Never Again a Man - Part X

The room was shielded against magic naturally. Both from without and from within. Circular, the floor was inscribed with concentric rings, each depicting the various elements of nature and magic. The walls went without adornment, but the domed ceiling was inscribed with a map of the heavens, and when the lights were extinguished, they would glow and twinkle, while effervescent lines would glisten faintly, gossamer threads that outlined each constellation of the night.

There were four doors to the chamber, each warded, and presently locked. As was custom, each of the four mages had entered through a separate door, all of them at the same time. After the loud clanging of the doors behind them finally ceased to reverberate, they each took a moment to stare at each other. They were an eclectic gathering, a hawk that stood as tall as a man, a woman dressed in clothes more befitting a man bearing a box adorned by magical wards, as well as a bear and a fox, the fox bearing a collar branding him a criminal.

“Well,” the fox said with a sardonic twist to his speech, “this is a lovely practice chamber, but what are we doing here?”

The Prime Minister turned to the fox that now sat upon its haunches, golden eyes scanning about, triangular ears perked inquisitively. “This is the matter that has brought us here, Varnal. I trust you have accepted our offer?”

“Yes,” the fox yawned then, long tongue curling from his muzzle. “I will not ask where this is from or why it concerns us. And I will help however I can.” He glanced at the lights that shimmered in the air, lights that kept the room completely lit and free of shadow. “Is there a particular reason we are to be blinded?”

The hawk squawked at that and took a few hopping steps forward. “This is very dangerous, and we need to be protected. Enemies strike from the dark.”

Varnal turned one ear to the side. “Enemies? Very well, I shall ask no more. Let us see what it is that you have in that box, Prime Minister.”

Malisa nodded then, and she strode to the centre circle in the room, setting the box gingerly down within. She waved one hand over it, speaking a soft word in another tongue. The edges of the box glowed with a blue light, shimmering like a fountain of crystals. And then, the sides each folded down, to reveal a plain leather halter contained within.

The bear Christopher lumbered forward then, sniffing at it speculatively. {‘Tis dormant, it seems.}

“Jessica,” Malisa said then, motioning for the hawk to come forward. “What can you see? Can you make it plain for the rest of us?”

The hawk nodded slowly then, turning her eyes upon that halter. It lay crumpled in a heap in the open box, leather straps jumbled together negligently. And as they all stared, piercing the veil, the magical lines began to grow distinct. The room itself was filled with them, each interweaving about each other, forming a tight barrier like a tailor’s loom. But the dark infection of the curse still twined through it like an amorphous blob.

Of the halter itself, what had once been a crumpled pile of leather began to glow with a faint silvery light. The strands that had coiled about it before had become recessed, sunken into the material as a tortoise retreats into its shell. As the real world began to fade behind them, they all gazed, watching the magic flare into life. Slight prominences arced across the surface of the halter, as if it were a pool from which salmon were spawning.

“I think Christopher is right,” Jessica said then. “It does appear to be dormant.”

{Aye, ‘tis waiting,} the bear mused, brow furrowed as he sniffed, inching closer to the halter. His large nose drew to within a foot of it, when those prominences began to shift ever so slightly.

“Stop!” Varnal barked suddenly. “Stay right there. Look at it.”

Christopher stared down past the end of his snout, sudden apprehension wide in his ursine eyes. The deep wells of them, though eyes of a beast, burned with a fear no animal could ever hope to obtain. For those silvery arcs, where before they had simply been haphazard, were now growing in intensity, and all of them were directed towards the bear mage’s face.

“It senses something,” Malisa mused then, stepping closer as well, waving her hand near it’s surface, but no closer than Christopher’s snout. Several of the arcs turned in her direction then, even as the flares weakened. When she withdrew, they intensified once more in the bear’s direction.

{‘Tis attracted to us.}

“Is there anything familiar about the magic itself?” Jessica asked, looking at both Varnal and Christopher. The bear was slowly stepping back from the halter now, and the prominences once more died down.

“Magic that is attracted to something is not uncommon. Most trap spells work like this,” Varnal pointed out. “The trick is to know what they are attracted to. Do we know any of what it has been used to do? Or is that one of those things I am not supposed to know?”

Malisa frowned then, looking first from the halter and its silvery emanations and then to the collared fox. “To date, the only thing that we know it effects is the curse itself.”

Varnal’s tail began to wag suddenly then. “Truly? This device does not appear to have been fashioned by Nasoj. The magic is too, seemingly subtle I should think for him.” Malisa merely offered him a dark smile, and the fox nodded. “Very well, this affects the curse. Perhaps then it is attracted to the curse itself.”

{Then why d'ye think it'd nae grasp at the curse itself? ‘Tis all around it!} Christopher pointed out, lifting one of his paws and gesturing with long claws for emphasis.

The fox’s tail wagged beneath him slightly, and his ears turned some. “Then it is only attracted to the cursed.”

“That makes sense,” Jessica mused at that, shifting her wings behind her slightly. She hopped forward one more pace, though still several feet from the halter. “Does this look familiar to you, Christopher?”

The bear shrugged his shoulders. {D'ye want me t' look closer? ‘Tis the only way t' be certain.}

“No,” Malisa said then, rubbing her fingers together thoughtfully. “Not just yet. If Varnal is right, then this spell is attracted to the cursed. And of all of us here, I am the one least susceptible to it?”

“And how do you know that?” Varnal asked, golden eyes narrowing.

Malisa regarded the fox cooly. “Simple. I am the only one here not effected by the animal side of the curse. Thus, if it is safe for any of us, it will be safe for me. I will attempt to draw back the outer coating of the magic. Perhaps there is something beneath that will be familiar.”

Jessica nodded slowly, her own eyes turned towards the halter. The tiny silver arcs had continued to dance like a thousand pinpricks of light. Both the bear and fox took several steps back to allow the Prime Minister room, their faces curious. Varnal also appeared dubious, but she could not quite tell about what.

Malisa slowly approached the halter, and as she neared to within a foot, the arcs began to grow in intensity, darting towards her outstretched hands with a feverish intensity. Jessica felt her heart tighten as she watched the Prime Minister bend her will upon that halter. Calmly, Malisa pressed her hand through those prominences, until her flesh was nearly touching the leather straps of the halter itself. But to their horrified eyes, as those beams of light toucher her, the fabric of her clothes began to stretch in the chest and waist, as her entire body began to more clearly demonstrate what the curse had done to her.

And then she fell back, a sudden burst of brilliant light knocking her backwards. Malisa lay prone on the ground, moaning softly. Jessica and the rest quickly moved to her side, with Varnal reaching her first. He scanned down her frame, and licked at his nose in a strangely detached fashion. “It seems the magic in this device amplifies the effects of the curse. Anyone who is cursed who dares to approach will feel its power. At least anyone from Metamor.”

Christopher nudged the side of Malisa’s face with his large dark nose. {Prime Minister, are ye well?}

Malisa stirred then, blinking and breathing heavily. The tight swelling in her jerkin faded, and her clothes became loose fitting once more. “It lashed at me,” she murmured. “It didn’t do that when I put it in the box to bring it here.”

Jessica looked to her and then back to the halter. The small arcs were once again contentedly shifting about. “Was it something we did?”

{Aye,} Christopher’s mind voice intoned heavily. {We tried t' touch it magically. Did ye nae study it with Sight when ye placed it in the box?}

“No,” Malisa replied, pulling her legs beneath her as she managed to sit up. “No, I simply placed it in the box. It did not do anything then.”

{Then it wards itself against magical intrusion,} Christopher declared, turning his massive head back upon the halter. {How d'ye study a thing such as that?}

“Well that’s obvious,” Varnal said, tail wagging once more.

“Is it?” Jessica asked, taking a sudden dislike to the fox.

“Of course,” Varnal replied, licking his nose once more. “We simply need somebody unaffected by the curse to examine it. That’s all.”

From within the thick trees that surrounded the Verdane manor, Zagrosek watched as the young boy played with a large shaggy dog. The boy was kicking a small ball about the grassy field, under the supervision of several of the green-liveried soldiers of the house Dupré. The boy’s shirt bore the ram’s head in silhouette, and he sported a mop of bright red hair, marking him as a descendant of the Verdane family.

As the boy chased after the ball, a laughing smile upon his face, the dog bounded around him, barking and snapping at the ball, but never coming too close. The pair danced around the field in their own way, while the soldiers chatted amongst themselves, laughing at this or that, clearly bored of the childish sport.

The day itself was warm, the fragrance of blossoming flowers filling the air. The trees themselves were only beginning to show forth their leaves for the Summer. Many were still filled with pink and purple blossoms. With each gust of wind, another mist of bright hue would descend through the air, drifting like many dulcet caresses to the ground. Standing beneath such trees, Zagrosek soon found himself rubbing at his nose with the back of one hand, even as his black garments quickly accumulated the colourful petals.

His left arm was still paler than his right, but now he could move it with the ease and flexibility he was accustomed to. To hide the strangely chalky skin that it bore, he’d donned a black glove, but he hoped the skin would once more recover in time. He did not want to have to hide that appendage forever, just as Agathe was forced to hide her face. He sighed heavily as he remembered the Runecaster, and hoped that her own mission was going smoothly. It should have been he given the assignment, but the Marquis would not hear of it.

Returning his focus upon the child, he smiled lightly as the dog finally managed to snatch up the ball in its jaws. The boy gave a shout at that and chased after the dog. Thinking this still part of the game, the canine jumped several paces back, tail at the alert, watching the boy. Whenever he would near, the dog would once more dart out of the way.

Zagrosek laughed then and stepped clear of the trees. Bending down, he held out his hand, catching the dog’s eye first. The guards each grew to attention, a few reaching for their sword hilts, but they did not draw just then. It took a moment before the boy saw him, and when he did his eyes grew wide. “Who are you?” The boy appeared upset that his game was disturbed.

“Oh, I’m just another guest with your grandfather, Jory. That’s a lovely dog. Is he yours?”

The boy smiled and nodded then. “His name is Stalker! My Dad gave him to me for my birthday!”

“Of course, and a mighty fine dog indeed. C’mere Stalker.” Zagrosek beckoned, offering his hand openly. The dog, at first surprised, then began to cautiously approach, still clutching the ball tightly in its jaws. It was a large breed, a northern one at that, with thick shaggy grey fur, and a face like a schnauzer. He did not recognize it, though like all dogs, it seemed friendly enough.

Stalker approached and gingerly sniffed at Zagrosek’s outstretched hand. Zagrosek reached and began to pet him with his left hand, allowing the dog to sniff still at his right. “Very friendly,” he mused, smiling to the boy.

Jory shook his head at that. “Oh no! Stalker’s really mean! He’ll bite your hand off if I tell him too!”

“Oh my, I certainly hope you don’t do that, my young lord,” the Sondeckis replied, even as the dog let the ball drop from his mouth. A warm wet tongue began to wash across his fingers. “I rather like my hand where it is.”

The boy seemed to stand even taller when he’d been called a lord, and he began to nod smartly. “You talk funny. Where are you from?”

“I’m from far to the South, South of the Splitting Sea even, my young lord.”

Jory snorted. “No you aren’t! Nobody lives that far away!”

Zagrosek bowed his head slightly and picked up the ball in one hand. “Well, now that I’ve come up North, nobody does.” The boy looked at him oddly, unaware of the joke. Stalker was following the ball intently with his eyes. “Does Stalker like to chase balls?”

“He likes squirrels and rabbits better,” Jory replied, holding out his hand. “Here, I’ll show you.” Zagrosek handed the ball to the boy, and the child gave it a heave, sending it right at the soldiers of Dupré. The dog bounded after it, and two of the men had to duck aside as Stalker bounded past heedless of them. Jory laughed at that, grinning from ear to ear. Stalker found the ball next to a pile of bushes, snatched it up in his jaws and ran back with it.

But he didn’t drop the ball. Jory grabbed the ball in his hands and tried to wrestle it from the dog’s mouth. “Give me that ball!” Jory cried, even as the dog dug in its claws, growling as he fought to hold onto the toy.

“Now, now, my young lord. I can show you a way to make the dog give you the ball every time,” Zagrosek offered.

The boy ignored him, jerking at the ball fiercely. Stalker of course thought it was all part of the fun and so tugged back. In fact, he tugged so hard, that Jory was yanked from his feet and fell forward onto the grass. Zagrosek took a step forward and offered a hand to help the boy to his feet. But Jory jumped to his own feet, and chased after the dog once again.

Seeing that the boy didn’t want to listen, Zagrosek knelt down once more and called out, “Here, Stalker! Here! That’s a good boy!” The dog, confused at seeing the boy pursue him, and hearing his name called, hesitated long enough for Jory to once more try to yank the ball from his jaws. Stalker’s grip was still too tight though.

Taking a deep breath, Zagrosek forced himself to smile as he stepped closer to the boy. He nodded to the guards, holding open his hands, but they nodded in return. They were clearly not worried about him, as they shouldn’t. Kneeling down next to the struggling combatants, he rested a hand on the back of the dog’s neck. One of its eyes cast to him uncertainly, and its tail began to wag.

Jory did not look at him though, attention focussed on the dog and the ball that he was trying to snatch from its jaws. “Jory,” he called, and the boy’s attention turned to him in surprise. His eyes widened, as if he had not expected to see the black-clad man standing there. “Watch this.” Zagrosek continued to gently pet the back of the dog’s head, but he placed one of his fingers right at the back of the ball, and forced it inside the dog’s muzzle. Suddenly uncomfortable, the dog opened its jaws wider and backed off, letting the ball drop into Zagrosek’s waiting hands.

“There, you see?” Zagrosek asked, offering the ball to the boy. “Just gently place your fingers right between his molars, and he’ll let go.”

Jory frowned at that, taking the ball into his hands. “Do that again!” he said suddenly, tossing the ball to Stalker, who caught it happily. Zagrosek nodded, and proceeded to teach the boy what to do.

The brilliant sun shone within the stables just as brightly as Misha remembered. He shielded his eyes at first with his forearm after George’s guards had bid him enter. But after a moment, he could make out the skulking figure of the raccoon battle mage. At Thalberg’s orders, all of the horses had been temporarily moved to paddocks out in the grassy fields lying in the shadow of the castle. So while the scent of the horses was still prevalent, it was weak, diffused amongst the more neutral odours of hay and old wood.

And of course, there was Rickkter’s own robust musk to scent, but he had long grown accustomed to the various fragrances that his fellow Keepers bore. They were merely another way to tell each other apart, and at times, he wondered how he had even gotten along without his powerful nose before the curse had made him a fox-man. And it was at those times that he remembered his years as a siege engineer struggling to survive in the mud and filth surrounding an enemy castle and he was glad he hadn’t been able to smell as clearly then.

“Rickkter,” Misha called, turning his one ear about, finding the silence inside the stables rather unnerving. The scuff marks from Zagrosek’s boots could still be seen in the hay – marks so odd, an explanation would have escaped him if he hadn’t seen it all with his own eyes. “I was told that you wanted to see me.”

The raccoon was bent over the stall that Bryonoth had kept Thomas in before they’d tried to capture them. His long tail was curled up behind him, the lush fur resting against his back. “Yes, I did.” He traced his hands over something that the fox could not see, as if he were grasping some invisible item. He rubbed his fingers against the air for several seconds, frowning as he did so.

Misha’s eyes widened as he noticed that his friend began to shift ever so slightly, his clothes becoming loose, his entire form shrinking slightly. But the moment was short-lived, and when it ended, Rickkter stood up, shaking his head. “This is simply intolerable.”

“What is, Rick?”

The raccoon gestured at the hay strewn-stall. Misha could see a satchel full of nails was hanging form one side, a hammer resting with a loop. Four horseshoes were curled along the end, each appearing freshly beaten. “I can see the residue of Zagrosek’s presence, and of the spells he used. Even the Shadowwalking – I can see the slight tears he left in the shadow itself, even though there aren’t any shadows anymore. The tears are healing, but they are still there. But this spell on Thomas. Damn!”

The fox crossed to the stall, standing next to the raccoon and bending down. He drew his paws through the air, but felt nothing but the stirring of the short fur on the back of his fingers. “What about it?”

“I can’t even touch it without triggering some defence mechanism!” He turned then and looked the Long scout up and down. Misha was dressed in a simple green work shirt and trousers, not one of his finest. “How is Madog?”

Misha grimaced. “He still cannot stand, but he is not as injured as I had feared. The axle gear that controls his hind legs has been seared and no longer moves, but I’ll be able to fashion a replacement in a few days time. And the burned hide will only take me another week to repair. Making sure that all the spells inside are as they were before will be the hard part. I’m going to have to compare notes with Jon and Smithson from when we first rebuilt Madog to be sure.”

The raccoon nodded, letting his gaze cast back inside the stall. “And Madog himself? How is he taking things?”

“As ever, calmly,” Misha said, sighing heavily then. “He whines some, but while I was working on him this morning, he simply watched, asked me what I was up to in fact. Ah, it agonizes me so to see him lame like that.”

“What about the wounds themselves?”

“The metal melted where it was struck. Only a foundry could produce that much heat. Apart from magic.”

“And magic this was,” Rickkter said. “Had this been a normal heat, the hay would have all ignited and our fur would have blackened if not scorched from our flesh.” Without turning his head, his eyes slid up to study the fox once more. “Did they remind you of anything?”

Misha nodded slowly. “Aye. That Yeshuel back in October. He’d been seared in two. One half completely burned away. This was the same magic.”

“Yes,” Rickkter said. “That much I could see from where the hay had sizzled there,” he gestured towards the one end of the stables where Zagrosek and Madog had duelled. Strips of blackened hay lined the ground in small swathes. “That man is without a doubt the one responsible for the Patriarch’s murder.”

“I agree,” Misha replied, his voice sombre. “I knew it the moment I saw him.”

“Was he the same man accused at the rat’s trial?”

“Charles,” Misha growled lightly. “And I do not know the answer to that. I believe that Charles’s friend was sincere in his help during the assault. Nobody could be that duplicitous.”

Rickkter turned towards him fully then and stared down the length of his muzzle incredulously. “Oh come now, Misha. You should know better than that by now. I’m sure you trust Charles, but the rat could have been lied to.”

“Not only do I trust Charles,” Misha replied, feeling heat fill his chest at the lingering sting that the raccoon had only hinted at. Neither had to say it to know what it was. The betrayal of one of his own Longs during the assault. Putting it out of his mind, he declared, “I also trust Charles’s judgement.”

“The very thing he was exiled for,” Rickkter mused, his expression sardonic. “But that is neither here nor there. Right now we are dealing with the enemy. And what we need is right here.” He gestured once more to the empty stall, and his tail lashed back and forth in agitation.

Counting to five, Misha managed to get a hold of his sudden flurry of emotions. “You said that the spell had some defence mechanism? A trap?”

“Every time I try to examine it, it tries to intensify the curse. And it happens so fast, I barely have time to learn anything when I have risked its defence. I am very good at studying magic and understanding it, Misha. But this spell is deliberately set up so that nobody at Metamor can look at it. We are all vulnerable to it.”

“So what are you saying?” Misha asked, finding the heat leaving him slowly.

Rickkter grimaced, tail still lashing about. “You are going to have to summon your sister. She’s not been touched by the curse. She’ll be able to examine the spell I think.”

Misha pondered that for a moment. He’d wanted to see his sister regardless. He hated the way that Rickkter refused to trust his judgement at times. Especially when it came to family. “Wouldn’t the spell merely intensify the curse at her too? Wouldn’t Elizabeth become more vulnerable to it?”

Rickkter shook his head. “From what Malisa told me about their thoughts on the halter, it only seems attuned to those already cursed. It ignores the curse itself, or at least, it appears to do so. Perhaps it will try to latch the curse onto your sister if she examines the spell. I doubt it will, but you may want to warn her about that possibility. And I can watch, and warn her if I see that happening.”

“True. I know she’ll want to come and help. A chance for her to see Metamor? I know she won’t refuse. And she’ll definitely be able to help us out.”

“Just make sure that all of Marigund doesn’t know about this,” Rickkter growled, crossing his arms before him. “Too many know already.”

“I know you don’t believe it yet, Rick, but you can trust my sister,” Misha assured him. But the raccoon only grunted at that. Feeling somewhat justified, though still ill at ease, Misha left his friend alone in those stables. He’d need to find Jessica first. She would want to be there naturally.

“It was so good of you to agree to meet me for lunch,” the Marquis said, smiling as he regarded his host across the rim of his cup of steaming tea.

Lord William Dupré smiled back to him, sitting tall in his chair, while his red-haired wife Lady Anya delicately sucked upon a strawberry. “You do seem quite astute at obtaining what you desire. A meal is but a simple thing to arrange,” William gestured expansively, arrogant pride also on display.

The Marquis nodded then in agreement, glancing to the fine meal arrayed before them. It was but the midday meal, yet still apart from the fresh strawberries, there was some salted venison from the winter’s catch, grilled upon stone with a collection of nuts and berries. Sampling some of the meat, he found it’s taste rather potent, and returned once more to his tea.

“If it does not offend you, might I ask how your deliberations with Duke Verdane have fared? I am rather anxious to have our little game afterwards.”

“Is that all you care about?” William asked, grey eyes narrowing. He turned to his wife then, holding his goblet loosely in his fingers. “Anya, have you ever heard of a bout being decided by cards instead of swords?”

Lady Anya appeared cold to the Marquis, her face, though freckled, betraying little of her feelings. She looked at the Marquis as if he were a mere distraction. “Rarely.”

“Naturally, you would not have heard of such a thing,” the Marquis said, the smile never leaving his lips. “I fear the art is one borne of the South. With days as hot as they are in my country, bout carried about with swords could kill a man, even were he not struck down. It is the heat after all. We must settle our differences in ways that do not put us beneath the sun. Men of our station are not labourers after all.”

William Dupré regarded him oddly then, and then nodded at that. “Truly, we are not. But we all must labour in some way. What do you labour for, Marquis?”

“Ah, my interests are of course wholly subservient to the Ecclesia and her good.” He took another sip of tea. “Ah, that is quite lovely. But I speak of the Ecclesia. With the slaying of Patriarch Akabaieth, we can no longer pretend to ignore the threat posed by those who will not submit to Eli’s representative here on Earth. Instead, we must confront that threat directly. And naturally, we will need allies, allies who will be given great dominion once the Ecclesia’s enemies are thrown down.”

The Marquis set down his cup of tea and plucked one of the strawberries between his fingers from the silver-encrusted bowl. “I am given to understand that you yourself, Lord Dupré, are a Follower.” His smile became quite crestfallen rather abruptly. “It is quite a shame that Lord Guilford is not. Or so he told me when I supped with him yesterday.” He then deposited the strawberry between his teeth, letting the succulent juices run between his teeth. His eyes never left William.

The grey-eyed lord of Mallow Horn considered him speculatively. Even Lady Anya seemed to study him with sudden interest. The Marquis continued to eat his strawberry though, and after he set aside the top leafy remains, he took another sip of his tea. His goblet was half empty already, and so he set that aside. “Perhaps I could have more of this savoury tea?”

With a slight gesture, William motioned for one of the quiet servants to do just that. As the Marquis watched, his cup was filled to the brim once more with the steaming liquid. “Ah, thank you.”

“It is as you say,” William said then, leaning slightly forward in his seat. “We are Followers, and are raising our son Jory in the traditions of the Ecclesia. Seeing the spread of Eli’s word in this land would please us both. You will likely not find many allies even here in the Southern Midlands. Too many are like Anson Guilford, clinging to superstitious ways. But they sense the changing tides, and that is part of the reason we are here.”


“Why else do you think they would have tried to kill Jory?” William leaned forward further, hands folded before him on the table. “And now they would try to use the Ecclesia against him. The Guilford’s are a treacherous lot, Camille. They are trying to turn the Ecclesia against its own so that they and their superstitious ways can lay claim to this kingdom once more.”

The Marquis’s smile did not fade. “I presume you refer to Bishop Ammodus? I await his arrival, and I shall of course discuss matters with him. But as to the matter of your son, I am afraid that is not my purview. We are here to prepare souls for the afterlife. The dispensation of matters in this world is for Duke Verdane to assess.”

William began to scowl. “So you will do nothing then?”

“Why should I do anything?” the Marquis asked, slicing off another piece of the meat. He made sure to chew some of the nuts this time, and found they served excellently to deaden the overwhelming flavour of the venison.

“You would gain a strong ally for the Ecclesia should you intervene,” William offered, though he still scowled. Anya looked between them, her own face twisted with icy rage.

The Marquis blinked a few times. Then, slowly, his smile widened, expressing comfortable satisfaction. “But you see, I already have a strong ally to the Ecclesia. His name is Duke Verdane.”

The dark scowl that permeated William’s face began to make itself plain in the rest of his body. He leaned forward over the table, pressing his palms to the green ram’s head tablecloth. Several of the servants shrank back against the walls, trying to disappear into the shadows. The smoke rising form the tea itself began to curl inwards above their table before condensing in the air.

“This is my son, Jory, whose life was threatened by an avowed enemy of the Ecclesia, and you will do nothing to aid him! Have you no sense of injustice?”

Camille du Tournemire laughed merrily at that. “On the contrary, Lord Dupré, I seek to practice a little injustice every day. Right after I break my fast of course. The mind works best then.”

While William began to splutter in apoplexy, Anya let a gentle but stern hand rest upon her husband’s arm. Her icy gaze met the Marquis’s, her eyes flaming as much as her red hair. “You want something, Marquis,” she said curtly. “What is it?”

“Did I not say? I desire to see the power of the Ecclesia expanded throughout this realm.”

“And you are also travelling to the Northern Midlands,” Anya interjected. “Few are the Followers in that land. What do you want?”

“Who are you to ask me that?” the Marquis replied, tapping the surface of his tea with the tip of his finger. “I represent the will of the Ecclesia in this matter.”

“A Marquis of Pyralis?” Anya asked dubiously, a condescending smile gracing her lips ever so faintly.

“I have long cultivated a strong relationship with Patriarch Geshter. He was once Cardinal of Pyralis, and we have done services for each other many times in the past. I am here on his behalf, and thus, on behalf of the Ecclesia,” the Marquis explained with an exasperated sigh.

“Yet you will do nothing to save our son,” Anya crossed her arms then, eyes once more cold.

“Your son Jory lies in the purview of Duke Verdane. It would be improper for me to interfere. I am beholden only to matters pertaining to the Ecclesia on my journey. Your son’s fate is no such matter.” He paused for single moment, but not long enough for either her or her husband to reply. In a much quieter voice he continued, “Or is it?”

William and Anya exchanged quick glances. Finally, though still seething, William growled through clenched teeth, “What are you offering?”

“Offering? Why nothing. What I have, I freely give.” He smiled then, and sipped at his tea. Noting the dubious stares he received, he set the goblet down. “My man is already attending to the matter.”

“Your man?”

“You met him yesterday.”

William’s scowl began to fade slowly. “Ah, yes, I remember him now. How will he help Jory?”

The Marquis shook his head. “Let us not talk of such things yet. Nothing will be decided until Bishop Ammodus arrives. After which, I am afraid I must take leave of Kelewair and continue on, as you said, through to the Northern Midlands. Treacherous country I’m told.”

“Safe passage,” Anya said. “That is what you want then, is it?”

The Marquis smiled brightly. “Oh, if you could aid me, you would have my gratitude, fine Lady.” Satisfied at last, he sipped once more from his tea.

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