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Introduction:

The Killing of a merchant
The last six weeks had seemed to fly by and Sam had her monthly bleeding. From the last day she had trembled in fear every night as she came to bed. I only held her and told her to face her fear. Two weeks later she had and I had been a gentle lover. From that first moment her fear had left her and she became my lover as well as my wife.

Over the last month since then she had refused to leave my side. In the mornings she trained with Mona after she got off her shift and I practiced with various guards or soldiers. When I investigated a crime, she stood behind me or took notes. Sam had refused to return to see her mother or father until she was pregnant. This morning was to start differently.

I woke as the light entered the room and looked at the beautiful girl that was my lover and I hoped, my wife. She lay half on me as she had ever since that first night when she had become my lover. As the room brightened, her eyes opened and she smiled up at me, suddenly it changed and her face went white.

She scrambled out of bed and ran into the small bathroom to be violently sick. I followed and held her. While we were like this, someone started banging on the door. I leaned back and looked across the room and called for them to enter. Captain Able entered with Tess behind him, “We’ve had a death Charles. Jonathan and the duke both want you there.”

I nodded, but quickly leaned back to Sam as she started vomiting again. I heard Tess gasp and cross the room to squeeze into the small water closet, “Sam?”

Sam finally sat back, “I don’t know what’s wrong!”

I had an idea what was wrong and so did Tess, she gently wiped Sam’s face, “I think you’re pregnant.”

Sam’s eyes widened and she looked at me. I smiled, “I think so too.”

She came into my arms, “We did it Charles.”

I held her close, “Yes love, we did.”

Tess and I helped her clean up and I looked at Tess as we got dressed, “I’ll need to speak with your mother or father.”

I dug into my things and pulled out a fat purse. When we went downstairs George and Maria were sitting at a table drinking coffee. We stopped next to them and I held out the purse and George took it, “Tonight, we are going to celebrate. Samantha and I will announce the expectance of our child and say our vows. Sam’s parents and the court will be invited as will the Guard and Militia and any that wish to join.”

Maria jumped up and hugged Sam and George shook my hand. When we stepped outside, my four men stood up from a table they had been sitting at. Dett started off leading the way, our way wound up through the houses of the rich or noble. We stopped outside a large mansion, the duke and Sheriff were waiting with a squad of militia and captain Hurst.

I gave the duke a slight bow, but he was surprised when Sam stepped close and kissed his cheek. Jonathan smiled and looked at me, “The merchant that was killed was one of our main supplier’s for the king’s army. His name was Petre Sal Demtilos and he was found in a locked room. We need to find out if this was directed against the kingdom or if it was personal.”

I nodded and looked at Dett, Edward and Chris, giving each a nod. They didn’t say a word only walking into the house. Jonathan and the duke turned to leave and I cleared my throat, “My lord?”

The duke turned back surprised, “Yes?”

I smiled and took Sam’s hand, “We would be honored if you and your wife would join us for dinner and a celebration. We invite your court to attend as well.”

The his eyes widened and he looked at Sam, “Samantha is it true?”

Sam blushed and nodded, the duke quickly stepped close and hugged her, “Samantha I am so proud.”

Jonathan clapped me on the shoulder, “The Guard Tavern?”

I nodded, “We would like to invite the Guard and the Militia to join us as well. It will be open to everyone.”

I looked at the duke, “I will expect your examiners at noon?”

He smiled and nodded and I looked at Sam, “Sam? Did you want to go see your mother?”

She shook her head, “After your examiners confirm that I am whole and… pregnant.”

My examiner’s that was something I hadn’t thought about. I looked at the duke not really seeing him as I turned towards the door into the manor. Peter put his hand on my shoulder when I reached it, “your distracted Charles, take a minute.”

I nodded and took a deep breath and looked back to see Sam behind him smiling. I grinned, “I forgot I would need to have someone stand for me.”

She grinned and I turned to enter the manor. I found Dett, Edward and Chris standing outside a doorway. Edward looked at me, “It’s a trap.”

I looked into the room and relaxed my mind, letting things that were out of place stand out and jump to the front, “The scroll on the desk.”

“The candle on the table.”

“The dagger in the bookshelf.”

I looked around further but didn’t see the last. I looked at Chris, “Do you see the trip?”

He shook his head and each of the others did the same as I looked at them. I frowned, “The scroll can be countered with fire, the candle with water.”

I looked at Peter and turned him around and pulled his sword breaker from his belt, “The dagger I can bind.”

I looked back into the room, “Fire and water. Solid and…”

I looked at the body and smiled as it finally came to me, “solid and ethereal, the book in his hand.”

I looked at Edward, “We need Mother Alisa.”

He nodded and left and Peter nodded to the room, “That’s a sand dagger.”

I nodded, “It seems Shermerez may be involved.”

Peter snorted, “more like this is aimed at you.”

I nodded absently as Sam touched my shoulder. I looked at her and smiled, “Do me a favor and don’t even think of following me into the room. Go find one of the guards, I need a runner to go to Armsmaster Henry. I also need Captain Hurst or Able, whoever is on.”

She nodded and walked quickly down the hall. Chris snorted, “You better tie her up or she’ll follow you anyway.”

I grinned at him, “Care to do it for me?”

He grinned back as he looked at Peter, “I don’t think so. Mona has been teaching her some sneaky moves.”

Peter laughed, “Charles was the one to teach Mona.”

I looked back into the room as a guard came down the hall. I didn’t even turn as Peter told him to find Armsmaster Henry. He wrote a hasty note and folded it before giving it to him. When he was done, the guard hurried off and Dett nodded to the body, “his was a slow painful death, this was more then something aimed at you.”

I nodded, “Maybe a two prong attack?”

Dett nodded, “Yes, I think so.”

With the sound of feet coming down the hall, I looked to see Sam leading Captain Able and the large form of mother Alisa. Dett, Chris and Peter stepped out of her way but I blocked her from entering. She looked down on me, mother Alisa stood almost seven feet tall so she looked down on everyone.

I grinned at her, she was one of the few that didn’t care about who I had been and I liked her, “It’s a trap Alisa. I think, maybe for me. I can take care of three of the corners, but the last is ethereal. I think, maybe the merchant.”

She nodded and I looked at Dett and Chris, “I need a brazier and a wash basin.”

They slipped away, one to the kitchen and the other to the bedrooms. I looked at captain Able, “Prince Sherdain may be sticking his fingers in again. Can you put someone to watch him?”

He nodded and looked into the room, “Do you think it was personal or…”

I shrugged, “With Shermerez involved, it could be both. They have a mage named Horiss Haszar. If he is here, this could be his work.”

Able nodded and walked back down the hall. Dett returned from the kitchen carrying a smoking brazier with two thick mittens. I took it from him and slipped into the room skirting the trap. I made my way around to the desk and carefully I set it on the desk and slowly backed away and returned to the door. Chris handed me the basin of water and I moved to the table and set it across from the candle.

I looked at the doorway, “Sam? Stay there.”

When she finally nodded, I pulled the sword breaker and stepped around the table. I took a deep breath and stepped into the trap. Fire and water sprang into being around me. My hand was already rising with the sword breaker and it caught the dagger inches from my chest as I swept the candle into the basin.

As I turned to the desk, the fire around me died and a ghostly form started rising from the dead man. I still held the dagger with the sword breaker and grabbed the scroll and tossed it into the brazier behind it. I moved around the desk taking a deep breath now that the threat of drowning was gone.

It was a good thing they had used a person newly dead, it didn’t know it could move through objects yet. I could hear Mother Alisa murmuring and the spirit stopped moving and turned to face her. A moment later it began to fade and I put my attention on the dagger still trying to get past the sword breaker.

I knelt slowly, keeping it bound in the sword breaker, “Peter?”

I felt him enter the room coming closer as I carefully wedged the point of the dagger into the floor. I leaned it against the desk with a struggle and grabbed a glove from my belt to use on the handle. When I looked up at Peter, he nodded and brought his foot down, snapping the blade. I sat back on my heels as the blade stopped moving.

I carefully flipped the blade over and nodded when I saw the glyph. I stood and handed Peter his sword breaker, “Thanks.”

He grinned, “Better you then me.”

I nodded and knelt next to the body, I pulled the shirt up to see the glyph carved into his chest. I nodded to Peter, “It’s a Shermerez glyph.”

I stood and looked at Peter, “use a piece of cloth, gather the dagger, candle, scroll and the book”

I walked out of the room and into Sam’s embrace. I looked at mother Alisa, “Thank you.”

She nodded and entered the room, the body was her responsibility now. I looked at Dett, “I need to know how many ships from Shermerez are in port.”

From Dett, I looked to Edward, “Check the entry logs at the gates.”

Finally I looked at Chris, “The duke.”

Our eyes met and he finally nodded, knowing I wanted him to guard the duke. When Peter came out, I took the bundle of cloth and pulled a small key from my pocket, “I have a trunk at the mercenary guild. Bring it to the Guards Tavern.”

Sam was looking at me curiously and I smiled, “Time to go write out our report.”

She nodded and slipped her hand into mine as we walked out of the manor and started the trip back to the guard building. When we entered the building, several guards called out to us, some especially to Sam. She had wormed her way into their hearts and they liked seeing the way she fought back from what had happened to her.

I smiled when I saw Mona sitting at a table with Lieutenant Belet. When we sat down across from them she groaned, “Damn it Belet, I told you to write faster.”

I laughed, “Relax Mona, I have a less exhausting chore for you today.”

She grinned, “And what is that oh exacting master.”

I grinned, “I need a favor. I… ask for your confidence and your discretion.”

Mona sat back looking at Sam who was blushing, “So, it’s true. Sam is pregnant.”

I nodded and Mona grinned, “I’ll be honored.”

I pulled a sheet of parchment from the center of the table and placed it in front of Sam. She grinned as she pulled the ink pot and metal pen closer, she wrote neater then I did. Mona and Belet looked at each other and finally Mona cleared her throat, “What’s the word on the Merchant?”

I unrolled the cloth and flipped the blade of the dagger over. Mona sucked in her breath, “Bastards.”

Belet looked at her and she shook her head, “Shermerez, Belet. Again the damn prince is meddling with us.”

Belet growled and several guards moved away, it wouldn’t do to draw the attention of an upset lieutenant of the guard. Mona looked at me, “we should have let you finish at Albia.”

Sam looked up and I could see Belet paying closer attention, “Mona, I was covered in blood. The dead were stacked taller than I am and they refused to let me get close. How was I supposed to finish it?”

She grinned, “Yes, it was a beautiful sight to behold. Two thousand dead and the rest running every time you tried to get close. I thought the Captain was going to laugh himself to death.”

I shook my head and nudged Sam to get her back to writing. When she finished, I gave it to Belet, “If you can get it copied, one goes to the duke and the other to Jonathan.”

I looked at Mona, “the exam needs to be at noon.”

She grinned and nodded and I picked up the artifacts. After leaving Sam and I crossed to a table outside the inn. There were workers setting up tables everywhere, I looked up when one of the serving girls stopped beside us. She was smiling as she watched one of the workers and Sam laughed, “See something you like Teresa?”

Teresa looked down at Sam blushing and then laughed, “Yes, as a matter of fact I do.”

Sam laughed with her, “Want me to tie him to the table for you?”

I laughed when the worker, a young man stood up and looked at the girls, “You know I can hear you.”

Sam laughed and Teresa’s blush deepened, she looked down at the table, “Did you want an early lunch? Mom is putting most of the girls to work for your party.”

I smiled and nodded, “Something light, something Sam may be able to keep down.”

Teresa grinned at Sam, “Lucky you.”

Sam stuck her tongue out at her as she turned away. I smiled until I saw Dett hurrying across the square. He sat down across from us, “Ten ships. Large galleys and they haven’t even tried to unload.”

I cursed and looked at the guard building as Mona and captain Able came out and started across towards us. I looked back at Dett, “Remember those northern ‘fishermen’ in dry dock?”

He nodded and I gave him an evil grin as I pulled out my purse and counted out several gold coins, “Give them these and tell them about the celebration here tonight. See if they would do us a favor by fouling the rudders of the ships. Also, that merchant with the load of napthem? Tell him the city will buy it. I want barrels at the beginning of each dock those ships are at. If you can manage it, get one close to each ship. If they move off the ships use fire arrows on the barrels.”

I looked at captain Able and Mona as they reached the table and sat down. As Dett walked away, I quietly told them what I suspected. Teresa brought us soup, bread and a light cheese, she said her mother recommended it. When Edward slipped into the seat beside Sam, he was grim. He quietly handed me a slip of parchment and after glancing at it, I shook my head.

I looked back at him, “Get some men. Try the Blue Parrot, the Fallen Lantern and the Windor. You know what other places they may be. Take anyone you catch to the militia lock up.”

I glanced at the street coming into the square and smiled as I stood up, “Sam? There’s someone I would like you to meet.”

I grabbed the artifacts and tossed them to Mona. I took Sam’s hand and led her to the approaching couple, they had four militia guards with them. I didn’t even slow as I released Sam’s hand and embraced the woman. She was six years older then me and just laughed as I spun around holding her. I set her down and turned to a frowning Sam, “Sam, this is my sister Gabrielle.”

I looked at my sister, “What are you doing here and where is your husband?”

She stepped away from me and held her hand out to Sam, “Philp is with grandfather and I’m here because you need family to witness Samantha’s examination.”

I smiled and glanced back at the tables where Mona was sitting, “Well since I didn’t know I had family here, I did the next best thing.”

Gabrielle gave me one of her stern looks, “Don’t tell me you asked one of your mercenaries.”

I grinned at her as she unconsciously took Sam’s hand, “Well, Mona isn’t a mercenary anymore. In fact she is one of the duke’s trusted guard officers.”

Gabrielle started laughing as she turned to the young man that had come with her, “Is this the same Mona with the colorful nick name of Bloody Mona? Or the one that kept trouncing the pour duke in his own salle? Don’t you think she is a little rough to be examining your wife to be?”

I shook my head as I was evaluating the young man, “Well, since she is also the one that is teaching Sam how to defend herself and Sam was the one to do her examination before she was married, I thought it was a good idea.”

Gabrielle stopped and looked at me, “My god, someone married her?”

I frowned at her, “Gabrielle, you judge too quickly. And yes, someone married her. (I could see Sam was upset) In fact it was another former mercenary and one I owe a serious debt to.”

Gabrielle frowned back at me, “I’m sorry Charles, I know they are mostly good people. Wait a minute! A debt? Peter the Shadow is here?”

I laughed, “I haven’t heard him called that in a long time.”

She grinned and looked at the young man, “I’ll have to send word to grandfather.”

She shook herself and started to introduce the young man, but Sam stopped her by walking straight to him and kissing his cheek before turning to me, “Charles, this is my brother, James.”

I smiled as I stepped closer, “Nice to meet you, my lord.”

He grinned, “I’ve been waiting to meet you since you got here. You’ve impressed father a great deal. More importantly, mom said you were smarter then dad and told her you would rather Samantha was removed from the line to inherit. And then there was the impressive way you rescued her, although thinking she would change her mind about something was foolish. Since you didn’t know her, I can’t say it was a character flaw though.”

I laughed as I took his hand, “Even us common men get help from fate.”

He laughed, “Well spoken.”

As we walked towards the tavern, I waved at Mona and waited for her at the door. Inside, I saw that one corner had been curtained off. Maria came hurrying through the gathered girls around the kitchen doorway. She curtsied to James and looked at me grinning, “The duke matched your purse so it is going to be just about everyone in the city that will attend.”

I shook my head and she laughed before pointing to the curtain, “I had the corner set aside for your examination.”

I nodded and turned towards the corner and we started across the room. We were almost there when Peter came in carrying a large trunk. I wave for him to follow us behind the curtain and grinned as my sister frowned. There was one small table and two chairs in the corner itself. Peter grunted when he set the trunk down, “You didn’t tell me it was in the high value section or that it weighted a ton.”

I grinned, “You’re getting soft Peter.”

My sister’s expression changed and she stood a little taller, “Peter the Shadow?”

Peter glanced at her as he pulled out a scrap of parchment and handed it to me, “Not for a while.”

Gabrielle took a breath and stepped close to him, laying her hand on his arm, “I am Gabrielle Winston-Hurme, Charles is my brother. I want to thank you on our family’s behalf.”

Peter looked at her bemused, before glancing at me, “Well since he was the Armsmaster and the one to pound it into my thick head that the company was family, I thought it was appropriate.”

I glanced up from the parchment, “This is all Henry sent?”

Peter nodded and I almost cursed, I turned to the wall and thought hard before finally turning to Peter, “The king’s army has two companies in the militia compound that no one knows about. See Henry and quietly get them to the three empty warehouses by the docks. There are ten ships in port, I have Dett putting barrels of napthem on each dock and hopefully by each ship. Make sure they know they may face up to a thousand Shermerez skirmishers. Try to get the duke’s rangers to go with them.”

I glanced at a frowning James and back to Peter, “When that is done, I need you to watch Prince Sherdain’s back door. I think with the celebration, he will act tonight. Take anyone with him out and bring him to me. And Peter? I don’t care if he is in mint condition.”

Peter grinned and turned to leave. He stopped briefly by Mona and whispered something before opening the curtain. James looked at me, “You think Shermerez would dare attack?”

I gave him a wry grin as I bent to the chest and opened it, “Shermerez isn’t the brightest country.”

I moved things around in the trunk and finally found what I was looking for. I set a small mirror on the table, it was twelve inches square and worth more than most of this city. As everyone gathered around, Mona sighed, “Do we have to Charles?”

I glanced at her and grinned, “I talk to her all the time.”

I touched the frame thinking about time, “Ali!”

The mirror cleared and we were looking into a woman’s dressing room filling with several women moving around a young woman seated in front of us half dressed, “Charles!”

One of the women scrambled to throw something across her front and she swatted her away, “Leave me, all of you!”

I grinned, “Tet, tet. What would your father think?”

Ali grinned, showing her teeth, “He tried to pawn off another of those old men on me.”

I laughed, “Did you send him running in fear?”

Ali smiled smugly, “I left him whimpering in the throne room.”

Mona laughed, “Ali, you are never going to get what you want.”

Ali leaned forward and looked closer at the mirror, “Is that you Mona? I heard you finally let Peter catch you.”

Mona grumbled and Ali laughed as she finally looked at me and sobered, “I heard about someone finally cornering you too Charles. You should have accepted my offer.”

I smiled, “I would rather have you as a friend. Besides, you’re too violent for me.”

She grinned and I saw her gaze wonder from Gabrielle to Sam, “So which one is the lucky one?”

I pulled Sam closer, “This is Sam, Samantha, the duke of Whitecliff’s youngest daughter.”

Ali laughed, “I thought you said you were going to stay away from nobility.”

I shrugged, “She thought faster than me and saw through what I was doing.”

Ali grinned as she looked at Sam, “Good for you. Have you conceived yet?”

Sam smiled shyly and nodded, “I was sick this morning for the first time.”

Ali shuddered, “That’s something I’m not looking forward to.”

Ali looked back at me and sighed, “Well they have probably told father you are looking at me in my slip. Heavens forbid someone else should see me like this. What did you want to talk about?”

I grinned, “I need to speak to your father actually, but you can tell me if Shermerez is mustering on the northern border.”

A male voice came from the mirror and an older man stepped up next to Ali, “As a matter of fact they are and not just them. One of his southern kinsmen have sent men as well.”

I sat in the chair, “Do you have any numbers?”

He nodded as his hand rested on Ali’s shoulder, “Your company scouts say ten thousand or more.”

I looked at James and then grinned at the mirror, “Give me a second Farhahie.”

I turned to face James, “You are more then old enough to be wed.”

He raised his eyebrows and I felt Sam put her hand on my shoulder. James looked at the mirror and back to me, “There is no suitable noble woman of age.”

I grinned, “Want to meet one?”

Mona laughed and James smiled as I turned back to the mirror, “Lord Whitecliff, meet his majesty King Farhahie Ghadishah and his daughter Princess Alexandra. Farhahie, Ali, this is James Whitecliff, heir of Duke Whitecliff.”

Both James and the king bowed slightly while Ali just wiggled her fingers. I laughed, “Farhahie? The time is off by almost a month. You hold something in trust for me.”

He nodded and I sighed, “I do not want or expect you to go to war with Shermerez. That said, there are a few things you could let happen if their army wanders north. Off the top of my head, taking king Sherdain’s head would be at the top of the list or poisoning the army food supply trains.”

He grinned, “You just want his head because you didn’t get it at Albia.”

I grinned and then laughed, “He ran to fast.”

He sobered and looked at James and back to me, “Do you recommend him.”

I smiled and turned to look at James, “I have heard good things about him and his father is a good and fair man. Yes, I recommend him.”

I looked back at the king, “How many has she frightened off.”

He laughed, “Eight.”

I nodded and he sighed before the mirror went blank and turned into a normal mirror. I sighed and stood up, “Okay let’s get this over with.”

I know I wasn’t supposed to help Sam, but I calmly started unbuttoning her shirt as she watched me trembling, “Easy Sam, no one will hurt you. You did this for Mona, just relax and let them do what they need to do.”

I stepped back, letting Mona and my sister move closer to Sam. James touched my shoulder and I nodded, “One moment, my lord.”

I heard his quiet whisper, “I understand.”

When I glanced at him, his face was grim, “I was the one that led our people onto the Shermerez ship.”

I nodded and turned back to keep eye contact with Sam until they were done and she sighed. While she dressed, I started removing weapons and armor and then clothing. James chuckled and I glanced at him as he grinned, “Enough weapons?”

I smiled thinly, “Honestly? No, this is what I carry around everyday. If I expect to be in a fight I carry more as well as better armor.”

He smiled, “I’ve seen Henry a lot and I don’t think he carries this much.”

I shrugged as I finally stepped out of my pants, “Then he has never served with a mercenary company.”

James nodded as he finished examining my body and then handed my pants back to me. “You were trying to arrange something for me with the princess?”

I laughed along with Mona, “Only a meeting. Ali… Ali will decide who she marries. You heard Farhahie, her father. He has tried eight times to arrange something for her.”

James was looking at me, “But you think she will accept me.”

I smiled as I held my hand out to Sam after dressing, “To be honest, yes.”

He looked at the mirror as we turned to leave. “I think I would like to meet her.”

I pulled the curtain back and almost shoved Sam back while drawing my sword. Filling the room was a crowd of mercenaries that I knew well. Standing in front of them was Ali with a big smile, “Surprise!”

I vaguely recognized the tall young man beside her and grinned as I walked forward. I embraced Ali and suddenly picked her up and spun her around while she let out a startled squawk, “Ali, you trickster!”

She laughed and when I set her down she turned to Sam, “I had to meet Sam in person. Anyone smart enough to catch you… deserves my attention.”

I laughed as I turned to Sam and held out my hand. She was smiling as she stepped closer to take my hand. She was holding out her other hand to Ali, “It seems like we just talked.”

Ali laughed as she took Sam’s hand and gently pulled her away from me. She grinned at me and turned Sam to face the mercenaries, “Well, Sand Tigers, what do you think?”

I was surprised when the short grey haired man stepped out of the crowd close to Sam, “Captain?”

He laughed as he took Sam’s hand and held it up to his lips, “Well met Samantha.”

She laughed and glanced back at me. She finally looked at the crowd, “Your Charles’s company? I mean his friends?”

They all laughed and started forward, taking turns hugging her and congratulating her. I stood calmly, bemused by the turn of events. I had expected no one and now, not only did I have family, I had those I held in just as close regard. When they calmed and quieted, the captain looked at me from beside a flush faced Sam, “Well, Armsmaster?”

I smiled, “If you had waited to be introduced properly, I could have added my sister Gabrielle to the melee.”

He grinned as he looked at my sister, “Gabrielle… Gabrielle, now I remember.”

He walked in his calm assured manner to Gabrielle and took her hand in his. He bowed as a noble would and kissed the back of her hand, “Well met Lady Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle laughed and pulled him as she led him back towards the crowd, “I have wanted to meet you lunatics since Charles started writing about you.”

She looked around the crowd, “Tell me, is Backward Samuel or James the Bard here?”

The crowd laughed and two men were pushed out, she hugged both to the laughter of everyone. I pulled Ali and the young noble aside as the company started another round of hugging, this time with much joking, “Ali, this is your brother?”

She smiled as she put her hand around my arm, “Yes, you probable saw him, but I don’t think you met. This is Joseph, Joseph this is Armsmaster Winston. Just call him Charles, I do.”

I gestured to James as I held my hand out to Joseph, “Joseph, you look a lot like your father. Allow me to introduce lord Whitecliff or as Sam introduced him to me, James.”

James grinned as he took Joseph’s hand, “Welcome to Whitecliff.”

Joseph bowed, “Lord Whitecliff. On behalf of my father, I would like to introduce my sister, Alexandra.”

James turned to Ali and I could almost see the spark that came to their eyes. Neither one spoke and I couldn’t help chuckling, she looked at me and suddenly laughed, “So okay know it all, you were right.”

I looked at James as he continued to stare at Ali, “So my lord, do you think your father will approve?”

James laughed, “yes, but you get to tell him.”

Sam slipped up next to me and I glanced back as captain Olivite joined us with Gabrielle. As I headed for the door Maria stopped me, “Charles? All the girls are afraid. All these strange men…”

I looked back at the mercenaries, “Sand Tigers, the girls here are to be under your protection. They have all experienced Shermerez hospitality so take care.”

I looked at Maria, “Tell the girls not to fear these men. If any of the girls needs any help, all they need do is call out and these men will come to help them.”

Maria smiled and patted my cheek. The captain laughed with the company as they followed me out. I walked to what I thought of as my table, there were several other tables pushed against it. Before I could sit, Tess was at my elbow, “Mom is having your trunk and stuff taken to your room. Dad said to tell you, mother Alisa said she would hear your vows. Also a messenger arrived, he said the duke would be here shortly and needed to speak with you.”

I laughed, “All that in one breath.”

I gestured to Ali and Joseph, “Tess, this young lady is Princess Alexandra, you can call her Ali.”

I looked at Ali with her eyebrows raised and laughed, “Ali, this is the best server in the city. She’ll make sure you are taken care of.”

Ali laughed, “Well in that case, by all means call me Ali.”

I laughed with everyone else and nodded to Joseph, “This gentleman is Prince Joseph.”

Tess curtsied and Joseph laughed, “Just Joseph, Tess. I know the value of a good server.”

I grinned at Tess, “Ask your mom if she can make a large pot of my coffee.”

Tess laughed as she turned away, “She’s already ahead of you.”

While we sat, Mona excused herself and crossed the square. The captain laughed and looked at me, “You finally forced her to marry Peter.”

I felt Sam stiffen and squeezed her hand, “you know better then that.”

He laughed again and looked directly at Sam, “Sam, if it seems like we are… rude to Mona or Peter, it is a sign of how much we care. Mona and Peter went through a lot with us and we tend to think of those that do as family.”

Sam took a breath and relaxed, she looked at me and then back at the captain, “I’ll try not to… take offense.”

Captain Olivite laughed and looked around before looking at me, “How many do you expect to come after the duke and his family?”

I glanced around, “What I have, says maybe forty. I think there will be at least one true assassin.”

He looked and me and I grinned, “I doubt if he or she will live to reach the duke.”

I looked around again, “What I am worried about is Haszar killing someone by accident.”

He nodded and made a few gestures I was familiar with. Several of the company seemed to fade away. Ali and Sam were having a long talk with Gabrielle when the militia started filling the square. They all headed straight for our table, at first captain Olivite was nervous, until the first ones arrived and made a point of ignoring me and congratulating Sam in besting an Armsmaster.

The company started laughing and several fell out of their seats, Sam had a big grin on her face. It was like that for a while and then the duke and his family entered the square. His wife Elizabeth was on his arm and we stood to greet them. Sam went straight into her mother’s arms and then she was being held by someone I thought was her older sister Amanda. There was another older girl that left a young noble to give her a hug that I knew was her oldest sister Catherine.

The duke waited patiently for his daughters to finish and then held his hand out, “Welcome to the family Charles.”

I took his hand as several of the Sand Tigers snickered. I turned the duke to prince Joseph, “Allow me to present Prince Joseph of Deliqure.”

While the duke shook his hand and looked at me in surprise, I grinned and gestured to Ali, “This is his sister Alexandra.”

I grinned at Ali, “Be nice Ali.”

Ali stuck her tongue out at me and curtsied to the duke. The duchess laughed and the duke grinned. I smiled as Sam slipped her hand back into mine, “Ali is here to meet James. He told me there were no suitable women here so I introduced them.”

The duke laughed as he looked at his son, “And how did that go?”

Sam and I laughed, “It was a good thing others were around to keep them from looking for a room.”

The duke looked at his son with a grin while the duchess laughed. Ali and James both turned a little pink and Joseph laughed, “My father has given me his authority to engage and marry Ali if she were to agree.”

I turned to captain Olivite, “My lord this is Captain Olivite. He commands the Sand Tigers.”

The duke looked at the captain in surprise, “After hearing all the story’s I thought you would be taller.”

The company laughed as the captain held out his hand, “So everyone tells me.”

As everyone sat, I felt a hand come to rest on my shoulder and almost threw myself over the table and away before I realized it wasn’t a threat. I could see the captain grinning, telling me he knew I had been surprised. When I looked back, it was to see my grandfather.

I came to my feet and embraced him, “Grandfather!”

He patted my back, “I’m glad for you Charles.”

I pulled back and reached for Sam’s hand, “Grandfather, this is Samantha.”

My grandfather took her hand in both of his and bowed, kissing the back of it. “Thank you Samantha.”

Sam grinned and tucked his arm in hers as she sat back down. Mona appeared out of the growing crowd and sat down. She pushed the artifacts across the table, “You better do something about this before the crowd is too large.”

I felt through my pockets and then took the large bag Mona offered. As I walked around the table I saw several of the company moving to protect Ali and her brother. I set the relics on the ground and gestured for a clear space in the square. Four city guards appeared and moved people back. I opened the bag Mona had given me and poured a solid thin line of salt around the relics. I pulled a special iron wood dagger and then tossed a hand full of salt onto the relics.

There was a flash and people screamed as a ball of fire exploded twenty feet away and a man stepped out of it. I tossed a hand full of salt into the air between us as he gestured and it was as if the air came alive. It sparkled and flashed in all the colors you could imagine. I threw the iron wood dagger through the sparkling display and it struck the mage in the chest.

Haszar stood frozen, in a normal man I would say it had killed him but I knew better. I walked calmly through the dazzling display and stopped by the mage. I knelt and slowly poured another solid thin line of salt around his frozen form. When I was done, I pulled a slim silver dagger out and waited.

When his eyes suddenly focused on me, I nodded, “I told you when you killed my men that I would kill you if we ever met again.”

My hand with the dagger came up under his chin, driving the silver blade up into his brain. When I jerked it back the blade was a melted ruin. I stepped back as Haszar suddenly burst into a towering pillar of fire and screamed. His arms reached for the sky as he burned and in only a moment he was reduced to a fine ash.

I walked back around the table and stopped in front of captain Olivite. In the quiet that surrounded the mage’s death, I handed the ruined dagger to the captain, “My debt is paid.”

He nodded and tossed the dagger to another mercenary who weighted it and passed it on. I looked at the duke, “Haszar was the one that killed the merchant. It was supposed to be a trap for me. Shermerez is going to try to take the city. They have skirmishers at the docks and assassins have entered the city. There is also an army at your southern border, ten thousand strong.”

The duke was calm, “Most of that I suspected from Henry’s notes. I didn’t know about the army on the border though.”

I looked around the square, “Where are Jonathan and Armsmaster Henry?”

The duke looked around, “Henry went to see the militia commander. He said something about him acting strangely.”

I almost started cussing, no wonder Henry hadn’t sent anyone. I was about to say something when I saw Henry and Jonathan enter the square. They had a single militia guard that was limping and Edward. As they made their way across the square, the sound returned to the crowd. Someone had found a musician and he was playing a lute.

While Jonathan and Henry sat down across from us, Edward slipped around the table. He knelt beside me and whispered, “We got most of them, but there was an ambush waiting for Henry. They mistakenly attacked Jonathan and his guards when we were bringing a group in to be locked up. If it hadn’t been for Henry we would have lost a lot more men.”

I looked across at Henry, “Was the commander paid or incompetent?”

Henry grunted, “Paid.”

I shook my head, “Was the king’s army able to get out unseen?”

Henry nodded, “and the Rangers.”

I sighed, at least something was going right. I looked at Edward, “Stick around and mingle.”

He nodded and moved away. I looked at the militia guard, “How bad are you hurt?”

He grinned, “Just bruised. The Armsmaster has given me worse.”

While everyone around us laughed, I looked at Henry, “Did you send a message to the king?”

He shook his head and I told him about the army that would be coming north. While we were thinking about it, something clicked in my mind. I looked around to see what had changed and noticed a soldier from the militia. He was moving back and forth through the crowd, but his movements were bringing him closer. I shifted, my body hiding the dagger that dropped into the hand I had shaken loose from Sam.

My suddenly lunge up wasn’t necessary, the soldier staggered and the dagger he had held, dropped to the ground. I moved in front of the duke as the assassin turned to face behind him. I could see the tiny dart sticking out of his neck before he dropped to his knees and then fell on his face. Chris appeared beside me, “He was alone.”

I nodded and scanned the crowd and looked at Mona as she moved forward, “He was an assassin Mona. Watch out for poisoned blades.”

She only glanced at me as she directed the two guards that were moving the body. I looked at Chris as I slipped the dagger back into my sleeve, “Enjoy the party. You earned it.”

He grinned as he looked past me at Sam and winked. Sam’s laugh started the music again and my grandfather whispered something to her. I looked at Jonathan, “That leaves the skirmishers and the army.”

I looked at the duke, “By the way, I authorized the purchase of a cargo of napthem. I’m using it as a… equalizer to the skirmishers.”

The duke and Jonathan looked at each other and the duke looked back at me, “Napthem could start this whole city on fire.”

I nodded, “That’s why I told my man to place them on the docks and by the ships.”

The duke looked down and pursed his lips, “Maybe we better go down there and offer them a chance to surrender. I don’t really like the idea of burning my docks down.”

I laughed, “Your grace, the docks are stone.”

He grinned, “Okay, so I was thinking of the ships.”

I looked around the crowd and then past captain Olivite. There was an extremely large man sitting at a table by himself. I grinned and looked at the captain, “I thought you had ordered that Tim wasn’t to have more the one flagon of ale?”

He looked at me and spun around to look at the man. When he opened his mouth, I stood and moved to put my hand on his shoulder, “Tim?”

The mercenaries turned to look and I saw several shifting away. Tim’s arms seemed to tighten and move around the two flagons protectively, “I can drink more.”

I shrugged, “I’m not saying anything. I wanted to ask you for a favor.”

He looked at me suspiciously, “What favor?”

I gestured towards the docks, “I have to go someplace dangerous and need someone to protect Sam and my grandfather.”

The big man blinked, “Sam?”

I nodded to Sam and he smiled shyly, “I can protect her.”

He stood to move closer and I leaned over Sam, “I want you to stay here. Timothy is slow but he knows what he’s doing. Don’t let him drink anymore ale, give him cider.”

Sam started to protest but I squeezed her shoulder as I looked up into Tim’s face, “Don’t let her follow me Tim, keep her safe for me.”

He nodded slowly as I hesitated, “did you see the dagger Tim?”

He nodded, his face turning colors, “I miss them, Armsmaster.”

I reached up to put my hand on his shoulder, “Me too brother.”

I looked at Gabrielle and nodded to Tim before looking at the duke, “Are you ready?”

He kissed his wife before standing with Henry and Jonathan. As we moved through the crowd and out of the square I sighed, “I guess I’ll need to find a new home.”

I looked at the duke, “You wouldn’t happen to know of a vacant house would you?”

He laughed and shook his head. Jonathan cleared his throat, “What about the old bailey?”

Henry laughed, “You would be able to lock her in a cell then.”

The duke grinned and looked at Jonathan, “You’re only using it for storage?”

Jonathan nodded, “Yes, but nothing has been touched in over two years.”

The duke looked at me, “There’s a kitchen downstairs and the two upper floors were used for offices and quarters for the guard officers.”

I looked at Jonathan, “Where’s this bailey?”

He laughed, “Right next to the new guard building.”

I smiled as I thought about it. When we reached the docks, I stopped everyone and looked around. Dett moved out from behind some crates and crossed to us, “They haven’t moved off the ships but we have seen them moving around.”

I nodded and looked at the four long stone docks they were moored to. I looked at Dett, “Did you get all the barrels in place?”

He nodded as he looked back at the dock, “The two companies of the king’s army and the Rangers are in place and ready to go.”

I looked at the duke, “His Lordship wants to give them a chance to surrender.”

Dett looked from me to the duke, “We have the advantage of surprise now.”

I nodded, “I know. Have you found the ship their commander is on?”

Dett nodded to the dock closest to the main street exiting the docks, “The first galley on the right.”

I looked and then turned to the duke, “My Lord, please stay here until I have talked to them.”

I glanced at Dett, “Call out the army and get the fire arrows ready.”

I walked quietly down the dock to the first ship with the commander on it. I stopped next to the barrel by the plank leading up to the deck of the ship. I knew they were watching and after a couple of minutes a tall slim man stepped to the rail, “What do you want northern scum?”

I heard the army as they moved into place. The man looked up frowning and I smiled, “I am the duke’s Kristin. Your people know me as Armsmaster Winston. The duke has asked that I give you the chance to surrender.”

The man licked his lips and looked at the soldiers, “I have more men, why should I surrender?”

I grinned and patted the barrel, “Because I have placed barrels of Napthem by each of your ships and on the docks.”

I watched his face blanch, “We could just leave.”

I grinned wider, “I have disabled your rudders.”

He swallowed, “My king would have my head if I…”

I nodded, “I will ask the duke to provide a place for you.”

He got a far away look and leaned over, almost whispering, “In Morvine?”

I smiled, “That is in another part of the kingdom, but I think the duke might be able to help you get there.”

He nodded and looked back over his shoulder, “Captain, strike the flag.”

I heard several men arguing and the commander turned, “They have barrels of Napthem alongside the ship! Now, strike the flag!”

It was a few minutes later that the commander came down the plank with his officers following, including the ship captain. When he started to take his sword off, I stopped him, “You can give that to the duke.”

He nodded and had each man that came down the plank drop their weapons in a pile. When everyone from the ship was assembled, I waved to the duke. He walked though the formation of the king’s soldiers with Henry and Jonathan. As he approached, I saw several men tense and turned to the formation, “Any man that breaks formation will be killing all of you.”

The commander looked at me and I could see the understanding in his eyes. The duke stopped next to me facing the commander, “I’m glad you saw reason. Fire is a bad way to die.”

The commander nodded and I kept my eyes on the men in front of us, “I agree.”

He calmly undid his sword belt and held it out to the duke. After that everything went smoothly. Between the king’s army and the commander we had everything pretty much finished in a little under an hour. We left Jonathan in charge and had started back when a woman with two children stepped out of a doorway, “My lord!”

I moved in front of the duke with Dett, “Yes mother?”

She pointed to the end of a pier, “I saw one of their boats go there.”

I glanced at Dett and he left quickly. I looked at the ragged woman clutching her children, “Why are you not at my party?”

Her face reddened, “That isn’t for the likes of us.”

I kept looking at her while the duke and Henry waited, “What’s your name woman?”

She looked down, “Adelia, my lord.”

By her clothes I knew she was one of the homeless, “Your man?”

She looked into my face and then out into the bay, “The sea took him.”

Dett came back pushing three southern noble boys maybe thirteen years old. I grinned as the duke snorted, “Give them to Jonathan and then come to the party.”

Dett nodded and pushed the boys towards the docks and the sheriff. I looked back to the duke as an idea came to me, “A place as big as the old bailey would mean Sam would need someone to manage things for her.”

The duke grinned and Henry laughed. I looked at Adelia, “I have a job for you, if you want it.”

She hesitated, clutching her children tighter, “Job, my lord?”

I gestured for her to walk with us and bent to pick up her daughter. The little girl was probable three or four. The duke gestured for Adelia to walk between us and we started back towards the square. I smiled at Adelia, “My wife is with child and the duke has offered a place to us. It isn’t a normal house but we can make do. I would like you to manage the house and be my wife’s assistant when she needs one.”

Her face reddened and she looked down at her feet, “I wouldn’t know what to do, my lord.”

I laughed, “You have raised two children while being homeless. I think you will do fine.”

She blushed but didn’t say anything. We came into the square to music and laughter that quieted when we entered. The duke waved happily and everything started back up. When we got close to my table, I saw Sam and Gabrielle talking with Timothy. I smiled at her when she looked up, “Love, I want you to meet your new house manager and assistant.”

Sam grinned at the young girl in my arms, “Isn’t she a little young?”

I grinned back and gestured to a blushing Adelia, “This is Adelia.”

Sam stood and held her hand out, “Welcome Adelia. Now all we need is a house for you to manage.”

The duke laughed as he sat beside his wife, “I gave the old bailey to him.”

Elizabeth frowned, “A bailey!”

Sam laughed and turned to face the side of the square with the Guard building. She hugged Adelia, “We are going to have so much fun.”

Adelia’s son tugged on her skirt, “momma? I’m hungry.”

She blushed but Sam only turned to look for Tess. Teresa came hurrying by and Sam reached out to touch her shoulder, “Teresa?”

She stopped to look at her with a flush face, “Yes?”

Sam smiled, “I know you’re busy, but this cute young man needs something to eat.”

Teresa looked down at Adelia’s son and grinned, “Little boys always do. I’ll tell momma.”

Sam grinned at Adelia, “What’s his name?”

Adelia smiled at her son, “William, like his father.”

I shifted the little girl, “And this little heart breaker?”

Adelia grinned and held out her arms for her daughter, “Sarah, after my mother.”

I held Sarah out to her mother as Tim stood and stepped to Sam’s side, “Armsmaster?”

I looked where he was looking and gestured for Sam and Adelia to move behind us. The square had quieted as the large form of Peter made his way through the crowd. He had a body over one shoulder and what looked like a slashed sleeve on his left arm. Peter dumped the prince at my feet, “As requested.”

I looked at his arm, “Getting slow?”

He grinned, “It was a little busy, what with his four guards.”

I grinned and reached a foot out to turn the prince over. He looked bruised, his face a little puffy. I kicked his shoulder lightly, “Get up.”

He groaned and opened his eyes, “You will die for this.”

I smiled, “You keep saying that.”

He struggled to his feet and tried to step around me to speak to the duke who was sitting quietly with his wife. I slapped him hard across the face, rocking him back on his feet, “The time for you to speak to the duke is past. This case was given to me, I will judge your actions.”

He snarled, “Then you will have an army leveling this city.”

I grinned, “The one already heading this way? Or the skirmishers from your ships?”

His face went pale as I nodded, “First, I find you guilty of conspiracy in the death of Petre Sal Demtilos. Second, I find you guilty of the attempted murder of Armsmaster Henry and the importation of armed men into Whitecliff. Third, I find you guilty of attempting to attack the city with subterfuge, using skirmishers. Fourth and last, I find you guilty of the attempted assassination of Duke Whitecliff. What do you have to say before I pass sentence?”

He snarled, “So what. Exiled me and send me home.”

I grinned and looked at Mona standing behind Peter, “Lieutenant Mona, please take the prince into custody and have a death pole struck.”

I looked at the prince as Mona signaled to several men, “For the crimes you have committed in and to this city, I sentence you to die by slow strangulation.”

Several guards grabbed him while he cursed and tried to fight. As the guards dragged him away, I gestured to the musicians and the music began again. I turned back to Sam as Tess appeared, “You found another guest?”

I nodded to Adelia and her children. Tess smiled at the children, “Momma has something special coming out. Would you like to wash up first?”

Adelia’s face was red and Sam stood up, “That is a good idea.”

I was amused as Sam led Adelia and her children to the inn. I turned as Tim stood to follow, “Wait Tim, she is just going into the inn to help Adelia.”

Tim hesitated and then sat down, “I like the other woman, she’s nice.”

I patted his shoulder and looked at a smiling captain Olivite. I grinned, “What happened to your charge?”

He looked around and cursed, “Damn it, Ali!”

Several men stood and moved in different directions. I grinned at the duke and his wife, “Your son seems to have gone missing as well.”

Prince Joseph laughed, “Their not missing, Ali pulled him into the inn.”

Captain Olivite gestured and two men stood up. I waved them down, “If you interrupt Ali and they are… occupied, she will not be pleased. In fact she will probably try to run you through with her sword.”

They looked at each other and sat back down while the other mercenaries laughed. I stood and looked at Prince Joseph, “Do I have your permission?”

He grinned, “You did recommend the match.”

I sighed and started for the inn. The inside of the inn was busy with girls rushing in and out. When I poked my head into the kitchen I was almost got run over. I found Ali and James on the second floor kissing. I grinned and cleared my throat, “Do I need to get you a chaperone?”

Ali glared while James turned red. I laughed, “Ali, no one is here or listening. Do you like him enough to do what you are thinking of doing?”

She turned to look thoughtfully at James and then she looked at me and nodded. I sighed and nodded, “Follow me.”

I led them to our rooms and opened the door, “I’ll stand guard but don’t take all day.”

Ali stopped to kiss my cheek before pulling James towards our bed. I closed the door and leaned against the wall. Sam found me a little later and I quietly told her what I was doing. She smiled and leaned against me waiting, “Daddy gave us a house and we have someone to help keep it clean and run things. All we need now is someone to help Adelia with the heavy stuff and do any repairs.”

I grinned, thinking of Tim. I glanced at Sam, “Tim?”

She looked at me and grinned, “I like Tim.”

We were silent as we waited and finally after almost an hour the door opened. A red faced Ali and James came out and Sam smiled as she hooked an arm through Ali’s. Ali looked uncertain until Sam whispered something. Ali looked at her and then grinned and looked over her shoulder at James and me. When we got back to the table, captain Olivite glared at Ali, “I should put you over my knee.”

Ali grinned and turned to Tess as she came by, “Tess, would you bring two small tumbler glasses and some brandy?”

Tess nodded and kept going as Ali looked at her brother before looking at me, “We need the mirror.”

I looked around for Peter and as if he knew I was looking for him, he rose from a table. I walked to him and told him to go to my room and find the mirror. Tess was back a moment later and I moved the small glasses away while Ali glared at me, “You are my responsibility.”

She frowned and then nodded before turning to take James’s hand. Peter slipped out the door and crossed to the table. He quietly handed the mirror to me and I set it on the table in front of Ali. She leaned forward and hesitated before touching the frame. “Father!”

When the mirror cleared we were looking into an office. Farhahie looked up from the letter he was reading and set it aside with a smile, “You made it.”

Ali nodded and looked at me and then back at her father, “I have been with Lord Whitecliff. I want him father.”

Farhahie sat back and smiled at Ali, “So quickly?”

Ali blushed, “Yes.”

The duke cleared his throat but Ali kept looking into the mirror, almost like she was pleading. Farhahie nodded, “Very well daughter. I suppose you have the duke there?”

Ali’s face had lit up and she nodded. She turned the mirror to show the duke and his wife. Farhahie bowed, “Well met my lord Duke. It seems we have something in common.”

The duke smiled, “Indeed. My son isn’t very… coherent right now where your daughter is concerned.”

Farhahie grinned, “Young men are like that.”

The duke grinned while the duchess laughed. Farhahie smiled, “Joseph has the details of Ali’s dowry. If you agree, you can set the date and Joseph will witness before he comes home.”

Ali cleared her throat, “We don’t want to wait father.”

Farhahie shook his head, “That is your decision my lord.”

Duchess Elizabeth touched the duke’s arm, “If this is truly what James wants… They can be joined at the same time as Sam and Charles.”

Farhahie laughed, “Let Sam be Ali’s witness and I can finally have some peace.”

The duke grinned while looking at his daughters. I cleared my throat and reached for the brandy. I carefully poured the two small glasses full and set them in front of Ali and James. I looked into the mirror and then at the duke, “My lord, King Farhahie Ghadishah has given unto me the honor of his house. On my honor and that of King Ghadishah, I give to your son, the light of Deliqure.”

I looked at Ali, “Princess Alexandra on this day you have given yourself to Lord Whitecliff. As honor demands, I place your hand in his to walk his path.”

Ali bowed and I looked at James, “Lord Whitecliff on this day you have accepted the grace of Princess Alexandra. As her father’s honor demands, I ask you to take her hand and protect her as the light of your life.”

James was looking at Ali and smiled before bowing. I looked at Prince Joseph, “Son of my honor. You have the right of family. Will you accept this man to lead your sister and protect her always?”

Joseph smiled as he looked at James, Ali shifted and frowned. Joseph finally nodded and bowed. I nodded to the two glasses of brandy, “Seal your promise.”

Ali reached for James glass and he hesitated. She smiled and whispered, “Take mine.”

He picked hers up and Ali held his glass to his lips. She slowly tilted it up and let him drink the fiery brandy. When she set it down, James held the brandy to her lips and tilted it. When they finished, I sighed and looked at Farhahie, “It’s done.”

He was grinning, “Again you have helped my house.”

Joseph laughed while Ali ignored it and kissed James before caressing his face. The mirror went dark and I looked at the duke, “Congratulations.”

He was grinning while holding his smiling wife. My grandfather cleared his throat and nodded to the opening in the crowd where the large figure of mother Alisa stood. I stood and reached out to pull Sam up. Joseph was prodding Ali as we started around the table. Mother Alisa had a smile on her face as we stopped in front of her.

She reached out to take our hands in one of hers. The glow that enveloped her spread down her arm and surrounded us. It was like nothing I had ever felt, like a welcoming and like I was coming home. When it faded I sighed in regret and mother Alisa raised an eyebrow, “You will return one day.”

I nodded and looked at Sam as mother Alisa began talking about marriage. When she released my hand I woke up and looked around to everyone grinning. Sam nudged me, “You’re supposed to kiss me.”

Everyone laughed as I grinned and pulled her close. I cupped her face and kissed her gently. When I stopped and pulled back she still had her eyes closed. The crowd laughed again and Sam opened her eyes blushing. I looked over our shoulders at Ali and James and whispered, “We need to witness for Ali and James.”

Sam smiled and looked up at mother Alisa, “Will you wait Mother Alisa?”

She smiled and bowed, “Bringing two people together is much more rewarding the sending them to their accounting.”

I took Sam’s hand and turned towards Ali and James, “Let’s get the examination out of the way.”

Joseph and the duchess followed us into the inn while the square rang with music and singing. The curtain was still covering the corner and Ali led James behind the curtain. The examination didn’t take long and after it was finished the duke and Joseph spoke to each other about Ali’s dowry. James led a blushing Ali to mother Alisa and they were married.

The crowd in the square cheered and music started up again only louder. I pulled Sam after me and then stopped. I looked around for Tim and headed to the table where he sat with two tankards of ale. I touched his shoulder and could see him tighten up, “Tim? I need help again.”

He turned and looked at me and then Sam who was standing by the door. I nodded to Adelia and her children, “Next to the Guard building is where I will live. Show Adelia and find her and the children something to sleep on. When you finish, I want you to come to the Inn and wait outside my door. I have something I have to do and need Sam protected. You are to try to keep her here in the city. Can you do all that?”

Tim looked from Adelia to Sam repeating what I had said silently. He finally looked at me and nodded, “Yes Armsmaster.”

I took a breath, “Find me a dozen six foot pitch torches.”

I nodded to Adelia and he stood ignoring the ale on the table. I headed back to Sam and led her to our room. Sam was quiet as I undressed her like I had that first night. Like that night I washed her body and she sat calmly until I was done. She took the wash cloth and undressed me before beginning to wash me. When she finished, she pushed me back into the bed and climbed in to lie beside me.

She put her head on my shoulder, “You are going out to face that army.”

I softly caressed her face, “You know I have to.”

Sam was silent as I just held her. It was an hour before I slipped out of bed and went to my trunk. Sam watched as I put my clothes on and then the chain shirt. Weapons seemed to slip into place until I finally sheathed my sword and turned to Sam. I gave her a last smile and left. Tim was waiting in the hall and I patted his shoulder before taking the bundle of torches, “Don’t let her follow me Tim.”

When I slipped out of the inn the celebration was still going on. I saw the duke and his family. Ali was laughing and dancing with a young noble. I took a last look and slipped into the crowd. I was a block away when Peter, Dett, Edward and Chris slid out of an alley in front of me.

I didn’t even slow down as I continued towards the gate, “You will not stop me or try to help. You will watch and report back to the duke.”

They were silent as we walked until I looked at them and then they reluctantly nodded. It was past midnight when I approached the narrow cleft through the cliffs. I stopped on the low rise and looked at the four men, “Stay here.”

I headed down and stopped just inside. I carefully placed the torches in a semi circle with the open side towards the passage. I began stretching and then sat down to meditate. I guess you could say I prayed to the gods of war and the winds of fate. I prayed for them to guide my blade and my steps.

It was a couple of hours before dawn when I heard the army approaching. I stood and lit the torches before moving out in front of them. It wasn’t long before the scouts found me. They didn’t even hesitate before attacking and I stepped into the dance I had learned to follow all my life. Block, parry, cut, thrust, I moved across the front I had set and left dead or dying behind.

I was waiting when the main body reached me. I was standing in the middle of all the bodies with my sword held low dripping blood onto the ground. A tall man with a bright feather plume was leading and stood staring. I pointed my blade at him, “This is not your country. You may not pass.”

He looked around and then pointed his arm at me, “Kill him!”

I waited until the last minute and then slipped back into the comfort of battle. The screams and clashing of my sword echoed back and forth down the narrow cleft. I continued moving from side to side killing or maiming the soldiers that were foolish enough to get to close. My dance was smooth, designed not to wear me down but to be deadly to my enemies.

The light of the torches was more than enough to let me see my enemy. Several times I swatted arrows or thrown daggers that had only been half seen. A red dawn was just lighting the sky when they finally pulled back. A dozen richly dressed nobles had been sitting on horses watching and as the foot soldiers pulled back I followed.

Only I was attacking now, I had seen my chance and went for the nobles. It didn’t take me long to break through the soldiers and then the guards. After that I was pulling nobles down or stabbing up into them. There was a loud roar from the rise behind me as I pulled a noble down with my sword through his belly. I spun and sliced through the throat of a huge guard as he rushed me.

The whole army around me faltered and then panicked before turning to run, throwing weapons and armor as they did. City guards, militia and king’s army rushed past, chasing after the routed army. I looked around at all the dead and sighed before kneeling and giving thanks. I carefully cleaned my sword and dagger while watching the rise.

The duke was making his way down on horse back. Jonathan was with him as well as Armsmaster Henry. Mona rode a pale horse beside the duke and behind them came James and Ali with the Sand Tigers around them and following them was Tim with a struggling Sam tucked under one arm.

I shook my head and headed toward the duke. Mona was grinning when I bowed, “It seems the Shermerez decide not to stay your grace.”

The duke shook his head while looking around in amazement, “I always thought Albia was just a story.”

Mona laughed, “It was way more impressive.”

I turned as Tim approach with Sam, “You can put her down now Tim.”

He nodded and set her down, “She really wanted to follow you.”

I smiled as Sam threw herself into my arms, “She didn’t hurt you did she?”

Tim shook his head as everyone around us laughed and captain Olivite grinned, “We were impressed. I even offered her a job.”

I grinned as I pushed Sam back and caressed her face, “I noticed you weren’t helping Tim.”

The Sand Tigers laughed again and Ali leaned forward on her horse, “She threatened to cut something off.”

I grinned into Sam’s eyes. “I should have tied you to the bed.”

She grinned and I sighed as the excitement of battle began to wear off. I looked at the duke, “I believe my case is over now so if you will excuse me I need a bath and some rest.”

He grinned and waved before heading into the cleft.
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