“And now, it is my great pleasure to introduce Lord Sagrie Gribbane, my future son-in-law, husband-to-be of my beloved daughter, Evelain!”
Lord Curran Castigale listened to the announcement made by his half-brother, Baron Kelleman Castigale with suspicion in his heart and pleasure on his face. Curran had accepted the invitation to the Firil Firstday feast at Castigale Keep based on information from his spies. The Castigale barony on the southwest border of the Asbridge duchy was one that he intended to inherit — nay, depended upon inheriting. Now, this betrothal raised questions about the heirship, for there was something about the stubborn set of Kelleman’s jaw, the victorious smile on Sagrie’s face, and the displeased look in the eyes of his half-sister, Dagny, that made him feel he lacked complete knowledge about the situation.
Holding his complaisant expression, he turned and smiled at the young bridegroom, Gribbane. Over the din of loud conversations around them, he shouted, “Welcome to the family, Sagrie,” raising his glass in a toast.
“Thank you, Lord Curran,” Sagrie answered with a smile. Curran drank his toast and let his attention wander around the table at which the immediate family sat. He swished his drink around his goblet as he thought troubled thoughts. His father had named him heir presumptive to the barony should the present baron, his older brother Kelleman, not name an heir. As was Castigale tradition, Kelleman was expected to name a male child of his line. Since the baron had no sons, Curran had believed the barony would fall to his shoulders when his aged brother died, but the betrothal had changed the situation.
Kelleman could break Castigale tradition which had lasted for years; he could name either of his two daughters as his heir, though the newly engaged Evelain was far too simple a maid while the older daughter Pythia was insane. He could also name Sagrie his heir as well as son-in-law. However, given the old feud between the two baronies of Castigale and Gribbane, Curran felt it unlikely that Kelleman would give his barony away to a scion of the Gribbane line. Still, Curran was more than a little uneasy at the accord that seemed to exist between his half-brother and Sagrie, despite the fact that heirship had not been mentioned in the announcement.
The banquet continued, the cacophony of voices drowning the lively tune that the musicians began to play. The far end of the huge room had been cleared for dancing, and as people finished eating, several of them moved to the dance floor. It was a rousing celebration, but Curran was hard put to keep his face clear of his brooding animosity. His wife, Nimieta, who sat next to him was well aware of his discomfiture.
“What bothers you, husband?” she whispered. In the surrounding noise of guests chatting, glasses chinking, and the minstrels plucking away, she could have shouted and he would have had trouble hearing her; but he had shared so many secret communications with his wife over the years that he had learned to read her lips.
“Something odd is happening, Nimieta,” he replied. “My spy told me that this marriage would probably occur, and that both Dagny and Kelleman were against letting either Evelain or Sagrie inherit the barony. Given that, why does Sagrie look so victorious? Why does Dagny look so angry and defeated at the same time?” He took a sip of the fine wine and watched his relatives with veiled suspicion.
Her full lips curving up in a perfect half-moon arch, Nimieta smiled sweetly at someone seated across the table. “Why don’t you ask him?” she asked simply.
“I can’t ask my spy here; it will look too suspicious and –”
Nimieta laughed, cutting off his statement. “Not your spy, Curran.” She gestured toward the head of the table with one slender arm, on which twin bracelets jangled. “I meant your brother.”
He glanced towards the baron and a slow smile spread across his features. His fat half-brother was busy ignoring Dagny, who was trying to break into his conversation with Sagrie. Curran knew that while Dagny was always close-mouthed, and Sagrie would probably be little inclined to share any information, Kelleman would readily spill the plot if only to gloat.
Curran leaned over to kiss his wife, then rose and made his way over to where Kelleman stood. Edging his way past the ring of vassals trying to gain their lord’s attention, Curran approached his brother. At once, both Dagny and Kelleman wrinkled their noses at his approach, as if some unbathed woodsman had sneaked into their midst, while Sagrie had a peculiar smile on his face.
“Brother,” Curran said jovially, “it’s been so long since last I saw you. Living in distant Dargon, I hardly ever hear news from my family’s seat.” He turned to his sister, “And Dagny, how lovely you look. You’ve organized quite a party. It’s amazing what you have done in so short a time!”
Dagny managed a nod before she said, “I appreciate your accepting our invitation this time, Curran. But the baron and I were just having a discussion –”
“No,” Kelleman drawled. Curran could smell the fumes of strong liquor on his breath. “No, actually our discussion was just ending.” He looked meaningfully at Dagny, who glared back. “Why don’t you go check on our guests, Dagny?” She hesitated a moment before casting a baleful glance at all three men and striding away.
“If you would excuse me,” Sagrie said to Kelleman. “I must look to my betrothed.” He bowed to both men and left them to their talk.
Wondering anew at Sagrie’s smile, Curran said to his brother as soon as the younger man was out of earshot, “Congratulations on your daughter’s engagement.” Kelleman grunted and cast his bleary eyes around the room, obviously uninterested in the conversation.
Curran continued, “Might I inquire, since this barony is to one day be mine, what land you dowered to the young couple? I’ve heard you’ve already put the call out for craftsmen to start building their house …”
Kelleman glared at his younger brother menacingly. Then all at once he chuckled and slurred, “Not that it’s any of your business, but I gave them the Pass of Amante and the Valley of the Thumb. And it’s none of your business because I *will* have an heir. I’ve told Sagrie that any son he gets on Evelain will be the next to sit in Castigale.” Smiling in self-satisfaction, Kelleman hooked his thumbs in his belt and thrust his belly out at Curran. In his inebriated state, the baron’s voice had been louder than was discreet, and so the ring of vassals behind them began to talk excitedly amongst each other and scan the room for Sagrie so that they could be the first to catch his ear.
Meanwhile, Curran was aghast. “You promised to name any boy she bears as your heir? You’ve pledged our family’s lands to a child who hasn’t even been born yet?” His control faltered and his voice rose in anger as he turned the two statements into questions. He took a couple of deep breaths to calm himself, for it wouldn’t do to be seen arguing in public with the baron over his decrees.
Kelleman’s satisfied look had turned to one of extreme displeasure. He frowned down at Curran and said vindictively, “I’m only telling you so that you know enough to get comfortable in your lands in Dargon. Those hundred acres are all the land you will ever rule, brother.” With a dismissive gesture, the baron brushed past Curran to accept obsequious congratulations from his vassals.
Too stunned to speak, Curran hurried back to his wife’s side. She smiled at him expectantly, but as he related the situation to her, the expression in her eyes changed even as she maintained a sweet smile on her face for the benefit of the gossip-mongers. When at length it was seemly for them to withdraw, they took swift advantage of the opportunity and retired to the quarters allotted to them.
The moment the doors closed behind them, Nimieta spoke. “That was unexpected.”
Curran pulled at his neckcloth as he replied, “Yes, but the wedding date is still some time away. Who knows? Many things can happen between now and the first of Yuli.”
“Well, I wouldn’t be too sure of anything to do with the marriage,” Nimieta said with a yawn. “We are not the only ones with designs on the barony.”
Curran threw his clothing on the floor and slid into bed. “Yes, I’m certain the barony is the only reason Sagrie agreed to wed that simpleton. Despite the trade implications, his aunt, Baroness Veronie Gribbane, is far too proud to forget the feud between the two baronies, and she wouldn’t gratify Sagrie’s ambitions to save his pompous life.
“But the barony isn’t the worst of it,” he continued, his tone darkening. “Even should Evelain prove barren, she still keeps the land Kelleman dowered to her.” Grunting, Curran tossed and turned in the bed, trying to get comfortable. “And we need it!”
“I didn’t mean Sagrie or his aunt being the only ones who want the barony,” Nimieta said. She rose and began to remove the jewelry she was wearing.
Curran punched the pillows into position and leaned back, watching her graceful movements. “Who else? You can’t seriously consider Dagny. She’s not a legal daughter of my father, and as far as the inheritance is concerned, she doesn’t enter into the picture at all.”
Nimieta unhooked her dress and slowly slid it down her body to the ground, bending slightly as she did so. “Dagny is a very ambitious woman, and you should not underestimate her, my husband.” She straightened and stood still for a moment.
Curran sighed. Her sloping shoulders gave way to generous curves, and as his eyes went down her body, he could see her reaction both to his gaze and the chill air. He brought his eyes back up and pushed aside the covers invitingly.
She smiled at him and moved forward, saying, “Dagny is a mother. What she would not do even for herself, she would do for Slevin. I know; I am a mother too.” She slid into the bed, leaning against him, and Curran lost interest in the conversation.
Wearing a dark cloak, Curran walked north on Commercial Street heading towards the outskirts of the city of Dargon. It had been two months since the banquet at Castigale when he had learned his inheritance was in jeopardy. He had plotted ways of turning the tides of politics in Castigale back to his favor, but even living in his faraway estate in the duchy of Dargon, he had to be cautious. His brother already suspected him of unsavory activities, and if too drastic an event were to occur in Castigale, Curran feared Kelleman would be quick to look his way for the culprit.
However, with Melrin, the summer festival, approaching in less than a sennight, he had a convenient excuse to journey to Dargon. Feigning tiredness from the journey, he had waited in his room at the Rogue and Quiver Inn until the night’s third bell and then slipped quietly out. His brisk walk led him to his destination: the last cottage in the row of decrepit buildings that lined the dirt street that led north of the city proper. This one appeared to be slightly larger than its companions and had a small shed beside it.
Curran strode to the cottage and rapped authoritatively on the door. The sound carried through the night air, echoing within the dwelling. For more than a mene there was no response save for the distant yowling of dogs. He was about to leave when a cold hand patted his arm.
Startled, he turned swiftly, arm outstretched. His instinctive attack sliced through the air and did not find the obstruction he’d expected. Two paces away stood a small woman, regarding him so intently that her eyes seemed to glow like a cat’s. In the dim light of the moon, Nochturon, she seemed ethereal, and had she not spoken, Curran would have sworn that he had encountered an apparition.
“This is an odd time to come a-calling,” she said, breaking the stillness. She had a very pretty voice, but the rest of her, aside from her eyes, was unremarkable: short hair that appeared a middling brown, a triangular face with a slightly pointed chin, and an ordinary nose. The tunic and breeches she wore appeared to be of the same muddy color.
“Straight,” he began, “I’m looking for Iolanthe. Are you her?”
“Is this about an animal?”
“Not really,” Curran said. His diplomatic instincts prevented him from saying anything that sounded negative. In this case, his errand was delicate, and he struggled to find the right words. He settled for the most innocuous ones he could find: “I need some help.”
She stared at him for a very long time, and Curran had to consciously stop himself from fidgeting. The distant town bell tolled the time, four long and solemn bells, and she moved at last, nodding her head toward the cottage. He followed her in and watched as she turned up the wick in the lamp that hung from a hook on the ceiling. The room appeared to be a sort of antechamber leading to the inside of the cottage; what lay beyond the open doorway at the far end was shrouded in darkness. There were no windows, but shelves on all walls were filled with folded fabric squares, covered containers, pots both large and small, and tiny bundles of what appeared to be roots. The room smelled strongly of dried herbs, animals, and something less pleasant, like sickness or death. Nochturon’s pale light trickled in through a simple skylight.
“You said you needed my help,” Iolanthe prompted, sitting on one side of the small table in the center of the room.
Curran looked around for another chair and found a stool in one corner. He took a moment to drag it to the table and sat down gingerly as he tried to think of the right words to say what he wanted. “Yes, I need your help. There’s a young woman who is getting married on the first of Yuli,” he said hesitantly. “It would be a good idea if she did not.”
Something changed in the young woman’s face and bearing, and Curran felt a thrill of fear. Until that moment, he had simply taken her to be what she appeared to be: a healer. With that one statement of his, a menace had crept into the room. He tried to identify it so that he could demystify it. Was it that she had straightened in her seat? Was it that she became instantly ready to field a physical threat from him? Or was it simply that she had shed whatever it was that allowed her to masquerade as a healer? He did not know, and even though he wanted to discover what it was, he did not pursue the thought.
“Changing the course of events is not something to be undertaken lightly,” she said softly. “Are you sure you want this to be done?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” he said strongly, allowing his rage at Kelleman to spill into his voice.
The emotion seemed to convince her, for she nodded once. “The change in the events will be permanent,” she warned. “Second thoughts will be … useless.”
Curran snorted. “I will not have them. I am determined on this course of action. It is the only one left open to me.”
She smiled. “There is also the matter of funds.”
“I understand.” Curran wondered how much she would charge. He had originally thought it odd that this healer was reputed in darker societies to be a killer who could make murder look like an accident. He had been used to thinking of hired killers as uncouth and barbaric. He remembered the man he had hired to ambush a merchant’s wagon inbound to Dargon. He had dressed in dirty clothes that were the same color as mud; he had smelled like a rotting corpse, his hair and teeth had been blackened with soot, and his language had been almost incomprehensible.
Curran had been surprised when one of his unofficial hirelings had whispered to him, after a generous payment, that she was the best. It was rumored that this woman had even killed Liriss, the most notorious and feared criminal of Dargon, and made it look like a disappearance. Looking at her now, he was still taken aback.
“This young woman who is getting married, tell me about her,” Iolanthe invited. She leaned back and pulled something from the shelf and brought it to the table.
Curran tensed and then relaxed as he realized that she was merely working with a bunch of herbs, separating the leaves and the roots. “The girl’s name is Evelain Castigale, and she’s going to marry Sagrie Gribbane. Lord Sagrie, I should say.”
Iolanthe’s hands stilled momentarily. “They do not live in Dargon. She is the daughter of the baron of Castigale, is she not?”
“Yes,” Curran replied, surprised that she recognized the names. Few people in the isolated city of Dargon could even count the rest of the baronies in their own duchy, let alone know one small barony in the Asbridge duchy that was a fortnight away.
“There will be travel involved,” she murmured. “Therefore expenses. You mentioned that the wedding is on the first of Yuli. Is there a specific date which would be suitable?”
“No, I leave that to your convenience. If we can decide the matter of recompense …” he let his voice trail off, uncertain of how to negotiate a price for a task such as this. It was not like haggling to buy a horse or a piece of land, after all, nor was it as neat as paying a pack of brigands to ambush a caravan. This was directly paying one person to kill another, and his niece at that. While he had no moral contention with the act, it still seemed dirtier than he was used to, and he felt slightly out of his element.
“I need more supplies for my animals,” the woman said, apparently at random. Her voice held not even a nuance that there was more to her statement.
Curran stared long and hard, waiting to discern her meaning. He supposed that in her line of work, plain speaking could be as dangerous as performing her paid tasks, but her conversation was so mercurial that he was floundering in equivocations. Finally, he said, “Yes, your animals.” He pursed his lips and made his offer, “Do you think a donation of ten Crowns would help them?”
“Oh yes, I could use such a donation,” she smiled at him. “But there’s also the journey. Perhaps a horse.”
“Done,” he said. “I’ll have a servant bring the ‘donation’ to you tomorrow.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Iolanthe said, “or prudent. Instead, have your servant bring your ailing horse here tomorrow evening, with payment for its treatment in silver, not gold.”
“I only carry gold,” Curran said indignantly. “To get it exchanged will take time and may arise suspicion.”
“Then imagine the suspicion it would bring should I try to get it exchanged,” came the response. “And having your servant bring the horse later would be better anyway. Maybe even after you’ve left for your journey home with a new mount. I’ll keep the horse here under my care until such time that you return to claim it.”
Curran was aghast. “I’m not returning here!” he said louder than he had intended, but then the sharp smile on Iolanthe’s plain features told him that she already knew that. Calming, Curran nodded hastily and slipped off the stool. “Thank you, mistress.”
“Utterly beautiful, don’t you think?” a guest said.
Curran gritted his teeth and tried to smile. He was engaged in polite conversation at the party to commemorate the opening of Evelain’s new house in the Valley of the Thumb. It had been three full months since he had attended the Firil Firstday feast at Castigale Keep, but he already felt that it was far too soon to find himself at another Castigale party. Normally he would have refused the invitation, but his worries over Iolanthe’s task and the rumors he had heard about the eccentricity of the house had been enough for him to make the eight-day journey from his estate in Duchy Dargon.
“Oh, unique, my dear, ‘unique’ is the word you’re looking for.”
Yet another guest paid yet another fulsome compliment to Evelain’s talent and Curran grimaced as he looked around the courtyard. Although the party had started inside the house, it had rapidly spiralled into disaster as evening approached.
The first and most oppressive issue was the heat. While only five days before the first of Yuli, the weather remained mortifyingly hot and humid. To make matters worse, the windows in the ballroom had jammed shut, rendering it so sweltering that four guests dressed in constrictive finery had fainted. Finally, Dagny had encouraged everyone to move the party to the courtyard.
Fresh air, however, did little to ease the insipid event. As bad at polite conversation as Evelain was, she had either insulted or bored all those in attendance within a bell of their arrival, and no one had dared to object. Meanwhile his brother, Kelleman, was focused on the tables of food that Dagny had arranged to have brought outside; he busied himself gobbling dainty pastries and guzzling wine rather than paying attention to either his guests or his vassals. Desperate for any redeeming entertainment, most of the guests resorted to milling around the courtyard, gossiping amongst and about each other.
Curran heard more snatches of conversation about the creativity of the building’s design.
“… very interesting definition.”
“Yes, indeed. The stained glass is truly superb. I must say that the artists here are very talented.”
Due to an agreement over the dowry, Kelleman had ordered that the architects consult Evelain on the plans of the building, and its peculiar features displayed her erratic tastes. The perimeter was surrounded by a low stone wall about five hands tall, and interspersed along the wall were small statues, many of them of creatures that surely had never walked Makdiar. The house itself was strangely oval-shaped, with three towers. It had been constructed of pale-gray stone, and stained-glass windows on the front glinted red and gray, the Castigale colors.
The only flaw in the appearance of the building was the east wing, which was still under active construction. Scaffolding surrounded the east wall and tower, where wooden support beams showed through the walls. A few windows gaped open where glass had yet to be set, while the glass in others glinted the same red and gray. Curran allowed himself a moment to speculate on how much the whole building had cost, and mentally congratulated his half-sister, Dagny, for running such a prosperous barony, one that he would eventually inherit.
Nimieta, his wife who was standing beside him, offered a lavish compliment to one vassal. Smiling sweetly as the guest walked on to prattle with someone else, she leaned closer to Curran to murmur, “Is this going to be over soon?”
He stifled a laugh at his wife’s bitter tone that was at complete odds with the pleasant smile she still wore. “I hope it’s all over soon, dearest,” he said quietly, emphasizing the word ‘all’ in such a way that she could not help but understand what he meant. “Can you believe that Kelleman actually held the party before the building was complete?”
His wife laughed. “You mean you can’t understand why Dagny arranged this party. If you think Kelleman or Evelain raised a finger for this, you don’t know them at all.”
Curran joined in her laughter. Even though he bore no love for either of his half-siblings, one thing he could admit to was Dagny’s efficiency.
“Kelleman and Evelain probably wanted the party, but it wouldn’t have happened without Dagny to make the arrangements. Why do you think she did it?” he asked idly, sliding his arm around Nimieta’s waist and turning her away to avoid getting into a conversation with yet another boring landholder.
“I’m not sure. Do you think it has something to do with Sagrie not being here?” she asked with a wicked smile. The biggest and most scandalous upset of party was that Sagrie, the guest of honor and the future occupant of this house after he wed Evelain in less than a sennight, had not yet arrived. Neither Kelleman nor Evelain seemed concerned, though all of the guests talked about it outrageously. Only Dagny seemed to take the situation seriously, stalking amongst the guests and assuring them that Sagrie was on his way but had been detained.
“Miserable wretch that he is,” Curran whispered. While he didn’t share Dagny’s anger at the pompous young lord’s absence, he was annoyed by it. He saw no reason why the whelp shouldn’t suffer at the abysmal party like the rest of them.
“Do you think your ‘hand’ has already taken effect?” Though Nimieta was completely in her husband’s confidence, he had refused to give her details about the assassin’s name or plan, not that he knew it himself. So she had taken to referring to Iolanthe as Curran’s ‘hand’, a rather tactful name for the assassin. “What if it took Sagrie along the road instead of your niece? Then Kelleman could just marry the mindless chit off to some other wealthy fop and we’d be in the same predicament.”
“My hand will strike true,” he murmured. He had considered the same problem himself, but concluded that Iolanthe would know the correct target. The uncanny assassin had seemed to practically know what he was thinking when he had visited her nearly five sennights past.
Nimieta seemed about to ask another question when a voice piped up from behind them. “Here I am, Uncle Curran!”
Curran turned around and blinked. His niece, dressed in a gown with bright red stripes, was wearing so many sashes that she resembled a column of loose fabric rather than a well-dressed young woman.
Suppressing a groan, he forced a smile and muttered, “Hello, niece.”
“Don’t I look nice?” She grinned at him and twirled.
Before his silence became too obvious, Nimieta said, “You look beautiful, Evelain. What a pretty dress!”
“Oh, Aunt Nimieta, thank you! Aunt Dagny said that the dress didn’t become me, but I like the color.”
Curran was about to make a curt reply when Nimieta elbowed him in the ribs and said sweetly, “Evelain, would you like to show us the rest of the house? The ballroom was quite beautiful, and I can’t wait to see everything.”
“It isn’t finished yet,” Evelain protested.
Behind Curran, Dagny’s voice abruptly chimed in, “That’s a good idea, Nimieta.” She strode up to the trio casually, but her eyes shifted constantly around the courtyard. At her approach, Curran gave a meaningful nod to Nimieta, who took Evelain’s arm and gently guided her towards the building for the tour.
While the two of them moved away, Curran took the opportunity to speak privately with Dagny. “Do you really think Sagrie was detained on the way?” he asked by way of opening.
“I don’t know.” Dagny brought her hazel eyes back to meet Curran’s blue ones. “He should have been here by now.” She was silent for an instant as she surveyed the party, casting a denigrating look at the guests’ discomfort. “I can’t understand why he’s not here. I’ve had my runners looking for him since yesterday morning.”
“Do you think he’s not coming?” Curran allowed a trace of surprise and outrage to pepper his voice, and Dagny reacted to it.
“Not possible,” she said firmly. “Kelleman would not stand for the insult.”
Curran chuckled a bit, causing Dagny’s eyes to sharpen like honed flint. “Do you mean that our fat brother would recognize this as an insult?” he asked, quietly enough that none of the other guests could hear, but loud enough to make sure she knew he meant it. “He would realize it if the food didn’t arrive, but would he notice if Sagrie didn’t?”
She met his eyes steadily, then glanced over to where Kelleman stood, a leg of lamb in one fist, a goblet of wine in another, and crumbs shooting from his mouth as he guffawed at something said by the landholder who stood next to him. With a grimace, she turned back to Curran. “If not,” she said grimly, “I will ensure that he knows of it.” Dagny moved as if to go, and he followed, a step behind. She went towards the main door of the building and away from the mass of guests before turning back. “Was there something else you needed, Curran?” she asked bluntly.
He stepped closer and spoke, his voice as soft as velvet yet as strong as steel. “I know you, sister.” She flinched at his words and color came to her cheeks, though he could not understand why; she had always been able to keep her face neutral, even if her eyes gave her away to someone who knew her as well as he did. “I remember the day Father brought you to our home after your mother died. I’ve known you as long as I’ve lived and I know what you look like when you scheme.”
“I do not scheme!” Even though her face still wore her normal, indifferent expression, her voice had a hint of a snarl in it.
“Oh dear,” he said with a wry smile, feigning alarm at her response. “Did I insult my dear sister by insinuating that she does more than just follow our noble brother around, obeying his regal whims?” Dagny drew a breath to retort, but he held up a hand and said quickly, “I truly didn’t mean to insult you, Dagny. After all, we’re family.”
Her hazel eyes remained narrowed on Curran’s own. She didn’t speak, and he continued, “It would seem that schemes run in our family. For instance, our older brother has schemed a way to give our family lands to the nephew of our father’s enemy. Oh, I know that the specifics of the arrangement are that it should go to Evelain’s son. When she does have a son, you and I both know who will really be ruling the barony.” He paused, trying to infuse his silence with meaning. When Dagny made no response, he continued, “Evelain has the mind of a child half her age, and her son will likely be younger than that when old Kelleman dies, leaving Sagrie the steward of an underage baron.”
Dagny gazed at him with a calm face, but with glittering eyes. Then she licked her lips slightly and asked, “Why tell me what I already know, brother?”
He opened his mouth to continue this interesting conversation, when a reverberating rumble came from the unfinished part of the building, closely followed by loud shouts.
Dagny had run through the great double doors and down the hall before Curran knew she had moved. He moved to follow, as did many of the curious guests, servants, guards, and workers. Cursing, he fought his way amongst them. The halls in the unfinished wing were littered with debris, stacks of building materials, and occasional construction tools. As Curran passed them, he saw that a fine layer of dust obscured these impediments to their progress.
The rolling sound had completely died away by now, but the shouts and moans continued. Curran turned a corner and saw a group of people milling around near a large doorway. Dagny had already reached them and was shouting inquiries.
As Curran neared the party, he choked on the thick, dusty air. People stood like shocked statues in the hall, and past them Curran could see the ruin of a room beyond. It had been a high room, with three fluted columns holding a stone ceiling some twelve cubits above. One of the three columns, the one nearest to the doorway, had apparently collapsed, raining stone from the ceiling and the upper levels. Curran looked up through the newly made hole and could see dust swirling down from what he guessed were the upper floors of the unfinished eastern tower. Shafts of red-tinged light from the setting sun filtered through the tower’s stained-glass windows at the top of the room, making the unreal scene even more dreamlike. Stones and cracks dotted the marble floor around a huge pile of destruction.
“Nimieta!” Curran shouted in alarm. In one corner of the room, a few dazed people huddled, including his wife. “Are you hurt?” Curran stepped over the rocks, shoving aside the dumbfounded guests in his haste. He reached his wife and hugged her, his heart thumping as he eyed the stones.
“I’m fine!” she snapped. “Dagny, get some servants! Do something! Evelain is in there.” Nimieta gestured at the rubble but Dagny was already gone.
Curran dragged his wits together and sighed in relief as he realized that Nimieta was fine. “What happened?” he asked.
Another guest standing next to them spoke. “Evelain was showing us around, telling us what was supposed to be where. She just stepped under that awning, and the next thing I knew –” He gestured helplessly, eyes wide as he stared in disbelief at the scene around him. He kept absently brushing at the dust that covered his silk tunic, but only managed to smear it further into the fabric.
Curran turned to Nimieta and asked again, “Are you all right? What happened?”
She hugged him and slowly wiped away her tears that glittered in the twilight. “It happened just as he said,” she murmured. “One instant she was saying something about her art room and the next the roof collapsed. Curran, I — it was almost me.” She drew in a deep breath and swallowed, and Curran knew that she was trying not to cry.
Curran whispered soothingly as Dagny finally strode back into the room with a group of guards. “You there! Get some workmen over here at once. I want these stones moved. Right now! Don’t just stand there! Where’s the supervisor? Get Joelrid here at once!” Dagny’s voice grew stronger as she began to shout instructions. Workers emerged from the group of guests and began to move the stones as the guards muscled Curran, Nimieta, and the rest of the room’s occupants out of the way.
Most of the guests left quietly, while a few remained, despite the guards trying to urge them out. Curran, however, was less shocked over the tragedy. He had quickly realized that this accident must have been the work of his ‘hand’. As much as prudence said to be anywhere but near the actual assassination, a morbid fascination kept him standing in the hall outside the large room as he comforted his wife.
“Shhh,” he whispered into her ear. “It was probably my ‘hand’. I don’t think you were in any danger.”
She stiffened in his arms, her tears stopping immediately. “No, it was really an accident. It must have been.”
Curran was about to reply when the floor beneath them seemed to shudder. Alarmed, he glanced at the few other guests and guards in the hall and they all returned his frightened look. Meanwhile the grunts and shouts of the workers continued unabated. After a moment, most of the remaining guests departed down the hall and two guards took up position at the doorway.
“Dagny!” The shout came from the corridor and Curran turned to watch Kelleman approach, his heavy face red and anxious. “What happened? They said Evelain — that Evelain …” He looked on the verge of panic, more so than the guests who had actually witnessed the event.
The guards glanced at Dagny uncomfortably as Kelleman tried to push past. She nodded to them and they let their lord through.
“She must be alive!” he shouted. “Where are the workers? They have to dig, pull away the stones. She must be in there. Have them search, Dagny.” Kelleman’s voice was pleading, and Curran stared. He had seen his older brother display every emotion from blind rage to inebriated frivolity, but he had never seen him so utterly broken; it was pathetic to see his desperation.
One of the laborers shouted, “Look, I found a body! It’s got to be the lady!” The other men gathered around him, and they all began to move the rocks away.
A swarthy workman holding a lantern hurried in after a whispered colloquy with the guards at the door.
Dagny glanced up and said sharply, “Where were you, Joelrid?”
Curran turned his attention back as the last stone was moved off the body.
“It’s one of the builders!” One of three guests who remained exclaimed.
“It’s not Evelain,” muttered Kelleman.
Underneath the displaced rocks was the body of a laborer, face down, dressed in the same dirty brown breeches and tunic as the rest of them.
“Who’s that?” Curran asked in surprise. “Was someone working? Dagny, hadn’t your men already stopped working for the day?”
“We did, milord,” Joelrid replied. “Turn him over.”
One of the workhands obliged, and then there was a moment of silence. “Hold this lantern.” Joelrid handed it to one of his people and crouched.
“It’s not Evelain; it’s not Evelain,” Kelleman muttered.
Curran glanced at him with pity; his older brother had lost what little poise he had at the sight of the body.
“Can you identify this worker?” Dagny demanded.
The swarthy man grunted and gently turned the body’s face to the light. Curran noticed him murmuring something to Dagny; she stiffened, although her expression did not change. Suddenly, the builder holding the lantern gasped and Curran strained to see what had alarmed the man. Despite the gathering darkness, he could vaguely make out another body lying under the first, and though its torso was still covered by a huge stone, the gaudy red sashes that lay shredded around the body were unmistakable. All was still for a moment, then Dagny said, “Straight. Now, get her uncovered.”
“No, Dagny! It isn’t Evelain. You have to search more! No!” Kelleman screamed. “It can’t be her.”
Another shudder rumbled insistently through the floor, and everyone fell silent. In the stillness, all of the workers looked up. Joelrid turned urgently to Dagny. “It’s the tower, mistress! With this column gone the whole thing could collapse!” She arched an enquiring eyebrow at him and he continued in a rush, “With that big block on the poor lady’s body it could take us bells to have her out. We need to stabilize the tower with something first …”
Dagny spit an imprecation through her clenched teeth. The rumble subsided but the laborers still looked warily about them. “Straight,” she snapped, and turned to her guards. “Take this worker’s body outside and have some servants clean it off. Joelrid, go with four of your people and get something to brace the tower.” The guards and builders, looking only too relieved to be away from the room, jumped to obey her commands, Joelrid leading the way.
“She must yet be alive. They have to dig, pull away the stones. Get the workers, Dagny,” Kelleman pleaded.
Dagny said gently, “Kelleman, it’s too dangerous right now. They can’t dig until they’ve braced the ceiling.”
“No! Get lanterns! I will not suffer my daughter to be buried — no, stuck under all of this rock.”
“You can all do whatever you want,” Curran said loudly. His reason had finally won over his grisly interest in the disaster. “Nimieta has had a shock, and we are leaving. There’s nothing more for us here.”
“No one is leaving,” Dagny said sharply. When Curran turned back to glare at her, she met his gaze without flinching. “Whatever happened here was no accident,” she continued. “Joelrid here says that this body was not one of our workmen. What’s more, he swears that he saw him with Sagrie when he came to Castigale the first time.”
“What?” both Curran and Kelleman shouted at the same time.
“Yes,” Dagny answered and turned back to Kelleman. “Think about it, brother. That Gribbane cur must have wanted to get out of the marriage as soon as he realized he wasn’t going to inherit the whole barony through Evelain. He must have hired someone to come here and stage this accident while he found some excuse to be late and washed his hands of the whole affair. That way, not only does he get out of a marriage he can’t benefit from, but he also hurts the most hated enemy of his family. He is a Gribbane, and we should never have trusted him.”
“A Gribbane,” Kelleman growled painfully as he digested Dagny’s statement.
Curran was amazed at the way Dagny painted the events, but he grasped the implications immediately and wasted no time siding with his half-sister. “That is true, Dagny,” he said in his most earnest voice. “Sagrie is so power-hungry that he must have hated knowing he would never inherit anything more than this house. I bet his aunt, the Baroness Veronie offered him better land and status in Narragan for the deed.”
Kelleman looked up and Curran could see rage burning behind his tear-streaked, red-rimmed eyes. “When I’m finished with that Gribbane,” he started in a low voice, “Saren himself will wince at his agony! I’ll strip his skull of flesh and feed his eyes to my horses! I’ll burn his house to the ground and spit in the ashes!” Kelleman was standing now, flailing his fists in the air and gnashing his teeth like a wild animal. “I’ll turn this feud into a war, the like of which his bitch-baroness aunt will wake screaming from at night!” He wiped the last of the tears from his face, and his eyes suddenly took on a look of maddened calmness. “Their family will die and their land will burn!”