Luthias stormed into the Duke of Dargon’s office as if he were the god of war. “Coranabo has accused my Castellan of conspiracy against the crown!”
Clifton blinked. “You’re really having a hard time of it lately, aren’t you?” he joked, smiling, but the smile only adjusted the lips; it didn’t glow in the Duke’s eyes.
The teasing didn’t work. Luthias was furious. “This is serious, Clifton. There are witnesses! I have to try my own Castellan!”
“Coranabo is saying that Ittosai–”
“Yes, for the third time!” Luthias shouted, pounding his cousin’s desk. “The Tribunal wants the trial in two days.”
The Duke of Dargon leaned back in his cushioned chair. “There is evidence, you said?”
“Witnesses…a witness. A townsman, who overheard something at the Sy tourney…”
“I don’t believe him,” Luthias revealed. “I know Michiya has too much honor to–to–” Luthias didn’t even want to say it, didn’t want to think it.
“Yes, cousin,” Clifton said carefully, “but there’s a witness.”
“Am I to believe that scum over my own Castellan?” Suddenly, the young Baron of Connall stared at the Duke in horror. “Clifton, you don’t think that–”
Clifton Dargon smiled. “My dear cousin,” he said, a lilt of mild mocking in his tones, “if you, practical as you are, can see all the evidence and dismiss it as nonsense, so can I. Besides,” he continued, before Luthias could become much angrier, “I agree with you. Ittosai Michiya is much too honorable to do such a thing. Sit.” Obligingly, Luthias sunk into a chair. “Where is Ittosai?”
“In Connall. I insisted that he be released into my custody.”
“What does he have to say about all this?”
“What do you expect? Michiya told me he was innocent, that–” What had Ittosai said exactly, and what had the witness said? Carefully, Luthias told his cousin the Duke what the witness had reported, and what the Castellan of Connall had told him.
Clifton frowned. “I am more inclined to believe Michiya.”
“As am I.” Luthias frowned. “Yet I am the one who must try to prove him guilty!”
“I hate to have to fight you, cousin,” Clifton sighed, “but I’m going to defend him.” Clifton grimaced. “War with Bichu…but both you and Sir Edward agree that war with Bichu…”
“Ittosai is falsely accused,” Luthias said with conviction.
“I know, manling,” Clifton returned with gravity, “but you must try to prove the lies.”
Separating the Barony of Connall from the Barony of Coranabo was the wide river Coldwell which flowed from the mountains to Dargon, and thence to the sea. Its shore in Connall was bordered by trees, in which Roisart, Luthias, Clifton, and Myrande had established a retreat when they were younger. An archery range and a pell had been long set up for private practicing. By a bend in the river where the Connall twins and their cousin and Myrande often swam was a clearing they used for picnics and privacy.
Here Luthias came to escape his own thoughts and his own barony. Here, by the river range, there were three things in the entire world: the pell, his arm, and his sword. And the heat: stripped to the waist, he imagined an enemy and fought.
One blow, then another. A triple blow. A blow to the waist, to the head, to the right, to the left. A twisting shot that wrapped his sword to the helmet area.
There was a horse coming slowly behind him. He saw it out of the corner of his eye, but did not stop. The horse was black and the rider small: Sable. Luthias smiled slightly, and continued to fight.
The contact of wooden sword and wooden pell rang in the woods and beat out the rhythm of the fight. One blow, a second, two quick shots. Keep the rhythm. Strength flowed from Luthias’ arm, but the power came from the movement of his body. Without moving his arm, he could twist and hit the pell and sound a ringing blow.
On the helm from the right, from the left, a twisting blow that would hit from behind. Right arm. Left arm. Right leg. Left leg. Thrust. Thrust to the face. Helm right, helm left, helm thrust, helm wrap. Right leg, left leg…
Finally, a soft pair of arms gently encircled his waist. The Baron of Connall smiled and allowed his tired arm to drop. Panting only slightly, he said, “I wondered how long you were going to stand there and watch me.”
Her hair brushed against his sweaty back. “You look beautiful when you fight, Luthias,” she replied softly.
The Baron of Connall laughed heartily. “You look beautiful all the time.” He put his free, left hand over her arms.
“Don’t mock me,” she warned, slightly testy, starting to draw away.
“Never, Sable,” he promised sincerely, patting her wrists. “So,” he continued in a light, jesting tone, “did you come out here only to admire my body, or are you going to practice with me?”
Luthias could almost feel his seneschal’s smile. “Neither, actually,” she bantered playfully. “I came here to seduce you.”
“Mmmm,” Luthias chuckled deep in his throat with amusement and anticipation. Slowly, he reached his left arm in back of him and drew Myrande forward as he savored the idea.
My father will return from the dead and kill me!
Still, it reminded him of something he had been trying to tell Myrande before the tournament. He looked down at her, not relinquishing the embrace. “We must talk, Sable.”
“Can it wait?” she pleaded.
“For the real reason I came here. The Knight Commander’s come to see you.”
The young Baron of Connall wasn’t certain whether to feel despair or amusement. “And here I am, sweating and dirty!”
Myrande patted his stomach lightly. “How do you think he got to be Knight Commander? By practicing on the pell and getting sweaty and dirty! In any case, I knew you were practicing so I brought you a change of clothes. Why don’t you leap into the river to wash some of the dust off?”
Luthias nodded, squeezed her waist once, then ran off toward the river. He stripped off his breeches and dived into the Coldwell. It usually was a chill river, especially as far north as Connall was, but with the recent heat wave, it was actually warm. Luthias submerged himself, then rose to see Myrande laying out his clothing on the grass. Luthias began to swim toward shore.
“Give me a minute,” Myrande requested.
“To give you some privacy.”
Luthias snorted. “You’ve seen me like this before.”
“Only by accident.”
It was true; still, the Baron Connall’s laugh echoed like a merry shout, “You come here and admire my body, and now you don’t want to see it!” Myrande shook her head and made her escape. Luthias laughed again, left the water, and dressed himself.
He met Myrande near the pell. Eyes closed, she was lying on the grass, resting near her steed. Luthias reached down to touch her. “Come on, sleepy.”
She opened her eyes and smiled. “Yes, sir.” Luthias offered his hand, and, taking it, Myrande pulled herself to a sitting position. Gingerly, she felt at the chopsticks which she had placed, crossing, in the back of her head, above the dark braid. “That isn’t comfortable,” she chuckled.
“Why wear them, then?” Luthias asked, hauling her to her feet.
“Michiya advised it, with all the fuss about Shipbrook,” she revealed, smiling. “I think he’s afraid for me.”
“What good are those things going to do you?”
Myrande reached back and pulled forth one of the ivory sticks for Luthias’ inspection. The Baron of Connall took it and glanced at its steel-tipped point. Carefully, he pricked his finger with the tip. It was sharp as a dagger. “They’re used in Bichu as weapons of last resort,” Myrande explained. “Michiya wants to make certain I can defend myself at all times.”
“Good,” Luthias approved, returning the ornament. “Michiya’s a good man, and he’s right: you should be ready and able to defend yourself at all times.”
“Do you suspect more trouble with Baron Shipbrook?”
“Not really,” Luthias told her, “but I still want you prepared.” He smiled tiredly. “And I was going to grow up to be your Knight, Sable, to protect you from this sort of thing.”
Smiling, Myrande slipped her small arm around his waist. “You do,” she assured him, standing on her toes to kiss his cheek. “And you will be a Knight someday.”
The Baron grinned at her quietly. “Let’s hope so, Sable. Are you ready to go?”
“Of course. Where’s Dragonfire?” she inquired, looking for Luthias’ horse.
“I walked. We’ll have to ride together.” He swung onto the mare’s back and, without asking, lifted Myrande to sit in front of him. With one hand, he took the reins; with his left, he held his seneschal. Slowly, he started the horse. As much as he wanted to hurry, he didn’t want to ride the animal too hard: it was infernally hot. He would have to make his excuses to the Knight Commander when they arrived. For a while, they rode silently.
“Did Sir Edward say what he wanted to see me for?” the Baron asked his seneschal finally.
She shook her head. “No. I was wondering, but I didn’t ask.”
Luthias thought about it. “He probably wants to talk to me about Magnus.”
“He wants me to go to Magnus to train under him. He says I’d be a Knight by the next Melrin.”
Suddenly, Myrande looked up at Luthias with elated admiration. “When are you leaving?”
Luthias was silent a moment. He guided the horse around a few stones. “I may not go.”
Sable’s expression snapped into concern and confusion. “What? But all your life, you’ve wanted–”
“Do you think I’d leave you?” Luthias challenged, anger smoldering beneath his words.
“I don’t understand,” Myrande answered slowly. “I’m a woman now, Luthias. You don’t need to stay here and protect me–”
“Michiya’s been making certain that no man would ever touch me unless I allow it,” Myrande retorted, her words crisp. “Besides, do you think I would ever allow you to give up your dream because of me?”
After a moment of silence, Luthias said, “Sable, I don’t want to leave you.”
“What?” Myrande asked, as if she couldn’t believe what she had heard.
“I don’t want to leave you,” Luthias repeated, and it was true. Luthias wasn’t certain why, but it was true.
Myrande bowed her head. “Then I’ll go with you. I won’t let you give up any chance for Knighthood because of me.”
Luthias smiled. “What would you do in Magnus?”
“What do I do here?” she returned, smiling at him. “If you don’t want to leave me, I’ll go with you.” She bowed her head again. “Truth be told, I don’t want you to leave me. Now,” she concluded, resuming her jocularity, “no more arguments–or excuses.”
Of course, if she by some miracle approved his other idea, it would be normal that she go with him to Magnus…”We’ll talk later,” he promised both her and himself. “We’ll see.”
They soon arrived at the keep. Luthias tossed the reins to a stable lad. “Where’s the Knight Commander?” he asked Myrande.
“In the study.”
“When you get a break, join me there,” Luthias commanded. He nodded to her once then hurried through the halls to his study.
When he arrived, the Knight Commander was standing opposite the cold hearth, staring at the portrait that hung there. Sothos turned. “Baron,” he greeted Luthias, stepping forward and offering his hand.
Luthias shook the hand heartily. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Sir Edward,” the young Baron apologized. “I was out practicing.”
“So Lady Myrande said.” The Knight Commander smiled. “As I’m expecting war, Luthias, I can wait for a warrior who practices.” Luthias returned the smile thinly. Edward gazed up at the picture, which portrayed a tall beauty with auburn hair, smiling blue eyes, and skin the color of apple blossoms. “A relative of yours?”
Luthias glanced at the portrait quickly, then averted his eyes. “My mother.”
“I don’t remember meeting her when I visited Sir Lucan all those years ago,” Edward mused.
“I should think not,” Luthias returned, his smile strained. “She’s been dead twenty-one years. My father never removed the portrait, however.” Out of respect for his father, Luthias vowed he never would, either, but he didn’t want to talk about his mother. “To what do I owe this visit, Sir Edward?”
“You have Castellan Ittosai here in your keep, correct?”
Luthias nodded. “The Tribunal allowed, at my insistence, that he be in my custody.”
Sir Edward sat. “Be so good as to summon him.”
Luthias opened the door and bellowed for one of the men-at-arms. “Bring the Castellan to the study, and treat him respectfully.”
“Of course, Baron,” the soldier agreed, confused. Luthias smiled; despite the rumors of war and the accusations against Ittosai, the men-at-arms of Connall still respected him.
“It seems your men have no suspicion of Ittosai,” Edward observed.
“Some do,” Luthias confessed. “I’m having Macdougalls, my assistant castellan, keep an rein on them. Some have been ready to tear him apart ever since Yuli, when the rumors about the war started.”
The Knight Commander made a face. “I would suspect.”
There was a discreet knock on the door. Luthias opened it. A guard stood with Ittosai Michiya, who stared directly through the young Baron. “Leave us,” Connall told the guard curtly. The man looked confused, but bowed spartanly and obeyed. Luthias shut the door and turned to Sir Edward. “The Knight Commander wanted to see you, Michiya.”
Aloof, Ittosai bowed toward Sothos. “I am wondering,” Sir Edward began, his face stern, “what you think of these accusations against you, Lord Ittosai.”
The Bichanese Castellan’s face was immobile. “They are absurd, lord Commander.”
“You are not guilty, then?”
Again, Michiya’s face did not move; he was too proud to show his emotions. Luthias, however, could tell that his Castellan was seething at the fact that anyone would question his honor. “I would not do such a dishonorable act, nor would I dishonor Luthias-sama so. I am innocent.”
Suddenly, Sir Edward’s face relaxed. “I believe you,” he revealed matter-of-factly. “And you, Luthias, what do you think?”
“I know Michiya well enough to know he would do no such thing, and that he would not lie to me,” Connall affirmed, his voice guarded. He didn’t know what this was leading to, but he didn’t like it. “He is innocent.”
Ittosai Michiya’s mouth twitched a little towards a smile. “I think I am being used as…what is it?…a scapegoat, because people fear the war and fear my country will invade yours.”
“It’s more than that, I think,” Edward sighed. “Luthias, why would anyone bring charges against Castellan Ittosai?”
“It’s as he said,” Luthias began. “The people are mad to see war–”
“No!” Sothos interrupted quickly, “You’re thinking as a lawyer, Luthias. It doesn’t become you. Think as a general.”
Luthias’ mind raced. If he were a general, why would he accuse Ittosai? “The war. They’re trying to start a war with Bichu!” The Baron of Connall swore violently. “It’s the same reason they killed Roisart and my father. The same God-damned merchants who hired men to kill my brother are accusing Ittosai and are trying again to start a war!”
“I too came to that conclusion,” Edward finished softly. “However, I didn’t know that merchants were behind the plot against Lord Dargon and your father.” The Knight Commander appeared deeply concerned. “You must prove this false, Luthias. A war with Bichu would be a major mistake.”
“The King must declare war,” Luthias pointed out. “It would be easy to advise him otherwise–”
“If the mob is like this, there will be no help for it.”
“He speaks truth,” Ittosai interjected. “The King cannot control hysterical men.”
“And there are war-mongers in Magnus,” Edward added. “You’ve got to find a way to expose this accusation.”
“You should be having this talk with Clifton,” Luthias protested grimly. “I am the one who is trying to prove these jack-asses are right.”
“The Duke of Dargon is an intelligent and educated man,” Edward said, “but he might not see the connection you did.”
“Don’t underestimate him,” Luthias laughed shortly, but the laugh was not merry. The anger that he had beaten into the pell was returning, fast and furious as floodwaters. “He reads books of war, too.”
“You must do something,” Edward repeated. “The Duke will put his Duchy before principle.”
“He’s not defending principle here,” Luthias returned. “He’s defending Michiya!”
“Luthias-sama,” Michiya began, “you truly understand, as the Duke does not–”
“Don’t you see?” Luthias snapped. “I am the Duke’s Advocate. I can’t defend you. I know they’re wrong. I know this whole business is wrong. War with Bichu is wrong. But I can’t do anything! I can’t do anything!”
Another knock sounded. “What?” Luthias demanded angrily. Myrande, in a streaked dress, poked her head just inside the study. “What do you want?”
Concern laced with anger adorned her face. She paused, as if unsure which emotion should take precedence. Tact and courtesy overruled them both. “I came to ask if the Knight Commander is remaining for supper.”
“Please do,” Luthias invited, his politeness somehow not strained by anger. But he was angry–furious!–at the Tribunal, at the mob, at the merchants, and at himself, for he had taken his anger out on Myrande.
“With pleasure,” Sothos accepted, smiling. The grin did funny things to his scar, Luthias thought dispassionately.
The seneschal nodded and began to shut the door, but Luthias halted it with his hand. “I’m sorry, Sable,” he apologized softly. “Look, we need to talk.” She smiled, accepting his apology, nodded, and shut the door.
And then he remembered: the trial was tomorrow. With company tonight, he would not have a chance to speak to Sable for two days. Damn!
The heat still prevailed, and on the day of Ittosai Michiya’s trial before the Tribunal, the sun rose an ominous scarlet. The Baron of Connall, swathed in the hue of that bloody sunrise, entered the Hall of the Tribunal within Dargon Keep in the same manner he would have approached a battlefield. He looked so fierce at the injustice and his own impotence that no one, not even Sir Edward who had come to observe, dared to say a word against the sword he had improperly worn into a court of law.
Seeing his placid cousin and stoic Castellan calmed Luthias a little, but did nothing to cool his rage. There was a year of injustice behind it: his father’s meaningless death, his brother’s sudden murder, his new, horrible responsibilities, Sable’s broken heart, and now this…this! his friend accused of conspiracy. And he had to prove it. And he knew better; he knew better! He knew, Sir Edward knew, and there was nothing either of them could do.
Luthias bowed to the Tribunal, who sat up on a dais: Baron Coranabo to his right; Baron Vladon in the center; and Baron Winthrop on the left. In front of the dais was a table, behind which sat Chronicler Rish Vogel, whom Luthias knew slightly. Apparently, he was acting as Scrivener in the case. Behind Luthias were two benches, one for him and the other for the accused.
Baron Vladon, as elected head of the Tribunal, spoke softly and solemnly. “We are familiar with this case,” he addressed both Clifton and Luthias. “We know that Castellan Ittosai–” How they mangled his very name! “–is accused of conspiring against the King of Baranur to begin a war with Bichu. You have witnesses, Baron Connall?” Luthias nodded. “And you, your grace?” Clifton nodded once. “Advocate, begin.”
Luthias stood. “As you have said, sir,” he began, “Castellan Ittosai Michiya is accused of conspiracy against the Crown. The charge was made by one merchant called Danal. I call forth this merchant Danal to testify.”
A mousy man with greedy eyes slunk forward like an animal afraid of a beating. He bowed to the Barons on the Tribunal, then faced the Duke’s Advocate, who glared at him with merciless eyes. “You heard a conversation,” Luthias prompted, “between two men.”
“Yes, so please your lordship,” answered the merchant. His voice was high-pitched and nervous. It grated upon Luthias’ ears and increased his rage. “Between that man–” He pointed wickedly at Ittosai Michiya, who sat erect and unmoving beside the Duke, “–and another man of his country.”
“Who was this other?”
“A merchant, who sold near my stall. I do not know his name. I saw the Castellan walk away with two swords and some chop sticks from this other merchant.”
Oh, Michiya, Luthias thought desperately, my katana and the sharp hair pieces for Sable. Presents, mere presents! Why couldn’t you have waited? “And where is he now?”
“I don’t know, lordship. I haven’t seen him since that day.”
Luthias switched his gaze to the Tribunal. “I have sent the city guards in search of this merchant. It seems that he left for Bichu that afternoon, before the ball.” Baron Vladon nodded, and Luthias continued. “What did this merchant and the Castellan say?”
“They spoke of Bichu,” Danal whined, “and a coming invasion.”
“What did they say?” Luthias repeated.
“I told you,” the man wheezed. “They spoke of the coming invasion that Bichu plans to send.”
Clifton stood. Luthias looked at him, unsure. Didn’t he have the floor? “I invoke the right of the Defender to interject questions when I so deem,” Clifton announced, by way of explanation. Luthias nodded his permission. “Did they speak of the *rumors* concerning the invasion?”
“They spoke of battle plans,” Danal corrected, wringing his greedy, sweaty hands. Luthias found himself wishing to strike the man. “Of a time table. And of some men here helping them.”
“Did they say how they were involved?” Luthias asked.
“That man–” Again, the ugly, knobby man pointed his dagger-like finger and knife-like gaze at Luthias’ Castellan. “–was to open the river Coldwell to the Bichanese ships. They were then to take Dargon City and Dargon Keep.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Luthias saw the Knight Commander’s scar twitch with displeasure. Take the Coldwell River, then Dargon and Dargon Keep? Luthias almost snorted. The Coldwell would hold no strategic value; Dargon was too well fortified to take, and the Ducal navy, headed by Clifton himself who was a good seaman by inclination, would take out any Bichanese ships as if they were toys. Luthias angrily hoped that this was a bold lie. He would hate to think that the Bichanese were that stupid.
“How did you understand them?” Clifton inquired, relaxing slightly. “Did they not speak Bichanese?”
“I understand Bichanese,” the merchant told the Duke proudly.
Rish Vogel shifted uncomfortably. Suddenly, Luthias remembered that Vogel spoke Bichanese. It would be a good test of the witness…but surely, Clifton would bring that up later. It was just the sort of angle Clifton would try.
“They spoke of men here who were to help them,” Danal finished.
“Men in Baranur aligned with them?” Baron Winthrop burst out. “Who? I demand it!”
“They mentioned no names,” Danal revealed, slowly, as if he were calculating something. Behind him, the Baron of Coranabo leaned forward in his seat. “But they did mention a Duke.”
“A Duke?” Coranabo shouted, leaping to his feet. The Baron glared at the Duke of Dargon. “No wonder you sprang to the spy’s defense!”
For a moment, the Duke of Dargon could do nothing but stare. “You accuse me of treason?” Clifton finally asked, his voice hoarse with astonishment.
“I do,” Coranabo stated firmly.
Very, very slowly, Luthias turned toward Coranabo. “My lord,” he began, his voice steady, but very controlled, “this is a heavy accusation you make. You need proof–”
“Did not the merchant say the Duke–”
“The merchant,” Luthias interrupted, his fists curled so tightly that they glowed white, “said *a* Duke. Not the Duke of Dargon.”
Sir Edward Sothos, behind Luthias, rose. Baron Vladon spoke. “You know that when the highest noble of the Duchy is accused, Coranabo, the matter is brought before the King. The Duke’s Advocate is correct. The word of a mere merchant is hardly enough to accuse the Duke of Dargon for treason before the Crown of Baranur. The Duke’s Advocate will need proof of a more substantial sort to try the case, if one can be made, before King Haralan.”
“Very well,” Coranabo replied easily. “The matter can be settled simply enough. If the Duke is involved, there will be some sort of indication in his home, will there not?”
“I cannot believe this,” Clifton interjected, anger and incredulity spilling over. “I am no traitor!”
“Then allow us to search your keep,” Coranabo argued. “If you are innocent, as you say, then the search can do no harm.”
Helplessly, Luthias turned to his cousin. “He’s right, you know,” he whispered. “And unless you allow the search, he’ll bring you before the King himself.”
Scowling, Clifton waved his permission and turned away. Baron Vladon stood. “Bring the accused,” he instructed calmly. Two city guards came forward, but did not lay a hand on either Ittosai or the Duke. Ominously, Luthias left the room, and the rest followed him to Dargon Keep.
“It’s all right, Lauren,” Clifton said softly to his wife when they entered, but his eyes betrayed everything. One look at Luthias’ smoldering eyes flooded her face with panic.
“What is it?” she whispered.
“Stupidity, nothing,” Clifton returned as Luthias angrily ordered the search.
Clifton closed his eyes. “Nothing–worse–where is your father? Send for him.”
As the Duchess did so, a soldier walked up to Luthias. “The desk in the office is locked.”
Luthias’ mouth became taut. “Your grace,” he addressed his cousin formally, “I will need the key.”
Clifton’s eyes raged at his younger cousin, and angrily, he reached in his pocket. “I’ll do it,” the Duke decided, marching into the study.
The Baron of Connall followed, hurt that his cousin apparently blamed this on him. What could he do about it? The Duke halted abruptly before his desk, thrust the key into its hole, and yanked the drawer open. He stepped back and threw a contemptuous look at the soldiers and the Tribunal. “There. Look if you must.”
Luthias frowned and turned to leave. He couldn’t remain in here. His cousin’s arm stopped him. “Hey, manling,” Clifton whispered, looking where the soldiers searched, supervised by Vladon and Coranabo, “I’m sorry. This isn’t your fault.”
“This is ridiculous,” Luthias replied. “I–”
“So you are innocent?” Coranabo yelled triumphantly, almost dancing to the Duke. “Kindly explain this!”
He held out a large piece of parchment, heavily embossed with the Duke’s seal. Concerned, Clifton took it, read it over. “I don’t understand this,” he muttered. “It’s my hand…my signature…but I’ve never seen this document before in my life.”
Luthias frantically snatched it, read it, recognized his cousin’s seal and signature as easily as the Duke himself had.
And then he stared at his cousin, pain and horror in his eyes.
With a heavy, worried look on her face, Myrande Shipbrook raced through her duties. Something was wrong, very wrong, and Luthias wasn’t talking. Nothing new: he and Roisart had almost never spoken to her about their troubles.
Yet, whatever was so wrong couldn’t be left in silence. Myrande shuddered when she recalled how Luthias appeared when he returned to Connall Keep alone. His face was pale, full of shock, horror, pain, and yes, fear. The look had frightened her. She had only seen Luthias look that way once before. It was the night Roisart had died, and Luthias became Baron; he had been stunned, appalled, hurt, and terrified then, too.
“My lady,” Mika, her assistant called, “all is ready for the storm.”
Myrande nodded. She had been watching the storm come since before sunset. Lightning had started soon after, and the winds were high and hard. Myrande could hear them, even in the little keep that served the Connall family as a town house. She went to the wall and opened the window. Now, nearing midnight, the warm, rushing wind smelled of rain. Lightning flashed across the sky, cutting it cleanly. It would be a ravaging storm, no worse than the one that was laying waste to Luthias.
Damn it all! What could it be? Myrande had no clue. The servants that had accompanied Luthias knew nothing. Luthias had dismounted his horse slowly, looked at her once, and went straight to his study and closed the door tightly. Myrande had called him, had knocked on the study door, but had not received an answer.
Enough. Myrande gave a few final instructions to the servants. Let them finish the duties by themselves for once! Luthias needed her–now!
With a swift, determined stride, she made her way to the Baron’s study and tried the door. Locked. Myrande’s lips tightened for a moment, then she grasped the keys which hung on her belt. Normally, she wouldn’t have even thought of unlocking the door and intruding on Luthias’ privacy, but this was important, and by God, what was the use of being seneschal if you couldn’t use your keys? She quickly unlocked the door and shoved it open.
“Go away, Sable!” Luthias called angrily from behind the desk. Myrande swayed backward a moment, his rage greeting her like a blow. The study was dark, except for a fire in the hearth, and the abrupt flares of lightning from outside. The window of the study was open, and the wind whipped the curtains and Luthias’ hair mercilessly. The Baron himself was standing, tall, ominous, and half-dressed, behind his desk. In his left hand, he held a half-empty brandy decanter. The other hand held his glass. His shirt and the red tunic of his office lay flung on the floor. The look of fright, hurt, shock, and horror remained, but it was now flavored with fury. He stared at his seneschal coldly and gulped some of the amber brandy as if in defiance of her.
Myrande almost shuddered; for the first time in her life, Luthias actually was frightening her instead of projecting safety. Determined, however, she stood her ground and shut the door behind her.
“Luthias,” she insisted, her words distorted by the wind, “tell me what happened.”
“You’ve got enough to worry about,” he snapped, pouring himself some more liquor. He spoke clearly and held himself confidently. Luthias had always done well holding his liquor; still, drinking enhanced whatever emotions had made him want to imbibe in the first place. Myrande was afraid.
“It’s the same as always, isn’t it?” she accused softly, slowly crossing the room. “You and Roisart, always the same. Whenever you had joy, you shared it with me willingly, but if something was wrong, you two would withdraw into yourselves and–”
“We didn’t want to trouble you then,” Luthias snarled, slamming the brandy onto the desk. He drained his glass without flinching. “You have enough problems now. I don’t need you. Leave me alone!”
“No,” she denied flatly. She held herself regally, although his tone whipped her and she wanted to run and hide. “What happened? Have they condemned Michiya?”
Luthias laughed in a bitter, furious way. “Practically. They won’t even listen, the bastards, and now Clifton!”
Myrande’s fear heightened. “What about Clifton?”
“He’s a traitor, that’s what!” the Baron of Connall screamed. He lifted the brandy decanter to his lips and drained some of the honey-colored liquid. “They found the evidence in his own desk–in his own hand!”
“Clifton, a traitor?” Myrande gasped finally. Outside, an explosion of lightning seared the sky. Thunder tried to mask Myrande’s words. “You can’t really believe that Clifton’s a traitor!”
“I tell you, I saw it!” Luthias raged. “I SAW it! My cousin’s condemned to die, traitor or no, and Michiya with him, and I have to do it!”
“What are you talking about?” She was beginning to fear that Luthias was hysterical or delirious. Lightning flared again. The rain was beginning, falling violently against the keep.
“I have to try my cousin for treason in front of the King!” Luthias shouted shrilly. “I have to prove my cousin a traitor! In front of King Haralan! It isn’t true!” the Baron screamed, “It can’t be true! I have to prove it true! Oh, God!” he shouted, laughing bitterly at the ceiling. Lightning again, and thunder. “My only living kinsman–and I have to make him a traitor!”
“Make someone else try him,” Myrande suggested readily, like an arrow ready to spring at any target. The wind projected hard rain through the window.
“Kingdom law, Sable!” he yelled at her, swinging the bottle, then drinking from it. “I’m the Duke’s Advocate, and when the highest noble in the Duchy commits a crime, I have to try him before the King. My God, Clifton!” He drank again.
Suddenly, Myrande could take it no more. She leapt forward. “You can’t believe Clifton a traitor!” Thunder roared outside, and the rain whistled on the wind.
“How can I believe anything else?” Luthias screamed at her. “I saw it, I SAW IT! I have to try him, see him die, become the Duke of Dargon! I have to see my last kinsman die a traitor!”
He moved to drink again, but Myrande wrested the decanter from his hands. “Do you think this will help you?” Myrande yelled at him, and enraged, she flung the brandy onto the stone hearth. The glass exploded into a crystal shower; the flame flared brilliantly blue from the brandy. There was explosive thunder. “I can help you, Luthias, if you’d talk to me!”
“You help me? You won’t even let me help you,” Luthias shouted, taking her by the shoulders. “What the hell am I going to do? What the hell do you think you can do?” He shook her violently. “Tell me!”
“Ask the King!” Myrande managed to shout somehow. Her brain was rattling in her skull. Lightning split her eyes and blinded her. “Or reason it out. Ask the King.”
“What?” Luthias laughed haughtily. “The King? The King help a traitor? Help me? You’re joking! And reasoning it out–I’m not Roisart! I’m a fighter, not a lawyer!” He released her abruptly. “There’s nothing you could do!” he told her bitterly. Suddenly, the rage left his face, and he sank into a chair, his head in his hands. “There’s nothing to be done,” he whispered, choking.
Myrande knelt before him and put her arms around him. The rain spattered through the window, dampening them both. “When are you leaving?” she whispered.
“Tomorrow,” came the muffled answer. “We sail from Dargon tomorrow, then down to the Laraka.”
“You should get some sleep,” she said gently, stroking his hair in an effort to soothe him. She shuddered as the wind chilled her wet skin. “You’ll be dead tomorrow if you don’t.”
“What does it matter?” the Baron asked bitterly.
“Come, Luthias,” she cajoled. “It matters to me.” She took his head between her small hands and forced him to look at her. Despair and lightning glowed in his dark eyes. “It matters to me.” Wordlessly, she coaxed him to his feet and led him to his room. Again, his expression worried her; he oozed despair. “Go to sleep,” she counseled, seating him on his bed.
Suddenly, Luthias was clinging to her, his grip like frantic iron. “Sable, Sable, what am I going to do?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I don’t know.”
“Sable, Sable,” he cried, rocking as if to comfort himself a little. “There’s going to be no one left. I’ll have no one.”
“No,” she said, pulling back to see his face. She touched his cheek tenderly. “I’m here, Luthias. I’ll always be here.” Myrande gently brushed some hair out of his dark eyes. “You’ll always have me.”
“Oh, Sable,” the Baron said suddenly, pulling her close, and within moments, Myrande found herself being kissed passionately. Luthias was equally surprised, though slightly distant, due to the alcohol. Still, it felt good to hold her, to kiss her, and he didn’t let go, wouldn’t let go, no, not ever.
Luthias didn’t know how long the kisses lasted, but then his hands were moving carefully, subtly–he had had much practice. Her black hair unwound beneath his hands, and it felt like velvet and smelled of roses. His hands continued to move slowly, carefully; he did not want to frighten her. One thing at a time, slowly.
He felt Myrande uncertainly returning the caresses. He held her more tightly then, shifted his weight, started to lower her onto the bed–
Abruptly, she pushed him away. “You’re drunk,” she accused roughly, then fled the room.
Luthias buried his head in his hands and tried to scream, but was silent. He had just ruined everything–with the one person he had left.
Only an hour past dawn, the sunlight was so bright that Ittosai Michiya had to bow his head in order to guide his horse on the road to Dargon. The heat made his stomach queasy; that was why, the Bichurian mused, that neither he, nor the silent, still Luthias, nor the hurried seneschal, could eat much in the dark hours before dawn.
The hot air oppressed Michiya; it was never so warm in Bichu. The sun seared his eyes. He was glad that they would soon be in Dargon and leaving for Magnus; if he were to be doomed, let it come, and come quickly. He had had quite enough of this horrid waiting.
If that weren’t enough, the silence was driving the Castellan mad. Luthias had barely spoken to Ittosai that morning, and what the Baron had said was brief and gruff. Myrande, who rode beside Michiya, had been hurried before they left the little keep Luthias kept just outside Dargon and had no time to talk; now, Luthias silence seemed to weigh on her as well.
But enough. “If you do not like something,” Michiya’s uncle had once told him, “you must do something, and not wait for others to do it for you.”
The Castellan began softly, “Why did you come with us, Myrande?”
Her head jerked toward him as if she were startled. Ittosai smiled at her in an effort to reassure her; Myrande returned the gesture, but the smile was exhausted. “Someone should be with Duchess Lauren today.”
Crisply, Ittosai nodded. “It is well. I have no desire for you to be alone. This business with the Baron of Shipbrook has made me uneasy.”
Myrande made an effort to laugh, but like her smile, her laughter was full of fatigue. “Don’t worry; I can take care of myself.”
“Still, practice much with the naginata, and wear the chopsticks.” Myrande reached back and plucked one from her hair. Michiya smiled. “Will you stay with the Duchess?”
“For a few days, perhaps.”
“They’re waiting for us,” Luthias muttered suddenly, looking at Ittosai, then swiftly turning when he found Myrande’s eyes upon him.
An astonished Ittosai stared at his Baron, then turned to the seneschal. “Did you and Luthias-sama have a fight?” he whispered.
Her eyes, concerned, stared past the Castellan at his master. “What? No,” she revealed, sighing. “This trial…”
“Is he ill? He did not eat his breakfast. His color is not good.”
Myrande compressed her lips and looked past the Castellan at the young Baron of Connall. His eyes were red, as if from weeping; his complexion was a ghastly gray. Luthias was clenching his jaw. “Yes,” she answered softly, “he is sick.” Eyes dark with sorrow, she turned to Michiya. “Take care of him, will you?”
“I could never do that,” Ittosai replied ruefully, but smiling a little. “He would never allow anyone but you to take care of him.” Myrande bowed her head. “It is you who must take care of him, Myrande-san,” the Castellan gently corrected as he looked ahead. “I have no hope for this trial, and–” Confused, his voice raised. “Why is the High Mage waiting for us?”
“We’ll find out,” Luthias returned gruffly. Like Ittosai, he kept his eyes on the waiting group: the Tribunal, Winthrop, Coranabo, and Baron Vladon; Sir Edward Sothos, the Knight Commander; the Duke of Dargon and his Duchess; and, sitting calmly on his mount, Marcellon Equiville, the High Mage. Ittosai made to spur his horse ahead, but Luthias abruptly held out his arm to stop him. “Don’t go ahead of me; they’ll suspect you of trying to escape,” the Baron winced against some unknown pain. Ittosai paused.
“I do want you to know that I know you’re not guilty,” Myrande started softly, “and I–”
“No more, Myrande,” Michiya cut her off swiftly. “It is all right.”
“Are you ready then, Baron Connall?” Baron Vladon asked as Luthias and his party approached. Worried, Michiya watched as the Baron nodded painfully. “Good day, Lady Myrande. Gentlemen, pray join us.”
“Why are you here?” Luthias bluntly asked the High Mage. The physician turned to him, a doctor’s concern evident in his expression. “Don’t you think you should stay with Lauren?”
Gently, the High Mage returned, “It is my right, as a noble of Baranur, to defend Clifton and Michiya. Besides,” he continued wistfully, “I have been neglecting my duties as High Mage of late. It is time I return to the King.”
“Enough,” Coranabo interrupted angrily. “We are wasting time. Let us leave. The ship is waiting.” He turned to the Duke of Dargon, who was tenderly kissing his wife good-bye. “Bind the traitors.”
“No!” Luthias’ denial rang like a clap of thunder. Coranabo turned to him sharply. The furious Baron of Connall stared him down. “They are not traitors until the King decrees,” Luthias explained curtly, his color paling. “I will not allow them to be bound.”
“That is your decision, Advocate,” Baron Vladon agreed smoothly. “If you are ready, Duke Dargon.”
“My horse…” Clifton began, motioning for one of his servants.
“Here, take mine,” Myrande offered, sliding from her mount. Clifton smiled at her briefly and threw himself into the saddle. The seneschal smiled her good-bye to Ittosai; she then turned to the young Baron. “Luthias…”
He didn’t turn his head. “Good-bye, Sable,” he took his leave, and abruptly he spurred his horse away, leaving the sorrowful Duchess and the seneschal behind him.