Lord Clifton Dargon, Duke of Dargon, Admiral of the North Seas, twisted in his bed covers and curled up into a ball. He pulled the furs tighter about him, fending off the cool seaside air. Footsteps echoed off the stone corridor walls outside his room, growing louder as they approached. He buried his head under a pillow, praying to whatever gods that listened that the approaching person would go away. The metal lock clicked heavily, and the loud squeak of hinges betrayed the thick wooden door opening. Finally, her voice.
“Rise, my love,” Lauren Dargon said. Her tone was warm and gentle.
Clifton groaned unintelligibly from under the pillow.
“Today is the Autumnal Equinox,” Lauren informed him. “You must be ready for the festival.”
Clifton groaned louder. Something in his brain was trying to get out: some reason he did not have to leave his bed. What was it? The priests. He lifted the pillow slightly, just enough to speak clearly. “The priests start the festival. I end it. Later. Don’t need me, yet.”
“You have many duties today, darling. The festival is your reward at the end of the day.”
“Some reward,” he replied. “Speeches and proclamations. Subjects don’t care. Just want free ale.” He pulled the pillow back over his head and hunkered down.
“How late were you up playing King’s Key with Lansing?” she asked. Clifton muttered something like “heaven smells” but Lauren his wife translated it properly.
“Perhaps seventh bell is a bit late for someone … of your years? You’re not young anymore, my love.” Clifton emitted another grunt. “I can force you out of that bed, dear.” Her words were threatening, but her tone was light. He imagined the smile she had on her face.
Clifton lifted the pillows again, just long enough to respond. “‘It is forbidden to use magic to coerce any lord of the land,’ you know that.”
“Magic, perhaps,” she replied. “But none may forbid this.” There was a brief pause, and then he heard her say, “Go ahead, little one.”
A high-pitched squeal split the air of Clifton’s room. The sound was both frightening, and joyous. His wife was not playing fair. When the squeal completed, he felt movement at the foot of his bed as a small form climbed up on top of it. “Daddy!” his daughter yelled. He sensed, rather than heard, her body flying through the air, and then felt the sudden thud of his child landing on his back.
Clifton smiled under the pillows, despite the pain of a little knee that had found his spine. He turned over suddenly, tossing his daughter sideways, and reached out from under the covers. With his one arm, he grabbed her and pulled her toward himself. She squealed and shrieked again as his fingers found her armpit and tickled her mercilessly. He smiled and laughed, despite being groggy and tired. His wife had succeeded in waking him.
Clifton’s day began by meeting with three of his councilors. He then sat at his breakfast table while he studied the morning reports. The documents he perused were scattered among bowls of fruit, a plate of breads, and poached eggs. By the second bell, Lansing Bartol arrived at the table and Clifton jokingly welcomed him back to the world of the living. “Lauren tells me I might be too old to be staying up so late,” Clifton said after he swallowed some bread.
Lansing nodded, staring at the eggs on his plate. “She may be right. I can’t seem to eat anything this morning, and my head feels like the quarry master is mining a new vein.”
“Perhaps you should have been a bit more temperate with your spirits,” Lauren advised.
“We weren’t even drinking,” Clifton said.
“Much,” Lansing said with a smile. “There was the Commarian red.”
“And something from Lederia,” Clifton recalled.
“That was your fault!” Lansing suddenly yelled. He immediately grabbed his skull with both hands and rested his elbows on the table. “Oh, too loud.”
Clifton put down the fork he was using to stab at his eggs. “I miss the days when I could attend the festivals as a participant, not an official,” he said. “My cousins and I would drink and eat all day, play at the games, and make fun of our fathers dressed in that ridiculous formal attire.”
“You’re the duke, now. You have responsibilities,” said his wife. “You have to attend the festivities, make speeches, and wear the formal attire. But it’s also tradition for you to drink harvest ale when the entertainers are performing.”
Clifton suddenly smiled. “Not today,” he said. He looked straight at his wife. “Today, I’m delegating that role to you!”
“You can’t,” Lauren replied. “I have duties of my own to attend, as well as be at your side during the festival. And too much drink the night before is no excuse.”
“I’m the duke!” Clifton shouted. Lansing grabbed at his skull again. “I should be able to get what I want.”
“You don’t get to have what you want,” Lauren replied. “You only get to do what is needed of you.”
“Other lords get what they want all the time. Look at this,” Clifton said. He lifted a bowl of apples and removed the document it was resting on. “Winthrop wanted a son, so he adopted one.” Clifton threw the document to the side, then leaned toward his wife and whispered dramatically. “Coronabo got a new concubine, but we’re not allowed to talk about that one.” Lansing smiled. Lauren rolled her eyes. “I want to eat and drink and celebrate the harvest festival.” He slapped the table. “Lansing. Find me a tavern somewhere that I won’t be noticed –”
“Hah!” Lauren laughed. “The one-armed duke of Dargon walk into a tavern and not be noticed? I don’t think so.”
“My lord,” a voice called out. An officer of the guard approached. She was attired in the livery of House Dargon, but she wore it in the style of one who was unused to formal uniforms.
“Yes, Captain …?”
“Fellin,” Lansing Bartol offered. “She has patrol duties around … our southern fiefdoms.” The last part he said slowly, looking intently at Clifton.
“Ah, yes,” Clifton’s expression indicated he understood Lansing’s meaning. “And what have we found, Captain?”
“Sir, I can confirm the initial reports. The … subject of the investigation? He is exploring other territory, specifically some unsettled and rocky terrain in the foothills of the Darst Range.”
“That isn’t anywhere near his demesne,” Lansing said.
“Indeed, sir,” Captain Fellin replied. She raised a hand and pulled at the tight collar around her neck. “He’s also training some peasants how to use picks.”
“Rocky terrain and picks generally mean one thing: a mining camp,” Clifton mused. “There’s nothing technically wrong with scouting out a good location for a mine.”
“Except that he’s encroaching on someone else’s land, and possibly without their knowledge,” Lansing said. “And not with your permission.”
“And if he’s discovered,” Lauren Dargon mused, “that will mean conflict. It will probably restart some of the border raids the lords typically deny exist. People dying, and our own lords fighting against each other in secret.”
“And not to be unsympathetic to the strife of our people,” Clifton interjected, “but this would likely mean lost revenue for the duchy. That’s not something I can afford, right now.”
“Plus,” Lansing added, “if he’s successful, it could undermine your own authority with the other dukes. Haralan would not look kindly on a duke who cannot control his lands.”
“He trusts me,” Clifton said. “But that would not mean others would pass up the opportunity to impugn me. We lost a portion of that tax gold a few years back, when the ship went down. If this mining camp is done in secret, and then someone finds out, Winthrop might try to imply I was taking bribes and not recording the income.”
“This is not one of those times I envy your position, my lord,” Lansing said.
Clifton turned toward Captain Fellin and appraised her. “You’ve done well, Captain, and you’ve done it quietly. You might want to extend your long patrol along the Darst Range.”
“My lord, I have a thought,” Lansing said. He slowly leaned back in his seat. “Setting up a camp and starting a mine takes time. Let our quarry commit himself fully, before we go knocking on his door.”
“An interesting idea,” Clifton said. “And I have a complementary one. Let’s ensure he has sufficient ambition for the project. Captain Fellin!”
Captain Fellin stepped closer to Duke Dargon and snapped to attention. “Sir.”
“Invite my cousin Luthias to the festival this afternoon. I would speak with him.”
“Yes, sir,” Captain Fellin responded. She turned on her heel and marched out of the room.
“There is another matter, my lord,” Lansing said as he watched Fellin leave.
Clifton sighed. “What is it this time?”
“I understand that they presented the best opportunity for rebuilding the causeway – and that they still do. But their presence in the city is more than just an interference and annoyance to our people. They also represent a loss of jobs. And the people know it is on your authority that the Doravin exist here, not the king’s. They blame you.”
“They always blame me,” Clifton said soberly. “It is the price.”
“My lord!” a voice called from the doorway as Fellin was leaving. A page dressed in the duke’s livery entered the dining room. “I’m sorry to disturb you, my lord. There is a troubadour asking for permission to attend you.”
Lansing raised his head. “Perhaps a bit of entertainment will lighten your spirits?”
Clifton sighed. “Bring me an ale, and let’s hear what he’s got.”
“Clifton, it’s only second bell!” Lauren scolded him.
“Bring me the ale!” Clifton cried out. “It’s Harvest Festival, and traditional that the duke should drink the harvest ale during the entertainment!” He smiled at his wife, using her logic against her. She rolled her eyes, then nodded her assent to Bartol.
Clifton stood and walked toward the door. “We shall be entertained in the hall,” he said. Lauren stood as well, and she and Lansing followed the duke. Clifton turned around and smiled at his wife as he walked backward. Lauren’s eyes became slits. Lansing chuckled.
When they entered the hall, Clifton smiled at the dozen or so attendees who had been waiting on him. He sat upon the throne with Lauren to his left. Lansing Bartol stood at his place on the duke’s right. Guards were interspersed throughout the room. As the first of his attendees approached to speak, Clifton raised his hand to stop the man. “The first order of business shall be the entertainer.”
The morning light shone through the open windows, and the rhythmic sound of the sea crashing against the bluff was a soft murmur. A troubadour entered the duke’s court, dressed in patchwork clothing and a jester’s hat, with a large sack slung over his shoulders. A servant entered the hall from a rear door, set an ale at the duke’s side, and departed. Clifton addressed the troubadour. “Good sir, you are welcome in my court. I pray you, give us your name and some entertainment. The duchess and I are in need of a song, or a merry jest, perhaps?”
“My thanks, your lordship,” the man cried out. His voice was high-pitched and lilted for an obvious comic effect. “I have traveled far this day,” he continued. He gesticulated grandly with his arms and hands as he spoke, making dramatic pantomimes of his words. “And I can only hope, after entertaining you, that I might receive some kindness from you for my efforts, or perhaps something longer lasting … ?”
Clifton’s smile disappeared and his tone became firm. “I am not prone to keeping a jester among my staff, sir,” he responded. “Pray entertain us, and restore to us the humor we anticipated upon your arrival.”
The jester’s honest smile disappeared, but was quickly replaced by his showman’s grin. “Of course, my lord, of course. No disrespect was intended,” he fawned. “Let me introduce myself. I am Silvio, Jester Extraordinaire, King of Entertainers and entertainer of kings. I have traveled across the continent and to the furthest reaches of the oceans. I have scaled the mountains of Galicia, picked heather in the hills of Comarr, and slept on the sandy beaches of Bichu. Lords, ladies, and children of all ages have fallen to fits of laughter because of me, and I bring myself here, humbly, at your doorstep to shine some laughter in your court.” He bowed grandly at this last line, then raised himself up and smiled.
Clifton raised his eyebrows and looked at his wife. She returned his gaze without emotion. Clifton understood that to mean it was his own fault the man had been allowed into the court. If the entertainer failed to entertain, Clifton had no one to blame but himself. The duke rested his hand around the mug of harvest ale, eager for the first good laugh and justification for a quaff of brew. Then he leaned back in his throne and said, “You have my leave to begin.”
“Thank you, your dukyness!” Silvio yelled, and put his hand to his chest in a mock salute. He smiled and looked around the room, and was met with silence. Clifton waited. “My lord, this first trick entertained King Haralan when I met him in the Bichanese court, two years ago.” Silvio removed a large blue ball from his travel sack, and stood upon it. As he wobbled to maintain his balance, he reached into his pockets and removed three pouches.
“I was unaware His Highness was in Bichu two years ago,” the Duchess of Dargon said. “By my reckoning, he hasn’t left Baranurian soil in over a decade.”
The jester’s eyes bulged briefly, but he maintained his concentration. One by one, he tossed the pouches into the air and began to juggle them. “Did I say King Haralan? Silly me, I meant … uh … Ming Bare-a-lot … he’s a nudist.” He missed catching two of the pouches, over-extended to catch the third, and then tumbled from the ball. He recovered his fall by rolling into a kneeling position and threw his arms out to the side. “Ta-da!”
Clifton had raised his mug of ale half way to his mouth. He stopped and took a slow breath, then placed the vessel back on the table next to his chair. He raised his eyebrows at Silvio, but said nothing.
Silvio stood up and looked about quickly. His smile faded. “Uh … has his lordship heard this one? A guy walks into a bar and orders a beer … uh … the guy is Doravin – you’ve got a Doravin problem, right? — and the barkeep says …” At this point, Silvio bent over at the waist and flatulated loudly. Again, he dropped into a kneeling position and threw his arms out wide.
Clifton stood up. His chest puffed as he walked purposefully toward Silvio, who remained kneeling. The duchess cast a quick glance at Lansing, and the bard hastily made his way to the duke’s side. Clifton put his hand on his dagger.
“You want something longer lasting from the duke?”
Silvio’s face went grey and his eyes bulged. He tried to stammer an apology, but Clifton cut him off. “Get out of my court!” Clifton hissed. His breath came fast and shallow. “Never come here again, or I swear by Ol’s Balls I shall cut yours off and feed them to you.”
Silvio scampered backwards, grabbing at his bag of tricks as he retreated. Two guards came forward and picked him up under the armpits and hauled him away. Clifton turned and faced Lansing. “Toss the ale. There’s no entertainment here.”
By fifth bell, Clifton had been able to forget about most of the morning fiasco. He was briefed on the preparations of the festival and the security detail Lansing arranged. Bren kel Tomis would lead the team, with Lansing maintaining a presence directly with the duke and duchess. There had been no recent threats against the duke, but a crowd of revelers could get out of hand, and made an excellent cover for any potential assassination attempts.
Clifton sat atop his mount as they traveled to the Court of Trees, where the festivities would initiate in the Old City. The leg muscles of the fine palomino rippled as its shoes clopped on the cobblestone street. His wife’s bay walked alongside his steed. The duke and his duchess made a spectacular pair, dressed in their formal robes, and followed by a parade of attendants. In the past, a single, large festival would be held at Venilek Market or by the docks in the New City; however, with the causeway destroyed and a new bridge still under construction, the day would be split between two separate festivals. The first was a formal meeting with the wealthier merchants and minor lords living in the Old City; Clifton and the retinue would travel by ferry to the second festival in the New City.
When they arrived at the temporary stage from which Clifton would make his speech, Lansing Bartol assisted Clifton down from his horse while another attendant assisted the duchess. “I realize I’ve only one arm, Lansing,” Clifton said, “but I can sit a horse and dismount perfectly well.”
“Taking advantage of an opportunity, my lord,” Lansing spoke softly. “I have news from one of my spies. Your cousin Parris, who’s gone missing …”
Clifton’s left eyebrow raised. “Yes?” Clifton began walking toward the stage, and extended his arm out for his wife to hold. Lansing stayed close and spoke in quiet tones.
“My sources believe he had something to do with the disaster that struck the city a few months back, and might have been behind the causeway’s collapse.”
Clifton put a smile on his face as he waved to the people beside the stage. “That’s hard to believe,” Clifton replied. “Parris has tried before to discredit me, and take the title, but the causeway … I don’t know. Marser was very clear that it was a random accident.”
“Is there a possibility that Marser was working with Parris?” Lansing asked.
Clifton’s eyebrows furrowed briefly as he stepped up onto the stage. “Anything is possible. But his family has been devoted to mine for ages. I would prefer not to go down that road. See what else you can discover.”
“Lords and Ladies!” a voice rang out from the stage. Lord Casolis was acting as the master of ceremonies and introduced the duke and duchess. Clifton looked out to the crowd of revelers, the wealth of Dargon and their attendees, and smiled as he saw full mugs of golden liquid. Each was waiting on the duke to raise the festival drinking horn and begin the celebration. Clifton and Lauren walked among the minor nobles and priests who were already on the stage. They grasped hands and nodded greetings to many of them as Clifton approached the center. A small table resided there, with the harvest drinking horn poised on its mount.
“Oh, something I forgot to mention,” Lauren said quietly as Clifton grasped the horn. “Our hostess, Lady Samkar, thought it unbecoming, the way so many of our nobles become common drunkards at the harvest celebration. So the ale has been replaced with apple cider.”
Clifton paused only an instant as he raised the horn to the crowd. Behind a smile of clenched teeth, he said, “Thanks for telling me,” to his wife. To the crowd, he yelled, “Let the celebration begin!” Then he brought the horn to his lips and drank.
Just before seventh bell, Clifton led his horse off the barge they had used to ferry across the Coldwell. He had a new squire to attend him, but he had given the boy the day off to enjoy the celebration. He enjoyed caring for his own horse. He patted the palomino’s neck affectionately, and brought his head down to the horse’s snout. His mount snuffled softly in appreciation. Clifton knew his horse could smell the apple he had hidden inside his robe, so he took it out and fed the animal.
The celebration on this side of the river had initiated simultaneously with the Old City. People were walking about with mugs of some sort of liquid – Clifton was no longer willing to assume it was ale, but he hoped to the gods it wasn’t apple cider. There were games setup along the docks and in the streets, and the vendors at the markets were likely enjoying exceptional business. As with the Blessing of the Fleet festival, fortune tellers were casting the futures of paying customers at the docks by hurling shellfish against the ground and reading the entrails. Music blared from multiple locations, as different minstrels competed with each other for the attention of the crowds.
“Tell me there’s ale at this stage,” Clifton said to his wife as they walked along the docks.
“No stage,” his wife said. “The Euilamon of Ol hosted the celebration right here at the docks. I thought you might want to just walk among the crowd.”
Clifton gave his wife a big smile. “I would.”
“My lord,” Lansing spoke. “Your cousin.” Lansing nodded in the direction of the market. Clifton looked among the crowd and saw the unmistakable presence of the Baron of Connall. He waved to get Luthias’ attention, and Luthias waved back before he started his approach.
“It’s been too long,” Clifton said as he grasped arms with Luthias.
“It has,” Luthias replied. “It is good to see you, though I did not expect to be summoned to Dargon this day.”
“Summoned is a strong word,” Clifton replied. “Where are Myrande and the children?”
“Back in Connall,” Luthias replied. “We have our own harvest festival. Besides, when you send a captain of House Dargon to request my presence, I take it to be more than a social call.”
“Indeed,” Clifton said. “My daughter misses her cousins. But I do have a formal request of you.” Clifton hesitated. “I hate to be impolite.”
“You are my liege, and my cousin. You may ask anything of me,” Luthias said.
“Thank you for that. I have an indelicate request.”
“A request from my liege, and my cousin, makes it doubly important,” Luthias said.
Clifton stopped. They had been making their way to the center of the market near the docks. Clifton’s wife was walking behind them and chatting with Lansing Bartol. Clifton’s security detail surrounded them, preventing the throngs of people from getting too close, but that didn’t prevent Clifton from seeing the occasional scowl or look of annoyance on their faces. Clifton kept up a brave smile, despite the blow to his own morale this experience was proving to be. “I need someone I trust,” he said at last to Luthias. “Someone who won’t question my ethics.”
“And so you have me,” Luthias said.
“So … you still don’t … ”
“No,” Luthias replied. “I have no emotions. My fealty to you is based on both my oath to your family, and the fact that my family has been sworn to yours for generations.”
“Because we are cousins,” Clifton added.
“To be honest, that has little to do with it,” Luthias said. “That would be an emotional response, and …” Luthias’ voice trailed off, the thought unfinished. Clifton searched his cousin’s face for any sign, but found none.
“It’s been years since the war. This injury to your mind that causes you to have so little feeling for your actions: I had hoped there would be more progress.”
“And what of Lauren’s father?” Luthias asked. “Has he made progress since the battle with Mon-Taerleor?”
Clifton frowned. “Point taken,” he said. “No, Marcellon’s recovery moves at a snail’s pace. His speech has returned, somewhat, but his status of High Mage may never return. The King has assigned another to those duties. Luthias, I have tried to keep you out of the affairs of my rule to give you more time to recover. To rediscover – if you can – that well of feeling that makes you such a fine knight.”
Luthias stared blankly forward. “Thus far, only Myrande has been able to break that barrier.”
“As it should be,” Clifton said.
“If you say so,” Luthias replied.
“So,” Clifton said. “let me tell you why I have ‘summoned’ you. One of my vassals has decided to break his oath to me.”
“So you want me to kill him,” Luthias said. “That is just.”
“No!” Clifton responded. “No. I don’t want the rest of my vassals to view me as a ruler with an iron hand. I do, however, want to punish him. Subtly.”
“How does one do that?” Luthias asked.
“It starts with a raid,” Clifton answered. “Something of value to the lord. But I don’t want to harm the peasants who serve him.”
“So find a family heirloom. Or something expensive,” Luthias said.
“Exactly,” Clifton replied. “Make it financially damaging.”
“And how is that terrible, other than to make him tax the people who work for him. You’re trying to avoid hurting those people, but they’ll pay for it sooner or later.”
“No,” Clifton replied, “because in two moons’ time, I’ll raise an emergency tax. Any lord who cannot meet those taxes will lose a portion of their lands to me.”
“Ah,” Luthias said. He stopped walking and looked at Clifton as if appraising him. “You’ve learned a lot since taking your father’s mantle.”
Clifton rubbed the stump of his severed arm. “I’ve had little choice,” he replied. “The duchy is nearly out of money. The losses we suffered from the causeway accident were extensive, and I’m still paying for repairs to the walls and city during the invasion. When the Doravin offered their assistance to rebuild the causeway, I took it.”
Luthias nodded. They had reached the center of the market near the docks of Dargon. Throngs of people were celebrating by drinking, singing songs, and otherwise enjoying themselves. “So, the tax exemption you requested from King Haralan was declined?”
This time, it was Clifton’s turn to appraise his cousin. “You have spies in my court, Luthias?”
“Only if you count your wife,” Luthias replied. “She and Myrande write to each other daily, I think. Lauren really does need to consider the sensitivity of some of the information she writes.”
“Oh, well, as for that,” Lauren said as she closed the distance to Luthias and her husband. Lansing Bartol was no longer at her side. “I use an enchantment to ensure that only the intended recipient of my letters can read them.”
“That explains the drawer full of blank parchment Sable keeps,” Luthias remarked.
“Mystery solved,” Clifton said. He and Lauren both smiled, but Luthias’ visage remained unchanged. “My love,” he said to Lauren, “where has Lansing gone? I should berate the man who abandons such a lofty post.”
“I am here,” Lansing cried. In his hands he carried four pewter mugs of ale, the froth spilling over. “Entertainment abounds, my liege. I think it is high time you enjoyed the ale you’ve desired since morn.”
“There is a troubadour of some sort just ahead,” Luthias said. “Let us clear some space and find ourselves entertained.”
The four of them made their way to a corner of the market where an entertainer had set up a vegetable crate to stand on. Their way was cleared by the guards in attendance, but Clifton kept them back from the front row so that others might have a better view. He just needed to hear one good song, or a jest, so he could take his first drink of harvest ale. The people of Dargon gave them a wide berth. No hails were raised, nor cheers for their duke.
From behind the crowd, Clifton heard a high-pitched voice yell out to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen. Children, and elders. Let me regale you with a joke that brought the duke himself to fits of passion just this morning!” The people parted, and Silvio entered the cleared space. “A man walks into a bar. The bartender sees that he’s Doravin, and says –” Silvio turned his back to the crowd, bent over, and once again emitted an explosion of flatulence. The crowd erupted in laughter, and several accomplished gastronomical entertainers added their own accents to Silvio’s joke.
Clifton’s face became scarlet. “I’ll have his head,” Clifton muttered. He took a step forward.
Lansing Bartol placed his hand on Clifton’s shoulder in warning.
“My lord, this is not a good time.”
Clifton stared back at his bodyguard, anger seething through his eyes. “We have enough problems keeping the peace between our citizens and the Doravin. How dare he show his face after I expelled him from the castle!”
“The castle, my duke, not the city. And the crowd loves him right now.” Lansing held his duke’s stare.
“Your bard is correct, Clifton,” Luthias added. “I have noticed their displeasure. If you interfere now, it can only get worse.”
Clifton scoffed and pulled his shoulder from Lansing’s grasp. But he did not move forward, nor interfere in Silvio’s continuing entertainment. He dumped the ale on the ground and left the area. “Get me out of here,” he said.
It was past dusk when the Duke and his entourage entered Old City via the eastern gate. They had accompanied Luthias along his way back to Connall for a short distance before turning back toward home. Clifton’s mood had gone from bad to worse as the evening had progressed. Lauren had attempted to cheer her husband, but he had rebuffed her. “My love,” she had said, “this mood of the populace is temporary at best. How can you let them bother you so?”
“It’s not just the mood swing of the people, wife,” Clifton replied. “There are a great many problems. I question whether or not allowing the Doravin to build a new bridge was appropriate. We’re relocating our own citizens to accommodate them, and taking work from our own population. But between the war and the rebuilding of Dargon, our coffers are too low. Add to that the fact that Parris was attempting to usurp me again, the king denied my request for an exemption from taxes, and the king’s own envoys have raised questions to me about allowing these foreigners into our lands after we just fought off an invasion from Beinison. And now, of course, I find that one of my vassals is effectively committing treason.”
Clifton sighed. “And I know it is the smallest of trifles, and I am merely whinging when I complain about this … but I would have dearly loved to enjoy at least a single harvest ale this day.”
“Then let me make one wish come true, my lord,” Lansing said. He had returned from speaking with a few of the guardsmen in the duke’s retinue. In his hands he held some cloaks and rough spun shirts.
“What jest is this, dear Lansing?” Lauren asked.
“No jest, duchess, but a serious proposal. My lord,” Lansing addressed Clifton, “round yonder bend, near to ferry, lies a newly-hatched alehouse: an informal business where the clientele is temperate and the food is hot. Remove those formal robes, if you will, and wear the guise of a common man.” Lansing unclasped the cloak from his shoulders and let it fall to the ground. He then unbuttoned the jacket he wore, which was emblazoned with the duke’s crest, and removed that as well. These items he handed to one of the retinue. On top of his fine silk shirt, he added one of the simple garments and threw a dirty cloak over his shoulders. The transformation, while not complete, was enough to convince Clifton.
“Bold move, my friend!” he said. Lauren looked aghast, but Clifton pressed his point. “Certainly no man would expect the duke to wear such garments in public. And even if someone did suspect my identity, I’m sure my personal bodyguard can protect me within the walls of my own city long enough to raise an alarm, should anything untoward occur.”
Lauren sighed. She would let him take this small risk, if it would break his melancholy. “Then you’d best give me your signet as well,” Lauren said. “For no matter what clothes you wear, any man who wears such a ring will raise unnecessary interest.”
Clifton smiled and removed the ring, along with the ceremonial robes he had worn all day. Several members of his retinue shuffled about and cast puzzled glances at each other, as if uncertain how to handle such a breach of ceremony. But the duke paid them no mind.
Clad in their disguises, Clifton and Lansing ran ahead of the retinue and rounded the corner. When they came upon the building Lansing insisted was an alehouse, Clifton balked. It looked like a residence. But Lansing reassured him. “Maxim and his wife have converted the lower floor of their home into a respite for travelers awaiting the ferry. This is one instance where the loss of the bridge has resulted in a positive business for the people. And, of course, the increased ferry traffic has made the boatmen and barge owners more business as well. Now, pull that cowl over your head and let us test our disguises.”
The inside of the house was obviously a reconstruction of functionality. There was a makeshift bar near the back, and a couple of walls had been knocked down, leaving only the essential support beams, in order to make room for benches and tables. Lansing led Clifton through the press of the crowd, bumping into few patrons in order to carve a path, but not a one scowled or cursed. The merriment of the people was evident by the polite “Excuse mes” and “Beg your pardons” Clifton heard along the way.
A slow smile began to creep its way onto Clifton’s face, though none could see it beneath his cowl. He had not been in a public house without a full guard since before his father died. And even then, he had been with a suitable guard and likely under the watchful eyes of his father’s spies. He felt the tingle of excitement. They passed a table where a man began to tell a joke. “A man walks into a bar…” the voice said, but it was not Silvio’s voice. Clifton ignored the rest, and followed Lansing to a final spot where the two men could sit side-by-side on a bench. A woman with sweaty, disheveled hair and a dirty apron came close enough for Lansing to shout for two ales; she nodded at them and disappeared back into the crowd.
One of the men at the table where they sat was speaking words of devotion about the woman. He was talking in fairly hushed tones to his friend, but he kept saying how he loved the woman who served them. A mene later, the woman returned and put the ales in front of Clifton and Lansing.
Lansing leaned closer to his duke. “Does this suit you?”
“It suits me well,” Clifton said.
Just as Clifton was about to raise the mug of ale to his lips, one of the men at the table suddenly yelled, “To the duke!”
Clifton and Lansing both turned about, wondering who could have recognized them. But no one looked their way. Instead, the two men they had been listening to clinked their mugs. “To the duke,” the other said. Several others in the bar took up the call. “To the duke,” Clifton heard again. “To Duke Dargon!” Clifton looked at Lansing and smiled.
“To the duke,” he said, and drank his harvest ale.