Despite the fact that Griswald was weary unto the very marrow of his old bones, he rose with the dawn to await the arrival of Lek Pyle, the merchant from Magnus, and two thugs–assassins–he promised to produce. It did not sit well with Griswald that he would be instrumental in the death of his lord, and of the lord’s young cousin Luthias Connall, whom Griswald had healed twice yesterday. Of course, Griswald was more uncomfortable with the thought of his own death, which Pyle had been threatening for sometime now, than with the death of Luthias.
That strange, rhythmic knock, which by now sickened Griswald, sounded at the door. Reluctantly, but quickly–it would not do to keep Lek Pyle waiting, murderer or no–Griswald opened the door. Pyle gave the physician the grin of a serpent and pushed past him into the physician’s laboratory. Two lithe young men followed. They both carried crossbows. As they crossed to the center of the room, Griswald silently shut the door.
“Well,” Lek Pyle demanded immediately, but not loudly, “have you finished it, Griswald?”
Griswald nodded. “It’s done, and ready for you.” He went to a cabinet with three complex locks on them. The physician took out a large ring of keys, and, one by one, he released the locks. He then opened the cabinet. In it were various dark bottles, all marked with skulls. The physician chose one, withdrew it, and locked the cupboard.
Griswald handed the bottle to Pyle. “Immediate, as you asked,” reported Griswald laconically, staring stonily at the merchant’s beady eyes.
“On contact?” asked the merchant.
“Not quite,” Griswald explained. “Put into a wound or an opening, it means instant death. On healthy skin, it is ineffective. You said you would be using crossbows….”
Pyle smiled again. “Yes. These two gentlemen–” he indicated the young men, “will attend the ball with me tonight. At the precise moment, they will fire upon Lord Dargon and his cousin Luthias of Connall, and then we will finally have an end to this matter. Did you get the seating plans for the banquet tonight, Griswald?”
Gravely, Griswald nodded. Out of a pocket, he took a grimy paper. Opening, he pointed to the diagram. “Lord Dargon is to sit at the head of the table, between his two cousins. Roisart will be on his left–your right, gentlemen. He will be the one seated next to me, and he is to be left alone. The one seated between Dargon and the Bichurian noble is your target. You, gentlemen, will be hidden outside of these windows.” Griswald moved his finger to the symbols of the said structures. “I will open them if they remain closed.”
“Very good,” Pyle slithered in appreciation. “You have done well, Griswald, after all.” Griswald did not trust the merchant’s smile. “I will see to it, when I convince the King of Baranur to war with Bichu, that you are well rewarded. Now,” he continued, “these gentlemen need only put some of this poison on their crossbow bolts?”
“Exactly,” Griswald confirmed. “The shot need not be exact. All it need do is break the skin, and the…” Griswald struggled to find a proper word. “The Lord of Dargon and Luthias Connall will die.”
At sunset that night, in the great ivory ballroom of Dargon Keep, the musicians tuned their instruments and began to play a ditty for the nobles of the duchy of Dargon. The night was warm, and Dargon instructed the guards (and there were many on hand that night) to open the windows. The Lord of Dargon himself stood near the door of the ballroom, with Roisart, Luthias, and Michiya by his side. Few guests had arrived as yet, and those few, after greeting the Lord and his cousins, were mingling. Roisart enjoyed the momentarily lull. It wasn’t often he got to stand in the great ivory ballroom, built by his and Dargon’s grandfather. It was a colossal enclosure, actually coated with rare ivory, and decorated with whimsical stained glass windows. There were twelve windows in the room, all exquisitely beautiful. Now, Roisart stared at his favorite. It was a gorgeous piece of art, and nothing, not even the two guards standing to either side of it, could detract from its beauty. In it, a exquisite red-haired woman, clad in a sea-blue gown, stood before a mirror, in which was reflected a handsome, dark-haired man. It was from a legend, an ancient and romantic one, that had been a favorite fairy tale with Roisart ever since he was a boy. He had often longed for a woman like her…
And tonight, there were plenty of beautiful young ladies to adorn the ballroom. And Roisart and his brother were heirs to Connall and Dargon, making them two of the three most eligible men in the township (their cousin, the Lord of Dargon himself, was the third). Roisart smiled to himself as he looked forward to a night of dancing and conversing. Luthias was not as pleased. He was not as comfortable as his brother in the ballroom. Often, his brother, his father, and his cousin were the only people around whom he was not tongue-knotted. And he felt out of place tonight; although he and Roisart had put on white blouses for the evening’s ball, they still wore the mourning blue in their trousers, and on bands on their arms. It made Luthias feel out of place, like a ugly, dying weed in a rose garden.
Dargon was greeting a group of merchants from Magnus. “Lord Ittosai,” Dargon said to his guest, “this is Lek Pyle, a merchant who often travels to your country. Merchant Pyle, this is Lord Ittosai Michiya.”
Pyle, master of facial disguises, smiled pleasantly. “An honor, my lord,” he said, although it was unclear at which lord he was speaking. “These are my sons,” he introduced two graceful swains behind him.
“Welcome to Dargon,” Clifton said formally. “Pray enjoy yourselves in my house.”
“I thank you,” said Pyle, and he and his “sons” moved away.
Dargon began greeting the next people, introducing those who were unacquainted to his cousins, who nodded, and to Michiya, who bowed in the manner of his country. Luthias and Roisart did, however, bow to the matrons, and bring the hands of the young ladies to their cheeks politely. Many of the young girls fussed over the twins and their cousin, which Roisart viewed as a great compliment. Luthias’ attitude was more realistic. He knew that the women only wished to be attached to the name of Dargon and Connall, not to Luthias, or Roisart, or Clifton.
“Ah, Roisart, Luthias,” Dargon was saying, “this is Lord Shipbrook, his lady Amada, and their son, Master Tylane.” The twins nodded to the lord, bowed to his wife, and shook hands with their son, a contemporary. “Enjoy my hospitality,” Dargon invited, and the people moved on. “Good evening, Lord Coranabo, my lady Coranabo. Lord Ittosai, I present the Lord Edward Coranabo, his lady Melrinna, and their daughters, Misses Danza and Kellina. My lord, my lady, young ladies, I believe you already are acquainted with my noble cousins, Roisart and Luthias Connall.”
“My lord, my lord!” came a call behind them. Dargon and his companions turned. Before them stood a breathless man, dressed in slightly outdated formal wear, and bearing dust in his hair.
Dargon smiled congenially, and actually, Roisart thought, he looked rather pleased. The new arrival leaned toward his lord. “I am glad that you have finally decided to join us, Chronicler,” the Lord of Dargon admitted. “Do you know–”
The Chronicler leaned backwards, as if he were about to recite something stiffly. “My lord, I must speak with you privately.”
Dargon raised his eye brows. The Chronicler leaned forward. “I am afraid that is impossible, Chronicler. You know the demands of society as well as I.” The Chronicler scowled at the very thought. “Leave your studies and enjoy yourself.” The Chronicler scowled again. “Have you met my special guests tonight? These are my cousins, Roisart and Luthias, the sons of the late Baron of Connall. And this is Lord Ittosai Michiya, a noble of Bichu.”
Taken aback, the Chronicler gasped, and then bowed to the Bichurian noble. “Konban wa,” the Chronicler pronounced.
More surprised than the Chronicler, Ittosai bowed in return and repeated the greeting.
“Ogenki desu ka?” asked the Chronicler. Roisart recognized the language, and some of the words from his readings. He cursed himself for not trying to speak the language with Ittosai beforehand.
“Hai, anata wa?” answered the Bichurian.
“Hai, okagesama de,” replied the Chronicler.
The Bichanese noble was smiling brightly. In the local tongue, Michiya breathed in appreciative surprise, “I did not know that anyone here spoke my language.”
“I have studied your poets, my lord,” the Chronicler answered proudly. The Chronicler then announced to the noble twins and Ittosai Michiya alike, “My lords, I am Rish Vogel, Chronicler to the Lord of Dargon.”
“A Chronicler?” Roisart asked with interest. “What do you do for my cousin, Chronicler?”
“Research, m’ young lord.” answered Rish Vogel good naturedly.
“What do you research?” Luthias wanted to know seriously.
“The truth,” the Chronicler answered with light jesting. He reached forward and actually pinched Luthias’ cheek. “Is that not what we all seek in our own way?” The musicians abruptly changed tempo. “Ah, a dance I know!” Vogel exclaimed. “Excuse me, my lords, but if I must suffer through this, I might as well show off what little knowledge I have of these arts.”
Luthias wore a tight, angry expression, but he waited until the Chronicler was far out of range before he growled wrathfully, “If he ever pinches my cheek again, I’ll kill him!” Ittosai chuckled; Clifton and Roisart nearly split with laughter.
Roisart quieted and stared at the slightly dusty Chronicler, who was capering with a lively lady on the dance floor. “Don’t you think you should find out what he wanted, Clifton? He seemed quite excited about something. It might be important.”
The Lord of Dargon shook his head. “No, Roisart. Knowing what he is investigating, he’s only probably found the middle name of our great-great-great aunt.” Luthias and his brother exchanged confused looks. “He’s doing genealogical research,” Dargon explained. Clifton looked out the door at the setting sun. “It’s near time for me to begin the celebration officially,” he mused. He turned to Ittosai and his cousins. “Accompany me, my lords,” he invited formally. “The guests will be announced by herald from now on, and there’s no need for us to be standing by the door when we should be dancing.”
“I do not know any of your dances,” Michiya protested.
“We’ll teach you,” Luthias promised mischievously.
“He better be in one piece afterwards!” warned Dargon.
“Don’t worry, Clifton. I’ll keep Luthias on a leash,” Roisart volunteered with a smile.
“You can try,” Luthias challenged his brother with easy humor.
“Behave, you two,” the exasperated Lord of Dargon ordered. He and his cousins and Ittosai Michiya waded through the guests to the dais. There, Dargon nodded to the herald.
“My lords and my ladies,” the herald cried importantly. “His noble grace, the Lord Duke of Dargon. Lord Roisart Connall and Lord Luthias Connall. Lord Ittosai Michiya of Bichu.”
The four lords stepped onto the dais as the company present bowed formally. Dargon acknowledged their tribute with a sincere, lordly nod. “My lords and ladies,” said Clifton Dargon, “let the celebration begin.” Quickly, he got off the dais, and just as quickly, his cousins and Ittosai followed.
“I do not like being looked at by so many eyes,” complained the Bichurian, almost sheepishly. “It is like being a…”
“Target,” Luthias supplied crisply.
“That wasn’t wise, getting up there,” Roisart added. “We were perfect shots, Clifton.”
“I’ve got guards on top of guards here,” Clifton repeated for the forty-eighth time. “I’ve got guards on the floor. I’ve got guards at the windows. I have guards outside the windows, and by all the doors. You know all this, Roisart. You’re beginning to worry as much as Luthias.”
Roisart smiled. “Never, Clifton.” Roisart turned to Ittosai. “We’ll have to find a dancing partner for you, Michiya-san. You need to dance. Now Luthias, of course, will not dance.”
“I may,” Luthias conceded in the tone of a threat.
Roisart laughed. “We’ll see.” He took Michiya off to the side. Clifton nodded at Luthias, a signal to be sociable and mingle about, and the Lord of Dargon glided around the room to some of the older people, who sat in chairs under the stained glass windows.
Luthias was just about to find one of those chairs for himself. No sense in standing around looking foolish. Then he heard the herald announce the Winthrop family. Baron Winthrop was an old friend of Luthias and Roisart’s father, and the twins had been playmates of the Winthrops’ daughter, Pecora. Luthias decided to go greet the Winthrops and ask Pecora for a dance, even though dancing was not his favorite activity. To his surprise, Luthias found his brother with the Winthrops.
Old man Winthrop smiled at Luthias’ arrival. “Never could keep you two far apart, eh?” said the old Baron, and he chuckled loudly at his own joke. “Sorry about your father, Roisart–or are you Luthias? Never could keep you two boys straight…”
Roisart exchanged a conspiratorial, mildly annoyed, mildly amused look with his brother, then they returned to the conversation. “Thank you, Baron,” Roisart replied formally.
“Well, it isn’t the time or place for sorrowing,” Winthrop asserted. “Come along, Marcellon, let these young ones to themselves. I’ll introduce you to the young Lord of Dargon.” A stately man dressed in red nodded to the twins gravely and followed Baron Winthrop away. The Baroness followed, after the twins bowed politely to her, leaving Pecora and another young lady, of blue-green eyes and sable hair, alone with the twins. Roisart then lifted Pecora’s hand and placed it gently next to his cheek.
As Luthias touched Pecora’s hand to his cheek, Roisart lifted the hand of the other young lady, who stood behind Pecora. “Forgive me, my lady,” Roisart apologized. “I am Roisart Connall.”
“Forgive my rudeness,” Pecora apologized, blushing profoundly. Luthias, who still held her hand, squeezed it lightly. Poor Pecora, he thought. She’s still having a hard time of it. Pecora’s face lightened, and she indicated the beautiful young woman next to her. Roisart’s eyes were shining as she introduced, “This is my cousin, Lady Lauren Equiville. Lauren, these are the twin sons of the late Baron of Connall, Lord Roisart,” Pecora indicated the correct twin, “and Lord Luthias.”
“Good evening,” Lady Lauren greeted the twins pleasantly. “I am happy to meet you, my lords.”
Realizing that Lauren was perhaps a little older than his accepted age group, Luthias bowed. He felt a little wary; there was that light in Roisart’s eyes again.
Roisart simply smiled at the ravishing lady and asked, “My lady Lauren, would you like to dance?”
“Certainly,” Lauren accepted, with an enchanting smile. And the two gracefully stepped away.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Pecora asked Luthias as they watched Lauren and Roisart dance. Luthias agreed wholeheartedly, but gravely. He had certainly seen the beauty, and felt it. “She won’t hurt Roisart, I know,” Pecora assured him, seeing the concern in his face. “She…isn’t like that. Besides, she’s five and twenty, Luthias. Roisart is too young for her.”
Luthias whirled toward Pecora. “Dance with me, Pecora.”
Smiling a smile that seemed veiled, Pecora took Luthias’ hand, and he guided her, in time to the music, onto the dance floor. Luthias gazed into her eyes, and she looked at their shoes. “You still haven’t heard anything,” Luthias surmised. Pecora gave a little, shamed nod. “I’m sorry, Pecora.” He gripped her waist a little more tightly. “I can’t image what Kite–”
“Please,” choked Pecora.
“You should have loved Roisart instead,” Luthias chided in gentle tones.
“Roisart loves once a week,” Pecora announced bluntly.
More often than that, Luthias thought. But he said, “But no one has ever returned his love.” Pecora swallowed a bulk of tears. Luthias held her tighter. “I’m so sorry, Pecora.”
“Do you know, the last time I danced, Luthias, the last time I danced, I danced with Kite, here on this floor–” Her voice broke, and a little sob escaped. A tear trickled onto her dark lips.
“Let’s take a walk in the garden, Pecora,” Luthias whispered gently. “Let’s go away from all these eyes, and you can cry all you wish.” Without waiting for her consent, Luthias led her from the room.
Across the floor, Lauren watched the departure of her cousin. “Have you known Pecora long?” she asked the admiring Roisart.
Roisart grinned like an open sunflower. “Why yes, my lady,” he answered cheerfully, gracefully leading his partner. “Since Luthias and Pecora and I were small children.” He glanced again at the departing couple. “I never knew that Luthias had any particular–”
“It isn’t that,” Lauren interrupted with the voice of the spring breezes. “Do you know what would make my cousin cry at a ball?”
“She’s still not over Kite,” mused Roisart, confused and almost hurt. “I tell you, my lady, Pecora is like a sister to Luthias and me. When Kite Talador disappeared and left Pecora, we knew how much she was hurt. If Kite isn’t dead and ever returns, Luthias would kill him on sight. As for myself, I only wish I could understand why he didn’t come back.”
“She wouldn’t confide in me,” Lauren confessed. “I would have told her that he won’t be returning. And she loves him.” A wistful look crossed Lauren’s blue-green eyes. “It is a beautiful thing to be loved.”
“You are a beautiful woman worthy of love, my lady,” Roisart returned in a courtly manner. Lauren restrained her laughter and smiled sweetly. Then they danced past a window. Roisart began to explain the legend to Lauren, but she knew it better than he did, to his surprise.
Clifton, Lord Duke of Dargon, surveyed the ballroom with satisfaction. It was a beautiful night. The breezes were caressing the keep with the perfume of the sea, and the dancers pranced with the grace of gods. The music was lulling and festive at once. The talk was cheerful, animated. The odd ballroom that his grandfather had fashioned seemed beautiful and contented, like a satisfied lioness. And everyone was enjoying himself; even Rish Vogel and Ittosai Michiya were dancing. Only the guards detracted from the festivity. And they were necessary, Dargon reminded himself.
“Clifton!” he heard one of the twins cry. The Lord of Dargon turned, and Roisart and a lady, the most beautiful and completely captivating woman he had ever seen, stood before him. “Clifton,” said Roisart again, “let me present you to the Lady Lauren, lately of Magnus. She’s a cousin of the Winthrops’. My lady, my noble cousin, Clifton, Lord Duke of Dargon.”
Clifton’s brown eyes met the lady’s. Dargon took her hand and bowed low. He pressed her hand to his cheek. “My lady,” greeted the Lord of Dargon amicably. “How do you do?”
He rose, and smiled at the lady with quiet pleasantness. “My lord,” she greeted. She returned the smile and dropped a curtsy.
“I have to go find Luthias, Clifton,” Roisart explained, “and I didn’t want to abandon the lady…”
Lauren smiled, laughter in her eyes at the fact that Roisart apparently considered her too fragile to leave alone. Clifton shared the mirth, but, like the lady, kept his silence. “It’s all right, Roisart,” the Lord of Dargon announced, nodding to his cousin. “Go find your brother.” Leaning closer to his cousin, Dargon hissed, “And get him in here, before he’s killed!” Roisart nodded gravely and, trying not to appear as if he were in a hurry, made his way out of the room.
Lord Dargon turned to the Lady Lauren. “You are from Magnus, my lady?” the Lord inquired politely. Dargon politely offered the lady a chair, and she sat. Gracefully, Dargon seated himself beside her.
Lauren nodded. “Yes, my lord,” she answered politely. “Do you know the city?”
Dargon nodded. “A little, my lady. I went to the university there for a year.”
The lady gave Dargon a look of admiration. “Why, my lord,” she noted, appreciative, “you must be near a genius. It took me four years to complete the program–” She stopped, as if an inspiration overtook her. “Oh, no. I beg your pardon, my lord,” she apologized. She looked mortified and quite contrite, but she did not, Clifton noted, blush at her error. “I should have realized why you were only in Magnus a year.”
Dargon smiled crookedly and laughed a moment to put her at ease. “My lady Lauren, how are you to know what brought me home?”
“I…” Lauren lowered her eyes, then looked Dargon in the face again. “I sometimes just know things, my lord. Not always, and not always important things. But sometimes I just know. And,” she continued, “if that were not enough, the young age at which you are Duke and my common sense should have been enough to make me realize what must have happened, that it was your father’s death and not your wits which brought you early home. Pray forgive me, your grace.”
“It’s quite all right, my lady,” Dargon assured her earnestly, then he laughed. “Roisart will love you. He rejoices in the unusual.”
“He’s a good lad,” Lauren praised him. “He will like my father.”
The musicians started a new tune. Without realizing it, Dargon began to tap his foot to the beat. The night was getting better and better; it was refreshing to speak to someone, besides his own family, who, undaunted by his title, was completely capable of holding a coherent conversation with him, instead of pleasantries.
Lord Dargon stood. Lady Lauren gazed up at the majestic, young lord inquiringly. “Will you dance, my lady?” the Lord of Dargon invited congenially, offering Lauren his arm. She took it with another smile, and allowed herself to be led away. Lauren was a gay partner, and a lively and graceful one. Clifton was no great dancer, but his movements were strong and sure. For once in his life, Clifton found himself truly enjoying dancing.
“To what do I owe your visit to our city, Madam?” Dargon asked the lady as they danced.
Lauren’s smile froze momentarily. She hesitated a fraction of a moment before she spoke. “My father wished to visit his brother, Lord Winthrop,” she answered. Abruptly, she stated, “I’m afraid your young cousin has fallen in love with me.”
Dargon grinned. “Oh, that’s all right, my lady. Roisart falls in loves every few days. He’ll treat you normally by early next week.” Lauren stared at the lord, unsure whether to laugh or be appalled. “He’s only a boy, my lady. And if he doesn’t leave off the infatuation, Luthias will straighten him out, surely.” Dargon opened his mouth again to inquire why she and her father were in the city, but remembering her earlier reaction, shut it.
Observing the lord’s behavior, Lauren asked, “My lord, am I making you uncomfortable?”
“Not at all,” Dargon answered enthusiastically.
“What did you study in the university?” Lauren asked.
“What did you think of Fernusius Cai’s philosophy of laws?” Lauren asked, quite seriously.
Dargon stared a moment, but gave her a thoughtful and well considered answer. Lauren listened attentively, then gave her own opinion. Dargon had never expected Fernusias Cai’s philosophy to reach him in the ivory ballroom, but he discussed it with Lauren, whose intelligence and wisdom regarding the work (and philosophy in general) impressed him, as they danced past the open windows.
Roisart had gone out into the garden to find Luthias and Pecora. He understood why Luthias had taken her out of the ballroom, but it wasn’t safe outside, even with all the guards. After an unsuccessful tour of the shrubbery, Roisart met his brother as he came in from the garden, alone.
“Where’s Pecora?” Roisart asked.
Luthias seemed large and ominous. “I sent her home. I would go with her, but Clifton…”
Roisart’s mouth was tight, and he was as concerned as his brother was angry. “She’s still–” Luthias nodded with the sharp grimness of death. “The lady–her cousin Lauren–says Kite isn’t coming back.”
“I tell you what, Roisart,” Luthias began fiercely. “You can have the barony, and I’ll go hunt him down.” Roisart smiled at the suggestion. “I’m serious, twin,” Luthias revealed, gravely looking at his brother. “One of us must be baron, and it should be you.”
“But, Luthias, you’re a better leader!”
Luthias shrugged. “Yes, but you’re better at running things. You don’t overlook details. And when you need a man of action, Roisart, I’ll be there. You know I would never leave you.”
“I know,” Roisart replied, “but…”
“One of us must be baron,” Luthias repeated. “We can’t leave the barony like this, Roisart. And we can’t both be baron.”
“I know,” Roisart sighed. “But I don’t feel that I would be the best baron…”
“How can we tell beforehand who would be?”
“Corambis said it would be settled by a matter of valor.”
“Even decision takes courage, my brother,” Luthias reminded him with a smile. “It’s valor to take the responsibility of the barony, as well.”
Roisart sighed deeply. “You really feel I should be baron?” he asked finally. “Despite all the lessons Father gave us, I still don’t know how to be a lord, Luthias.”
“So, we’ll learn on our own,” Luthias assured him with strength. Roisart looked doubtful. “I mean it, Roi,” Luthias persisted, employing the nickname he hadn’t used since boyhood. “Really. I can’t be baron, and you know it. I would always want to go and do something, not stay here and plan budgets and run the estate. Right now I want to go off and kill Kite Talador. What if there were a war, Roi? Your first thought would be to fortify Connall and Dargon. Me? I would go off and try to destroy the bastards. No, Roi. Roisart, my brother, you belong in the barony, more than I do, more than I ever did.”
Roisart looked his brother in the eyes, the mirrors of his own. “Are you sure about this, Luthias?” Luthias nodded. “You could be giving up your birthright.”
Luthias shrugged. “I never wanted to be baron,” Luthias said. He smiled. “And if I am giving up my birthright–which isn’t certain in any case–who better to give it to than you, twin?”
Roisart smiled. “All right, Luthias,” he conceded, “but only if you’re absolutely certain–”
“Believe me, twin, I am,” Luthias told his brother. Then Luthias wondered suddenly, “How does Lady Lauren know that Kite won’t return?”
Roisart shrugged. “I gather that her father–Marcellon, the man in the red robes, whom we saw with Lord Winthrop–is a mage of some sort.” Roisart smiled. “I’ll have to talk to him at dinner.”
“Oh, no,” Luthias reminded him with a smile. “You have to sit at the head of the table, with Clifton and me.” Roisart made a discontented face. “Don’t worry, twin. Ittosai Michiya and Rish Vogel will be sitting near us.” Roisart grinned. “Oh, and Griswald, too, I’m told.”
“Don’t know what’s gotten into him lately,” Roisart said, shaking his head. “I don’t think I’ll like sitting with him.”
“I wonder if it’s practical that we’ll all be sitting together,” Luthias replied. “We’re all targets–”
“Do you know that we’ll be straight across from some of the windows?” Roisart added. “Perfect shots, for all the guards Clifton’s assigned to them.”
“Well, there are guards by the window and outside them, Roisart. Still, I agree. They’re setting up the table now,” Luthias noted. “Let’s see if we can get the position changed.”
After tussling with the servants, who were reluctant to allow the sons of the Baron of Connall to help them, the twins sat down to their meal. The table, and the seating arrangements, were unchanged, despite the twins’ efforts. Clifton sat in the middle at the head of the table, Roisart on Dargon’s left, and Luthias on his right. Griswald sat around the table corner at Roisart’s left elbow; by the corner on Luthias’ right were seated Michiya and Rish Vogel, the Chronicler, who were chatting gaily in Bichanese. Seated where they were, the twins found the conversation during the supper unexciting mostly, and at times, quite boring. Roisart wished that he could sit next to the Lord Marcellon and the Lady Lauren. Luthias wished he had gone home with Pecora.
Clifton Dargon said little to the twins. However, at frequent intervals, guests would approach the Lord of Dargon and speak with him. Then the brothers did their best to be polite. Winthrop joked and punched Luthias on the back (which was fine, so long as no one ever pinched his cheek again). Two young men, the sons of some merchant, took their leave. Lord Coranabo came forth to praise the peacekeeping during the festival.
Roisart found himself quite bored and began studying the window directly opposite his seat: a detail of a maiden knight defeating six other knights. He wished that the guards weren’t on either side of it; they were distracting him, pulling his gaze toward the open stained-glass panel, instead of the stained-glass picture above it.
Finally, the dishes were cleared away, and goblets of wine and trays of pastries delivered unto the tables. No one touched the food or drink, though. Dargon stood. Roisart let his shoulders droop. Time for the Spring Welcome Speech And Toast, Roisart groaned internally. Bored a priori, he continued to study the window.
Clifton stood regally and began to speak in a loud, dignified voice. In Roisart’s ears, the words were garbled sounds. He lost himself in the magic of the window, in the legend of the fierce, gentle maiden-knight, who defeats all in her search for love and for justice. Roisart gazed worshipfully at the window. The legend seemed to come alive; it seemed that one of the six cowardly knights moved.
Roisart blinked. He *had* seen something move, down below, by the open panel. Clifton continued speaking.
Was it the guards?
Roisart squinted at the window. Yes, something was there. Two men. Must be the guards. Roisart found them hard to see.
Then they can’t be the guards, Roisart realized. He couldn’t see their armor glittering. What were they doing behind the window? And where were the guards who were supposed to be there?
Clifton was still speaking, and reaching for his goblet. It was almost time for the Toast to Spring, made yearly at this ball by the Lord of Dargon since time immemorial.
Roisart edged forward on his seat. He could still see them–whoever they were–moving by the open part of the window, leaning on it seemingly.
The Lord of Dargon began his introduction to the toast.
Crossbows! They were leaning crossbows on the window sill!
Clifton raised his glass.
Don’t those guards hear anything? They’re putting crossbows–
Crossbows! What are they doing with–
No time! Luthias! Clifton!
Roisart rose like a shot, tumbling his chair. With the strength of a boar, he charged his cousin’s side. Dargon fell onto Luthias’ lap. Luthias’ chair collapsed, bringing Dargon and Luthias to the floor with it. Red wine splattered onto Roisart’s white shirt, but he remained standing.
Or was it the wine? Luthias, Michiya, and Rish Vogel, who still remained in a position to see, perceived two black bolts protruding from Roisart, one in the chest, the other in the side.
Someone screamed. Slowly, it seemed, Roisart, son of Fionn Connall, fell.
Luthias impatiently pushed Dargon off of him. “Roisart!” he cried. He somehow felt the wounding arrows had pierced him too.
Dargon leapt to his feet. “Guards! The garden! Outside of the knights’ window!” To a sergeant: “Get the guests to the blue ballroom, and hold them there. No one is to enter or leave without my command!” To Griswald, he imperiously said, “Attend my cousin!”
Rish Vogel had retrieved a quill from who knows where and had begun writing in wine on his napkin.
Michiya had joined Luthias, who was cradling Roisart on his lap. Griswald scuttled over. The old physician sadly shook his head.
The guards were escorting the guests from the ivory ballroom. Dargon knelt beside his cousins. “Griswald?” asked the Lord of Dargon softly. He put a hand on Luthias’ shoulder.
The old physician looked into the eyes of his lord. Again, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, my lord. He’s dead.”
“You haven’t even checked him!” Luthias screamed.
Griswald’s weary eyes focused on Luthias’ angry, desperate ones. “I’m sorry, my lord. The bolts were poisoned.”
“How do you know?” Luthias returned, his voice shrill and frantic.
A sextet of guards arrived in the Lord of Dargon’s presence. To the floor they threw two young men, dressed as merchants. Dargon rose, a tower of just fury. Luthias stared at his brother’s murderers in white rage. Ittosai Michiya put a stern, staying hand on Luthias’ shoulder. Luthias shook for a moment, then turned back to his breathless twin and closed his brother’s startled, brown eyes.
The sergeant of the guards threw a pair of black crossbows onto the ivory floor. They clattered insanely. The sergeant spoke. “They weren’t far from the window, lordship. They still had the bows.”
“Where were the guards posted to the outside of that window?” Dargon demanded.
“Dead, my lord,” the sergeant reported. “Knifed in the neck. Very quiet, lordship. They’re professionals, all right.”
“And you said that they still had these bows?”
Grim with judgment, Dargon leaned over the body of his cousin. “I’m sorry, Luthias,” he whispered to the sorrowing twin. Clifton reached over his living cousin and wrenched a bolt out of Roisart’s still body. Luthias cried out, as if Clifton had pulled a painful arrow from his own side. Then Dargon turned back to the guards and the wielders of the crossbows. Dargon held out a hand. A guard quickly supplied him with one of the weapons. Dargon fitted the bolt into the bow.
“Lord Ittosai,” he called. Michiya turned from Luthias and bowed. “Wou ld you say that this bolt fits?” Ittosai Michiya gazed at the displayed weapon.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Luthias!” Luthias looked up, resentment in his eyes. Dargon held out the crossbow. “Tell me if this bolt fits this crossbow.”
Luthias stared for a moment with stubborn hardness, then his innate practicality returned. He inspected the weapon, his brother’s head yet in his lap. “Yes, Clifton,” he answered. “It fits perfectly.”
The Lord of Dargon handed the weapon to a guard. “Keep it well. It will be needed in the trial.” Then Dargon turned to the assassins. “It is evident that you are guilty of the murder of Lord Roisart Connall. You will be tried before the tribunal tomorrow.” The Lord of Dargon paused. “Tell me now who hired you.” The assassins exchanged uncertain glances. “Tell me!” roared Dargon.
A heavy, sad voice informed the Lord of Dargon, “I can tell you, my lord.” Dargon twisted to see his physician, who looked suddenly old, very old. “I can tell you who hired these men, and who is responsible for Lord Fionn Connall’s death, and your young cousin’s.”
“How do you know he’s dead?” Luthias demanded. “You have not–”
“Quiet, Luthias,” Dargon ordered gently, but with the swiftness and sternness of authority. “Come here, Griswald,” the Lord of Dargon ordered. Timorously, the old doctor stepped forward. “Now, tell me.”
“There is a merchant,” Griswald began slowly. “His name is Lek Pyle. He and some other merchants wished to start a war with Bichu–for their own profit–, and Pyle himself believed that he could convince the King, if only you were eliminated, my lord, because you also have the ear of the King.” Dargon nodded. In matters of commerce and foreign relations, Clifton had often advised the King, and the advice, being sound, was often taken. “He hired these two men–”
“To kill Lord Roisart?” prompted the Lord of Dargon.
Griswald shook his gray head. “No, my lord. To kill you, and Lord Luthias. Pyle had chosen young Lord Roisart to become the next Baron of Connall and Duke of Dargon.”
Dargon appeared perplexed. “Why did he prefer Roisart to Luthias? Luthias, of the two, was more proficient in war–”
“He considered Lord Roisart easier to trick,” Griswald explained. “He planned to manufacture small details–which Lord Luthias would ignore, but Lord Roisart would insist on knowing–details which would trick Lord Roisart into believing that Bichu was preparing to attack us.”
Ittosai Michiya spat a fierce Bichanese curse.
“Lord Roisart was instrumental to his plans, my lord,” Griswald continued. “He meant to kill you and Lord Luthias, but he wished Lord Roisart to remain alive.” The physician turned then to Luthias. “My lord, your brother is dead. This I know. The poison on those bolts is instantaneous. I know, because Pyle forced me to mix it.”
With an almost animal cry, Luthias sprang to his feet and rushed toward the old physician. Ittosai Michiya deftly intercepted him and held him back with a seemingly effortless display of force. Dargon, too, wished to erupt but managed to hold his anger in check for the time being. “You did what?” the Lord of Dargon asked deliberately. “Kindly explain your actions, sir.”
“Lek Pyle has been threatening my life, my lord,” Griswald began. “I have no other excuse than this. He has used me to spy on you, just as he used Manus to keep track of the Baron of Connall and his sons. He forced me to mix the poison which killed your cousin. He forced Manus to give your father’s horse a drug to make it violent.”
“Manus?” cried Luthias, appalled. That was the man he had made Regent of Connall!
Griswald nodded soberly. “Yes,” he answered ruefully. “He seems to prey upon us healers.”
Dargon was thinking swiftly. “Lek Pyle…that man is here!” Again, Griswald nodded. Dargon nodded to a guard. “Go to the blue ballroom and fetch Lek Pyle. Bring him here.” The Lord of Dargon returned to his physician. “I don’t know what to do with you, Griswald. You shall have to be tried before the tribunal–and Manus, too. Until then, you shall be confined to your rooms.”
“Confined!” Luthias protested. “But Clifton, his poison killed Roisart!”
“Yes, but I can’t blame him for trying to save his own life,” Clifton returned, sighing. “I’ll send a squadron to your keep as soon as possible to bring Manus into custody. And when Pyle comes in here, Luthias,” the Lord continued in an imperious tone, “you had best be calm.”
Luthias’ face became tight a moment, but he said nothing. He turned back to his twin’s corpse.
Two heavy-set guards entered, dragging a protesting Lek Pyle with him. “I must protest this treatment, Lord Dargon,” he cried upon sight of Clifton. “I am–”
“A murderer,” Griswald finished for him.
“This is the man, then?” Dargon inquired. Griswald nodded.
The two assassins exchanged glances, but said nothing. That lack of denial was enough for the Duke of Dargon.
Dargon seemed suddenly pale. “Throw him,” he said slowly, “into the dungeon’s darkest cell. Now.”
The guards pulled him away. “But I have done nothing!” cried Pyle.
“Liar,” muttered Griswald.
“What about these two, my lord?” asked the sergeant.
“Dungeon,” Dargon ordered laconically. “Escort the physician to his rooms, and set a guard upon him. Then send a squadron of men to Connall to arrest Manus the Healer.” The sergeant saluted, barked orders to his subordinates, and soon, they left. Dargon bellowed for another guard. “Have a servant sent for the priests. My cousin’s body must be prepared.”
“What about the guests, lordship?” asked the soldier.
The Lord of Dargon considered. “I shall speak to them myself, presently.” The soldier saluted and went off.
Dargon turned back to the table. The room looked so empty now…only Luthias, lifting Roisart’s dead body; Michiya, helping him; and Rish Vogel, writing in wine, chronicling the entire incident. Clifton approached his cousin gently and put his hand on his arm. Luthias looked at him, grief in his eyes.
“Are you going to be all right, Luthias?” Dargon’s cousin nodded. “Lord Michiya, please stay with him. I have to address our guests.” Dargon frowned, shook his head. “There will be no more dancing on this night.” Slowly, the Lord of Dargon turned away and left the ballroom. Rish Vogel rose from his seat, tucked the napkin into his pocket, and followed the Duke. Passing Luthias, he mumbled something about making the chronicle of the incident complete.
Ittosai Michiya watched the Lord of Dargon leave, and then he turned compassionate eyes toward the young lord Luthias. “Do you need my help, my friend?” asked the Bichurian.
Luthias shook his head. “No, I’m all right,” he asserted softly. He looked down at the dead face of his brother cradled on the crook of his arm. “I’m sorry, Roi,” he mumbled. “It seems our decision has been made for us.”
Michiya gave Luthias a look of confusion. “What do you mean, Luthias-san? I do not understand.”
Luthias gave him a bitter smile flavored with an almost humorous irony. “Don’t you know, Michiya? I am now the Lord Baron of Connall.”
And it was little comfort, for Luthias knew now, for certain, that his brother had been more worthy of the title.