Never Again a Man - Part XVI

Verdane felt far more powerful when facing others while upon his throne. Standing so far over their own heads, they could only look up at him, and he down upon them. But no true accord could be reached there. Not as people. When he stood upon that throne he was a ruler first and last. Now, seated in his solar, he was another man, and to those whom he addressed, he did so as equals – more or less.

He’d taken some time to decide which family to send for first, as there was much to be said, and many bruises to be healed if he was to maintain firm control over his Duchy. Though he ruled the Southern Midlands and had aspirations to rule far more, he needed the Lords to keep that demesnes intact. And they needed to believe that he saw their interests as his own. Even if they diverged wildly, he had to keep them believing that.

And so, he decided to heal the wound that perhaps was far deeper, that of his daughter and her husband’s. Apollinar let them in, and Verdane could see already from the fierce anger in William Dupré’s eyes that there was much healing to be done. Anya’s face was filled with cold fury, though of a far more reserved and troubling variety.

“Please, sit with me,” Duke Verdane said, reclining as he was at his table. Behind him stood Sir Royce, arms crossed over his chest, face stony cold. William and Anya were unaccompanied, and both rather stiffly sat at his table. “Where is Jory?”

“In our chambers,” William snapped. “How dare you take our son!”

“William, please,” Anya said suddenly, resting a slender hand on her husbands arm. “My father undoubtedly has his reasons. He will tell us what they are. I’m sure that they are wise, because to take a child from his mother is often very unwise.” Her eyes stole to her father then, and their was the fire of defiance within them.

“If you seek to change my decision,” Verdane began, “then you speak your words in vain. My decision has been made. Jory will stay here to live with me. He will be under my protection, and you are of course welcome to visit him here at your leisure, though if you begin to neglect your affairs in Mallow Horn, I may have to choose otherwise than I would like.”

Verdane turned to his daughter, and leaned forward. “And for this reason, I am not taking your child from you, my daughter. He is still your son, and shall always be so. But he is also my grandson, and second in line to my throne after Jaime.” He smiled warmly then, a smile as bright as his red hair. “It is indeed an honour I bestow upon him by bringing him to live here. After all, he may one day become the Duke of these lands, especially should Jaime not marry again.”

William was still fuming, so it was Anya who replied. “Do you think my brother will mourn the loss of Valada for the rest of his days?”

Verdane grimaced at that, a genuine emotion. Though Jaime had wed Valada of Salinon as a way to bring the Southern Midlands and the Outer midlands closer together, his son had loved the woman deeply. When she died not two weeks after their wedding, it had cast a black pall over those two lands, and little friendly had been said for years afterward.

“Jaime will do as he must, I will not make a decision for him in this regard. At least, I do not wish to. And that is why I want to have Jory here in Kelewair. Here he will learn all that he must to rule wisely and well. And here he will be safest from those trying to disrupt our lands.”

“Will you never force Jaime to marry then, father?” Anya prodded, her own red hair seeming to smoulder.

Anger filled his voice then, and he struck his fist upon the table. “Should Jory die, then I certainly will leave my son no choice. I will not allow these lands to fall into the hands of one not of my blood.” The anger melted from his face then, and he offered them a soft smile. “But it will not come to that I think. Jory shall be safe here. And of course, you now rightfully possess the lands you have claimed for years.”

William’s eyes narrowed. “You trade us a piece of land for our son. Do you expect us to be grateful?”

“He will still be your son, William. And a son always loves their father, no matter how far they will travel. No matter how far Jory ascends, he will never forget his birth in Mallow Horn, nor will he forget that his father is a Dupré.”

“Small comfort that!”

Verdane sighed heavily. “I am grooming your son to take my place, William. Unless our lands are extended beyond even my wildest imaginations, you have little hope to be more than a Lord. But your son could be Duke, and perhaps more. Your blood. And mine. The wolf and the ram joined. Think on that, William, while you hunt in your new land.”

Silenced once more, William stood tall in his chair. He bore the countenance of a man who was grateful, but too proud to admit it. Anya pursed her lips thoughtfully for some time before she broke the silence. “Thank you, Father. Your words have indeed made this more clear. You will see more of us now, you know, as we will not part forever with our son.”

“I do not expect you too, daughter. It will be good to see you grace my house with your loveliness. I have missed you in these years.”

She smiled lightly then, but not without some trace of emotion. “Will you permit us this one last night with our son?”

“Of course. I have said all that I wished. You may leave if you so desire.”

Anya nodded to him, and stiffly, so did William. With only the required courtesies, they left his solar, not once turning their heads to glance back. Verdane watched them leave, and then let out a sigh as Apollinar shut the door behind them. It would be some time still before she could forgive him fully, but at least they now understood what he wanted them too.

“Shall I summon the Guilford’s now, your grace?” Apollinar asked, his voice reedy.

“No, give them another hour. And bring me something to drink. I am thirsty.” Verdane rested his head in one hand then, listening to the footfalls of his Steward across the room, and the heavy groaning as Sir Royce shifted his weight back and forth.

Rickkter found him, as the note had said he would, seated upon a stone bench overlooking the fountain in the garden. Behind him a row of bushes swept upward, bristling with spring flowers of pinks and yellows. The clear rushing sound of the fountain, decked out with four horses leaping from the centre, drowned out all but the loudest of shouts nearby.

“I’m here,” Rickkter growled, staring down at the figure, who languidly leaned back upon his heavy tail, smiling an insufferably patronizing grin at him. “Now what do you want?”

Habakkuk could not help but continue to smile. “I see you understood my note.”

“I did. ‘Alas poor Vorick, I knew him well.’ Cute.” Rickkter snapped, claws pressing into the pads of his paws.

The kangaroo lowered his face a bit, though the smile was still there. “Merely my way of gaining your attention. I could not reveal myself openly, and I knew that you would keep this secret tightly to your chest. But you are here now. Please, sit down. You will not be seen as clearly that way.”

Rickkter clasped his arms before him. “If you wanted to keep this a secret, then why did you have us meet in the Gardens?”

“For the lovely view of course. And because what I need to show you cannot be accomplished unless we are here.” The smile was now gone from the macropod’s face, and a look of certainty replaced it. “The fountain will mask our voices as well, though undoubtedly, we will be seen together. But if we are fortunate, those who oppose us will not know why.”

Rickkter narrowed his eyes, still not willing to sit down with him. “I was busy dealing with such people when you interrupted. And how do I know that you can be trusted with anything, or whose side you are really on to begin with.”

“Very good reasons to doubt,” Habakkuk agreed, tail shifting slightly behind him. He crossed one leg over the other, his long foot dangling in the air. “But I have kept my word to you, son of Ebon. At the very least indulge me. For today I do not come to pester you with pointed questions. My intent here is to inform.”

Rickkter snorted. “And here I thought the pleasure of your company was your circumspection. It seems I am not mistaken. Get to your point and be on with it.”

“I will once you sit down.”

Still feeling an intense desire to smack the kangaroo in the side of the head before throwing him into the fountain, to be followed by other demonstrations of his esteem if he had not worked through his anger, Rickkter managed to slowly sit down upon the stone bench next to Habakkuk’s. He smoothed out his trousers and gripped the sides of the bench with his paws, claws digging against the stone. The anxiety he’d felt at the power of the halter had finally fully fled from his body, but the memory of it was still with him. Whatever distraction the kangaroo had cooked up for him seemed destined only to worsen his mood.

“Very good,” Habakkuk said, reaching down into the knapsack at his feet. He pulled out a book, the title written in Southern script. At the angle he held it, Rickkter could not quite read it. “This book was given to another, though in truth, the one who gave it meant for it to come to me. You may have heard of this book.” At that, the kangaroo turned the front so that Rickkter could read it.

“Imbervand.” Rickkter rolled that single word around in his mind for a moment. “Yes, I have heard of it. Stojowsk of Stuthgansk’s work on teleportation magics. Why is that so significant?”

Habakkuk let a little smile creep back into his muzzle. “I personally transcribed this copy. How it came back into my possession after so many years is not something I will say, but the manner of it is curious. I have been trying to make sense of it for some time now, but only in this late hour do I realize a few things that are trying to be conveyed. Firstly, the power of our enemy is even greater than I imagined. And secondly, were it not for the fountain, he would be able to hear what we say even now.”

Rickkter started at that, looking around, but saw little else but flowers. The sun was not yet near the horizon, late afternoon though it was, but still, few had come to repose in the gardens as they were. “Do not look for a person, for that is the mistake we have all been making,” Habakkuk cautioned.

“And what do you know of anything?” Rickkter asked, suddenly put off by the lecturing tone in the kangaroo’s voice. “What do you know of our enemy?”

The kangaroo paused for a moment, considering the question. He set the book back in his lap, hands covering the title. “It is like a puzzle. It has many pieces, pieces that can be put together in any order. When two people work on a puzzle together do they focus their efforts on the same section? No. They divide their talents, each looking for different pieces, hoping that they will come together in the end.

“Sometimes though, one person will find a piece the other person will need. And when that happens, they give that piece to their friend so that their friend’s part of the puzzle will be more complete.

“And that, is what I am doing now,” Habakkuk said, opening his paws slightly. “I am giving you a piece to your puzzle.”

Rickkter growled. “I hate your draftiness, Zhypar. Tell me what you are saying.”

“I’m saying that I know where the link that our enemy has been using is. Through it, their power in this land has grown. Without it, there is much that they could still do, but with it, we have no hope of being able to defeat their magic.”

Rickkter turned in his seat, ears raised. “Go on. What is it?”

“It came to me quite suddenly this morning as I was rereading a certain section in Imbervand detailing the various ways in which magic itself can be transferred from one place to another without – how do I say it? – passing through those spaces between. There was a poem which Stojowsk used in the section, but I did not think it remarkable until this morning. There was simply something singularly peculiar about it, something that I had never seen before in any other text that I have read..”

The raccoon narrowed his eyes even more, leaning forward on the bench. “Then either tell me the poem or tell me its meaning. I’ve already had my fill of cryptic magic dealings for the morning.”

Habakkuk frowned, a sullen displeasure writ across his muzzle. His ears fell back some, long and russet in the afternoon sun. “So you merely wish me to tell you what it is that brings them their power?”

Rickkter took a deep breath and ran his paws through his headfur. His patience for this sort of rambling was as always thin. Ever since the kangaroo scribe had used the book Sudenhart Arcanum against him, by pointing out the two mage clans that had been excised form it, Vorick and the Ebon Dragons, his patience with Habakkuk had simply ceased to be. Whoever he really was, he seemed to go to great lengths not to say, and took great lengths to say nothing at all. What little would be different this time, he could not help but wonder.

“That is what I am saying. Tell me or I shall leave you with your mysteries.”

“If I told you now,” Habakkuk said softly, “then you would not believe me. And even if you did attempt to destroy their link to power, you would not take the proper precautions, because you would not treat my warning with the respect it deserves.”

“And this conversation thus far is doing little to change my opinion. I have little respect for anything you say to me, Zhypar,” Rickkter replied, acid in his voice. “You are a windbag who loves the sound of his own voice.”

“Perhaps,” Habakkuk said without even so much as a pause or change in demeanor. “But perhaps I have no other way to tell you what must be said. The very nature of this link prevents our ideas from being shared more clearly. It stunts our minds, putting out thoughts that we had once had, anything that might endanger itself.”

“Will you speak clearly!” Rickkter snarled, half rising from the bench. His tail lashed back and forth.

“I am speaking as clearly as I can. Suffice it to say, if this link is not destroyed, and done so very carefully, then there is little to no chance any magic of the enemy could be undone. Further, even if you destroy this link, if the one who put it in place discovers that it was you who did it, your death is assured.”

Rickkter, despite his increasing frustration with the scribe, found his curiosity piqued by something that had been said. They were certainly facing the magic of the enemy now, and were not having any luck in undoing it. What if the insufferable macropod had found something important after all?

“Before you begin, I must have some reason to lend credence to what you say. Tell me who the enemy is that you speak of?”

Habakkuk paused then, frowning. His eyes seemed to cast beyond Rickkter, staring out over the expanse of the garden. For a moment, they appeared to alight on something distant, a pale hue creeping into the glint of his eyes. Then he returned his gaze once more to the raccoon, who’d for the moment settled back on the bench. An queer curl touched his muzzle. “The answer to that question is an even longer story than the tale of my discovery this morning. To be brief to the point of triviality, the enemy I speak of is not Nasoj himself, but a force whose designs are slow, methodical, and completely beyond the ken of men. But it does not mean we can do nothing, just that we must strike at its agents first. In short, we are dealing with the power of the Underworld.”

Rickkter took a deep breath himself then, feeling some of the tension slip from him. But not all. “How did you come to know this?”

“A man who has read as much as me does see patterns. Besides I have also been in the confidence of others more closely associated with this struggle. I will not say more to that.” He rested his paws once more upon the tome in his lap. “Do you care to see what I have to show you now?”

Rickkter nodded slowly. “I suppose I must.”

“Good.” Habakkuk opened the tome once more. He took the pages of parchment between his fingers, slipping his short claws between them to turn them. At last when he found the page he wanted, he handed the book to the Kankoran. “There, the short poem. Read it and see.”

Gripping the ends of the tome, Rickkter scanned across the familiar Southern text. The script was immaculate, as if burned upon the page. But there seemingly interrupting the flow of a sentence stood a short poem.

Singularly standing in the sun
Abreast of all and everyone,
It’s blossoms old though never wilt
and cups to dream the absinthe filled.

It draws things from here to nigh
From below the ground and above the sky;
Deep down where the rocks still grow,
That is where its roots do go.

Speak unto it, leagues away,
A fortnight’s journey in but a day.
A road not seen in any land,
Is the road where hyacinth stand.

Rickkter drummed his claws along the page and frowned. “I have read this book before, but I do not recognize this poem. It seemed nonsense to me.”

Habakkuk nodded. “To me as well when I first happened upon it. And though I myself am responsible for scribing the tome you hold in your paws, I do not recall having written that poem there.”

The raccoon frowned, running his fingers along the pages of the book. He opened himself to the sights of magic, but could see nothing out of the ordinary. It was merely a normal tome from what he could see. “Are you saying somebody else wrote this?”

But the kangaroo merely shook his head. “No, that is not what I am saying. It took me several times reading through this book to realize what was amiss. You have an extensive library, Rickkter, so you will understand this. If you read something many times, you begin to learn what to expect to come next. Moreso if you wrote it yourself. Is that not so?”

“Yes,” Rickkter said, tapping one claw on the page.

“Well, since this tome has come into my possession, I have read through each section multiple times. Every time I read this particular chapter, that poem has caught me by surprise. I did not expect it, or remember reading it. Every time. And with a poem so singularly distinctive in its apparent meaninglessness, it should raise some concern that I could not recall it at all. Especially when the letters are my own.”

Rickkter looked down at the page again, the poem was still beneath his paw. “Something kept you from remembering the poem? Is that what you are telling me?” He scoffed then and closed the book. “Why should that be important?”

“May I have that back?” Habakkuk pointed at the book, then glanced around the garden. Once again, his eyes alighted on something beyond the raccoon, even as his paws took hold of the tome. A grimace crossed his muzzle for a moment, but then it was gone. An intense look of concentration was on his face as he opened up the book once more. “If I sat here for five minutes, talking with you about anything else, you would not be able to remember that poem either. And it says so. For its cups to dream the absinthe filled, as it says.” He opened the tome once again to the proper page. “The trick to remembering any of it is take only a single line at a time. And so to is the trick to understanding it.”

Rickkter frowned now, some of his previous anger building in him again. “What is it?”

Habakkuk leaned forward and in a hissing whisper he spat, “The hyacinth!” He sucked in his breath, ears folding back across his neck. “It’s the hyacinth that this poem speaks. It’s a flower whose uses as a magical conduit of power are singularly expressive. You can speak unto it leagues away. You can make a fortnight’s journey in a day because of it.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Rickkter scoffed, feeling faintly mocked now. “I’ve seen hyacinth before. They are nothing but a simple flower. Never, in all my studies, have I ever seen them attributed magical abilities. Their roots do not go down to where the rocks still grow.”

“In that you are correct. Most hyacinth are not like that at all. But somehow, what Stojowsk is saying in this bizarre poem is that one specially treated and cultured can indeed be used in this manner. But its properties are clear in this light. It has the power to see all about it. It has the power to make others forget. It can even be a reservoir for power itself. And all the while, its hold on a land grows deeper and deeper, until few even know it is there.”

Rickkter shook his head angrily. “This is simple nonsense, Habakkuk! You have wasted my time with this! There aren’t even hyacinth’s in Metamor! I have had enough of your mad rambling. If you think to threaten to reveal my secret, by all means do so. Few will care.” And with that, the raccoon stood up from the bench and turned around.

And stood staring, the hackles upon the back of his neck raised, for several minutes.

Before him, across the rise of bushes, was a garden row consisting of a large arrangement of flowers, each sculpted to bring out the brightest of colours, from the pinks and yellows of snapdragons to the tender lavenders and purples of the ivy curling about small statues. Standing tall at its centre though, unmistakable in its cup-like flowers that dangled from the stem, deep blue’s and purples that shone with an almost hypnotic quality, was a solitary hyacinth.

Turning back around, Rickkter found it within himself to glare at Habakkuk. “You knew that was there.”

“Yes, I did. It was why we had to speak here. Anywhere else, and the absinthe that it has spread would have prevented you from ever taking notice of it. Only when you knew of it, could you see it and understand.”

Rickkter tentatively slipped back down upon the stone bench. He did his best to lower his hackles, but the sight of that flower, something he could not ever remember seeing there before, had startled him in a way that even the halter could not have. And that made it all the worse, as he could not explain why it shocked him so.

“Okay, I’m starting to believe you. What is that thing?”

“It is something that was brought to Metamor by our enemy. An enemy that we should have known from the first. I suspect we did know in fact, but as the hyacinth has grown in our soil, our minds have become clouded to it. And, our defences against its power weaker.”

“But I still can remember what they have done. I remember that man’s face.”

“Yes, some moments are so burned upon our conscious, it is impossible even for the hyacinth to cloud them away. But the subtler things are forgotten, the tiny clues gone. Even a poem erased from our minds as this was from mine.”

Rickkter frowned, paws balling into fists. “Who planted this?”

Habakkuk shook his head. “I suspect we will know that once it is destroyed. Or at least, we will begin to remember it. But it is of our enemy, that much we can be certain.”

“Does not anyone know?”

“No. I even spoke with D’Alimonte, to see if he knew whether any came to attend to it. But our estimable grasshopper could not remember if anyone had ever approached it. He had to be reminded that it even existed. And he is the gardener as you know, who treads along these paths daily seeing to the Duke’s flora. Clearly, the power of this flower and our enemy is great.”

“So it must be destroyed,” the raccoon let his eyes slip back slightly. “I suppose it has its own protection?”

“Against destruction? It’s only protection is its absinthe. At least, so says the poem. I suspect that its maker will have some connection to it, so you should proceed very carefully.”

“Me?” Rickkter leaned forward. “Why don’t you simply destroy it? It is you who found it. I still don’t know what part it is playing.”

“Playing? It clouds our minds against what we should see. That is the part that it plays.” Habakkuk leaned back a bit, his long tail bending slightly to support him better. “And as for me, I have little to protect me should its creator discern that it was I who destroyed the hyacinth. You, Rickkter, possess far more powerful protections. It is you who will be able to protect yourself, both to hide your identity, and to shield yourself from all reprisals. Thus, you are far more capable of accomplishing this task than I.”

Rickkter drew his claws along the fabric of his breeches. “And the only person you felt you could summon to do your biding?”

“No, there are others who would listen, but perhaps few others who understand the severity of our need. Metamor faces very dark times. Our forces are spent from the invasion leaving us vulnerable to attack. The Duke, it is said, has not been as forceful in strengthening our position since the assault as is needed. And what allies we do have left have become estranged, forces turning against us left and right. No, now is not the time that we can risk being blinded by some flower, if ever there were such a time. Now we need to strike against it, and strike a powerful blow.”

He pointed one paw at the raccoon, ears folded back. “It is you, Rickkter, who can strike such a blow. Destroy this flower, destroy it utterly, not even the roots must survive. And if you do that, I think we will have a clearer understanding of the perils we face.”

“And perhaps you will be able to speak more clearly too,” Rickkter said with bile in his throat. “Very well. I will destroy this flower.” He stood up, brushing the dirt from his breeches. “And afterwards, I think we must have another drink, and another long conversation.”

The scribe nodded slowly. “A libation would be quite pleasant to share. When do you intend to kill this thing?”

“Tonight, after the sun has set. The flowers will close at night. Perhaps it will not be as strong then. Now, if you will excuse me, there are important preparations to be made.” Rickkter turned about, and saw those purplish petals again swaying before him. The hackles on the back of his neck rose once more. It was hard to keep a clear picture in his mind of what the hyacinth looked like, but at least he could still remember it was there.

Habakkuk did not say anything as he began to walk along the terrazzo, the sprinkling of the fountain fading behind him. He’d have to remember to write what he intended that night down, lest he forget it. Already, pieces of their conversation were slipping from his mind. Taking a deep breath, he turned around and saw that the kangaroo was still sitting there upon the bench.

“Habakkuk, there is one more thing.” Rickkter walked back to the scribe and stood akimbo before him. “Give me the book this night. I do not want to forget this.”

“Of course.” Habakkuk slid a small marker between the pages, where the poem lay, and then closed it and handed it to the raccoon. “Here. Do return it if you will. It is not truly mine either.”

Rickkter accepted it, feeling the weight in his paws. “Of course. Now good day.” Turning about, he once more walked between the bushes leaving the fountain and the kangaroo behind. He did not return again, though his eyes alighted upon the dancing purple petals at the edge of his vision.

“Come in, Anson, Tara. You are most welcome here.” Duke Verdane smiled as he gestured for the Lord and Lady Guilford to sit at his table. The bit of wine he’d supped had filled him with a renewed vigour.

Anson appeared apprehensive, and Tara quite uncertain. What scars lingered from the throne room Verdane knew clearly. He’d given Lord Dupré a foothold on their own land.

“I know what troubles you both,” Verdane said, resting his hands upon the table. “But fear not. Lord Dupré may be hotheaded, but he will not do ill in sight of sanctuary. And that is why I will have a chapel of both faiths erected upon that spot. It is unfortunate that it should happen so close to Masyor, but that is how it came to be.”

Anson steadied himself, but there was anger in his voice. “He accuses my son of attempted murder, and you reward him with my lands?”

Verdane nodded. “Those lands have been fought over for too long, Anson. I intend to see them fought over no longer.”

“But they were my lands!”

Verdane frowned. “I realize that. And I also realize that your son is innocent. That is why I have given you the lands of the Masyor river. Your first task will be to rebuild the bridges. You will be able to tax traders using that river, and as you know, it is the only reasonable way to ship goods from Bozojo to Ellcaran. With but a small investment, your return will be great. And so too will your land be, should you see the gift I have given you for what it is.”

Tara looked at her husband curiously, as if asking him if what Verdane said were indeed true. But Anson’s face remained unsettled, eyes wary, and his voice short. “But you have still taken that land.”

Verdane nodded. “Consider if you will, what I have done precisely. I have given that piece of your land to the Dupré’s. For what they wanted, it cost them their son. I took that land form you, it is true but I have repaid it not just in full, but with more. I have given you land that will reap you greater rewards than that small wood could ever have. Tell me, Lord Guilford, how many Garrets fill your coffers from that wood each year? I would be surprised if you could even say one or two.”

He spread his hands wide then, smiling broadly. “Now consider how much the river can provide you. Should you invest in it wisely, and tax the trade routes even modestly you can draw a hundred Garrets a year with ease. And your son Lucat will be there to inherit it from you.” Verdane smiled then. “And of course, you would have all the usual rights as lord over your fief that you have come to enjoy, in matters of faith for instance.”

“You make this sound as if you have done me a favour,” Anson said, much uncertainty still in his voice.

“And indeed I have. In the years to come, with a larger treasury, you will be able to support a much larger army to defend your lands. And then Mallow Horn would not dare touch you.”

“And if they put their son on your throne?” Anson asked, something bitter in his voice. “What then would happen to us?”

Verdane frowned. “Are you suggesting that my daughter would have the audacity to murder her father and brother?”

“They were willing to accuse our son of attempting to murder their own.”

“Which is not the same thing as murder.” Verdane steepled his fingers and rested his chin upon them. “I do not blame you for being so worried of being under their judgement. Nor do I doubt that if he could, Dupré would see and your family wiped clean from this earth. But I will not allow that to happen, and that is one more reason why I have brought Jory to live here with me. Here in my house, Jory will learn that being a ruler is more than just doing as he or his family wishes. You needn’t fear Jory.”

“It is not so much the boy that concerns me,” Anson said, pushing his hair back with one hand. “If William could become regent, he would certainly destroy my family and all of Masyor.”

“William will never become regent. I intend on living for quite some time, as does Jaime. Regardless, I have made arrangements should the unfortunate occur that will prevent these lands from being swallowed in warfare by the likes of William Dupré. Several of the Lords that I trust have in their possession scroll cases bearing my seal. To open them the seal must be broken, so the instructions contained therein remain a secret from our enemies. I cannot tell you what they contain, but I will offer you one such case yourself if you should so desire it. As a gesture of my commitment to what I have told you here, that I will not allow your family and your lands to be ravaged by your enemies.”

Anson appeared to be mollified by that, and slowly nodded. “Yes, your grace, that would be most agreeable.”

Verdane smiled amiably. “Apollinar shall furnish you with one before you return to Masyor on the morrow. And as a gesture of my good faith, I will also have sent a shipment of brick so that you may begin the reconstruction of the bridges.”

Both Anson and Tara’s eyebrows lifted in surprise at that. Tara turned to her husband with a delighted smile, and even Anson’s lips betrayed a hint of delight. “That is most gracious of you, your grace.”

“You are welcome. Is there any other matter that troubles you? I fear I have said all that I intended.”

Anson shook his head then. “No, your grace, I believe that is all that troubles me as well.”

“I am glad to hear it,” Verdane smiled and rose form his seat. Anson and Tara did as well. “I wish you and your son Lucat a safe journey home. Do enjoy the remainder of your stay in my home.” They assured him they would before leaving much as the Dupré’s had done. And when the door finally shut, Duke Titian Verdane suddenly felt like he had forgotten something very important.

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