity, Veeda required the aid of the Synergist (which was in Spiro’s pack) to lift them both. Their bodies raised off the ground, as if hoisted by invisible strings. Spiro expected this, but the sensation was so foreign, he clung to Veeda tightly as the ground pulled away. She smiled beneath her cloth mask.

In moments, they were at the summit of the wall, their heads level with the crenelations. Our hero and heroine peeked around the stone outcroppings, searching for signs of a patrol. A far distance off, the glow of a torch moved away from them. All else was silent and still.

Spiro nodded, and Veeda lifted them over the crenelations and silently onto the wall. One they were safely on solid ground, Spiro crouched and moved to the interior of the wall.

“What are you looking for?” Veeda whispered, joining him.

“Where do you think this Schirmer would keep his study?” His eyes were tense, focused slits, scanning the compound below.

“What about there?” Veeda pointed to a tower in the central keep.

“I think you’re biased,” Spiro shook his head.

“How is that?”

“Well, mages of all sorts have a well known preference for towers,” he struggled to keep from laughing at his own joke.

“This is not an appropriate time to make such base attempts at humor,” Veeda struck Spiro’s shoulder, “Consider the type of man we know Schirmer to be. He is ambitious, competitive and domineering. Few men adopt such traits without a fair amount of distrust of others.”

“And that tower’s the highest point in the place,” Spiro rolled his eyes, “Putting him literally above everyone else, and giving him the best vantage point to see invaders.”

“Precisely!” Veeda nodded.

“You’re overlooking a key detail,” Spiro leaned against the wall, “It’s totally impractical! He’s not a mage. He can’t fly like you can. Would you like to walk up there a couple times a day?”

“Even if it is not, we need not leave the Synergist in his actual study. It need be somewhere not too obvious, somewhere believable. Would he not put something he did not wish others to see in the most inconvenient place to reach?”

“And if the Royal Guards don’t go up there?”

“They would be negligent in their duties, if they did not.”

“Listen,” Spiro shook his head, “I would have failed a dozen times over if guards were not ‘negligent in their duties’. These men… they’re idiots. We’ve got to take that into account.”

“What is your suggestion?” Veeda rolled her eyes.

“Wait!” Spiro hissed, “Where is that guard patrol from the other side of the battlement?”

In their heated discussion, both had lost track of the small beacon of light which marked the guards’ whereabouts. Our hero and heroine quickly scanned the other walls, panic in their searching eyes.

“Shite!” Veeda exclaimed quietly, ere placing a hand over her own mouth, “They’re in that battlement, just over there!”

Sure enough, the warm glow of torchlight began to pour out of the windows and archway of the battlement less than a hundred paces to their right.

“Get yourself back to the ground,” Spiro ordered, “I’ll take care of them.”

“What?” Veeda asked, but the burglar was already gone, springing silently toward the battlement to their left.

She couldn’t afford to wait for clarification. Hurling herself off the wall, Veeda flew toward the ground. Just shy of the damp grass below, her fall stopped, and she landed on her feet. Gathering her breath and pressing her back to the wall, she looked up.

The light of the guard’s torch was directly above her. Looking toward the battlement to which Spiro had fled, she had to clench her jaw to keep from exclaiming in fright. The windowsills of the battlement extended a short way out from the side of the structure, and wrapped around it. Spiro stood on one of these outcroppings, no wider than my hand, next to the window. Half his feet hung off, and he seemed to grasp the stone wall itself to keep from tumbling forward, but he was invisible to the guards as they approached.

“Marcus told me he saw a ghost up here,” one of the guards said as the pair entered the battlement.

“Naw, he’s just pulling your leg,” the other shook his head.

Spiro remained motionless as the guards paused within the battlement. His breath was unsteady and his brows twitched with focused terror at the great fall which awaited him should he lose his balance. His legs were tense, struggling to keep his body steady. Suddenly, his foot slipped on a pebble beneath his heel. The scraping sound was hardly audible, but the burglar’s body lurched to the side in one terrifying instant, ere his fingers caught the edge of the window. With every bit of strength he had, he pulled his back flush with the wall.

“He says he’s seen him, the ghost that is, walkin’ around the top of this battlement during the midnight hour.”

“Just like the will o’ the wisp he convinced you to look for in the forest, you gots to be on the lookout around him,” the second guard scoffed as they headed out the other side of the battlement.

Veeda had made her way as quickly and quietly along the wall as she could. If Spiro fell, she intended to catch him, though she was not sure she would have sufficient magical strength without the Synergist’s aid. Before she was near enough, Spiro gripped the window frame, and pulled himself into the battlement – just behind the guards.

Veeda’s hands clenched into anxious fists. She jumped from the ground and soared to the window he had just entered. ’Twas over when she arrived. Both the guards were strewn about the floor, and Spiro was setting about extinguishing their torch.

“By the Uncreated!” She hissed, climbing in the window, “Why did you do that?”

“They’ve seen us for sure, if we tried to get into the tower,” Spiro replied matter-of-factly, “I assume you’d like to fly us to it? Looks like one of the windows on this side is open.”

Placing her hands on her hips, Veeda sighed, “You certainly have an odd way of saying ‘you were right’.”

“Got to keep you on your toes,” he winked, ere indicating the door, “Shall we?”

Taking hold of her waist once more, Spiro readied himself for the flight. Though the journey up to the wall had prepared him somewhat for this, the tower was at least as tall again as the battlements. The two soared through the damp night air as a wolf called somewhere in the distance. Spiro turned his head about, ere making the mistake of looking down. The ground seemed to wobble about beneath them in a dizzying swirl.

Thankfully, they were to the tower ere he could lose the contents of his stomach. They hovered close to the building, their dark forms blending into the stone. Veeda peeked in the window.

“I see no one,” she whispered, though there was no one near enough to hear.

“Give it a push,” Spiro’s hands began to quiver from the strain of fixing himself to Veeda.

“Do you not think it shall be latched from the inside?” She asked.

“No!” Spiro hissed, as his head began to once again swirl.

With a stiff push, Veeda forced the large window open. The two slowly drifted through, and were safe on the stone floor.

“Why would you lock a window this high up?” Spiro said under his breath as he shook off his jitters.

“To keep the wind from blowing it in!” Veeda huffed, ere pausing, “I am sorry.”

“What?” Spiro asked as he looked about the room, which was filled with tables strewn with charts and maps surrounded by stacks of books illuminated by a glowing stone set into the peaked ceiling.

“I should not…” Veeda took a moment to steel herself, “I should have said something to you after we… ere we began avoiding one another.”

“It’s in the past,” Spiro replied as he continued to scan the room for a proper location to place the Synergist.

“That’s true,” Veeda, though she did not wish to admit it to herself, began to fear he really had gotten over it all, “But it was not right for me to treat you like that.”

She stepped toward him, placing a hand on his arm. Spiro stopped cold. Turning to her, he recoiled slowly, as if in disbelief.

“No,” he shook his head, “You do not get to do this.”

“What?” Veeda took a step back, though she knew she was found out.

“After that, you do not get to pretend we can start again,” he gulped and turned away.

“I… I was not implying… I did not mean to at least. I only wanted to express–“ she muttered until Spiro interrupted her by holding his hand straight up.

“What in the name…” he trailed off as he hurried over to one of the desks along the periphery of the room.

“What is it?” Veeda was bewildered.

“Do you recognize this?” He asked, pushing some papers aside to reveal a massive, leather-bound book.

“The Compendium!” Veeda instantly remembered the mark which had brought them all together, “But, what is it doing here?”

V: In Which my Doom is Sealed

“On your guard, sir!” Burlington ordered once both combatants had their weapons drawn.

As they crossed themselves, the circle of gawking nobles expanded slightly, as none wished to be too close to the clashing blades. Finn’s face was locked in such extreme concentration, I do not believe he saw the combatants. He was calculating. I knew any hope we had hinged on his success, so I resolved to keep my thoughts to myself as I took in the spectacle of the duel.

Though Burlington’s fury still burned, he was experienced enough to contain any impetuous desire to lead with a wild attack. The two men circled one another for several paces. ’Twas Schirmer who first lunged lightly.

Burlington easily swatted the blade away whilst taking a step back to keep out of Schirmer’s range. Deftly recovering his footing, Schirmer advanced quickly and gave a quick swipe toward Burlington’s leg. ’Twas nothing more than a feint, and Burlington refused the bait. He brought his blade against the backside of Schirmer’s and sent him spinning.

Schrimer smiled as he backpedaled. He was testing his opponent, and seemed satisfied he could derive some pleasure from the bout after all. The two circled for a while longer. Schirmer clearly expected an attack, but Burlington was a man of impeccable patience. His strategy was ever to wait for his opponent to bore, and make a fool mistake.

As Burlington continued to bide his time, I noticed the butler descending the stairs with the man Schirmer had commanded he fetch. My breath and heart itself seemed to stop as I caught sight of this Leroy – for I already knew him.

To me, he was the Retainer of my most prolific client. A man of stouter constitution might have had the gumption and good sense to turn and leave the scene. I, on the other hand, remained frozen with dread. I was so off guard, and so out of my element, that I could think of nothing as time itself seemed to halt.

Turning his weary eyes toward me, I grew dizzy as Leroy’s brows furrowed in confusion. He did not expect to find me here anymore than I him. Indeed, in hindsight, it must have been rather a fright to him as well. He did not wish me to know his master’s identity as I so clearly now did. Regardless, his gaze strayed on me for but a moment, then he moved quickly to the far side of the room.

Connections suddenly formed in my mind. The little lamp in our quarters which seemed so familiar was purchased from my own shop on the Retainer’s whim half a dozen years ere. Schirmer’s castle held dozens of artifacts, all acquired from me. If the Synergist was found, they would be as well, and who knows how far back the Royal Guard might try to trace them.

My terror increasing by the moment, I finally broke free of my trance and whispered to Finn, “We must away, and now.”

“Why?” He asked, his gaze still focused on some far off point.

“I just saw someone I know,” I hissed.

“What?” His concentration was cracked.

“The man I sold that book… the one you first helped acquire… he is here!”

“Has he seen you?”

“I am certain,” my jaw trembled as I spoke.

“Then the damage is done. We can at least remain long enough to finish our task,” he waved away my concerns and resumed his contemplation.

I clenched my leaden fists and longed to scream in frustrated defiance, and I was not the only one. The duel was still stalled by Burlington’s refusal to attack.

Schirmer sighed as the crowd’s tense silence gave way to distracted mumbles. He swiped at the air impatiently, but Burlington refused to play into his strategy. Finally breaking, Schirmer advanced on his challenger. Their blades rang out in a flurry of parries and unsuccessful ripostes. In a flash, ’twas over, and the blades were locked.

Their hand guards butting against one another, the men were nose to nose. Standing a hand taller, Burlington had the clear advantage in such a contest of strength. Digging his heels into the ground, he shoved Schirmer. The smaller man gave no resistance. Tumbling backward, he turned his fall into a reverse somersault.

This acrobatic feat was not purely for show. It caught Burlington off guard. Schirmer was back on his feet and stable in less time than Burlington could recover his lost balance. Lunging a pas, Schirmer’s blade buried itself in Burlington’s right shoulder. Collapsing to his knees, the wounded man howled. Pulling the tip of his épée free, Schirmer held it to Burlington’s throat.

“I yield,” Burlington choked through the pain as a crimson stain on his sleeve slowly grew.

Sheathing his sword, Schirmer bowed. Walking back to the footman, he began to dress himself. Burlington’s guards rushed to his aid, but he waved them away. Sheathing his weapon, he approached Schirmer.

“I am not too proud to humble myself when I am bested,” he took Schirmer’s coat from the footman and offered to place it on his conqueror.

The aristocrats present mumbled in disbelief. Truly, Burlington was the consummate gentleman his valet claimed him to be.

“You are a rare credit to his Majesty,” Schirmer gloated.

As he put his arms through the sleeves, the thick folded parchment dropped to the floor. Schirmer looked down with confusion as Burlington picked the paper up, which had unfolded as it fell.

“The seal of the Carmine?” He pondered aloud.

“I am quite certain that does not belong to me,” Schirmer insisted earnestly.

“Such is exactly what one who conspires with the Carmine against the King would say!” Burlington shouted as he quickly skimmed the letter, “Men! Detain Lord Schirmer.”

“Excuse me?” Schirmer looked about in bewilderment as Burlington’s companions grabbed him by the arms.

“Lord Schirmer,” Burlington exclaimed with a pompous and official air, “You are hereby notified of an investigation into criminal activities you may have committed in defiance of the laws and statutes of this land. You are not being charged with any crime, but are hereby warned that any interference with the Royal Guard’s investigation is grounds for immediate incarceration. Do you understand?”

“This is absurd!” Schirmer’s anger began to flare now that he had time to comprehend the situation, “I did not take you for such a sore loser!”

Burlington, though a touch peaked from the blood loss, remained unflappable, “Your whereabouts shall be monitored until my men can finish a thorough search of this compound for any evidence substantiating the implication of this correspondence.”

“Search this very instant if you wish, I have done no wrong!” Schirmer insisted.

“I am sorry gentlemen,” Burlington addressed the crowd, “It appears the tourney will have to be postponed until this matter is settled.”

“That is our cue,” Finn grabbed my sleeve, “Let us grab those bags from the room and be away at once.”

And that, gentle sirs and madams, is how the final piece in the puzzle of my doom was set in place.

To be Continued...