The Duke and the Duchess

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Chapter 7

Nick kept his light ahead of them, but he had reduced it to show only a small area. He would feel when they neared the creature; he just needed to see where he was going. Elizabeth strode at his right, her sword out and ready just in case. The knights and squires followed. She glanced back to see where Hal was. As the smallest of the group she worried about him a little, but he was sticking close to Alain who followed behind Sir Marion.

The duke led them almost to the ridge, then veered to the right.

"Nick, it's not . . .?" the duchess asked.

He shook his head. "I'm not feeling anything from over there, although there could be more than one in the area. But the greatest irritation seems to be over in this direction." He led them a few hundred yards past the old fortification.

Apologies, Mage.

Nick stopped and diffused and expanded his light, looking for whoever had spoken.

I did not realize we were disharmonious.

"What?" Nick said. "Where . . . who . . ."

We must remain in this area, there is a source here and there are so few sources now. Unless you would care to provide?

"Provide what? Who or what are you?" Nick demanded. Then he noticed everyone staring at him in alarm and astonishment. He addressed his party. "Um, you don't hear that?"

Elizabeth shook her head. "Hear what, Nick? There's nothing to hear, just a little breeze rubbing some twigs together."

My mistake, you are not a true mage, just an ignorant one with the gift. But your flavor seemed . . . never mind, we will stay out of your range and bother you no more.

"It's in my head, I'm hearing words in my head," Nick hastily explained. He turned back toward the trees. He called, "Please tell me what you are and what you want from me."

If you leave some of your magic behind, perhaps next time we would be more aligned. For now, farewell.

"Wait! How do I . . .?" But the irritating feeling receded until Nick could no longer sense whatever it was. He shook his head, disappointed he hadn't learned more, and slowly turned to his companions.

"There's no point in continuing. It's gone and I think it can feel me coming so we won't find it again as long as I'm with the group, and I doubt very much anyone could find it without me."

Sir Oliver asked, "You believe the creature spoke to you somehow, Your Highness?"

"Yes, it talked to me in my mind. Didn't any of you hear it?" Nick pleaded, hoping someone else could confirm his wild story.

There were glances exchanged and general head shaking. Elizabeth asked, "What did it say to you, Nick? Is it dangerous?"

"No, we're okay to stay camped where we are for the night. It seemed like it was sorry it bothered us. We should go back." Nick gestured toward the way they had come, and the knights reluctantly turned back. He could see most of them were disappointed at not having the opportunity to slay some great beast, but they started trudging back the way they came. He sent a light out in front of them.

"Elizabeth?" the duke said quietly, and waved her over to him so he could speak to her alone. "It said it was here because there is a source nearby, and it wanted me to leave magic here for it. The only thing that makes sense is that it can feel the ancient magic in the ruins, and it wants me to give it more. That may be why only I could hear it, I'm the only person with magic. Go ahead and make sure everyone continues back to camp, but slowly. I'm going to stay here a few moments, but I'll catch up."

The duchess took one last look around, but didn't see anything threatening. She didn't like leaving him alone, but when it came to magic, she had no choice but to trust him. "All right. We'll talk when we get back, Nick."

He nodded and she followed the knights and squires moving slowly toward camp, dawdling so they didn't get too far away from the duke and duchess. Nick pulled in power through his aperture and began grounding it through his feet. If the creature could feel the other magic in the ground, then that was a good place for it, and no one else would even know it was there. He opened as wide as he could and just washed huge amounts of energy through his channels and into the ground. It only took a half a minute or so, and then he shut off the flow and hurried after his party. He'd maintained a weak light ahead of the group and strengthened it as he caught up.

They straggled back into camp, everyone going to their own tents. It took a while for the camp to quiet down again as word was spread that the creature was nowhere nearby and the duke's decision was to stay the night. The duke and duchess assured their servants there was no need for them to be out of bed, and then settled themselves into camp chairs with glasses of wine since they needed time to settle down themselves.

Elizabeth said quietly, "Tell me everything, Nick."

"Well, first of all, I think there's more than one. It spoke of itself in the singular and then said 'we' several times. I still don't know what it is, though. It said we were 'disharmonious'. I'm not sure what it meant, but it also said we would be more 'aligned' if I left some of my magic for it."

"It seems like the 'disharmonious' part is what was irritating you and affecting your aperture."

"Maybe, I don't know if the creature and I were disharmonious or if it found people in general that way. But if the disharmony is what affected my magic system, then I'm hoping the magic I left for it eliminates or reduces that so next time we can be closer to each other without it bothering me or perhaps me bothering it."

"But if it can feel magic, could it use magic too? And would giving it a great deal more make it dangerous?"

Nick looked stricken. "I don't know, I didn't think of that. I hope not, it didn't seem aggressive, but . . . I really don't know. I suppose it could use magic without being able to generate it itself. What if I did the wrong thing? What if it uses my magic to hurt someone?"

"If it was attacking people we surely would have been informed. We do need to be able to get closer to find out what it is, and we're both curious about it."

"Yeah, we have to find out what it wants or needs, how it got here, how many of them there are, and everything. It's in Sothalia, so we're responsible for it, or them."

She agreed, "It's our duty to understand what it is, since we're supposed to protect our duchy and it could be dangerous. It appears we have an excellent excuse for satisfying our curiosity."

"And if it's a peaceful intelligent being, we need to protect it from dragon-hunting knights since it's a resident of our domain as well."

"That won't make us very popular. We could change our route back to pass by here again to see if you and it can better tolerate each other. That would mean we would be away longer if we still want to go everywhere we planned."

"Yeah, we should. At least I'm pretty sure it won't bother us again tonight. I'm tired, I'm going to bed." Nick finished the last of his wine and went to their partitioned off sleeping quarters, and Elizabeth soon followed.

The morning dawned fair and the camp was late breaking up, but at last they were on their way again. Nick rode with the group of soldiers leading the procession, hoping if the encountered another creature he would sense it before they reached it. But there didn't seem to be anything more for him to sense, and they passed out of the forest into farmland without incident.

The next few days were uneventful. They alternated between staying with nobility that resided near the road, rooming in inns, and camping. As they proceeded east they found more damage and some trash left behind by the Francks, but there was nothing they could do about it personally, so Elizabeth sent messages to the local lords to make repairs and clean up.

One afternoon they finally crested a rise and first saw Seagate. The duke and duchess were both impressed with the large port city; it was almost as big as Londinum. There was an immense bay with headlands to either side, with the largest ships anchored out some distance. The dock area covered a long strip of shore and had only suffered damage at the southern end where it appeared a few of the warehouses had been burned.

The north side was undamaged and may small boats and fishing craft were moored to smaller docks, and beyond that was a long beach with a few rowboats just pulled up on the sand. From the city center southward were larger piers and moored ocean-going ships. Longboats from some of the anchored vessels plied back and forth to platforms with cranes and pulleys for loading and unloading at the southern end of the docks in front of a great many warehouses. Past that the shoreline was rocky and unusable.

There were many large buildings inland in the middle of the bowl-shaped land that held the city, with residences marching up the hillsides and above the high water mark along the beach. Most appeared undamaged, but some homes and businesses were being repaired or rebuilt.

The duke sat on his horse and surveyed the city below while soldiers, carriages, and wagons went slowly past. Elizabeth rode up next to him and he said, "Well, that's a relief. It doesn't look like there was much destruction."

"I suppose that makes sense," she replied. "The Francks would have docked their own ships, stolen whatever they wanted, and then headed inland. But they would need an intact port to move in supplies or reinforcements, or to withdraw as they did."

"They probably left an occupying force to keep control of the port while they were here. I'm just glad they didn't burn the whole thing on their way out."

"So am I. Do we know where we're staying?"

"Sir Oliver and Sir Edgar know the city; they're going to lead us to some decent inns before they go about their own business."

Once down off the hill and in among the buildings it was more difficult to determine where they were. But the knights led them to a large square to the south that had inns, stables, and restaurants surrounding it. The procession broke up there, the knights going off in various directions while Nick and Elizabeth filled an inn with their own party of officers and senior personnel. The soldiers, wagon drivers, clerks and messengers were lodged in a slightly cheaper inn across the square.

The duke sent out messengers to arrange meetings with city officials and local nobility for the next day, and then he and the duchess went out for a stroll to see the city in the remaining afternoon light. Captain Gregg walked along behind them for a token guard. They saw quite a few members of their group doing the same, reading posted menus outside the restaurants, finding congenial drinking establishments, and wandering through shops. They noticed Parker and Sylvie together entering a clothing store, and their mapmakers inside a chandlers looking at navigation charts.

They found a restaurant themselves, told no one who they were, and enjoyed a pleasant, anonymous dinner. Captain Gregg ate with them, at first being reserved and stiff, but gradually relaxing when the prince and princess treated him informally. Afterward they went back to their inn while Gregg made sure guards were set as unobtrusively as possible around the building.

In the morning their head messenger informed them that the city mayor and local lord Baron Eddington had set up a large meeting with the nobility and the wealthy and important commoners of Seagate. After breakfast they put on their finest, most impressive clothing, Elizabeth wearing her tiara and Nick his circlet. Their coach was waiting and they drove through a maze of streets to the back of a large building. Captain Gregg followed with ten soldiers, and several messengers and two clerks went along in case they were needed.

There were three men waiting at the door, two richly dressed and the third appeared to be a functionary of some sort. When the duke and duchess exited the carriage, the three men approached, bowed, and introduced themselves.

The first was an older, shorter wiry man, impeccably dressed in a silky black suit and obviously in charge. "Your Highnesses," he said, "I am Baron Eddington. Seagate lies within my domain. This is the mayor, Mister Alarsham, and his secretary Clarence Vonn. Welcome to the greatest port in Anglia."

The mayor had medium brown skin, dark brown eyes, and black loosely curling hair. He wore long white and pale green robes and his manicured hands flashed at least a half dozen sparkling rings. Nick and Elizabeth had never seen anyone like him. Vonn, blond and slightly plump, wore a plain gray suit and hung back.

Nick nodded to the baron and replied, "Prince Henry and my wife, Princess Elizabeth, Duke and Duchess of Sothalia. We are very pleased at the condition of your city, Baron."

The baron bowed slightly and replied, "We have worked very hard to repair the damage done and there is yet more to go. But even the Francks recognized the value of Seagate and treated us reasonably well."

Elizabeth asked, "Who will we be meeting today?"

Mayor Alarsham answered in very slightly accented Anglian, "Your Highnesses, we have gathered all the nobility currently in residence to offer you their fealty. There are also important merchants and ship owners, military officers, Anglian customs and tax officials, and everyone of note. We have borrowed the largest theater in Seagate to accommodate everyone, so we have allowed lesser merchants and others in behind the seating as well."

"Theater?" Elizabeth asked. "We will be on a stage?"

"Yes ,Your Highness," the baron replied. "Mayor Alarsham and I will be seated with you on the stage so we can be seen by all and you can see everyone as well. Please come this way." He led them in through the door, turned and added, "I will introduce you and then begin the ceremony by offering my own fealty first, and then others will follow. When that is done, do you wish to make an address, Your Highness?"

"I would like to say a few words," the duke said, "But just some short remarks. Then I'd like to get a dialogue going, ask some questions and perhaps take some questions from the audience."

"That will work well, Your Highness. Mr. Vonn will take notes."

"As will my clerks," Nick added as most of their entourage followed them inside, leaving just the alternate driver and two guards with the coach.

They wound their way through scenery, racks and trunks of costumes, and small hallways with tiny dressing rooms until they arrived in the stage wings, hidden from the audience by a side curtain. Captain Gregg sent his remaining eight soldiers off the stage to stand at the sides in front of the stage and down along the walls, but he remained where he was, just out of sight. The messengers and Parker stayed with the captain, and the clerks grabbed stools and followed the guards down, settling in front of the stage and unpacking their lap desks.

When everyone was in place, Mr. Vonn went out on stage and announced them, then returned to sit on a stool just on stage near the side curtain and set up his own lap desk. In the center of the stage were four chairs, the middle two imitation thrones, and the outer two cushioned wooden chairs.

Baron Eddington led them out. The audience all stood until Nick and Elizabeth had settled themselves in the center chairs, then everyone sat except the baron. He introduced them again, and made a short speech recapping their deeds in the wars and finishing with their appointments as duke and duchess. He turned then and approached Nick, who stood as the baron knelt in front of him.

They went through the ancient ritual, Eddington offering his loyalty, service, worldly goods, and his life. The prince accepted and swore his loyalty, protection, and leadership, and offered a small coin as a token of their relationship. When the baron accepted the coin, the ritual was completed. By then quite a few men from the front seating in the audience had stood and lined up at the stairs leading onto the stage.

One by one they repeated the words and motions, some with fervor, a few reluctantly, but most just recited with no real emotion. Elizabeth was proud of the way Nick seemed sincere with each man, even though it took nearly an hour to accommodate everyone. She was also glad to see the duke had thought to bring a pouch of half coppers to give out. When it was over, Nick reseated himself.

The baron stood and went to center stage again. It was obvious to the duke and duchess he liked being the focus of everyone's attention. He had just begun to speak when two men standing just behind the last row of seats began shouting.

One called out, "Free Seagate! No more tyrants!" The second was yelling, "Free city, free city!" Two more men emerged through the back curtain of the stage and one additional from the far wing as the two in back suddenly raised hand crossbows and fired darts.

Nick's shield went up a moment too late. The first dart struck the baron and he dropped. The second dart was fired just a couple of seconds later, but it hit the hastily erected shield instead of the duke. Two more darts bounced off before members of the audience reacted and mobbed the two shooters.

Elizabeth had risen out of her chair and saw the other three men charging toward them, two armed with swords and one with an axe. Captain Gregg and Parker had drawn swords and started forward, but they had no hope of intercepting the attackers before they reached the three unarmed people on the stage. Alarsham had thrown himself out of his chair and was scuttling across the stage toward Gregg and Parker, while Vonn had disappeared off stage completely.

Nick had risen when the darts hit, and started to turn to see what Elizabeth was looking at and saw the man rushing him from the far wing. He didn't take time to shape his magic; he just hit him with pure force and tossed the swordsman away from him into a clattering pile of something offstage.

Guards were running for the stairs, but they would be far too late to do anything but exact vengeance.

Elizabeth could see that Nick was focused on the man charging from the wings and wasn't yet aware of the two men attacking from the rear who were only strides away. She screamed, "Nick, behind you!" as she reached through her skirt and extracted the long dagger strapped to her thigh.

The closer man in the lead had an axe, but plainly expected to just brush her aside and rush past her to kill the duke. The duchess went low and tackled him, doing her best to both stab him and knock him into the second man and take down both of them. But the second man sidestepped and the duchess and the man she was tangled with missed him.

Elizabeth had no time to do anything but try to stay alive. Her initial thrust had missed its target in her attempt to intercept the second man. Her dagger had scored a long bloody line across the axe man's belly but not gone deep enough to disable him. Now they were both on the floor and he'd grabbed her right wrist to hold off the dagger. She was on top of him but rolled most of her weight on his right arm trying to keep his axe pinned to the floor.

But that let him roll her over and get on top of her. She still had his axe under her and he was unsuccessfully trying to wrench it out from under her. But with his other hand he was winning the war of strength with her dagger, turning her wrist and getting the long knife pointed at her.

There was suddenly a horrible burning smell and a wash of heat from one side; she was sure Nick had taken care of the last attacker.

The duchess wiggled her left arm free and hit the man on top of her as hard as she could in the nose with the heel of her hand. Blood spurted out and he pulled his head back. She took the moment to change the angle of her dagger, pull it toward her and bite his hand. He let go with a yell and she was about to stab him when the point of a sword came through his chest with a gout of blood, and Captain Gregg pulled him off of her.

Elizabeth got up, expecting to see Nick coming toward her to see if she was all right, but he wasn't. He was sitting on the floor a little way from a burnt corpse. At least he was sitting, so he was alive. Parker had reached him and was examining his master.

She went over to them and saw blood on the top of the duke's left shoulder near his neck and down his chest, his jacket and shirt sliced through. By that time the guards were on the stage as well as others. Nick looked off into the wing at the guards rounding up the man he'd thrown there and called, "Is he alive?" There was an affirmative answer and he added, "Don't harm him, I want to question him."

Elizabeth realized that if Nick could give orders, he wasn't in any immediate danger. She put her dagger back into its hidden sheath and sat down in the nearest chair, which happened to be the baron's. There were people gathering around the fallen peer, apparently at least one of them a physician, so there was nothing she could do to help there. Parker was gingerly opening the duke's jacket and shirt so he could examine the injury.

She asked Nick, "Are you badly hurt? What happened?"

"No, he just took too long to die. I backed up but the tip of his sword got me on the top of the shoulder and sliced down. It hurts, but it's shallow and not bleeding much. You have a lot of blood on you, are you all right?"

"I'm fine. It's not mine, I'll just have a few bruises. Why in the world did you use fire in a theater?"

"I don't know, it's sort of my go-to thing. I tossed the first guy just to save time and I figured he might get up and try again, so I had to make sure of that one," Nick replied, nodding at the burnt hulk. "I wanted to get him out of the way so I could help you too. Thanks for the assist, by the way."

"Of course, I'm only sorry I didn't knock down second man too."

Nick continued, "Plain old fire doesn't kill on contact, it takes a few seconds, but I couldn't throw him away from me, he might set the whole place ablaze, and he got in one good swing before he went down and then I had to smother the fire. I need a better close up strategy."

Captain Gregg took the pause in their conversation to report. "Your Highnesses, the two men in the audience are dead. I've sent guards to question people to try to identify them, but many of the attendees in the back fled as soon as the violence started. We have the one you 'tossed' in custody, Prince Henry."

Mayor Alarsham had returned from wherever he'd fled. He bowed a little and said, "I am very sorry this happened. I am an administrator not a warrior, so I could not help you."

Parker had helped the duke to his feet. Nick asked, "Who are these people, do you have any idea?"

The mayor replied, "There is a known dissident element here in Seagate, but there has never been violence like this before. It is terrible, frightening to think there are those willing to murder for their wild ideas. We do know who some of them are, they will be arrested."

The people around the baron had put him on a stretcher and were taking him off of the stage. He was breathing, but very pale and unconscious. Two of those who had been bent over him approached the duke and duchess and bowed.

"I am Physician Longstreet and this is my colleague Physician Brook. He must go to attend the baron, but may I be of service, Your Highnesses?"

Elizabeth got up and examined Nick's cut. "It's shallow," she reported, "I don't think it will need stitches. So no, we'll be fine. But thank you."

They bowed and both hurried after the stretcher. A tall, richly dressed middle-aged man took their place, bowing in turn.

He addressed them both. "Your Highnesses, I don't know if you remember me from the group pledging their fealty, but I am Lord Gordon, Baron Eddington's eldest son and heir. I want to assure you that while my father is incapacitated I will see that these despicable miscreants are properly taken care of. We have coddled them too long, and this is what it leads to."

Nick nodded but said, "Arrest whomever you think is responsible, Lord Gordon, but no executions without a hearing, and I want to be present for that."

Lord Gordon scowled at the prince. "These ungrateful rebellious pigs deserve to be publicly hung! A hearing won't delay it much if you insist on one, Your Highness. But please remember I know the situation in Seagate much better than you and this is my responsibility, not yours. I will set a time and place for a hearing and send notice of when and where." He gave a perfunctory bow and stalked off.

Nick and Elizabeth exchanged looks. She asked, "Is he right about it being his job to try and sentence the dissidents?"

"Yes," Nick replied. "As a prince I have nothing to do with local crime and as the Duke of Sothalia I am in charge of what goes on in my personal domain and any disputes involving nobility within my duchy. This really doesn't fall to me, but I want to understand what is going on here."

She nodded her agreement and said, "I think we both need to understand this, as it may be a more widespread problem than just Seagate. We should to go back to the inn, get cleaned up and rest a bit. I would very much like to change out of these bloody clothes and tomorrow will likely be difficult."

The coach was brought up to the back door and their party went back to their temporary lodging. When Elizabeth and Nick got to their chambers, Sylvie gasped at the sight of them. Then she energized the inn staff to produce hot water for baths and fetch food for a private buffet while she and Parker got their charges out of their damaged and bloody clothing.

After having their injuries treated, bathing carefully, and dressing in more casual clothes, the duke and duchess lunched from the buffet. They expected to have a leisurely afternoon, but two hours later Parker announced visitors for the duke.

Elizabeth shrugged, winced from her bruises, and went into their bedchamber; she knew Nick would tell her what it was about later. Parker ushered two ordinary looking men into the sitting room, introducing them as Mr. Smolley and Mr. Hand.

They looked vaguely familiar, and it took Nick several minutes before he realized where he'd seen them before. They had been guests of Duke Hubert when the royal pre-wedding procession had stopped at Sothalia. He remembered them because they had seemed so out of place at the time. The two men hadn't changed, both decently although not richly dressed and somewhat rough mannered. Their bows were awkward and their speech unrefined.

Nick hoped they weren't here to continue the conversation they had had so many months ago about trade and commerce. He was no longer the Head of Commerce, and their conversation had been boring even when he was.

Mr. Smolley said, "Your Highness, we're pleased to meet you again, though I don't suppose you would remember us."

"I do," the duke replied, and decided to cut through the niceties. He was tired and sore and not in the mood to be patient. He asked bluntly, "What did you want to see me about?"

The two men exchanged glances and Smolley continued, "Well, y'see Your Highness, we have ways of obtaining things . . ."

"Things no one else can get," Hand interjected.

"Unusual things, rare things, at good prices, Your Highness," Smolley finished.

Smugglers, just as he had thought at the time of the first meeting. "I don't know of anything rare or unusual that I want. And of course I would never buy any goods without the appropriate taxes being paid," Nick said pointedly.

"Well now, we wouldn't want to be doin' anything illegal, would we Mr. Hand?" Smolley asked.

"Oh, 'course not, Mr. Smolley. But we do have ways of gettin' things, like fine Franckish wine, even in these times," Hand responded.

Seeing the duke didn't look interested, Smolley said, "Or other things. I believe books 'n such about witchcraft are legal for you to have, bein' the head of the Royal Coven and all, and such books are to be had outside of Anglia."

Now Nick was interested. "Have a seat, gentlemen, and talk to me about where you would get such books and how much they might cost."

The three sat down. Mr. Hand said, "Your Highness, over in Franck, Ibarra, and that area, there are sorcerers with books, and sometimes when they die there's no heirs, at least no witchy heirs that want such things."

Smolley added, "And I believe there are some in Drusia; you read Drusian, Your Highness?" At Nick's nod he went on, "Well, these sorts of books aren't cheap you know, but it might be possible to get some, if we were to let the right folks know you'd be buyin'."

The duke sat back and considered them. They were undoubtedly thieves and would cheat him outrageously on the price whether or not they imported the books legally. But he was interested in anything about magic for himself, and he had no basic texts to use to teach potential coven members aside from the little book Elizabeth had found when she first came to Londinum. He hadn't thought of sending anyone to Drusia, Ibarra, or Franck to find such books that had mostly been destroyed in Anglia. It was a useful idea, but he had far better sources than these two.

Nick said, "It's an interesting proposition, but I'm afraid I have other avenues to procure such materials. If you come up with any rare magic texts with the proper tax receipts, I would be willing to look at them." He stood up, indicating the conversation was over.

The two men stood too. "Now Highness, if there's anythin', any goods you'd be wantin', you only need to let us know," Smolley said, sounding a little desperate.

"Aye, Highness, it's Smolley and Hand, that's our company, we've a little place down by the docks, anyone there can point it out, and we can get near anythin'," Hand added.

"I appreciate your interest, but there are a great many shipping companies that I'm sure would do the same for me," Nick responded. "And I want it known that I will punish smuggling to the limit of the law. It's simply theft from your lord and theft from the king's treasury. Of course you gentlemen are honest businessmen, but please pass the word on along the waterfront, if you would. I always believe in fair warning when there is a change in policy."

"A . . . a change?" stuttered Hand.

"I know Duke Hubert had his rules, and I have mine. I hope mine are clear?"

Smolley and Hand both said, "Yes, Your Highness" as they bowed and hurried out.

Parker came in as they left. He was smiling amusedly and Nick knew he'd been listening at the door. Not unexpected, since his valet was an ex-spy.

"You heard?" he asked.

"Yes, Your Highness. I wouldn't allow such characters to be alone with you without keeping track of them." The valet pulled back the side of his jacket to reveal a long dagger sheathed at his waist. "I'm not going to be caught by surprise again either. Mr. Winkershime will be very angry with me when he hears about this morning, and I'm angry at myself for being complacent about your safety, sir. I should have had the backstage area searched before you went out on that stage. It will not happen again, I assure you."

The duke just nodded. Valets weren't usually armed protectors of their masters, but he'd gotten used to the little extras from Ralph. Elizabeth came in from the bedroom.

"I heard too," she said. "But I've left my sword in the bedroom for now, seeing that you're safe. The nerve of those men, suggesting they smuggle in goods for you."

"Hubert had an arrangement with them, so it's not entirely their fault. But I'm a prince of Anglia, I really can't condone smuggling. I'm going to write to Ann and Richard. They have both overt and covert operatives on the continent; maybe the non-sneaky ones can acquire some books on magic for me."

Parker said, "Your Highnesses, Captain Gregg has reported that there are quite a few people who have applied for appointments with you, and he will supply a list for your decision on who you will see and when."

"Fine," said Nick. "But no more today. The rest of the day we're going to rest and recover. Right, Elizabeth?"

"Right. I'm going to send Sylvie out for a few things and then give her the rest of the day off. Parker, if you arrange for dinner for us here in our rooms, we won't need you again today either. Unless you have chores for him, Nick?"

"No, just seeing that my letters are mailed once I write them, but tomorrow is soon enough for that."

As soon as Parker was out of the room, Nick locked the outer door and turned to her with that look in his eye, but she shook her head. "Sorry, my wrist is sore and my back is one big bruise from that axe. And really, Nick, you can't be feeling that chipper yourself."

Nick sighed. "I guess you're right. Let's just have a quiet evening. There's always tomorrow."

She went over to him and took him in her arms gently, kissed him and said, "Two or three days, I think. I'm sorry I couldn't get that second fellow with the sword too."

"Are you kidding? You did great taking out the one. I'm the one who's sorry you had to fight him by yourself. I am such a lucky man having a beautiful princess who fights like a knight and loves like a . . . a . . ."

"I think you'd better not finish that sentence. I'm going to get a little embroidery done, enjoy dinner, and go to bed early."

"Me too, except for the embroidery part."

And they did.

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