The Duke and the Duchess

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Chapter 16

Sir Ralph Winkershime strode down the cobblestone street back to the castle. He'd been to his shoemaker near the city gate and was returning when he was passed by two coaches. The first was golden brown in color pulled by four palominos and had a crest on the door he didn't recognize. The second was smaller, plain black, and had four unmatched horses.

He picked up his pace. He hadn't recognized the crest. He knew all of them from the Londinum area and had familiarized himself with all of them from Sothalia, so this was an unknown visitor.

He reached the castle stairs as the occupants were debarking. From the large coach emerged a tall richly dressed man of about thirty with broad shoulders, slender waist and hips, and long blond hair tied back in a queue. He assisted down a pretty young woman of eighteen or so in a nice but not expensive gown. There was a certain formality between them that led Ralph to conclude she was neither wife nor sister.

Two men had gotten out of the second coach. The first was short, thin, and fortyish; Winkershime guessed he was a prosperous craftsman or merchant. The second was tall and heavy, fifty or sixty, with a dark tan and wearing cheap peasant clothing.

Ralph's intuition was they had just gotten another batch of witches; he couldn't think of any other reason for such an odd group to arrive together. He walked past them around to a less conspicuous door and went looking for Elizabeth. He found her in her office, a new room where she spent a great deal of time now.

The door was open, and he knocked and said, "Elizabeth, we have visitors. A rather mismatched group of four that makes me believe we have more witches."

Elizabeth put down her papers and pushed back a stray strand of hair. She was looking tired and Ralph was sorry he had to add to her burdens. But she smiled a said, "Well, I suppose we should go greet them and see what we have."

Together they went to the front hall but their servants had already shown the group in and were conducting them to the small audience chamber. Ralph escorted the duchess by another route to arrive at the door that opened behind the dais and went in.

Elizabeth was immediately struck by the tall blond man. He was very handsome, graceful, and well-mannered, and he smiled and bowed correctly to her when he saw her. The other three had gathered a little behind him. The woman curtsied and the other two men bowed more awkwardly.

"Welcome to Sothalia," Elizabeth said as she seated herself. "I am Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Sothalia. Please introduce yourselves."

The tall man stepped forward. She could see his eyes were a brilliant green. "Your Highness, I am Lord Peter Stanwell, from the Duchy of Montexter. I am of the younger line of prior duke Victor, but I assure you I do not share his political views. As you have undoubtedly surmised, I am a witch, and a most puissant one at that."

Ralph said, "I am Sir Ralph Winkershime, administrator and assistant to the duke and duchess. What sort of magic can you do, Lord Peter?"

"Any sort, Sir Ralph. I have a talent for it, and my late mother trained me in secret from a young age. I have a great deal of power but I prefer finesse to brute force."

Elizabeth found herself appreciating his good looks more than she should, and turned to the woman who stepped forward and curtsied again and said quietly, "Your Highness, my name is Susan Marshall. I believe my brother Winston is already here and has acquired housing for us."

"What sort of magic do you do, Miss Marshall?"

"I . . . I don't really know. I mean, I do a little of this and that, mostly what my brother has shown me. I find it a little frightening and don't use it much, Your Highness."

Winkershime asked, "Why didn't you and your brother come together?"

"I was afraid, sir. Winston is much bolder than I, so he turned himself in first to see if the promise that he wouldn't be executed was true, and said I should wait. He wrote me from Londinum and told me it was safe, so here I am."

The small man came forward then and gave a perfunctory bow. "Your Highness and Sir Ralph, I am Wilfred Gamble. I own three dry goods stores in Haas that I had to turn over to others to run to come here to be a witch in the Royal Coven. I never use my magic except to lift something very heavy or to keep one of my clerks from falling off a ladder or something like that. If there is any way my magic can be removed safely, I would gladly give it up so I can return to my businesses and my life."

"I see," Elizabeth replied. "The head of the Coven is not here just at present, so you will have to wait until Prince Henry returns to consider your request." She had no idea whether or not someone's magic could be removed, but there was nothing that could be done about it anyway without Nick.

There was a momentary silence that Ralph broke addressing the fourth man. "And you sir? Your name and what magic you do?"

The darkly tanned man shuffled forward and gave another awkward bow. "I'm Harvey Eams, Your Highnesses, and I'm not anybody. I'm just a hired hand who knows a few tricks like how to get a big rock out of a field or catch a fish or two. I'm a good hand though; lots of places want to hire me because I can do most anything. I can plow, harvest, milk a cow, build a fence, paint a house or near anything that needs doing. But I'm with this little fellow here about magic. I don't need it and I'd just as soon not have those tricks and get to go back to where I belong."

Ralph responded, "When Prince Henry returns he will decide what to do."

Lord Peter commented, "I was told he was eaten by a dragon. Is that incorrect?"

"He has not been eaten, he's alive!" Elizabeth responded heatedly. "I'm quite sure of it."

Lord Peter bowed. "As you wish, Your Highness," making it plain he did not think Nick had survived but was humoring her.

Winkershime hurriedly interjected, "We have a rule, no one is to do magic without permission. We want you to practice, but only when we can warn everyone beforehand where and when you will be casting your spells."

"As I said, I don't want to do it at all, Sir Ralph," Gamble said, and Eams nodded in agreement.

"I would only do magic with my brother, he is so much better at it than I am and he guides me," Susan Marshall said softly.

Elizabeth realized that most of this group would likely not be useful in battle anyway, especially those that didn't even want their magic talent. "Miss Marshall, I'll have someone show you the way to your brother's residence. Mr. Gamble and Mr. Eams, you'll be conducted to the dormitory for witches for now. If you wish to move to your own places within the city you may as long as we know where you are. Lord Peter, I assume you'll engage your own housing?"

"Indeed, Your Highness," he replied. "And you need have no concern about my use of magic. It will be in private, I assure you."

While the servants began showing the others out, the handsome lord lingered behind. "If I may have a private word, Your Highness?"

Elizabeth nodded and when she, Ralph and Lord Peter were alone, he continued, "I would like to offer myself as a temporary replacement for Prince Henry and leader of the Coven. I undoubtedly have the strongest magic, I can create and begin a training program for the others, and I am used to command."

"There are still witches coming in," Ralph stated, "and there is time left for others to come forward. Prince Henry could return any day as well. So no decision of that sort will be made now."

Stanwell looked at Elizabeth. "Your Highness, could we speak alone, without your majordomo present?"

She hesitated only a moment and then ordered, "Ralph, leave us."

Winkershime was unhappy with her decision. "Are you sure, Your Highness? You've only just met this man."

Elizabeth frowned. Why was he disobeying her? Her frowned deepened at the uncharacteristic thought. But she replied, "Yes, please go."

Sir Ralph bowed and left. When the door was closed behind him, Lord Peter advanced toward her, mounted the dais and knelt before her.

"Your Highness, Elizabeth, you are a beautiful woman who has lost her husband at a young age, and I understand how difficult it is for you to accept that. But I offer myself as a strong arm to lean on and a shoulder to cry on if needed. I hope you don't mind if I call you Elizabeth in private?"

"What? I . . ."

"I know this is very sudden, but I believe in love at first sight. I know it's too soon for you, but I'm willing to wait. Elizabeth, you will need someone intelligent to help you rule this duchy without the duke, someone who commands respect and admiration, and I am that person."

Elizabeth thought, I have Nick, and when he's not here there's Ralph, so why would I . . .

He reached out his hand to her, and to her surprise, she took it. What was she doing? Elizabeth tried to pull her hand back and rebuke him, but she couldn't seem to do it. Instead Lord Peter gently pulled her to her feet as he stood himself. He brought her in close to him, much closer than was proper, and whispered, "I know you are as attracted to me as I am to you."

She couldn't deny it. This was a mature, fascinating man and she felt like she was falling into his gorgeous green eyes. But shouldn't they be blue? He bent his head and kissed her, and her whole body responded, her arms going around him and pulling them together. She didn't want to embrace him but she also didn't want the embrace to end. Eventually, he broke it off.

"I'll find suitable housing as close to the palace as I can. Remember, you can call on me anytime day or night. I'll return tomorrow. Until then." Lord Peter bowed, but maintained eye contact with her while doing it, and then turned and walked to the door. Elizabeth couldn't take her eyes off of him as he opened the door and left.

She shakily returned to her chair and sat down. What had just happened? She was a happily married woman, but she began comparing Nick to Lord Peter. Her husband was hardly more than a youth who didn't know much more about what they were doing than she did, while Lord Peter seemed confident and experienced. Nick was handsome, but Peter would turn heads even if he was a ragged peasant. He was what a prince should be, perhaps even more than the actual princes of Anglia. If she had met him before her husband, would she have even considered marrying a child prince?

This wasn't right. She was married, and Nick would return and things would be the same again, the two of them in love, working together, being happy together. Or would they?

The door opened and Sir Ralph hurried in. "Oh good, I caught you. I have wonderful news and I was sure you would want to know right away. I have just received a report that a ship found Nick's name etched into the rock on some tiny island out in the ocean south of here. He's alive!"

She leapt to her feet, smiling. "That is wonderful. I knew he was alive, but this proves it. Does that mean he's traveling with the dragons, and where would they have gone in that direction?"

"I don't know. Ibarra, Incelia, or somewhere around the Middle Sea or even farther south."

Elizabeth nodded. "So all our ships will begin searching in that direction now."

"Yes, but it will take time to recall those that have gone north and to get instructions to the others as well."

"I'm so glad he's safe, or at least he was when he reached that rock. And if he survived that long, surely he would have made it to wherever the dragons finally landed, assuming they were actually going somewhere specific." Elizabeth realized she was trying to convince herself, but her feelings were confused. She wanted Nick to be safe and come home, but if he really were eaten by a dragon then she would be free, but she didn't want to be free, right? Right. But there was just a little bit of uncertainty in her mind that troubled her deeply.

But the next day that uncertainty grew when Lord Peter came by in the morning and took her away from her duties for a walk in the newly planted gardens. She couldn't seem to refuse him, even though there was a pile of correspondence for her to go through.

In the gardens he told her where he was living and his plans for renovations to the mansion he'd purchased. He asked her about her preferences in colors and styles, saying he wanted her to like his home and be comfortable there. Elizabeth had her hand looped through his elbow and felt guilty about it as well as about leaving her work, but she didn't want to let go of him either.

Flyte was in the gardens too and there were fairies flitting about, tiny pixies sitting on the rosebuds, and gnomes peering out from under plants. The princess found it amusing and entertaining, but Lord Peter looked irritated by all the fanciful creatures.

The young illusionist was dancing about with a swirl of bright creatures around her and skipped and twirled over to them. "Good morning, lovely Highnesses," she sang out.

Elizabeth replied, "Good morning, Flyte." But Stanwell just waved his hand and said, "Be gone with your foolishness." Another hand movement and everything unreal vanished. The princess took her hand off his arm and Flyte stopped and stood completely still, obviously distressed. Two unicorns appeared, one on either side of her, and Elizabeth knew that meant she really was very scared.

Flyte backed away, the unicorns between her and Lord Peter, but with another hand motion the unicorns disappeared too. The girl turned and ran.

"What a lot of nonsense," he said. "She's unstable, a dangerous thing in a witch. If I remove anyone's magic, it will be hers."

"I wish you hadn't done that. Her creatures are pretty and the unicorns make her feel safe. All you did was frighten her for no reason. She's not a danger to anyone now, but just think how effective she could be in defending Anglia with a little training. She could create an illusory army and have the enemy attacking air while our soldiers slay them. Or an illusion of dragons and monsters might keep them from even landing on our shores."

"I could do those things just as easily, Elizabeth, and I'm sane and rational. Here, try these."

There appeared hundreds of brightly-colored dragons each less than a foot long decorated with sparkling gems and gold and silver. The pretty creatures flew all around them, doing acrobatic tricks in the air.

"Oh, they're beautiful," the duchess exclaimed, smiling and reaching out her hands toward the illusions. Some came and perched on her and did more little tricks and made funny faces to amuse her.

"You see? Anything you want, you have only to ask. And if you don't want me to remove that girl's magic, I won't, but I can burn the aperture out of any of them on request. Frankly some of them are of no use at all and should have their magic removed and returned to their former lives."

"Please don't do anything like that. Promise me, Peter. When Nick comes back he will decide those things. And he will come back. They found his name etched in rock on an island. Only a witch could have done it, and there's no reason for anyone else to put his name there, so he must have been alive to do it himself."

"Very well. Perhaps he is alive or it was done as a joke or an attempt to deliberately mislead, but it doesn't matter to us. I'm wealthy and can keep you in style. You don't need to stay with that boy just because he's a prince." Peter had turned to face her and was very close to her. "We can be together as we are meant to be. If he returns . . . my magic is stronger, I promise."

Did she want his magic to be stronger than Nick's? No, but his scent was intoxicating this close and his eyes were so large and that exquisite green. Elizabeth moved toward his open arms, longing to touch him, hold him, to be completely alone with him so they could . . . no, that wasn't right. She blushed at her inappropriate thoughts, stepped back from him and turned away, but it wasn't an easy thing to do. What was she doing, was she going mad?

"I . . . I need to get back to my work. I've neglected my duties long enough," Elizabeth said without turning back toward him. She walked away quickly, leaving him with his pretty dragons which vanished when it was clear she really was returning to the castle.

But the duchess didn't return to her work. Instead she went to her tower and up the stairs to her bedroom. She didn't want to see Ralph or anyone else at the moment, she needed to be alone to think. Her maid was there looking through some of her accessories to see if anything needed to be replaced when Elizabeth arrived.

"Leave that for now, Sylvie, I want to be alone."

"Yes, Your Highness." The maid put down the things in her hands but moved very slowly toward the door. "If there's anything I can do . . . I'm your maid, you know you can trust me, and of course I'd never say a word to anyone."

Elizabeth looked at her, not sure how to respond. Sylvie usually wasn't that forward, and the duchess could see her maid really was concerned about her.

Sylvie added, "I know how you feel about that Lord Peter, but every woman in the castle feels the same, Your Highness. He's a handsome devil and there isn't a one of us wouldn't consider going to him if he crooked his little finger at her, married or not. It isn't right for any man to be that good looking."

The duchess smiled a little. "You're right about that. All the women are attracted to him?"

"Oh yes, Your Highness. But that's all it is, you know? You just have to think about your own man to see that Lord Peter doesn't really measure up; it's all just surface with him. Take Prince Nick now. He's a solid young man, knows right from wrong, can be serious and work hard, but he's a much nicer, happier fellow than that lord and he loves you more than anything, if you don't mind me saying so. Even my Bill is a better man."

"Your Bill?"

"You know, Parker. His name's William, didn't you know?"

"No, I've never heard him called anything but Parker. And he's yours?"

"Well, that's right for a valet, to just be called by his last name. And he's mine, and he's starting to know it now. We've stepped out a couple of times and it's been grand. I'll tell you how to handle that Lord Peter, Your Highness, if you want?" At Elizabeth's nod, she continued, "You just have to say 'no' and keep on saying it, even if it hurts his feelings, even if you have to interrupt his pretty talk to say it, Your Highness."

"That's one way. I suppose you're right, Sylvie. I don't even think of him except when I'm with him, but then it's like . . . it's like . . ."

"It's like he's got a spell on you. I understand, Your Highness. I knew a boy like that once, he was handsome and fun and it felt like kicking a puppy to finally discourage him. But the next week he was off with some other girl and I wasn't surprised because for all his fine words I knew he was just all surface like that Lord Peter."

Elizabeth barely heard the end of what her maid said. A spell? Lord Peter said he could do anything with magic and maybe he was using magic on her because she hadn't been behaving like herself at all when she was around him. But she couldn't be sure, especially since learning other women were being affected by him too. But Sylvie was right about him being shallow and she was right about Nick too. As young as he was, he was a better man. He knew right from wrong and would never try to seduce a married woman whether or not he was married himself.

"Thank you, Sylvie. I think I'm just missing Nick terribly, and turned to the wrong person for comfort. I'm going back to work on that pile of correspondence, it won't answer itself."

Over the next two days Elizabeth declined all invitations from Lord Peter to his increasing frustration,and in spite of her own desire to see him. Sir Ralph seemed pleased, and after that, with her permission, issued polite refusals without telling her about the invitations at all. That made it easier on her and she kept her focus on her work, and on her hopes that Nick would soon be home.

The next day Wilfred Gamble asked to see her. The duchess was surprised by the request, but received him in her office with Winkershime by her side.

The merchant bowed and said, "Your Highness, forgive me, but I felt I had to tell someone. That fellow who came in the carriage with me, Harvey Eams, he's missing. I didn't see him yesterday, and he didn't come back to his room last night or this morning. He didn't have any money and the only person he was friendly with was that old fellow, Abner, who said he hasn't seen him for a couple of days."

Ralph responded, "It's possible he's found someone to stay with, or perhaps he decided to return home. I'll direct the guards to search for him. If he's out on the roads on his own when the grace period in the witch law ends, he could be subject to execution and may not even realize his danger."

Elizabeth said, "Thank you for informing us, Mr. Gamble."

But the small man didn't leave. He stood, hesitating, and then said, "Your Highness, there's more. In Harvey's room there's a big black burned area on the floor. And I don't know if I should say anything, I'm not usually a tale teller, and maybe you already know what Lord Peter is doing?"

Ralph and Elizabeth exchanged glances. "What about Lord Peter?" the duchess asked.

"He and the Marshalls and that boy Dudley are always off together, and the three of them are doing whatever he says, Your Highness. Is he in charge of us now?"

"No, he's not. Thank you for informing us, we'll take care of it," Ralph said. Gamble bowed and left.

"We need to speak to Lord Peter before we do anything else," Winkershime said.

"I think it would be wise to have another witch present. And I want you there too throughout the interview. Please don't leave me alone with him, whatever I say."

"I was wondering if he might be influencing you somehow. Do you think he's using magic on you? That might be unlawful."

"Might be?"

"It would depend on why. If he thought it was for the good of Anglia, he could get away with almost anything under the current law."

"That's worrisome. He could do anything and lie about why he did it and suffer no penalty." Ralph nodded and she continued, "Esme isn't very powerful but she has good sense and I would trust her more than the others. I'd like her to be here when we talk to Lord Peter."

"I'll summon Esme then and when she arrives I'll send for him." Elizabeth nodded agreement and Ralph dispatched a page. When they were alone again he asked, "What do you think he's doing? Does he scare you somehow?"

"I . . . I'm not exactly frightened, but I don't believe I'm safe either. He could be using some sort of magic on me that I'm not familiar with."

"But to what purpose, Elizabeth?"

"I think he wants me to abandon Nick and marry him instead. I don't understand why, though, we just met. He can't really be so enamored of me."

Ralph said thoughtfully, "If Nick doesn't come back, your new husband would have a great deal of power in Sothalia. If something happened to you then, he would likely become the new duke and most certainly have control of the Royal Coven. If Nick does come back, the same thing would apply if he was killed and you remarried. With the amount of power he claims to have, Lord Peter could have been responsible for the attack on you as well."

"But he wasn't even here yet. And why would he?"

"He could have found a way to transport here magically. With both you and Nick gone, there would have been no one in charge, and he may have thought he could take over, by force if necessary with his magic. He would have influenced others like myself to support him and presented Londinum with a fait accompli including control of all of the magic in Anglia."

"I don't know, Ralph, you're making him out to be some sort of evil sorcerer, and I'm not sure he is. Perhaps he really has fallen in love with me, or maybe there's some magic acting on him as well, like some sort of love spell."

"I don't know for sure either, Elizabeth, but if he's trying to get you to abandon Nick, he isn't doing the right thing."

"So you think it's about power. If it is, what could Esme do, Ralph? Her magic is weak and she only uses it for healing. I don't believe she could even create a shield."

"We'll find out when she arrives."

The healer soon appeared and they met her in the audience chamber. After an awkward curtsy, Esme waited for them to tell her why she had been summoned.

The duchess asked, "Esme, do you know any way to block magic?"

"Block it? No, Your Highness, I've no talent for big magic at all."

"Could you detect a subtle spell being cast somewhere near you?"

The older woman thought for a few moments. "Probably, Your Highness. The flow of magic . . . there can be sort of ripples. Usually the spell itself kind of overwhelms everything and you just feel the big wave of magic, but even with little magics I can usually feel the ripples."

Ralph said, "Lord Peter is on his way here. We want you to stand close by and try to determine if he's using magic. We don't expect you to do anything about it, and we don't want you to say anything either until after he leaves. Could you do that?"

"Certainly. I've no patients right now, so I can stay as long as you want. You don't want him to know what I'm doing, is that it?"

"Yes, that's it exactly," Winkershime agreed.

When Lord Peter was shown in, Esme stood off to the side between Elizabeth and the attractive lord. He ignored her after one glance and bowed with his usual grace to the duchess.

Before he could say anything, Winkershime said, "Lord Peter, Harvey Eams seems to have disappeared. Do you have any idea where he might be?"

"I don't associate with peasants, so there's no reason for me to know where he is."

Elizabeth spoke. "You must have some thoughts on the matter. Where might he have gone?"

"Well, I did have a conversation with him the evening before last. I've been coaching some of the more promising witches and he said he wanted to try some magic after all. I gave him an exercise to do. But if he attempted too much and failed, the results could have been quite serious."

Ralph commented with controlled anger, "We've been told there's a large burned spot in his room. If he failed, could he have damaged the floor and run away in fear of punishment?"

Lord Peter looked at Ralph coolly. "No, if he failed, then that spot is likely all that is left of him."

There was a moment of shocked silence. Winkershime said sternly, "You will cease coaching anyone as of this minute."

"You are not in charge, and no, I won't. The purpose of the Royal Coven is to provide magical protection to Anglia. The Marshalls and the boy Dudley are apt pupils. They can ground and shield and are in no danger, but those less prepared may not survive the training just as occasionally squires do not survive the rigorous training to become a knight. But the Coven needs to be ready when and if we are needed. Our lives depend on our ability to perform the function the King's Council has spared us for, and we will do what is necessary to protect ourselves and our country whether you like it or not, Sir Ralph."

Elizabeth drew herself up and said, "I command you to stop at once, Lord Peter."

Stanwell took a step toward her and Ralph moved closer protectively as well. Esme kept herself equidistant from Elizabeth and Peter without getting directly between them.

"I'm so sorry Your Highness, you know I hold you in high regard, but the Royal Coven reports directly to Prince Henry, and in his absence someone with magic must take charge. I am that someone."

Furious, the duchess stated, "I outrank you. I am the Duchess of Sothalia and Princess of Anglia and you reside within my realm."

"My authority comes from the law, King William, and his Council, not from you. I'm afraid I must obey their wishes, not yours. I will continue to attempt to make progress toward the creation of an effective magical fighting force."

"And those who are not 'apt pupils'? Will you kill them too?" the duchess snapped.

"I most certainly did not kill Eams. Whatever happened to him, I wasn't there at the time and he did it to himself. As far as the others go, well, this one . . ." he gestured at Esme, "this one is useful just as she is, she hasn't the power to do anything more than healing. The old couple is hopeless and I wouldn't even try to train them. They can live in their little house as long as they don't interfere. Gamble has some talent and eventually he'll see reason and begin to train. The Flyte girl could be useful as you've said, but we'll have to see if she can exercise some self-control or not."

"And if not?" the duchess asked grimly.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Speaking of bridges, let's talk of something more pleasant. I've created a lovely garden at my house with a tiny stream and a wonderful arched bridge. Come see it."

He reached out his hand to Elizabeth who started to put out one hand toward him but the other clutched at Ralph who took it and drew her back a step. Lord Peter glared at Winkershime while Esme moved back as well.

"Don't take too much on yourself, little man. You've no magic at all and anything might happen to you, unprotected as you are."

Ralph glared back and opened his mouth to retort, but Esme interrupted. "You poor dear, your headache must be getting much worse with all this fuss. Let me take care of it now," she said to Elizabeth.

The duchess took her cue. "Yes, it is getting quite painful. Another time, perhaps, Lord Peter. And for the good of the Coven, please leave the other witches alone. Prince Henry will very likely be home soon, and he'll have his own training plan that yours might well interfere with."

Stanwell raised his eyebrows, questioning that statement, but bowed and said ambiguously, "I will help where I can, Your Highness." He bowed and left.

As soon as he was gone, Elizabeth turned to Ralph. "Just what did you think you were going to do?"

"Stand up to him of course. He's underestimating me, he thinks he can just push me aside because I don't have magic, but you've proved there are other ways of handling witches. I think from now on I'll wear my sword."

"Not a bad idea, but please don't tangle with him if you can help it. Remember, when I killed Frais he was engaged in a magical battle with Nick and wasn't paying any attention to me. You could lose fighting Stanwell and without you I'd have to face him alone and so far I'm not doing very well at that. Esme, thank you for your intervention, it was clever of you to both distract him and explain your presence. Did you detect any magic?"

"You're most welcome, Your Highness. I know men, and there would have been blood on the floor if I hadn't. Or maybe a big burned spot," Esme added meaningfully to Sir Ralph. She continued, "There wasn't any magic at first, but when he invited you and held out his hand, there was magic just rolling off of him. I never sensed anything like it before. Gave me the shudders and I'm most glad it wasn't aimed at me."

"Thank you for your help, Esme," Ralph said. "If you know of Lord Peter approaching or bothering anyone else in the Coven, please let us know."

Esme nodded, curtsied and left to see if any patients had arrived while she'd been gone.

Sir Ralph called off the search for Eams and instead had the guards look for Flyte and just inform him if she was found so she could be warned. They found no trace of her on the grounds and he and the duchess hoped she was somewhere safe and would stay there. Abner and Flo chose to remain in their cottage since Stanwell was ignoring them, but Gamble was relieved to be given a room in the castle where he would be much less likely to encounter Lord Peter.

Elizabeth took one more action. She sent a message to Londinum informing the king of the situation. So far Lord Peter was proclaiming his loyalty to Anglia and there was no proof he had any responsibility for whatever had happened to Eams. She would have been more comfortable if she had an excuse to put Stanwell in irons although part of her did not want to do that at all. But there was nothing officially that she could do with just Esme's word against that of a member of the nobility, and the law did not prohibit magic use by the Coven anyway.

If Nick never came home, someone would have to take over the Royal Coven for him, but that would be up to the King of Anglia and the Council. As for her, Sothalia would vote against it being Lord Peter although she didn't know who else could do it. But there was still a little time left for others to come forward and Nick was coming home, wasn't he?

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