DargonZine 2, Issue 6

Trial by Fire Part 4: Trial Before the King

Seber 5, 1013 - Seber 12, 1013


This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Trial by Fire

At the sound of a warrior’s scream, Sir Edward Sothos lurched awake and grabbed his sword, ready for the attack. The air was dark and not lit by moon or stars. Light streamed from a low crack.

 

The ship, that’s right; they were on the ship bound for Magnus. Luthias was having nightmares again. Edward crossed the room and gently called the Baron’s name. There was a gasp as Connall woke. “You should have the High Mage make you a sleeping potion,” Sothos advised. “You haven’t slept well at all on this trip.”

 

Luthias stared at Edward as best he could in the dark. Luthias hadn’t slept well in weeks, not since the heat wave had hit western Baranur and Luthias received the job of Duke’s Advocate. That job now took him from his Barony and his ward Myrande. It brought him to this ship, which in turn would bring him to Magnus to try his cousin and his Castellan for treason. Was it any wonder he couldn’t sleep? Every time he closed his eyes, visions of horror and war erupted on his eyelids.

 

“You might as well stay awake,” Edward counseled. “We’ll arrive in Magnus before dawn. We’ll go to see the King right away.”

 

“King Haralan accepts visitors this early?” Luthias wondered, reaching for his book, “History of the Beinison Emperors.”

 

“He’s received the message by now that we were coming,” Edward speculated. “And his doors are always opened to the Knight Commander and the High Mage.”

 

“Will he want to see me?”

 

“Most likely. You are prosecuting the Duke and the Castellan.”

 

Luthias grimaced at the reminder and glanced at the locked, iron chest which contained all the physical evidence pertaining to the case. He had pored over the contents time and again with Marcellon, who was defending Clifton Dargon and Ittosai Michiya. Both had been looking for some hole in the evidence, some clue to lead them to the real traitors. There had been none, and there had been no hints from the crystal ball over which Marcellon had brooded in silence.

 

Crystal ball indeed. As if magic could help them now. If only Roisart were here, Luthias thought for the thousandth time, he would find the hole, reason it all out, help me through this. But Roisart was dead, Myrande was in Connall, and Luthias was alone.

 

“I’m sure it will end well, Luthias,” the Knight Commander addressed him sympathetically. “Not many in this Kingdom will think Clifton Dargon a traitor.”

 

“What do they matter?”

 

“The King hears all opinions on the case after the evidence is presented to the court. Rest assured that I will support your cousin and your castellan.” Edward smiled so widely that his scar danced. “Believe me, the opinions of the Knight Commander and the High Mage won’t be taken lightly. And I’m sure that Clifton’s relatives will support him.”

 

“The evidence is very convincing, Sir Edward,” Luthias reminded him. It had almost convinced Luthias at one point. Thank God for Sable, who had brought him back to his senses. Luthias smiled to himself. Thank God for Sable, period.

 

Luthias glanced at the box again. All that evidence, and he wasn’t convinced. Some Duke’s Advocate he was, his heart not truly in his duty or his case. Let me go home, Luthias wished, looking out the porthole to see the towers of the King’s castle in Magnus pierce the sun like a score of spears. Although Luthias had always wanted to see Magnus, now all he wanted was to return to Connall. Go home and be a baron–he had never wanted to be a baron–and stay with Sable, assuming she had forgiven the fact that he, drunk and despairing, had tried to force himself on her.

 

He had thought much about that last night in Connall. He wished he could remember it more clearly, but the brandy had smudged the memory irrevocably. He didn’t get far with Sable–thank God he remembered that much!–but he had toyed with her, as his father had strictly prohibited two years before. “If you toy with her body, you’ll toy with her heart! I forbid you to touch her!” His father had actually scared him. Luthias couldn’t fathom why Sable allowed it to go as far as it had; she had told him before–not in so many words–that she wanted no man but her beloved to touch her. Yet she had allowed Luthias’ touch.

 

Luthias shrugged at himself and lit a candle to read by. He hoped Sable had forgiven him. She must have, Luthias concluded; she tried to say good-bye, but he in his shame and guilt could not face her. But still, Luthias did not know for certain.

 

All he wanted was to go home and find out. Again he wished, Let me go home.

 

***

 

King Haralan, as Edward had predicted, admitted the party from Dargon immediately, despite the early hour. “Marcellon!” was the first person the King greeted. “How good of you to return!” Haralan exclaimed, only slightly sarcastically. Good mages are rare and difficult to find. “Good morning, Edward,” the King said the Knight Commander. Edward bowed. The smile vanished. “I received your message. The Duke of Dargon is accused of treason?” The High Mage nodded gravely. “By whom?”

 

The Baron of Coranabo came forward. “At the trial of Ittosai Michiya, the witness said the accused and a Bichanese merchant spoke of a plot by Bichu to take Dargon with the help of the Duke.”

 

“A Duke,” Luthias interrupted.

 

“Who are you, sir?” the King addressed him sternly.

 

“I am Luthias Connall, your majesty,” he replied proudly. He knelt, as his father had taught him was proper.

 

Marcellon gestured to Luthias and added, “The Baron of Connall is the Duke’s Advocate, your majesty.”

 

Slightly amused at Luthias’ gesture, the King motioned Luthias to rise. “You are the Duke’s Advocate?” Luthias nodded. “We shall question you, then, Baron. First, who is this Ittosai Michiya who was tried?”

 

“He is a man who left Bichu because he won a duel of honor and was sought by the dead man’s family,” Luthias explained. “He has lived in Dargon for two or three years. He once worked for Lord Dargon and then went on a quest in the countryside.” Luthias paused, then added, “He is now my Castellan, your majesty.”

 

The King’s eyebrows rose. “Indeed. Was Castellan Ittosai found guilty by the Tribunal?”

 

Baron Vladon stepped forward to answer. “We never came to a conclusion, your majesty. We brought the case to you, as it involved Duke Dargon.”

 

“There is evidence, Baron?” the King addressed Luthias again. Luthias nodded. “Is there anyone to defend Duke Dargon and Castellan Ittosai?”

 

“I shall, your majesty,” Marcellon replied. “The Baron of Connall has been kind enough to allow me to go over the evidence.”

 

“Very well,” the King concluded. “Well, we have already summoned the nobles. Are the Duke of Dargon and Castellan here?”

 

“They are on the ship, sire,” Edward told him. “I’ve already sent a detachment to escort them to the Keep.”

 

“Very well. We will begin this afternoon.” The King nodded to Baron Vladon, Rish Vogel, Baron Coranabo, and Luthias in dismissal.

 

The older men filed out of the room, but Luthias lingered a moment, attempting to decide. Now was the time; there would be no other chance, and he couldn’t do this thing. Ask the King, Sable had said, and maybe she had been right. He turned, but was uncertain how to begin.

 

Luckily, the King saw him. “You wish to speak, Baron Connall?”

 

“Yes, your majesty,” Luthias began after a heavy sigh. There was only one thing to do, and he would do it. “I wish for you to put Baron Coranabo or Baron Vladon in charge of the case against the Duke of Dargon and Ittosai Michiya.”

 

“Why? You are the Duke’s Advocate; you know the evidence and circumstances better than they,” the King argued. “That is why the Duke’s Advocate is summoned as well, to try the case.”

 

“I know, your majesty, but I cannot try the Duke of Dargon or Ittosai Michiya.”

 

“Don’t you understand the evidence?” the King prompted. “I knew your father, Baron Connall; you cannot be uneducated or stupid. Why–”

 

“Because Ittosai Michiya is my friend. He has been loyal and good to me. He saved my brother’s life,” Luthias began, his tone desperate but his voice quiet. Beneath the words, Edward heard the screams of Luthias’ nightmares. “Because the Duke of Dargon is my cousin and has been like a brother to me for as long as I can remember. He is my only living kinsman, and I–my brother is dead and so is my father. I can’t do this, your majesty.”

 

The King gazed at Luthias thoughtfully, and the young Baron of Connall stared at the monarch with a mixture of calm and strength. Luthias knew he must be a sight: his well-formed face disfigured by lack of sleep and tension more than it ever had been by the slight, white scar above his right eye; his bearing a mixture of fatigue and strength; and his words a mixture of bravery and desperation. Well, he and Roisart had always been a pair of paradoxes…

 

“You are the Duke’s Advocate,” the King repeated. “Go and do your duty, Baron Connall.”

 

Fire blazed beneath Luthias’ brown eyes a moment; the flames quickly died, and Luthias’ face turned to stone. He bowed stiffly, turned, and left without another word.

 

The King turned to his High Mage, who raised an eyebrow, then to his Knight Commander, who was openly seething. “His only living kinsman, Haralan!” Edward protested through his teeth. “He doesn’t deserve this from you!”

 

“He is Fionn Connall’s son, is he not?” the King inquired calmly. “The one whom Fionn Connall wanted you to train, the one you wish to make a Knight?”

 

Edward nodded. “He’ll be in no condition–”

 

“I agree,” Marcellon interrupted. “Unless you have an excellent reason for keeping him as prosecutor, I would remove him from the strain. It isn’t an easy thing for Luthias to try men he thinks innocent, men who are like brothers to him. He’s already lost one brother this year, your majesty. Through this trial he may cause the death of his cousin and friend. I’m not sure how he’ll handle the stress.”

 

“If he cannot do so, he doesn’t deserve Knighthood,” Haralan argued casually.

 

“Luthias will be knighted, all right,” Edward argued, “but he’ll never be the same.” The Knight Commander turned to his King again. “Haralan, Luthias Connall is one of the finest fighters I’ve ever seen. There is a war coming; I’m certain now. Think whom you may be turning against you.”

 

Haralan smiled at the scarred Knight Commander. “I don’t want a Knight who will turn on me, Edward. If he turns, he’ll turn now, when I’ve oppressed him. I would rather know now what he’s made of than wait until his loyalty is crucial.” The King’s face waxed thoughtful. “His loyalty is worth having. I want him to prove I have it. His loyalty for me has to come before any other.”

 

Edward shook his head. “I don’t like it, Haralan.”

 

“Nor I, your majesty,” Marcellon added. “He is the only living kinsman of the Duke of Dargon; Clifton’s maternal cousins are all dead. If Clifton is proven guilty, Luthias will become Duke Dargon, despite the fact that Clifton has fathered an unborn child. Luthias doesn’t want the Duchy–”

 

“Still, people will expect that he does,” the King argued easily. “And if Baron Connall cannot prove Dargon guilty with that motivation, people will accept the Duke’s innocence more easily.” The King rose. “And now, gentlemen, if you would join me for breakfast, I would be much obliged. There is much that we need to discuss.”

 

***

 

Luthias stormed through the halls of Crown Castle. How dare he! Clifton was the only person Luthias had left, the only living kinsman…oh, he had a few female cousins on his mother’s side, girls he had never met, but Clifton was a brother! And Michiya, Michiya his friend and rescuer and teacher! And he would have to try him; the King so ordered. “Your first duty as a Knight is to your country, your home, and family,” Sir Lucan had told Luthias long ago, in that hot summer when he, his wife, and Clifton’s parents had died. “After these, you must serve the King.” For the second time in his life, Luthias found himself not wishing for Knighthood.

 

“Connall?” a soft, female voice called him, and slowly, Luthias turned. Facing him was a tall, statuesque woman of middle age, with auburn hair streaked by white.

 

Luthias stared at her, confused and not remembering. The woman looked familiar, but he couldn’t place it. The lady laughed. “I know you don’t remember me; I haven’t seen you since you were a small boy. You look so like your father that I recognized you. You are Luthias, are you not?” The Baron of Connall nodded. “I am your Aunt Tornia.”

 

That was it. She looked like his mother, that laughing face on the portrait in the study. She was his mother’s sister, the Duchess of Asbridge. Luthias could remember when she last visited; he had been five years old, and she had brought him and his twin a box of wooden soldiers. Luthias bowed to her, unable to speak.

 

Tornia Asbridge reached out and touched Luthias hair with maternal concern. “You don’t look well, Luthias. Are you ill?”

 

“No, Aunt Tornia,” Luthias replied breathlessly. “I’m…tired, that’s all.” It was true; Luthias felt exhausted. Well, almost true: it wasn’t all.

 

“Are you here because of the trial of the Duke of Dargon?” the Duchess asked, taking her nephew’s arm. “He is your kinsman; are you here to defend him?”

 

Luthias’ throat felt like sand. “I’m the Duke’s Advocate. I must try to prove him guilty.” Suddenly, the Baron of Connall stopped walking and turned to his aunt. “How did you know I was Luthias, and not Roisart?”

 

The Duchess’ blue eyes looked at him quizzically. “Your seneschal sent me a letter–on your orders, I assume–which told me of your father and brother’s death.”

 

Yes, that was right; after Roisart’s death, he hadn’t wanted to handle all that, so Sable took care of it. Suddenly, Luthias’ mind could only see his brother’s corpse, ripped by the two bolts. “Aunt Tornia, could you take me to the Keep?”

 

“Whatever for?” the Duchess of Asbridge asked in surprise. “The worst of noble criminals are there.”

 

“I want to see my cousin.”

 

***

 

Built four hundred years ago on the southern edge of the Royal Quarter of Magnus, the Keep stood five stories high, with six towers two stories taller. For a hundred years, it had housed the King. After that, it became home to nobles convicted of horrid crimes less hideous than treason. Now, the top of the southeast tower was prison to Clifton Dargon and Ittosai Michiya. Although exhausted, Luthias climbed the stairway while his aunt Tornia waited for him below.

 

The guards at the door halted him. “No one’s allowed, my lord. You can question them at the trial this afternoon. High Mage’s orders, my lord.”

 

“I am the Duke’s Advocate of Dargon,” Luthias explained. “I have come to see the Duke. Surely the High Mage would allow it. It is imperative.”

 

“We can’t forbid the Advocate,” the second guard argued.

 

“You want to tell the High Mage?” the first returned.

 

“Let him in!” Marcellon’s voice echoed amiably from the room beyond the guards. “Baron Connall is permitted, by order of the King.”

 

Odd, Luthias thought as the guards admitted him. He walked into the half-circle room lit by the noontime sun. Ittosai stood upon seeing his lord; Marcellon and Clifton nodded.

 

“How are you doing, manling?” Clifton asked, trying to sound like he was teasing, but the words came out harshly, impatiently, and angrily. “You don’t look very well.”

 

“The King won’t take me off the case,” Luthias blurted. “I’m sorry.” The Duke’s Advocate glanced sorrowfully at Clifton, then at his friend Michiya. “I tried. There’s nothing I can do. I–”

 

“Do what you must,” Michiya told him gently, his eyes understanding.

 

“But I know that neither of you is guilty!”

 

“Don’t say that!” Clifton snapped, abruptly standing. “I don’t want you pulled into this too, Luthias. If–” The Duke of Dargon looked away to face the horror. “I want you to take care of Lauren if nothing can be done to save my life.”

 

“Clifton–” the Baron began to protest. He didn’t even want to think about that possibility anymore.

 

“He’s right, Luthias,” Marcellon interrupted gently. “He may die. There may be nothing I can do to convince the King and the nobles of his innocence and Lord Ittosai’s. You must keep yourself free of this madness.”

 

Luthias sighed and collapsed into a chair tiredly. “I want to do something. But there’s nothing–” He looked away. “And I’ll have to stand by and watch you die, just as I had to watch my father die, and Roisart die. And again, there will be nothing I can do.”

 

“Hey, manling,” Clifton said softly, “you can’t fight the King.”

 

Well, he could, but it wouldn’t be Knightly. What would Sir Lucan have done, what would Sir Edward do? “I’m sorry I have to do this.”

 

“Do the best you can, manling,” Clifton advised him with a half-smile. “I want to be proud of you.”

 

Luthias tried to laugh, but it came forth a snort. With difficulty, he rose to leave. “I’ll see you soon,” he mumbled over his shoulder.

 

“Take care, Luthias-sama,” Michiya said as the Baron left the room.

 

“I’m worried about him,” Clifton said quietly after the door closed behind his cousin. “He doesn’t look well, Father, and I’m not certain–”

 

“I’ll do what I can to take care of him, no matter what happens,” the High Mage promised his son-in-law.

 

“Make certain that he marries Myrande,” Ittosai Michiya suggested with the tone of a command. “That will be the best for him, and she will take care of him.”

 

Clifton smiled. “I should order him, as Duke, to do that, in case we die.”

 

“I will do what I can to make certain that doesn’t happen,” Marcellon promised sincerely.

 

“There is no hope for us,” Michiya snapped.

 

“You must learn to trust in God,” the High Mage gently advised.

 

“God!” spat Ittosai Michiya disdainfully. “There is no such thing as gods!”

 

Marcellon looked at the Bichurian Castellan and raised an eyebrow. “I have been both mage and physician for thirty years,” Marcellon told him. “I have seen things impossible for medicine or magic, Michiya.”

 

Ittosai laughed contemptuously. “So I have as well. I once thought I was led and protected by a god. I roamed the countryside, doing and seeing miracles. And then this–god–led me back to Dargon. And for what?” Michiya snorted with disdain. “To see a boy murdered, to see the man who was once my lord tried for treason, to be accused of a crime I have not committed, and to see Luthias-sama go mad with the strain! There is no such thing as gods!”

 

“We shall see,” the High Mage answered.

 

***

 

Two long days. Luthias was beginning to wonder exactly how exhausted he could become before he collapsed dead. That would be nice: Fionn Connall, dead from a fall on a horse; Roisart Connall, killed by assassins; Clifton Dargon, beheaded for treason; and Luthias, dead of exhaustion from the trial. It would be the end of the family line.

 

At least he had managed well, he thought. Marcellon had complimented his presentation of the evidence, as had Baron Vladon. Luthias presented the evidence–all the evidence–impartially, as if he didn’t care one way or the other what became of the Duke of Dargon or the Castellan of Connall. Calmly, he questioned Danal the merchant. Luthias called forth Rish Vogel to prove that the man indeed could understand Bichanese (which, unfortunately, he did). Luthias presented the document to the King. Haralan reviewed it, then had the piece of refuse read aloud for all the Court to hear. The Baron of Connall questioned Barons Coranabo and Vladon, who had found the document in the Duke’s office. And Luthias himself corroborated that it was indeed Clifton’s handwriting.

 

Throughout it all, Luthias was impartial as he was with such cases in his history books. Clifton was sober and agitated; Ittosai Michiya was stone calm, as if he hadn’t heard a word. Marcellon seemed simply to be biding his time.

 

Then, it was the High Mage’s turn. He questioned Ittosai Michiya, who swore on all he held holy that he would never do such a thing, and that he had not. Michiya told of the swords he bought, and the chop sticks for Myrande. Clifton, on the stand, said he was surprised at the findings in his desk and also swore he knew nothing of this so-called plot. The Duke also revealed that a thief had broken into his keep a few months ago. They had found the thief where they had found the document: in the Duke’s study.

 

The High Mage questioned Luthias, too, and the Baron of Connall corroborated that he had received as a gift a katana, and that his seneschal, Myrande, had been given the chop sticks. Then Marcellon questioned the nobles of the duchy who had come, every single one, except Luthias. And each said that they never would have expected that Clifton Dargon would betray the Kingdom. Half of them said they didn’t believe it now.

 

Of course, Luthias was unsure of who spoke truth. He had his doubts about that slimy Danal, and he had never quite trusted the Baron of Coranabo. Oh, all had been sworn in by the Master Priest himself, but the Baron of Connall knew that oaths did not bind dishonorable men, and the King would not permit Marcellon to cast a spell that would insure that only truth was spoken. The King believed in honor, as did Luthias, but the King, Baron Connall thought, trusted too much that all people possessed it.

 

And on the third day, the King stood. “We are soon to decide the fate and guilt–or lack of it–of the Duke of Dargon and the Castellan Ittosai Michiya.” Couldn’t *any*one in this Kingdom say his name right? Luthias wondered. “We will hear our nobles’ opinions.”

 

The Duchess of Narragan rose. “Your royal majesty, I advise you to behead the traitors. The evidence which the Duke’s Advocate has presented removes all doubt.”

 

“I doubt the Duke of Dargon is guilty,” Edward Sothos replied to this.

 

“How well do you know him?” argued Dame Martis Westbrook, one of Sir Edward’s two Knight Captains. She was tall, of light brown hair, and hazel eyes.

 

“Dame Martis is correct,” said the Duke of Pyridain, the King’s Royal Treasurer. “We have the evidence here before us, but we don’t know the Duke of Dargon well enough to know how much credit to give his story.”

 

“True,” Baron Vladon agreed. He stood. “Your majesty, Duke Dargon has been a Duke for six years. When Lek Pyle, who had the late Baron of Connall and the current Baron’s brother murdered, went to trial, he spoke of a conspiracy going on for about as long as Duke Dargon has ruled. How are even we, the nobles of his Duchy, to know if he hasn’t been involved all this time?”

 

“Quite so,” Coranabo interjected. “We didn’t grow up with him. He spent most of his time with tutors, or at the University. And we only see him at state functions.”

 

“None of us know him well enough to judge,” Dame Martis concluded.

 

“The Baron of Connall would,” Duchess Tornia Asbridge supplied, smiling. “He grew up with the Duke, and he knows Castellan Ittosai well. Tell me, Baron,” Aunt Tornia began, facing her nephew, “do you think Duke Dargon committed this crime? And what of Ittosai Michiya?”

 

Tiredly, Luthias rose. “Your grace,” he addressed his aunt, then turned to the King. “Your majesty, I am a practical man. I have evidence, physical evidence, which proves the Duke of Dargon guilty. I have witnesses who have sworn oaths and have testified to the guilt of Ittosai Michiya.” Luthias paused, looked King Haralan in the eye. He suddenly felt that his exhaustion had left him, and what remained was strength and certainty. “Your majesty, my cousin has not committed treason, nor has my castellan betrayed the country which has sheltered him.”

 

The collective court murmured at the confidence of his voice and of his conviction. “You sound very sure, Advocate,” the King noted calmly. “You do not believe the evidence?”

 

“No, your majesty, I do not. I believe the Duke and the Castellan.”

 

“I can understand trusting their words above that of the merchant and of Lek Pyle,” the Duchess of Narragan commented, “but above physical proof? How can you be so sure?”

 

“Madam,” Luthias answered calmly, looking at the pretty Duchess, “I know Clifton Dargon, and I know Ittosai Michiya.”

 

“But the documents,” began the Duke of Northfield. “Baron Connall, surely you can’t ignore them. You yourself said that the document was in Duke Dargon’s handwriting and seal.”

 

“I did,” Luthias agreed. “That didn’t mean that Clifton wrote it or sealed it.”

 

“You contradict yourself, sir,” Martis Westbrook pointed out.

 

“Not at all,” Marcellon easily disagreed. “A forger could reproduce Duke Dargon’s hand, and as the incriminating document was found locked in the Duke’s desk, the criminal who broke in and might have put it there could have easily used the Duke’s own seal upon it.”

 

“This is quite an impasse,” the King commented, and the people in the great hall immediately quieted to hear him. “We have convincing evidence that Duke Dargon and Castellan Ittosai have indeed betrayed this country.” Behind Luthias, a door opened. A herald scurried past the Duke’s Advocate and the High Mage and knelt before the King. The King motioned him forward, but continued speaking. “We have equally convincing testimony and logic which prove the opposite. Therefore I order a trial by combat.”

 

There was a loud murmur. “Baron Connall,” the King continued, “as Duke’s Advocate, you must summon the Ducal champion to fight for the Duchy’s good.”

 

“I am the Ducal champion, your majesty,” Luthias announced quietly.

 

“I see,” the King said slowly. On his left, Sir Edward grimaced. “You must fight for their conviction.” King Haralan turned to his High Mage. “You, with the Duke of Dargon and the Castellan of Connall, may name a champion to fight for your cause.”

 

Ittosai Michiya stood and bowed toward the ruler. “Your royal majesty,” the Castellan began slowly and with dignity, “with your permission and the permission of the Court and the Duke, I will fight for our innocence.”

 

Luthias closed his eyes in despair and anger. Yet once again he would be pitted against his friend! He would have to fight for something he didn’t believe in, perhaps cause Michiya’s death–

 

But then he remembered the Sy tourney and exhaled in relief. The duel would be to the death–his own death. Ittosai could beat him, and they both knew it. Luthias was unsure that Michiya would actually kill him; however, at least Clifton and Michiya’s innocence and release would be guaranteed.

 

But, Sable…he hated the thought of dying and leaving her–

 

He stopped the thought swiftly and angrily. Never mind. Clifton would take care of Sable, and she would take care of herself. “When shall we fight?” Luthias inquired quietly. I’m sorry, Sable, but it has to be done.

 

The herald whispered something in his sovereign’s ear. “An ambassador has arrived from the Beinison Empire,” the King announced suddenly. A buzz of curiosity rose from the crowd of nobles. An ambassador from the Emperor of Beinison? Here? “Therefore, we postpone combat to hear him. After that, there need be no delay, if you are ready, Baron Connall.” Luthias nodded. “And you, Castellan Ittosai?” Michiya bowed his head with respect. “Let the ambassador come forward.”

 

Pages strenuously pulled open the heavy double doors leading into the great hall of Crown Castle. Walking nervously but with dignity came two men. One was a blond, blue-eyed boy–he can’t be more than seventeen! Luthias thought in surprise–who must have been the ambassador from the Beinison Emperor Untar II. The other young man, Luthias knew, was not the ambassador; he was Tylane Shipbrook, Sable’s cousin. The young Baron of Connall wondered what he was doing there. As Tylane passed Luthias, he gave the young Baron a pained look which injected panic in Luthias’ heart. Sable!

 

The young ambassador bowed to King Haralan, who nodded respectfully in return. “Greetings,” King Haralan spoke to him. “We welcome you to our home. I am told you are the Count of Tyago?”

 

That boy, a Count? An astonished murmur spread through the Court as quickly as the Red Plague. Why, no man Baranur could hold that authority without having reached twenty-one years! A boy, a Count? Luthias regard the younger man coolly. Well, he held himself well, for a man so young, but the Baron of Connall was certain that Count Tyago was no warrior. He stood incorrectly for that. He was a scholar, Luthias somehow knew. Something in the innocence in Tyago’s face reminded Luthias of his twin, and the Baron of Connall looked away as Count Tyago spoke to the King.

 

“I greet you, your royal majesty, in the name of his Imperial majesty, Emperor Untar,” the Count began in a heavy accent. “I come bringing tidings of peace in this time of war.”

 

“War?” King Haralan questioned. “What mean you, sir? Baranur is not involved in a war.”

 

“Your royal majesty,” the boy-Count began again, “his imperial majesty knows well of the danger you suffer from the heathens in Bichu.” Luthias grimaced at the implication; Michiya’s eyes narrowed at the insult. “The Emperor has sent me to represent him here in your royal majesty’s Court, and to make an offer to you.”

 

Something was nagging at the edge of Luthias’ brain, but he couldn’t focus one it. Tylane sent the Baron of Connall another stricken glance. Luthias worried.

 

“As ambassador, we welcome you,” the King replied. “It is good of the Emperor to send you. What is this offer he proposes, Count Tyago?”

 

“As you will, most likely, soon be at war, your majesty,” the Count of Tyago explained innocently, “his imperial majesty, Untar, offers you a hundred thousand men, troops to protect you from Galicia and the other countries to your east when you send your men to war in Bichu.”

 

The nagging tug turned into clanging bells and war drums. Luthias darted from his chair to where Rish Vogel, the Chronicler, sat. “Does this place have a library?” he hissed at Vogel, who was here acting as Scrivener. Confused, the Chronicler nodded. “Do you know where it is?” Again, Vogel nodded. “Go there, quickly, and bring me a book–’History of the Beinison Emperors.’ Now. Go!”

 

“Why?” Rish Vogel asked, leaning toward Luthias annoyingly. “What for?”

 

“Don’t ask. Do it!” Luthias demanded, shoving the Chronicler out of his seat violently. Vogel gave Luthias the look he might have given a madman, but he scurried out of the room in obedience. Luthias stood straight, noticed Sir Edward giving him a strange stare, and returned to his own seat before the King.

 

“That is truly a gracious offer,” the King was saying as Luthias sat. Apparently, the Count Tyago had elaborated, but Luthias hadn’t heard a word. Vogel had better hurry with that book! “We will indeed consider it. For now, Count Tyago, accept our thanks and our welcome. We will have rooms prepared immediately for you and your companion.”

 

“I thank you, your majesty,” said the boy-Count of Tyago, bowing.

 

“I also thank you, your majesty,” his companion said, “but I have relatives in Magnus. My father, the Baron of Shipbrook, sent me to guide the Count Tyago.”

 

“He did well,” the King praised Tylane’s father. “Our thanks, Lord Shipbrook. Welcome to the Court.” Tylane bowed in gratitude. “If you would be so kind, please escort the Count to the guest rooms. We will hold a feast in your honor tonight, Count Tyago. You are, of course, invited, Lord Shipbrook.”

 

Both of the young men bowed and were escorted out of the throne room. Rish Vogel collided with Tylane on the way in. The Court was making a noise which reminded Luthias of a hornets’ nest. The Wasp King, coming to get us! a hysterical part of Luthias thought gleefully.

 

“What think you, Knight Commander?” the King was saying to his advisor. “A generous offer–”

 

Panting, Rish Vogel dropped a heavy tome on Luthias’ table. Without asking permission to speak, Luthias rose. “Your royal majesty,” the young Baron of Connall spoke urgently, “do not accept the offer!”

 

The King turned toward the daring young noble. “You sound rather sure of yourself, Baron Connall,” he observed, smiling slightly, as if he knew a secret. “What is the matter with it?”

 

“It’s a trick, an old one,” Luthias informed him, his voice quick and concerned. “Listen, your majesty.” Luthias opened the heavy book before him, flipped a few pages until he found what he needed. “‘In this time, the Emperor Radnok VIII wished to take the country of Alannor. It was a great and powerful country, and to take it would involve great losses. The Emperor sent many men to the country, and with them, began a rumor that Alannor’s neighbor, Jardrine, would soon attack. When Alannor sent troops to Jardrine, the Emperor offered troops to Alannor’s King, to help hold the country against Jardrinian invaders. When the troops were settled, the Emperor had effectively occupied the territory.’” Satisfied, Luthias closed the book.

 

“I’ve never heard of this Alannor, or Jardrine,” the Duchess of Narragan protested.

 

“No, of course not, your grace,” Luthias answered her. “They were both…absorbed into the Beinison Empire centuries ago.” Luthias turned his attention back to the monarch. “Your royal majesty, this is an old trick. I can cite at least eight other examples of Beinison doing this. Now they are trying to convince that Bichu will attack us. Then they’ll move their troops in here and never leave.”

 

“That’s preposterous!” the Baron of Coranabo protested. “We know that the Bichanese are going to invade any day. The document–”

 

“Is probably a forgery,” Marcellon finished. “Your royal majesty, if Baron Connall is correct–”

 

“Yes, I see, High Mage. If Baron Connall is correct, then the Beinison Empire has been trying to make us believe Bichu would attack. We then would attack Bichu, and while we were there, the Beinisonians could invade us. Yes, Lord Marcellon, I understand what this means,” Haralan finally answered the High Mage’s unfinished question. The King turned back to Luthias. “Pray continue, Baron Connall.”

 

“Your majesty, this is ridiculous!” Coranabo interrupted. “You have seen the document.”

 

“It is forged. It means nothing,” Luthias asserted scornfully.

 

“You cannot prove it forged,” Coranabo reminded the Duke’s Advocate. “Baron, this is only speculation. May I remind you that as Duke’s Advocate, you must prosecute this case?”

 

“Baron Coranabo,” the King spoke, and the buzzing comments of the Court ceased. “What is important is the truth. Knowledge of the truth of this matter is crucial to the Kingdom. As he has presented the evidence, it is now Baron Connall’s right and duty to seek the truth.”

 

Grateful, Luthias smiled at the King, but Coranabo desperately continued, “The future of this country is an attack from Bichu! Look at the document!”

 

“I did not write that document or order it written,” Clifton Dargon asserted firmly. “Your majesty, it is a forgery.”

 

“Of course you protest your innocence,” Coranabo scoffed. “It is true. You are a traitor. You cannot prove it a forgery.”

 

“I can prove it simply enough,” Marcellon offered, standing placidly. “Your majesty?” At the King’s nod, the High Mage reached out and took the document. Silence covered the Court as Marcellon whispered a spell. The document glowed. Marcellon smiled. “As Baron Connall conjectured, your majesty, a forgery.”

 

“Of course you would say that!” Coranabo shouted. “He is your daughter’s husband, and you are defending him! We grieve for the effect his crimes must be having on you, but you must not–”

 

“I am willing to accept the High Mage’s word,” the King interrupted quietly but very firmly. “Lord Marcellon does not lie.”

 

“What of the merchant’s testimony?” Coranabo pressed urgenty. He was turning a purple shade of red.

 

“He could be lying,” Luthias argued quickly. “I suspect he is. He’s a greedy snake, waiting to strike. And the merchants would profit by a war with Bichu. That’s why Lek Pyle hired the assassins to kill my father and my brother.”

 

“They were hired to kill you, boy, and your cousin, and had they not bungled the affair we wouldn’t be in this tangle now!” Coranabo screamed.

 

The court gasped collectively. “What mean you, that the assassins were to kill Baron Connall and Duke Dargon?” the King demanded ominously.

 

“That’s nothing, your majesty,” Luthias remarked, moving with confidence and strength toward the Baron of Coranabo. “It was revealed in Lek Pyle’s trial that the assassins were to have killed the Duke of Dargon and me. However,” Luthias concluded, standing menacingly directly before Coranabo, “I would like to know what he means by this ‘tangle.’”

 

“It was a slip of the tongue, nothing,” Baron Coranabo supplied quickly.

 

“I have this feeling that you are not telling the truth,” Luthias answered him. If Roisart were here, he would have figured everything out by now. As it was, Luthias didn’t think he was doing so badly. He thought he was beginning to see.

 

“I have the same feeling,” Marcellon agreed, standing with unhurried grace. “I can read your mind, Coranabo.”

 

“You lie!” Coranabo accused.

 

“I do not lie,” Marcellon returned. The High Mage turned toward his King. “With your permission, your majesty, I will ensure that Baron Coranabo does not lie, either.”

 

Gravely, King Haralan nodded his approval. Coranabo leapt over his table, tried to run, but Luthias caught him easily, looped his arms below Coranabo’s armpits, and locked his hands behind his head. Then he lifted the Baron of Coranabo five inches off the floor. “Proceed, High Mage,” Luthias invited, smiling grimly.

 

“I do not lie!” Coranabo protested.

 

Clifton Dargon stood. “Then why did you run?”

 

“Be seated, Lord Dargon,” the King commanded. “Be seated, my lords and ladies.” Everyone except Luthias, Coranabo, and Marcellon sat. “Lord Marcellon?”

 

The High Mage closed his eyes and murmured a chant. Luthias felt static electricity in his hair. Marcellon opened his eyes and looked directly at the Baron of Coranabo. “Now tell His Majesty and the Court,” Marcellon ordered, “of your involvement with this Beinisonian plot.”

 

Coranabo opened his mouth, but closed it suddenly, as if he felt that he now could not lie, and looked away.

 

“I advise you to answer,” the King ordered quietly. “The Baron of Connall looks to the strength and leverage to break your back. If you are, indeed, involved with the plot against his brother and father, I am sure I will have no problem convincing him to do it.”

 

Luthias grinned the smile of an anticipating assassin. “Oh, yes, your majesty, you would. It is too quick.” He looked at Coranabo. “Did you have my father and brother killed?” When Coranabo didn’t answer, Luthias shook him ungently. “Did you?”

 

“Your father–yes. Your brother was to have lived when you and Dargon died. He would have become Duke. We could have trapped him into war,” Coranabo spat defiantly. “I would have married Danza to him, and when the Beinisonians came in, I would have taken, by right of age and family, the Duchy of Dargon.”

 

“You pretentious–” Luthias hissed. “That is why you tried to marry Danza to me!”

 

“What of this treason trial?” the King inquired calmly.

 

“We had to get rid of Duke Dargon. He advised too much against the war with Bichu. We chanced that we could have convinced Baron Connall.” Luthias wanted to squeeze his neck.

 

“And Castellan Michiya?”

 

“A tool,” Coranabo answered defiantly. “Just to accomplish our plot.”

 

“Who,” the King demanded, “is ‘we?’”

 

“I and the Beinisonians.”

 

Luthias growled. “You see, your majesty, I was right. They were planning to invade. They were trying to advise your majesty to invade Bichu, so that they could easily take the country.” The Baron of Connall jostled Coranabo again. “Am I right?”

 

Coranabo was silent for a few more jostlings. “You are right!” Coranabo screamed finally. The Court gasped. “And you would have been mine, you would have married Danza had it not been for that whore of a seneschal of yours–”

 

Abruptly, Luthias thrust the Baron of Coranabo from his hold. Coranabo landed hard on the stone steps of the King’s dais. The King motioned the guards forward, but they did not take him. Their eyes were instead on the Baron of Connall.

 

Luthias had never burned with such white rage. His hands were clenched so tightly that Marcellon feared for the bones, and Clifton, for the first time in his life, realized just how dangerous and deadly his cousin was. Flames raged behind the Baron of Connall’s eyes, and when he spoke, his words were furious and rough. “You had better thank God that you and I are in the presence of the King!” Luthias shouted. “You would have paid dearly for that insult otherwise!”

 

Coranabo laughed malevolently. “I kill your father and brother, and nearly succeed in killing your cousin and your friend, and you worry over an insult!”

 

“The King’s justice will take care of the others,” Luthias spat at him, his words hard and sharp as steel swords. “But that you dare to call a lady in my protection, my ward, my seneschal–” my Sable! “You would have paid dearly.”

 

Coranabo laughed disdainfully.

 

“Take him,” the King commanded the guards. Swiftly, the guards laid hold of the Baron and presented him to his King. “You are guilty of treason,” King Haralan pronounced gravely and clearly, so that all the Court could hear. “It is our duty as King to serve justice.” The King’s face softened, and he smiled at the young Baron of Connall. “It would seem to us that the most just of punishments for you, Coranabo, would be to turn you over to the Baron of Connall.” Luthias flashed the King a wicked, grateful grin. “However, it would hardly serve the law. We therefore strip you of your lands and sentence you to death.”

 

Luthias paled, thinking of tiny Danza Coranabo and Tylane Shipbrook. “Your majesty, please wait,” Luthias called out. The King, puzzled, looked at him. “His death I don’t dispute,” Luthias explained quickly. “He deserves that surely.” The young Baron of Connall frowned. “He deserves it many times over. But his daughters are not guilty of any crime. Don’t take their dowry from them, your majesty. They do not deserve any punishment.”

 

His royal majesty the King raised his eyebrows at the precocious Baron. “You speak wisely, Baron Connall. Bring us a map,” he ordered an assistant. The servant promptly brought the King a map of the Duchy of Dargon. “You own the strip south of the Coldwell,” King Haralan remarked to the prisoner. “We will divide your land in half,” the King determined. He took a pen and drew a line along the river that separated Coranabo into two parts. Then, he crossed out the border between Connall and the southern half of Coranabo’s barony. He stood straight and faced the Court. “I now pronounce that the Duke of Dargon and the Castellan Ittosai Michiya are innocent of all charges and free of the Court.”

 

Luthias closed his eyes, and his shoulders relaxed. He smiled, and put his head on his hands tiredly. Free. He had freed them. He felt weak with relief and shaky with joy.

 

Across the aisle, Ittosai Michiya was smiling at the announcement. Clifton laughed like a boy. Marcellon sat, looking satisfied.

 

The King turned angrily to the Baron of Coranabo. “We pronounce you guilty of treason, Coranabo. You are stripped of your title, and of your lands south of the Coldwell. You are sentenced to death.” The King looked at the guards. “Release your hold, but do not allow him to escape. Baron Connall, come forward.”

 

Slowly, Luthias obeyed and knelt. Haralan looked at him benevolently. “We forced you to try this case,” the King revealed. “We wanted to test you. You have surpassed the test, Lord Connall, and you have shown wisdom and control beyond your years.” The King raised his eyes to behold the entire Court. “In years past, our ancestors were wont to give the title of Count to those who served them well and loyally.” King Haralan unsheathed the decorative sword that hung at his side and touched each of Luthias’ shoulders with it. “We pronounce you now, Luthias of Connall, in reward for your loyalty and service, Count of Connall, with the lands of your ancestors and those we have taken from Coranabo to support that title.”

 

Shaking, Luthias stared at the King with weak astonishment. Him, a Count? But the title Count was given only to those who had served the King in the highest manner. It was so rare–the last of the Counts had died two hundred years ago! And he had done nothing outstanding. He had only done what any man would have.

 

“Rise, Count Connall,” the King ordered. His legs feeling rubbery, Luthias did so. “Because of your wisdom, we also appoint you a our ambassador to Beinison, to reject their proposal and represent us in the Beinisonian Court.” King Haralan then spoke directly to the new Count. “It is rare to find a man who so trusts the King’s justice,” Haralan remarked. “We will serve all Coranabo’s other crimes by severing his head. We give you leave, Count Connall, to avenge the insult to your ward.”

 

Luthias smiled calmly and bowed his gratitude to King Haralan. He turned toward Coranabo.

 

Sir Edward suddenly spoke softly. “Remember, Count Connall, that you may not draw a sword in the presence of your King.”

 

Luthias smiled at the Knight Commander. “I do not need one, your Excellency,” the Count of Connall stated placidly, and without taking his eyes off of Edward Sothos, Luthias slammed the back of his hand against Coranabo’s jaw. His jaw snapped loudly, and he flew fifteen feet into the waiting arms of the King’s guards.

 

“Thank you, your majesty,” Luthias said, and he went to his cousin and his friend.

 

***

 

Giddy with happiness, the new Count of Connall was drinking that evening at the feast. His cousin, the Duke of Dargon, was laughing, happy that it was over. Messengers had already been sent to the Duchess of Dargon, and to Myrande. Everything was finally all right.

 

Sir Edward watched Count Luthias with the eyes of an older brother. Perhaps young Luthias could actually get some sleep tonight. And then, by pronouncement of the King, Luthias would return to his home and quickly leave it for Cabildo, the capital of the Beinison Empire.

 

“You did it, Luthias-sama,” Ittosai Michiya said to his lord. Michiya was grinning, ecstatic at his release, and at his appointment. The King of Baranur had honored Luthias’ castellan by making him a royal emissary to Bichu. “And now, I may go home.”

 

“Yes, but you have to take that idiot Chronicler with you,” Luthias pointed out jokingly. The King had mandated that Rish Vogel accompany the Ambassador to Bichu. Ittosai Michiya rolled his eyes. “You will come back?”

 

“In the spring, when you return from Beinison,” Michiya promised. “We will compete in the Melrin tournament, and perhaps, this time, I will not allow you to win.” Luthias grinned and pushed on the Bichurian’s arm.

 

“Maybe I’ll give you both baldrics and save us all the hassle,” Clifton muttered good-naturedly. “You two are the best we’ve got.”

 

“The father speaks,” Luthias mused, his smile lop-sided. “Watch Lauren give birth to seven full-grown Knights. Dargon will be well protected.” Luthias became serious. “Clifton, will you be regent of my lands while I’m away?”

 

“Of course.” The Duke of Dargon looked into his cousin’s eyes. “What do you plan to do about Myrande?”

 

“I’m giving her a choice,” Luthias announced. “Either she marries the man she loves or–”

 

“Good evening, gentlemen,” came an even greeting. The Duke of Dargon, his cousin, and Ittosai Michiya stood as the King approached. He was accompanied by the High Mage and the Knight Commander. The three man bowed to the monarch. “I see you are enjoying yourselves. You look much better, Count Connall; I am glad.”

 

“Thank you, your majesty,” Luthias returned, bowing again.

 

“You have told me, Lord Ittosai, that you will enjoy returning to Bichu,” the King prompted.

 

“Indeed, your majesty,” Michiya replied, bowing and grinning. “I can now return to my family with immunity.”

 

“And how do you like your reward, lord Count?”

 

Luthias appeared to think about it, although there was no need. “I never wanted it, your majesty. I never wanted to be Baron or Count or Ambassador. I only wanted to be a Knight.”

 

King Haralan laughed. “So does my elder son, Kalien; yet he too must bear a title. Sir Edward assures me, however, that you will be Knighted eventually.” The King came forward and put a hand on Luthias’ shoulder. “I must confess, Luthias, that the reward I gave you is more to my benefit than yours.” The Count of Connall gave him a serious look. “You receive the land, certainly, and you will become one of the richest men in your Duchy, if you aren’t already. But the title Count: it isn’t that you don’t deserve it, but I cannot send Beinison a nobleman of less rank than the one they sent to Baranur.” Luthias nodded his understanding. It was a wise move. “And, Count Connall, your skill in war will make you useful to me there.” Again, the Count Connall nodded. “Your knowledge and your control will make you a good ambassador, Count Connall.”

 

“He will make you proud, your majesty,” the Duke of Dargon assured his King. “He has always made his lords proud.”

 

Luthias smiled gratefully at his cousin, then turned back to the King, who had not removed his hand from Luthias’ shoulder. “As the rewards are as much to your benefit as mine, Luthias, is there nothing your King can give you that would be to your benefit alone? Is there something, besides the Knighthood that you must earn, that you want?”

 

Luthias gazed at the floor and sadly shook his head. “No, your majesty. What I want you cannot give me.”

 

Haralan raised his eyebrows. “Ask. As King I have quite a bit of power.”

 

“You cannot give me the lives of my father and twin,” Luthias stated flatly.

 

“That is a bit difficult,” Haralan admitted with amused ruefulness, “even for a King.”

 

“That is a bit difficult even for a mage,” Edward remarked cheerfully.

 

“Difficult for a mage?” laughed Marcellon. “That’s difficult for a god!”

 

“What else would you want?” the King pressed. “There must be something.”

 

“I want to go home,” Luthias sighed, “but you cannot let me do that; you need me in Beinison.” Luthias took a heavy breath. “The only other thing I want is for Sable to be happy.”

 

The King appeared confused. “Forgive me; who is Sable?”

 

“My ward, Lady Myrande.”

 

“Ah, the seneschal whom Coranabo maligned so blithely,” King Haralan said. “And to make her happy is beyond my power?”

 

“Yes, your majesty,” Luthias affirmed. “I cannot tell you how to do it. She loves someone who doesn’t love her.”

 

The King appeared grim. “I think,” Ittosai Michiya ventured, a knowing smile on his visage, “that I could tell you how.”

 

“Yes, your majesty,” Clifton added. The Duke of Dargon apparently shared insight. “I know how.”

 

“Well, then, my lords,” the King began, “if–”

 

A rough pull tugged Luthias’ face away from the King. A frantic Tylane Shipbrook stood there. “Luthias!” he cried. “Thank God I’ve found you!”

 

The Count of Connall gripped Tylane’s shoulders. “What is it?” Luthias inquired, the worry he had felt previously returning. Tylane’s eyes were as pained as before. “What is it? What’s happened?”

 

“My father’s got Myrande,” Tylane began. “He took her and is going to marry her to Oleran on the twenty-fourth.”

 

All the blood seemed to disappear from Luthias’ face. Luthias felt his chest go numb, and he stared like a madman at his friend. He shook Tylane’s shoulder in panic and frustration. “How? I had her guarded– My God, they’ll kill her!” Sable! What would they do to her? If they– Daydreams of rape, torture, and pain filled Luthias’ mind. Wildly, he tried to put her away and listen.

 

“Father drugged her and took her with guards. I doubt your archer Macdougalls even knew there was anything wrong.”

 

Luthias face was ashen, and his eyes were wild. Voices seemed far away and unreal–my God, Sable!–but the shoulders were warm. Again, he shook Tylane. “Drugged her? Then he’ll drug her again! She’ll marry Oleran and he’ll–My God–!” Sable! And I am supposed to protect her! Sable!

 

“No, she’s not eating,” Tylane explained.

 

“Not eating?” Luthias’ voice rose to a squeak. A vision of beautiful Sable, ravaged by hunger till she was little more than a skeleton covered with skin, flashed before his eyes. He released Tylane and shot a frantic hand through his hair. “Not eating? My God, she’ll starve before I can get her–she’ll die–” My God, Sable dead!

 

“No–Warin’s sneaking her food,” Tylane explained. “But–”

 

Luthias had turned to Clifton and gripped his cousin’s shoulders desperately. “We’ve got to go get her, Clifton!”

 

“I know, I know,” Clifton attempted to soothe Luthias. “We’re leaving in the morning.”

 

“No, now!” Luthias demanded. “God knows what they–Oleran–my God!” he finished, his oath powerful. “My God– Michiya,” he turned to his castellan.

 

“I will help you,” Ittosai vowed. “If they have harmed her–”

 

“Harmed her?” Luthias repeated with incredulous anger. The Count Connall’s face became a fiery mask of fury. His voice became rough and ferocious. “If they hurt her,” he began, seething, “if they even touch her, I’ll kill them!”

 

“So you *are* in love with her,” Edward’s soft chuckle interrupted the Count’s tirade. Luthias turned to the Knight Commander and stared in panicked astonishment. “I had thought so, but–”

 

“Of course I’m in love with her!” Luthias shouted. “Do you think I’d be–” As if he had been slapped, Luthias abruptly stopped and blinked. He turned slowly to Clifton and Ittosai Michiya. “Did I just say,” Luthias asked deliberately, “what I think I just said?”

 

Ittosai’s grin was completely unmerciful. “Yes,” he answered with simplicity and triumph.

 

“And it’s high time, too, manling,” Clifton growled.

 

“I’ve got to go get her,” Luthias was mumbling. “I can’t let them–”

 

“I can give you her hand,” the King offered.

 

“Your majesty, I’m her guardian,” Luthias reminded the King. “I don’t need you to give me that. But you can give me this, your majesty: allow me to leave immediately.”

 

“Go pack your things,” the King granted, and Luthias dashed off with dragging Ittosai Michiya in much the same way he would have taken Roisart. “Duke Dargon, come with me.”

 

***

 

Just as the ship was docking to take Luthias back to the Duchy of Dargon, the King summoned the new Count to a private audience. Luthias wanted to tear his hair in frustration at the delay, but he went, his walk quick and frantic.

 

The King sat in his private chambers in a comfortable chair. Opposite him sat the High Mage and the Duke of Dargon. The Knight Commander stood nearby. Luthias bowed breathlessly and hastily. “You are ready to leave then, Count Connall?”

 

“As soon as I can collect my cousin, Lord Ittosai, and Rish Vogel,” Luthias confirmed, his voice as hurried and breathy as his movements. “I ask your majesty that you allow the High Mage to come as well.” The King raised his eyebrows. “He is a physician; they may have hurt her.” And Luthias grimaced. He hated thinking about that. What they could have done to her in all this time…

 

“I have searched for her in my crystal,” Marcellon told Luthias. “She is in a tower, but she is unhurt.”

 

“Still–” Luthias began.

 

“I have no objection, Marcellon,” the King cut the Count off. “Go; it will give the Count some peace of mind, and the Baron of Shipbrook and the Baron of Oleran may indeed hurt Lady Myrande.” Marcellon smiled and assented with a nod. “Now,” King Haralan continued, returning his attention to the anxious Count, “to business. I have given your cousin the Duke authority in this matter. If your ward is unhurt, the Barons of Oleran and Shipbrook are to be sent here to the Keep. If they have harmed her in any way, they are to be executed. I will not tolerate this sort of behavior in my Kingdom.”

 

Luthias nodded and wished with all his might that King would hurry. The more time they wasted–!

 

The King smiled at him. The King seemed to be full of smiles, and Luthias wished to leave. They had to get Sable! “You love this young woman, do you not?” To expedite matters, Luthias nodded once. “Will you marry her?”

 

“Yes, your majesty,” Luthias answered confidently. Clifton grinned. Luthias followed suit. “Perhaps even if she refuses me.” Clifton laughed loudly at the idea.

 

“Very well. Take this.” King Haralan offered the Count a piece of parchment. “You asked me to gain Lady Myrande’s happiness. The Duke of Dargon has explained to me how this lady loves a man, unknown to him. Ask her to marry you, Count Connall. And if she refuses you, give her this paper. It will, I hope, insure the happiness you seek for her.” Luthias took the parchment but gave the King a puzzled look. “It orders that she marries the man she loves.”

 

“But I don’t know who–”

 

“It’s all right, manling,” Clifton assured him. “I know.”

 

“Now, if you give me leave, your majesty–” Luthias began hastily.

 

The King laughed. “I hope that you will allow this your bride to come to the War Council I have called. Duke Dargon, see if you can bring her. She must be quite a lady to have caused this much of a panic.”

 

Clifton laughed, and Edward confirmed, “A veritable Alana, your majesty.”

“Alana?” laughed the King.

 

“What better consort for the war-god?” chuckled Marcellon. “She is Alana indeed.”

 

“Have you gotten her the moon-jewel, then?” the King asked Luthias, his blue eyes twinkling.

 

“Moon-jewel?” Luthias questioned. “What are you talking about?”

 

“It’s this legend,” Clifton explained. “You see, the war-god–”

 

“A legend? You sit here telling me stories, and Sable could by dying!”

 

“Get him out of here, Dargon,” the King laughed. “God speed you. Marcellon, take care of them. And, Count Connall,” Luthias, half out the door, turned. “I can give you two weeks once you reach Dargon. No more. A fortnight after you reach Dargon, I want you on a ship bound for Cabildo.”

 

“Yes, your majesty,” Luthias assented, and he raced to the ship.

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