The Eye of Wysaerie

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Chapter Nine: Stranger Beasts and Honored Guests

Though Nine Tails liked to kill the messenger, he did not like to kill children, so when a nineteen year old boy arrived with his fee and signed contract, the assassin gave the peasant the run of his manor. Though not as effective as a knife's edge, he would instruct his staff to let Caldur do anything he wished except leave Kelisori, and the boy would be silenced by luxuries too many to be counted. While Nine Tails wished no evil on Caldur, such kind treatment overtipped the indolent lad, who traveled a ten day journey in a month while spilling his pay in beer halls and brothels. But even if Caldur did escape, he wouldn't overtake Nine Tails, whose dogged, relentless ride, changing out exhausted horses at his safe houses, would bring him to Vanoor in four days.

As Nine Tails rode from Kelisori to Vanoor, he contemplated how to make this death special, befitting the extra-ordinariness of the subject. After a spate of mundane victims—faithless lovers, business rivals, and heirs—his murders were so uninspired and workmanlike that he left the bodies unmarked for any faceless killer to take credit. This, more than anything else, said that Nine Tails had succumbed to the malaise of routine, for he despised his Vanoori competition, whether that bumpkin The Green Mask, the artless Dragon's Claw, or the indiscriminate poisoner Little Lolly, whose toxic extracts killed a wedding party to target a bride.

But this Lord Leonidas Andercruik, on the other hand, quickened him, for the risk and the reward were both intoxicatingly large. Ensconced in a manor staffed by hundreds, and enmeshed in foul rumors of razing a village, hosting a murder party and corpse cooking, all the while living in his own rut of extortion, whoring, and pretending sycophancy to the king—this Lord was a dream contract.

As much a theorist of assassination as a practitioner, Nine Tails preferred speculation to execution. Which death in his lethal repertoire would annoy this bully lord the most and leave such a frightful scene as to be worthy of a signature? Though he leaned towards the poetic death of a kitchen accident, or making the Andercruik manor a flaming tomb, he continued to rotate various deaths on his mental rotisserie.

***

When the legendary healer Brynnel Remar founded the hospital three hundred years ago, brothels and gambling halls sprang up, then restaurants and carnival attractions followed to clothe the resultant resort village in the illusion of wholesomeness. Though Duremar was incorporated into Vanoor, it had a distinctly different character composed of two starkly different tourist populations: those who came for a hospital bed, and those who were living it up.

As Duremar was the district most in need of law and order, the city guard steered clear—unless employing the facilities—and the hospital depended on The Brynnelmark, a sect of shield maidens that swore their lives and the holiness of their bodies to the hospital. Only eleven were allowed on staff, and to ensure that these chosen few were paragons, they were required not only to be erudite, athletic, puissant, but also at least seventy-one inches in height, the better to manage unruly patients.

Though it took him ten miles out of his way, Nine Tails never passed an opportunity to visit Duremar—not to take in the attractions, but to visit his virtuous sister, as they, and one other, were all that remained of their once large family.

As anonymous patients were dubbed Honored Guests, when his bruised, wounded, and nameless sister arrived in tattered finery, they called her Lady Honored Guest, a name which stuck when she stayed on as a Brynnelmark. The eldest of that order stepped down to become a Matron and make room for one who so obviously had found her calling. Though they since learned who she was, and who and what her brother was, they continued to call her Lady Honor and treat him with honor as well.

He reined in his horse to a canter, then a trot, toward a crowd mobbing a man clad in foppish finery, a blue sateen raiment bedaubed with curlicue dragons and griffins, so contorted as to first give the curious impression of fleurs-de-lis. From the Knight of Nine Tails's saddle, the liveried man—perhaps a herald on some mission of import—seemed to be astride a horse, as he loomed over those that fought to pet the feathers of his steed.

After the assassin's double take, he pulled hard on the reins, then allowed his horse to part the rabble. "What a marvelous beast," he said. "Forgive my not knowing the Vanoori bestiary, but is she hippogriff or griffin?"

"Griffin, good sir, which means you should admire from a distance for your horse's sake. This is her first time in a crowd, and up to now, I have been proud of her conduct."

"You should be," laughed the Knight of Nine tails. "It would be less miraculous if you paraded a savage lion down Commerce Street without it mauling anyone, and here is a beast whose scarcity and bloodlust are of more mythic proportions. If it wants to eat my poor horse, I shall feel flattered. The people of Duremar will gossip about it for years, after they rob your corpse and parcel up the griffin to traffic its rare wonders."

"Duremar? No, my destination is Vanoor. Who would do such a thing at the King's seat?"

"When a lion's paw is eighty coins, your griffin is a flying bank. At auction, I have seen griffin feather cloaks go for five thousand, twice that for male plumage. And though Duremar is its foul borough, which you wouldn't know without one affliction or another, you have arrived. Welcome to Vanoor."

The streets were thick with a festive throng, not only lutanists in devils', angels', and dragons' masks that busked for coin as they strummed bawdy songs, but others, similarly costumed, enacting venal pleasures in broad daylight.

When the griffin-rider stopped and stared, The Knight of Nine Tails said, "I wouldn't stop. Duremar honors all the world's holy days, and I don't know where this one draws the line. While you may get lucky with some drunken celebrants, and enjoy the few hours they let you live, these depraved libertines are probably more interested in despoiling your griffin. On my recommendation you will head directly for Vanoor, where the King's court will be more familiar with fables come to life; or, keeping to this road, you will ignore the entreaties of the wicked until you come to the hospital, where my sister, The Lady Honor, may give you lodgings."

The griffin-rider struggled to stifle a laugh, but perhaps due to his nervousness at these intimations of moral and mortal peril, or perhaps due to the now countless debaucheries happening all around him, did not succeed. "Her name seems allegorical when you look at the streets tonight."

"While it's only her nom du guerre, I like the suggestion of allegory, as in my line of work, I've learned morals are only a thinly painted veneer to dignify the monstrous passions capering underneath. Kind of like ogres using hand puppets to edify and amuse those they're preparing to devour. Since allegories require descriptive names, please call me Lord Stern, as it best covers my misanthropic heart. You'll forgive the deception, as I'm a private sort."

"No, forgive me," said the griffin-rider. "Please, call me Gaspar. And while I should thank you for the advice, Lord Stern, I am unfortunately unwelcome at the King's Court due to being the fool in residence fifteen years ago. Even if they have forgotten me, the visit would dredge up memories I would prefer remain buried. Also, if all of Duremar's tourists were abused as you say, how do you account for the crowds?"

"Do as you will, Gaspar, but remember The Lady Honor. In truth, I would care little if you fell in an unmarked grave, were it not for your handsome beast, which should reside not in ovens, wardrobes, and alchemical bottles, but in a hero's tale."

After the Knight of Nine Tails parted from the odd little griffin tamer, he walked his horse over the foot bridge spanning the aqueduct. Following a ten minute jarring trot down Duremar's old, abraded cobblestone, he arrived. While the hospital was not Vanoor's oldest stronghold, it was the one that most looked its age, with dust-shadowed stones, a rusted portcullis, and robust green ivies veining the walls, rooted in crannies both smoothed and grainy from erosion. Though many expansions had been added over the centuries, so that the central building was interlocked with a campus of newer stone, the spikes mounted on the stout outer wall remained a barbaric holdover from an age in which a doctor might be a more honest bloodletter, amputator, and bone-breaker, even imagining him or herself a villain and warmonger.

The portcullis raised long before he arrived. When he dismounted, two Brynnelmark emerged from the gatehouse, both clad in chainmail, their heads coiffed by a wimple of light mail wrapped over a steel cap. When one of the Brynnelmark took the reins, the other took his arm in a firm grip. "Lady Honor is with a patient," said the assassin's escort in a matronly voice belying the six inches of height and fifty pounds she had on him. "How was your journey, Lord Stern?"

"Pleasant, until I reached Duremar. What's that I smell?" A moist, savory aroma filled the entryway.

"Soup, just as we had yesterday. In fact, I think it's the same soup. Had we known of your arrival, we might have at least killed a hen." The hospital interior was newly finished, with a polished wood floor, walls freshly painted, and several tapestries commissioned from the same hand, though The Knight of Nine Tails did not recognize the artist's monogram. After they wended past one titled "The Brynnelmark Vow"—which depicted eleven Brynnelmark, in more ornate armor, standing over fallen foes, some dismembered and others decapitated--she knocked at a door, which was answered first by a moan from the sufferer within, then by the cross face of his sister. Though the scowl disappeared at the sight of her brother, he noted that she did not smile to see him. Though she was the smallest of the Brynnelmark, only standing an inch taller than her brother, they had always seen eye to eye, not just physically but figuratively, and it disturbed him that she was somehow taken aback by his presence.

"Thank you, Lady Majuna," said Lady Honor, holding the door open to admit her brother. Lady Majuna clasped her hands and bobbed her shoulders forward in a minimal bow before taking her leave of them.

The room was only a few feet longer than its brass canopy bed. On an end table an extravagant bouquet exuded a cloying and claustrophobic scent, that made the room seem both smaller and more crammed than it already was. The assassin disliked flowers and floral scents, for they smelled like concealment, not cleanliness.

Though the patient had a shapely face, it also the impression of hardness, a trait common to many of his victims and clients. That was when he recognized her, though the sleeping patient's hair was much shorter.

"I know her," said The Knight of Nine Tails.

"Do tell," said Lady Honor.

"No, not that way. And I did tell you," said the assassin. "Though you forget the tale, this one was particularly vexing. She was my worst customer. Ever. She was so horrible that she inspired my policy of using Elgar as a broker. Though I've buried her name, I could never forget the way she first haggled shrewishly, then tried to barter with her charms, and then, steamed that I wouldn't take her body as payment for the dead body, reneged on the assassination. That's the only reason Duke Vargun yet lives."

"Brother," she said, hugging him, "it's good to see you too." He responded stiffly at first, then relaxed into the embrace..

"Sister, you smell like a funeral. Is this a hospital or a nursery for plants?"

She laughed, "and you look well. Though you must be famished."

"It can wait."

"Nonsense. Your horse is already eating, so why not you?"

"Do you have a nosebag for me?"

"No, but we have a luncheon and lecture this very hour."

"A lecture? You won't make a scholar of me. I'll wait."

"The subject is common Vanoori poisons."

"On second thought, a lecture might not be so bad. Though I must first satisfy my curiosity on this subject."

"She was struck in the head with a mace about six months ago. A detachment of the King's guard found her and the rest of her group east of Vanoor. We received the bodies as part of our dispensation from the King."

"Yes, that noble work."

"I never said it was noble. Fascinating and important, but not noble. One of the lot was decapitated neatly, and the head never found. Aside from your customer, the rest were killed in more common ways, with sword or halberd blades, or arrows."

"Why is she still here?"

"She can't leave until she understands where she is."

"What does that mean? Doesn't she know who she is?"

"I don't know. She might."

"What do you mean, she might?"

"Whenever she opens her mouth, she only speaks nonsense. The mace rattled her head," said Lady Honor.

"Had it happened to anyone else, I might be sorry to hear it," said The Knight of Nine Tails. "But to see her laid out restores my faith that the gods still laugh."

"A good lunch will do that as well."

"Good? Lady Majuna said it's from yesterday."

"Good is timeless, big brother."

"Unless rot is good," snorted the assassin. "I think you mean timely. Lead on. I'm famished enough to drink the pot."

The smooth, hot soup might have been day-old, but its peppery, garlicky steam mingled with the aroma of fresh, ample hunks of bread, so that the lecture hall smelled like a cafe. Though the potatoes and bacon lurking in the bowl were soft, nearly pureed by either time or constant heat, they were drowned in spicy broth, so that as the Knight of Nine Tails spooned each sweltry mouthful, he dabbed his beard less often than his brow. The bread was so warm, flaky, and holey that it half-dissolved in melting the butter he spread over the hunk.

As delicious as the food was, the lecture was even better. The assassin was startled to hear numbered so frankly and precisely dozens of poisons and their rote antidotes, as well as anecdotal lore and theoretical treatments attempted at the hospital. He snickered to hear that his most efficacious poison, responsible for half of his clients' satisfaction, was alleviated by tomato juice. The fascinating seminar, articulated not just by precise rhetoric in which the assassin could hear the placement of commas, semi-colons, colons, and periods, but also by an easel of large parchment sheets bearing painstakingly colored illustrations and diagrams, as well as any formulas penned in exquisite calligraphy, unfortunately ended ceremoniously when one of the staff hollered that two victims, one bitten and one stabbed, awaited the doctors', nurses', and Brynelmarks' ministrations.

"A bite victim?" said the Knight of Nine Tails, nearly as intrigued by this forced segue into the hospital's day to day routine as he was by the lecture.

"Yes, dogs bite a lot, and pigs and horses less often, but our main offenders are humans, sad to say. You should assist. Though it's too late to outgrow me, elder brother, today you can be my orderly brother."

The assassin groaned, more at the pun than at the invitation to see victims of violence in a more professional atmosphere.

When growling squawks and a tumult of cries echoed in the hall. the Knight of Nine Tails followed Lady Honor as she ran to the entrance to see a Brynnelmark and three orderlies struggling with a roped, enraged griffin. When two more Brynnelmark approached with long-bladed spears, one spoke to Lady Honor, "this beast won't be stabled, ma'am."

"Do what you must."

"No," said the Knight of Nine Tails. "Give it space..."

The assassin's argument against killing the magnificent beast was cut off when Gaspar stood from a bench, staggered forward with one hand pressed to a sliced thigh bleeding into his pants, and shouted "No!" The gory little griffin tamer seemed to appear from nowhere, as the assassin's eyes were on the griffin. "He's mine," Gaspar panted. "I'll calm him down." When Gaspar limped to the griffin, smoothed its feathers, and stroked its head, it lowered its haunches, then its beak, and trilled throatily.

"Put those down," said Lady Honor to the spear-armed Brynelmark. "Help the patient post his steed, and have the cook dredge meat from the soup for its trough."

"You're too kind," said Gaspar, "but I've never fed her anything spicy."

"It's what we have."

"And I feed her buckets."

"Buckets?"

"You can bill me if you'd like."

"We can spare a bucket."

"Bill me for it," insisted Gaspar. "She's also accustomed to my voice. Is there a bed adjoining or overlooking the stable?"

"I'd oblige you if you needed a bed."

"If there's no room, treat me here," said Gaspar. "I'll pay you the same."

"It's a flesh wound. You'll be out in an hour."

"Are you sure? I'm shaking and my heart is stammering. Couldn't you double check?"

"Trust me, Honored Guest—I can see to the bottom of that wound."

"Ahhh," swooned Gaspar.

"I would dig around for your peace of mind, if you could survive the discomfort."

"You're the surgeon. Sew me up."

"Not here," she said. "Just because you're not to stay the night doesn't mean I'm going to stitch you on a bench without clean needles." When Gaspar fainted dead away, the Knight of Nine Tails could no longer suppress his guffaw, a long rustic laugh that must have caught at Lady Honor's own belly, for she too began laughing like a hayseed, embracing him and squeezing him until his ribs creaked. The last time they laughed this loud was the summer she passed him with a nine inch growth spurt; she chased him down the slippery stream, with many trips and stumbles, so that their cold, wet fingers and knees ached when they snuck over the fence to ride the colts, and ran squealing from Old Man Cavarah.

"Sister," said the assassin, recovering his composure. "This is no mere Honored Guest, but Gaspar, a recent acquaintance who won't last in Duremar. Please lodge him as long as he wills. Though there are no shortage of everyday men, I won't have the death of a fanciful rarity on my conscience."

"Isn't conscience a liability in your calling?" said Lady Honor disapprovingly. "We don't have a bed for him, even if I wanted to accommodate your friend." When Gaspar reeled to his hands and knees, she pulled him up, then allowed him to lean on her woozily as she led him to the room next to the one with the unknown vixen and the nauseating floral aromas.

"We're not friends," said The Knight of Nine Tails. "No offense, griffin man." Gaspar only groaned in answer.

"If you had a friend, I wouldn't worry so much." When she steered Gaspar through the open door, she helped him toward a surgeon's table. "Sit down, sir, I'll sew you," said Lady Honor, "but you'd better close your eyes. It's not a pretty sight."

"I thought it was nothing," said Gaspar, sitting on the low table.

"I never said that," she said. "If it was an eighth inch deeper, instead of a bandage, we'd be measuring a shroud." When she unstoppered a flask and splashed the wound, Gaspar screamed and clutched the table's edge. When this set off the assassin's raucous laughter, the Brynnelmark did not join in and sewed the wound with dark thread, a gleaming needle, and a furrowed brow. Gaspar seemed less than half aware during the procedure.

"Speaking of fanciful animals," said Lady Honor. "those creatures are now part of Duremar's native weather. When it doesn't rain, hail, or snow, griffins fall to feast on horses, pigs, and cattle."

"Monsters becoming commonplace, and wandering into the outskirts of Vanoor? And heeding commands, if they discriminate humans from other beasts. Yet another reason to stay far from Duremar, Gaspar. Your wound bears evidence my advice is worth heeding."

"Rubbing it in runs in the family," said Gaspar, laughing lightly, and wincing as the Brynnelmark bound the wound. "When I was on holiday, a complete stranger me told me fun is out of the question. What was I to think? And what do you suggest I do? Vacation here at the hospital?"

"Even if you're not on speaking terms with the King, the palace district still has shows, restaurants, markets, and shops for those with the money. And if your old peers recognize you, they will be loath for a reintroduction to such an infamous fool. I have an errand to run there myself, so I'll come with you. Say yes. The lodgings are nicer."

When the wound was dressed, Lady Honor said, "keep this clean. Where's the bite?"

"On the beggar I refused, not wanting festival-goers to see the extent of my wealth. When he took me by the neck, I took his hand; he slashed my leg with the other, and my griffin tore his ear."

"Clean off," added Lady Majuna, exiting the adjoining room slowly, while guiding its drowsy, shambling patient. "And his cheek, a quarter of his face in all. Though the lout curses Lady Byrra during her ministrations, there's no denying he's a changed man. He'll have to turn the other cheek from here on in." She snickered at her own joke, as did The Knight of Nine Tails.

"Renae?" said Gaspar. Wincing, he shuffled from the hospital bed to stare into knowing eyes fringed by frowsy hair. When the swaying, gibbering patient reached for Gaspar, she missed, but in falling forward, she caught him.

"You know her?" said Lady Honor.

"She's my sister-in-law, the Lady Renae Vargun. Or she was," he said, trying to extricate himself from the clinging, grasping woman, who seemed all elbows and hands in man-handling Gaspar, though the assassin couldn't say whether her object was lust, rage, or some half-glimmered notion that through brute force her babble would be understood.

"Was? What do you mean by that?" said Lady Honor, raising her voice, even as she assisted Lady Majuna in disentangling Gaspar from Lady Renae. "She's the same woman no matter her condition. I'll thank you not to speak ill of our Honored Guests--not that there's any need to call you that, is there, Lady Renae?"

Lady Renae's answer, inflected with sauce, poise, and witty timing, would be worthy of citation were it not inexplicable noise.

"I feel like my ears should be burning," said Gaspar. "While it would be nice to know what you're saying, Renae, I can't say I'm not doubly relieved—not only to see you well, but to know that I'm free from caring." Turning to Lady Honor, he said, "I meant no disrespect, Lady Honor, but only that recent events leave our relationship uncertain." Lady Renae clawed the arms of the chair, but as Lady Majuna kept a firm grip on Renae's shoulders from behind the chair, she was unable to rise.

When Lady Honor jerked Gaspar into the hallway, The Knight of Nine Tails followed and closed the door behind them.

"I'm discharging you, Gaspar," said Lady Honor. "Moreover, you're no longer welcome. If you send us your eventual location, I'll let you know if and when you can visit Lady Vargun."

"I'm happy to answer your questions before I go."

"Other than 'Lady Vargun,' what should we know? A noble's estate and kin are easy to trace. No, I have only one request for you."

"What's that?"

"Please leave," said the Lady Honor. "If your absence improves Lady Renae's mood she might continue her recovery. It's already been six months of slow convalescence, and I'm hoping today's disturbance won't erase those gains."

"Six months?" said Gaspar. "What happened to her? I may know the cause."

"You'd know the cause from the effect, but not the happening? Are you a soothsayer?"

"If it was six months ago, I might have been there. Then I wasn't."

"You're uncertain about too many things," said Lady Honor, sighing. "What's wrong with her today is that a fainthearted man ruffled her feathers. Other than that, she was hit in the head with a mace."

Gaspar ignored the insult. "Where was she found? Was it a tiny village off the river?"

At this, the Knight of Nine Tails broke in. "What tiny village?"

"I doubt you've heard of it," said Gaspar. "Glasford's not even on the maps."

The Knight of Nine Tails looked at Lady Honor, then said. "What happened there, Gaspar."

"It was halfway gone when I left. Not that I left by my own accord, but in the storm of griffins that fell on Glasford."

"Griffins don't swing maces," said the assassin.

"But soldiers do."

"Vanoor is not at war, and Klyrnish troops have never come so far inland."

"No, they weren't enemy troops. Not that these killers were friendly, but they wore Vanoori colors."

"Whose colors?" demanded the Knight of Nine Tails.

"I don't know," stammered Gaspar. "And if I did know, I'd rather not be known as the one who pointed the finger."

"Tell me the colors, then. That's not naming names but telling me how they dressed."

"That could be counterfeited," said Gaspar.

"All the same."

"Promise that you'll leave my name out of it," said Gaspar.

"I won't tell a soul," said the assassin. "It stays here with us."

"Why do you want to know?"

"Knowing the answer to that would be as unhealthy as knowing this murderous lord."

"Yellow and orange," blurted Gaspar. "Yellow tunics, orange lion."

"Who did they kill?"

"Everyone."

"Who? Do you fear the dead?"

"I don't remember their names."

"Where did you go, Gaspar?" asked the assassin.

"If I don't keep that to myself, Lady Honor might find a room for me after all."

"Brother," cut in Lady Honor. "why do you care? Whoever in Glasford died, it means little now."

"Though we've lived rootless for many a year, I'd be a lesser man if I stamped out those memories. And I've heard more than once about wounds you still bear."

"No matter how I hide my tears," she said, "since we both sprang from the same well, you know when my eyes are wet. We were a burden then, we would have been an embarrassment now, and this Lord deserves our thanks for sparing us that reunion."

After a long pause, Lady Honor continued. "If you're heading to the palace district, Gaspar, don't use the public baths. Those filthy places will infect your wound. Have water drawn at your hotel, no matter the cost."

"I'll be sure to do so," said Gaspar.

"When my business concludes," said the assassin, "I may be in a hurry, so this is likely both hello and goodbye."

She kissed his cheek and embraced him. "Goodbye. Get that unsanitary monster off our grounds. The griffin too." When she opened the outer doors, she bade Lady Byrra to bring her brother's steed. After they mounted their steeds—Gaspar wincing at the effort—the two cantered toward Vanoor.

After a long, silent ride, the assassin asked, "What are you taking a vacation from, Gaspar?"

"I'm a shopkeeper. Or I was. It's a long story. While you already know the beginning, that I was once the King's man, currently I am in the employ of a wizard, Ilmar Andercruik." When he said the name, Gaspar's eyes flickered toward his companion, then he quickly turned away.

Though the assassin took notice that the name was close to that of his target, he spoke evenly and kept his gaze averted. "What's it like? Losing your posh position, along with being beholden to court customs, rules, and etiquette, was good riddance—but going from a self-employed businessman to a wizard's minion in middle age—it's tragic to lose your freedom and self-respect."

"As I was burdened with an abundance of responsibility, I never had those, Lord Stern, This griffin is my sole responsibility now, and she is an affectionate and loyal beast well worth my devotion."

"To you. To the thief whose misfortune was to rob you, it is cruel and vindictive. We're fortunate the Brynelmark gave it a heavy feed, or our travels would be interrupted when it fell on my horse."

"She's ordinarily as civilized as any Vanoori that eats regular meals, though she hunts and kills for pleasure."

"How noble. A beast after my own heart."

"More like after Ilmar's. He thought it best to butcher everything she eats so that she isn't tempted by living horseflesh. He sees me as his eventual messenger."

"This wizard is a scholar. I can see why you love him. I'd like to meet him."

"I loathe him, and you move in different circles," said Gaspar, as he admired a huge, ornate, near-octagonal stone structure. Draped banners advertised "The Stranger Death of Madame Curvalot."

"Surely this is no theater," said Gaspar, "Who is this Madame Curvalot? A famous criminal?" Gaspar pronounced 'Curvalot' in the Klyrnish way, as "kur-va-lo," not seeing the wordplay in the title.

"No, she's a fictional procurer in a long-running comical murder mystery."

"And how is stranger meant? Does she die a stranger, or is this death stranger than her other death? Who dies more than one death?"

"Your question brings to mind a famous proverb, Gaspar—one that you should know. But I wouldn't want to spoil the plot. You should see it."

"My," Gaspar said, "tastes have changed. So this is the theater the King wanted to build." The doors opened, and the afternoon matinee emptied.

"Two in one day. That's no coincidence but an invasion."

"Two what?" Squatting on all four haunches, and behaving himself quite nicely next to chauffeured carriages and horses tied to posts, was a large griffin with a male's blue, red, and green plumage. "That's Deathspell," said Gaspar.

"A deathspell? That's only a little subtler than a griffin invasion." As they watched, the enormous griffin swatted at a passing horse, causing a skitter, a brief gallop, and a whinny.

"Its name is Deathspell," said Gaspar, who rubbernecked scanning the exiting matinee crowd.

"What an ostentatious name," said the Knight of Nine Tails.

"Your majesty," rang out a voice, "here is someone else you might remember," and when the bearded man pointed a blue and gold sleeve, the King, his train of courtiers, and a woman in an enormous hoop skirt, all turned towards them. As Gaspar dug his heels in the hindquarters of his griffin, it leaped up, above the theater.

The assassin did not pursue. His eyes were on the wizard's cousin, Lord Leonidas Andercruik, who stamped out after the king's retinue disembarked in their hansoms, roared at his entourage, then departed in his own carriage, as if he was in a hurry to keep his unknowing appointment.

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