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King Culprit

Chapter Three

Doctor Roderick wasn't a real doctor, just an apprentice doctor. He was also Lord Redhawk's squire and one of the lesser known of the Crimson Companions. Now as he stood on the palace parapets, watching the parade below, he was just another face in the crowd. An angry face.

Down below in the parade marching down Grand Procession Boulevard was animals of the like that hadn't been seen in this part of the world for many centuries. There were giant bison, mammoths, giant elk, a giant ground sloth and then there were some creatures the Kinian hadn't even heard of, let alone pronounce, like baluchitherium, syndyoceras plus quagga and zebra. Most of them came from either the Minotaur Empire or the Tigalo continent. It was amazing they had even captured the baluch, let alone transport it all the way to Athex for the parade. It was about eighteen feet tall and approximately twenty-five feet long and god only knows how much it weighed.

What bothered Derick however was the terrible shape they were in. They looked half starved and were covered with scars from whip lashes. The baluch had burns and tattoos on its hide, and looked like it was going to collapse from the heat. He'd been angry when they had discovered all the hides at the poacher's Lair up in the Ice Lands, now he was damn well furious. How could they harm such strange and wondrous creatures?

"Shameful," muttered Queen Helen. She was beyond beautiful, she was gorgeous. Pale blond hair the colour of spring maple syrup, smooth white skin that had taken on a bit of a tan in this incredible heat. She had a supple, polished look about her, like she hadn't been born but sculpted by angels and granted life. She was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. She was also smart, no she wasn't the scholarly type, she was quick-witted and shrewd, which made her a damn good queen.

Redhawk nodded. "I mentioned the poor shape of them to Willium and he promised to look into the matter. Whichever merchant caravan brought them here is going to be in trouble. These animals should have been put down days ago!"

"What was all that racket about last night, milord?" asked Derick.

"Assassination attempt by a Cherten. Strange how we've only recently contacted their kingdom to set up better relations and they send assassins our way? Not a good way to start trade between their kingdom and us here on the continent!"

"The Chertens?" asked Queen Helen. "There were more than one assassination last night then!"

Redhawk frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Lord Neil, the Earl of Castle Dakot was murdered last night, presumably by a Cherten."

A passing noble stopped in mid stride and turned to face the Queen. "Lord Neil too? How many have they killed now?" he demanded angrily.

Redhawk frowned and grabbed the man by the collar. "What do you mean? There are more murders?"

The noble hooked an arm under Redhawk's shoulder and wrenched himself free. "Of course! Haven't you heard? There were twelve deaths just last night and nine more this morning!"

Redhawk took a quick step back and nearly toppled over the parapet. He would have been lying dead on the cobbles below if Derick hadn't reached out and caught him. "Twenty-one people? What's going on here? Who are you?"

"I am Lord Osmond, the new Baron of Castle Delias. My sister Bardelias was amongst those killed last night. It was the only fortunate death."

Derick had to agree. Lady Bardelias had been a noble pain in the ass. No one would grieve for her death not even her brother. "What about Torr Bardeliasson?" he asked thoughtfully.

"Scarlet fever, I'm afraid. Only Bardelias herself mourned his death. As I recall, he was involved with that Lord Ponde incident. One of the trouble makers?" replied Osmond.

Redhawk nodded. That had been a stupid incident that had occurred just before the Ice War and could have been easily stopped if Lord Ponde hadn't insisted on starting a fight over it. Ponde's dead now, though nobody seems to know who killed him. He was found in a back alley of Jaton with his money pouch missing and his throat slit so everyone assumed he'd been killed by a cutthroat. Although Redhawk knew cutthroats preferred a simple backstab rather than going through the trouble of actually cutting someone's throat, meaning this had been for show. A show off, which meant Larry. "Who are the people that are dead?" he asked, getting back to the original topic.

"Bardelias, Lord Neil, a Colnic countess by the name of Winona, Madam Ruby of Castle Blueflame in Kinian, Lord Courtney, a human ambassador from the Minotaur Empire called Ivan, Lord Dallas, Lady Dora, Sir Westcott, King Willium's nephew Felix, Madam Leala, Fraulein Elsa, Lord Ashford, Sir Aubrey, Dame Cassidy, a minotaur noble called Leonardex." Osmond stopped with a frown and drew a breath. "Even as I speak, I'll bet'cha there's more turning up! Shall I continue your majesty?"

Helen shook her head. "I've heard enough. Thank you for your time good sir. I pray that you watch your back!" He asked her to come to his barn dance tonight but she politely refused. She watched him smile and walk away. "Gott helfe mich!" she swore in old Stornium. She looked up at Redhawk. "Surely this isn't because of Waytorn's abdication?"

"I don't know," Redhawk shrugged though his face was pale. "I received a message this morning that Sinclair is no longer the crime king and has been killed by Maseri. It's just become general knowledge now of Waytorn's abdication and of Sinclair's succession. Even as we speak the word is being spread that Maseri is the new crime king, but probably not for long if more contenders start to battle for the throne."

Nevada had chosen her strategy carefully. She would seduce one of her rival contenders and help him to come out on top and stay there long enough to get the crime network under control. Then she would strike and wrest control from him.

Waytorn had got away and it was probably better that way. As for Rades? Well, she supposed it was time to call off the killing spree. She'd get her vengeance once she was in control.

For now she would concentrate her efforts on the crime deputy called West who Terencio claimed to be a very good horseman and competing in the wall races. So she decided to pose as a Cherten rider and take her stallion, Fernando. It was so simple.

When she arrived at Fernando's stall however she recognized Ricardo lying on the ground a few stalls away. "Get up you stupid drunk!" she yelled in Escherten. He didn't move. In fact his chest wasn't moving at all. She walked over and wasn't entirely surprised or dismayed to find him dead. He wasn't that good and she'd never liked him anyway.

She shook her head and went back to Fernando's stall. Unlocking the gate she led the tall, fiery horse out and mounted him bareback. After all, she'd have to impress this West if she was to seduce him.

Athex was a huge city and it helped just to wander around for a day so you knew where everything was. Even then you couldn't see all of it, but you'd know enough not to get lost. There were the different districts, Southgate, Northgate, Westgate, Southport and Northport, and one did well to stay out of the latter two. The port districts were the worst for crime and the city patrols that went through there always ran into trouble. Southgate was mostly market, Northgate, expensive stores, plenty of estates and inns, and Eastgate was where most of the populous lived. Smack dab in the middle of everything was the Royal Palace of Athex with its pristine white marble walls and statued columns depicting past monarchs.

She nudged the horse out into the crowded Park Boulevard and looked around for a clear path through the crowded street. They really should create a general rule about where pedestrians and horses walk, not having the horses walk right over every second person's toes. She muttered an silent oath in Escherten and nudged the horse up behind a carriage that was making it's way through the street.

As she neared the carriage she nearly fell off Fernando's back when she saw Rades riding within. She bit her tongue to keep from swearing at the man and making a fool of herself. The carriage stopped suddenly outside the Drunken Dragon Tavern and Fernando nearly collided with the rear end of the carriage.

Rades jumped out and ran inside the building, returning a moment later with a keg of sarsaparilla. The chubby barkeep Billip followed him out, carrying a wooden platter filled with spiced ham, fresh raspberries, a small bottle of maple syrup and roasted corn. Nevada had never seen roasted corn before but she had to admit that it smelled delicious and that her mouth was watering. She found it odd that they even had ripe corn here this early in the summer.

The Graf tossed Billip a platinum coin and bade the driver to continue. Nevada followed, trying to stay out of sight and wishing she'd worn a little more than this new white blouse she'd bought yesterday and her plaid kilt which was in fashion this time of year, even though it was so damn hot outside. It was almost noon.

Her stomach rumbled and she remembered she still hadn't eaten since last night. Up ahead there was a vendor selling fresh bread and roasted pieces of spiced buffalo steak. She wondered how anyone could eat hot spices on a day like this but she quickly stopped and bought some anyway to soothe her growling stomach.

"Damn," swore Rades up ahead to the driver. "I forgot they closed up Grand Procession! We'll have to go down Londun Road past lady Bardelias' Estate!"

Nevada smiled. They were going to the beach in the Northport District. It was the only beach in Athex without going outside the city walls. It was obvious Rades disliked Lady Bardelias so perhaps she'd done him a favour in having the baroness murdered last night. Oh well, she could always send another cutthroat after Lord Osmond who everyone seemed to like.

She would have liked to see Rades' surprise when he found out Bardelias was dead, but she had to go east, not west, if she was to compete in the wall races. She headed down Eastgate Avenue and busied herself with studying Athex's collage of architecture. Being built before the Fall of Vormia, it had every type of architecture that was used in the past four thousand years, whether it be classical, domed, Vorminesque, Colnic, minaretic, Arthroque, or even Kinique. There was a Vorminesque revival about fifty years ago that had created a new style called New Vormique that made the city looked quite strange in a way with the big blocky buildings and thin minarets of all the different styles.

Up ahead she could see the walls of Athex. It was hard not to, they were after all over a hundred feet high and thirty feet thick, which isn't mentioning the hundred, fifty feet high towers that over looked each gate or the gate itself which was a sixty foot high, ten foot thick slab of solid granite that they had somehow managed to erect, creating one of the greatest architectural marvels of all time. The fact that they'd even found such a huge slab seemed impossible in its self, let alone stand it up on its side and use it as a gate. It took about half a hour to open and close the damn huge thing though how they did it was beyond her.

She passed by the colosseum and noted Terencio waiting in the huge line up to get inside and watch the festivities. Whoever owned the colosseum was going to make a huge profit, she thought as she peered down the street at the line of people that kept going until it disappeared in the distance. She wondered if the colosseum could even hold so many people.

The gates loomed ahead and she could see the horsemen already lined up for the wall races. The walls of Athex were thirty feet thick which meant at least six horses could ride along the parapets at a time. As she made her way up the long ramp to the top of the wall she overheard a pair of horsemen discussing the walls construction and she finally noticed that the ramp's top layer was dirt, not cobblestones.

"Wal, ye see, it's like dis. When da ol' Vormians built da vurst wall, dey thought it wuz big enough, but later, during dat last dynasty da emperor decid'd he want'd all da walls enlargen'd. Anyway, hez architecs said da most dey could do iz build a second wall around da city, so dey did. Den dey fill'd in the middle 'tween dem walls with dirt and rocks and whatever else dey could find. Probly der iz a lot of shit in der too! Dey had to put it somewhere, didn't dey? Eh?"

After she managed to figure out what the man was saying, Nevada looked down at the soil between her feet and smiled. The mainlanders were strange but smart. A thirty foot thick wall of dirt would stop any boulder hurled it's way.

The man continued to ramble on about the towers. He was from the highland, which was the area north of Athex which was where all these dancers and bag pipe players seemed to come from. With the exception of Rades who came from Stornium which was so far south it was almost a different world.

"Wal, hallo der missy!" said the highlander.

Nevada turned abruptly to face the man who was now riding beside her. She felt a moment of fear as she realized just how big he was. She smiled and her hand went inside her white blouse to where she had a dirk hidden. "Hello."

"Da name's West and might I add dat ye sure art purdy!" he said, grinning broadly and spitting out a wad of tobacco.

Nevada smiled, quickly working out what she should do. She was a fair bit surprised and she wished Terencio had told her more about this man. Especially his accent. "Nevada," she said with a smile.

"Good ta met'cha Nevada! Ye ain't from 'round dese parts, art ye?"

"No senor, I'm from Cherte."

"Cherte? Wal now, dat means yer lost! Ye'll have to get off dis ramp, cause we're 'bout ta hav da wall races, ye know?"

"No senor, I'm not lost. I plan on participating in the races-"

"Ye art? Wal now, surely ye don't think a fine lady like yerself should be taking part in dese races, do ye? It's not lady-like!"

"Fernando here is the best mount I've ever had and I'd hate to keep him from a race he is sure to win. Besides I'm probably a fair better rider than you are!"

"Oh, really? Wal missy, how's 'bout a wager? Loser treats da winner ta dinner at say... da Drunken Dragon?"

"Deal," said Nevada. This had been easier than she had thought it would be. Even if she lost, she'd be in a good position with West. She wondered how this man could actually be in position to be vying for the crime throne. He seemed so...honest.

Rades frowned and told the driver to stop outside Bardelias' estate. "Hey Osmond? What's going on here?" he demanded, pointing to all the people wearing black. "Doesn't anyone know black is the worst thing to wear when it's so damn hot?"

Osmond nodded, took off his black fedora and rubbed his forehead with an already soaked kerchief. "Bardelias was murdered this morning. That mass of gossip behind me are the mourners who've insisted on showing up for the funeral early," he sighed. "Amazing isn't it? The body's not even cold yet due to this heat and they've already shown up to gossip about the bitch!"

"I've heard you never liked her. Who's the new baron?" Rades grinned despite himself. No one had hated Bardelias more than he, with the possible exception of Osmond who had to tolerate her all his life.

"I am. She had no heirs since Torr died from the fever," he smiled and doffed his fedora at Kelly. "Good day Princess," he said politely.

Kelly shied away from him like a startled horse from a dog. She sat in the corner of the carriage seat with very wide eyes. Rades frowned and bent over to whisper in her ear. "It is customary for a Lady to offer her hand to a gentleman. Don't worry. Even if he did try something, I wouldn't let him hurt you." She smiled and edged closer. She offered her hand to Osmond.

Osmond glanced at Rades with a slight frown. He bent over and kissed the Princess's hand. She snatched her hand back quickly. "I see that her highness is still unused to the company of men. I shall try to fix that. Your highness, Rades, I'm inviting you to a barn dance tonight. We'll have highland dancers, bag pipers and fresh cider there. I hope you bring your bag pipes, Rades. I haven't had the chance to hear you play since the Ice War banquet." He nodded politely at Princess Kelly. "Have fun at the beach, I'll be here sweating buckets."

Rades nodded and waved as he sat back down in the carriage. "Drive on," he shouted to the driver. He turned to look at Kelly. "Do you want to go to the dance? It will be a lot of fun?"

Kelly thought for a moment. "There will be many men there?"

"Most likely, but nothing will happen that you need worry about. I'll be there to protect you as well."

Kelly nodded slowly. "Will you bring your bag pipes?"

"Of course."

Rodrigo was dressed in a silk jacket heavily embroidered gold thread, skintight pants and a montera hat. He looked very small down on the field, walking towards a snorting buffalo which weighed over sixty stone. Terencio had to admit his countrymen was very brave.

Laughing in the row in front of him caught Terencio's attention and he listened in closely. "Look at that fool," said the one dandy with a guffaw. "He's wearing red!" Terencio frowned. What's the big deal with red? "Doesn't that fool know that bulls hate red, let alone buffalo?" continued the dandy.

Terencio laughed so loudly he caught the attention of the dandy. "You mainlanders are so stupid! Bulls don't hate red! They're colour blind! What a bunch of morons you are! Bulls chase anything that moves you idiot! The damn cape could be blue and the bull would still chase it!"

The dandy flushed red. Terencio laughed harder. "Stop making your face go red boy, what if a bull sees you!"

"Do you want to step outside and discuss this-" The dandy stopped suddenly and looked down at the sword blade that disappeared below his chin. He could feel the very point of the weapon resting on his apple.

"What was that you were going to say boy?" asked Terencio still giggling.

"Nothing," the beleaguered dandy replied. His friends were laughing and joking behind his back.

"Good," said Terencio, his sword disappearing back into its sheath as quickly as it had come out. "Don't believe every fools story you hear from now on boy." He laughed and went back to watching the fight.

Rodrigo was just twirling the cape over the buffalo's head in a Veronica maneuver. Terencio admitted the old Cherten knew what he was doing. The beasts horns had come within inches of his heart and he hadn't flinched, but what he did afterwards was only for a very foolish man, or perhaps an expert matador. He gripped the beast's horns as it made it's pass and swung over the beast's back and landed on the other side.

Queen Veronica would have been proud of her people today. It was she that had founded the Kingdom of Cherte by uniting the entire island, and in celebration hosted the first bullfighting competition in the capitol. Her killers, or matadors as they were called in Escherten, had become icons of the Golden Age of Cherte. It would appear a new age was coming. A Platinum Age?

The buffalo was tiring, which meant it would soon be time for the matador to quit and let the picadors attack the beast with lances. Which meant it was time for Terencio to go down and kill Rodrigo. Though he was starting to have his doubts about killing such a brave, fellow countryman.

He started making his way down to the gate where Rodrigo would come through. The crowds were very thick down there because it was closer to the field and therefore easier to see what was going on. Terencio wondered just how many people were crammed into the colosseum.

The applause had become thunderous, meaning Rodrigo must be done since it was tradition to only applaud when the bull was actually doing a pass. Rodrigo's head came through the gate and disappeared into the crowd of cheering people. Terencio had to push to get through the teeming crowd. His ears hurt and he thought he was going to throw up. Rodrigo was nowhere in sight.

Someone grabbed his arm and pulled him into a doorway in the side of the building. He reached for a dagger and saw it Rodrigo pulling on his arm. He reached for the dagger again.

Rodrigo laughed. "Don't worry lad. I just want to say sorry. I was just doing my job, senor, you understand?" he shouted in Escherten.

Terencio paused and frowned, uncertain. Rodrigo could have killed him in the Drunken Dragon, could have killed him a dozen times since then, but he hadn't. He'd been paid to act as a distraction so Waytorn could get away and it had worked. He felt somewhat guilty for trying to kill his fellow countryman.

"Come on! Let's go toast the days events with a bottle of Cherten wine?"

Terencio nodded and smiled. He discovered that he liked Rodrigo, even envied him, despite himself.

The beach was a highly popular place to go. One could rent a boat and go fishing, build a sand castle, get a tan, go bathing or get robbed. Thieves were common on Athex's beach, and so there was a constant patrol of city guards along the beach, even then the crime was incredible. Today wasn't bad because Princess Darylinn had come to the beach. And so had half the Royal Guard, particularly those that were good swimmers.

Rades shielded his eye with his spitfire cap from the glare off the lake. "Drive over and we'll set up a picnic beside the Princess's entourage," he shouted to the driver. The old man nodded and clicked his tongue. The carriage rolled up beside the Royal Cabriolet and the Stornium hopped down to greet a sunburnt Captain Alfred. "Guten tag, Cap'n!"

"Hello there, Graf Rades," said Alfred with a grin. He looked inside the carriage at the Princess. "Good day, Princess Kelly. I'd advise not going out to far today. We seem to be getting a bit of an under-tow."

Kelly offered her hand to the Captain reluctantly. She glanced at Rades as the Captain took it and kissed her hand lightly. She tried not to show her fear by not snatching her hand back too quickly.

Rades smiled somewhat proudly. Though slowly, Kelly was starting to get reaccustomed to men. She tolerated Rades because he had always been kind to her, protective in many ways, and because there was something about Rades' music that seemed to calm her down, though Rades swore up and down that he couldn't understand why she so calm about noisy bag pipes as compared to say a flute or a piano, which she shied away from.

A pretty young maiden wearing a short kilt and a bathing-tunic, the latest fashion in swimwear, walked by. Rades suppressed the urge to whistle. There was no such thing as a public beach down in Deltex, let alone swimwear. If you felt too hot you simple went to that one spot of isolated beach that no one went to and swam nude. Here in Athex there were people everywhere, thus had beachwear become popular amongst the wealthy rather than getting their fine clothes wet.

How they kept the leather and suede from going solid in the water was beyond Rades. Mathex had tried to explain the oil in which the manufacturers dip the leather in, making the leather water resistant. By the time Mathex explained that water and oil don't mix, Rades was totally lost and was regretting he'd brought up the topic.

Nevertheless he'd bought a leather water-resistant kilt just this morning when he and Kelly had noticed a shop titled 'Tob's Swimwear'. He thanked Alfred for the advise and helped Kelly down from the carriage. She too had changed into a kilt and a bathing tunic, though Rades doubted she'd go that far out in the lake to actually need it. Kinian's tended to prefer skiing over swimming and very few actually knew how to swim.

He laid a buffalo skin blanket on the sand and took out the platters and the keg of sarsaparilla. The Stornium took a deep breath, savoring the smell of the roasted corn. "I'd say Billip did these to perfection, just like mutter used to!" His smile turned to a frown when he remembered his mother had died along with everyone else in Deltex.

Kelly, despite her timidness, was very observant. "I've never had roasted corn before. What's it taste like?"

"Corn silly! Only it's the best tasting corn you'll ever taste!" He drew a knife and opened the butter jar, taking out a fair bit and smothering it over the corn until the butter melted and soaked into the kernels. He sheathed the knife and offered her a cob. "Be careful," he warned. "They're still pretty hot!"

Kelly took the cob gingerly, melted butter dripping off the cob and sliding down her arm. She tried not to giggle and bit into the corn. It had an unusual sooty taste to it, yet every kernel was at peak ripeness and perfectly cooked so it was beyond delicious. She grinned and butter rolled down her chin and dripped onto her tunic.

Rades smiled at her, corn kernels stuck between his teeth. "I forgot to bring tooth picks," he grinned sheepishly. "But a little sarsaparilla will wash that out!"

Willium would have much preferred to be on the beach with his daughter, but instead he was stuck here in this accursed hot palace interrogating his would be assassin. Even then he was sitting back and letting Prince Nebonex do the talking. The young minotaur needed practice if he was to become the Minotaur Emperor, though Willium felt Nebonex could already fit the role adequately Nebonex still insisted he wanted to be the best damn emperor ever.

"Who sent you?" Nebonex asked for perhaps the hundredth time. The maiden refused to answer, in fact, she didn't appear to have even heard him.

"I wonder if she's a deaf mute," mused Gith, one of Willium's friends and the best damn advisor he'd ever had. "Or maybe she doesn't speak common. Escherten?"

The maiden looked up, somewhat startled.

"I'll be damned," swore Willium. "I didn't think Cherte would dare to risk war with the mainland, especially so soon after setting up diplomatic relations."

"You're forgetting all the other deaths today, Willium," Gith stated. "The war may have already begun."

"Go fetch the Cherten Ambassador," Nebonex shouted to one of the guards in the room. "Or at least someone who speaks Escherten!"

"Wal, Darlen', I must admit I wuz wrong, but ye don't need t' gloat o-ver it!" laughed West, sitting down across from Nevada. "And if ye gonna gloat, then gloat t' me money, 'cause I'm not a listen'n!"

"But of course you are!" snorted Nevada. She bent over the table, revealing her cleavage and kissing West on the cheek. "I'll have a bottle of Kinian Ambrosia and a platter of fried venison and roasted corn. I've been wanting to taste roasted corn!"

"Ambrosia! Whut d' ye take me fer woman! A damn prince?" shouted West, although he was smiling.

"Judging by the fact that you carry not one, but two heavy looking money pouches, yes I'd say you'd make a fine prince. Maybe even a King! Although your accent could use some work." Nevada had be careful here, she was skirting around the title of the Cutthroat King. "Besides I'm awfully thirsty after winning that race, plus I'd like to get my-I mean your money's worth!"

"Speaking of nobility, did ye hear about da new King Culprit?"

Nevada rolled her eyes up ward in feigned frustration. "That's all I seem to hear about these days! That or the fire in Avolic! I'm afraid I'm not really that concerned about some mainland thief. It doesn't effect me after all, and if you think about it, he mustn't be very good if everyone knows who he is."

"Not exactly, da crime network ez a huge industry and da King Culprit basically owns it. Can ye imagine how much money Waytorn gain'd out of it? He's so rich he can't even count it all!"

"Oh really? It must be interesting to be so rich!" Nevada noted Billip waddling through the crowd towards her booth. "Ambrosia!" she shouted to him as he got nearer.

"Ambrosia?" asked Billip. "Are you sure? You'll have to pay up front you know?"

West grumbled and reached for his money pouch. He pulled out a platinum coin and laid it on the table. "Dat should cover da entire meal," he said. "I'll have a buffalo steak, highlander style, and I'll have a small bottle of scotch."

Billip picked up the coin and turned to Nevada. "And you?" He inspected the coin to make sure it wasn't just platinum coated.

"I'd like some fried venison and roasted corn."

Billip looked at her weirdly. "I'm afraid roasted corn isn't on the menu. We're you here earlier when Graf Rades picked up his picnic meal?"

"Yes, I was on the horse behind his carriage."

Billip frowned. "That roasted corn was a favour for Rades playing here, but I'll see what I can do. I'll send a waitress out to tell you how it's coming, okay?"

"Okay." She watched him walk away, muttering to himself. "That's strange?" she said to West with a shrug. She tried not to think about what had just occurred. Something didn't fit and Billip seemed to know what it was. It couldn't be the corn, she was certain of that.

"Wal now, what might ye be doing tomorrow Darlen'? I'd like t' see some more of ye!"

"Oh really? Why wait until tomorrow? I'm not doing anything tonight and it's not safe for a lady to be out in streets at night. Not without a man by her side."

"Iz dat an invitation?" West demanded.

"Of course, but are you busy tonight?"

"I am now!"

Nevada smiled and kissed him on the cheek. He was caught now! All she had to do was coax him.

Rades looked around Osmond's barn and had to admit this was going to be a damn good party, even though he and Kelly were early and most of the people hadn't arrived yet. In fact some of the servants were still setting up the cider barrels.

It was a fairly new barn from what Rades could tell, no animals had yet been kept in it and from what he remembered Dillard saying about barn dances, they only occurred when someone built a new barn. There were still saw dust and wood chippings on the floor left by the carpenters and constructors. Rades wouldn't be surprised if the water pipes for the horses still hadn't been installed, which would be necessary in this heat.

Lord Osmond ran over to join Rades at the door. "How was the beach? While you were out there swimming I was here sweating like a pig in a stove, trying to think of times when I actually got along with Bardelias."

"And?" prompted Rades.

"I couldn't find one. I swear she and I were like oil and water!" he laughed and turned to Kelly. "Your Highness," he said, bowing. "Your very presence does my horse barn honour, though whether the horses will care I do not know!" he said with a grin as he stood back up. "Enjoy yourselves, I'll be back in a moment," he said, walking away hurriedly.

"Now that wasn't so bad, was it?" asked Rades, giving her a comforting hug around the shoulders. He looked around the barn. "It's not the royal palace, I'll admit, but this is the cleanest barn I've ever seen. Has a kind of homely feel to it, what with all this oak? Don't you think?"

Kelly nodded. She knew Rades was trying to get her to relax, but she couldn't. There was just so many of them. Everywhere she looked there were more and more of them, and they kept arriving! She felt a moment of panic when a group of five dandies showed up laughing and poking fun at their one friend, calling him the Red Matador. What that was supposed to mean, she could not guess.

Rades tugged her over to a less populated portion of the barn where a group of highland dancers were preparing to dance. She was more than happy to be away from the bulk of the population. "I wish my sister was here," she murmured. Rades was okay, but Kerry and Kelly were twins and loved each other more than the world itself. Kelly had always been the sensible one, watching over her sister and Kerry the one to take chances, getting into trouble consistently. Now Kelly only wished Kerry was there to help her through this tough time.

Osmond stridded over, wiping his brow with a soaked rag. "If only we could save all that cold from winter for when we need it in the summer. I could use a nice cold snow ball fight right about now!" He grinned and motioned Rades and Kelly to an Arthian Oak table. He took a bun from the basket of fresh bread on the table, dipped in into a bowl of maple syrup on it and dug his teeth into it.

Kelly's mouth watered at the smell so she hastily grabbed a bun and dipped it in the maple syrup. The smell was driving her crazy as she bit into it and chewed. She relaxed and ate contentedly. Ah, this was the life!

One of the dancers looked familiar to Rades and he looked closer. Yup, it was the girl from the beach. My god, if only every woman in the world was as beautiful as she! Quit shaking your ass girl, he thought, you're making me dizzy!

"I hope you brought your bag pipes, Rades," Osmond muttered between a bite. "I'd really like to hear you play!"

"So you've told me," said Rades, only half listening, most of his attention on the dancer's hips. He shook his head and broke from his trance. He smiled at Osmond sheepishly. "Being new to the world of nobility, could you introduce a new Graf to your guests?"

"Of course," said Osmond, pointing his bun at the dancer for starters. "That girl you've been staring at is my cousin, Rebeka." Rades nodded and memorized the name instantly. "Over there is ol' Pete Farley, he isn't nobility, but he does run my cattle ranch to the south of Athex. Behind him is Lord Alison and that red-haired fellow beside him is Sir Alroy, Alison's bodyguard. Over by the cider barrel is Lord Somhairle, Sir Marton, Sir Garfield, Baron Garvey, Lord Stanfield, and the ol' Count is Hugo Skelly." Osmond frowned. "That's funny! I've never seen the fella behind ol' Skelly before! I'll go talk to him!" He laughed. "I can't introduce you to someone I haven't been introduced to!"

Rades nodded and watched him go. His gaze switched however when Rebeka danced by his table, her eyes catching his. "You're making me dizzy," he said, smiling up at her.

She grinned. "Why don't you play your bag pipes Graf Rades?"

"I doubt anyone could keep up with the lively tune I'm anxious to play right now."

She smiled and shook her head. She stopped dancing and her grin curled into a frown. She stared behind Rades and the Graf couldn't help but turn his head to see what she was staring at.

Old Skelly was lying dead in a puddle of blood beside Osmond who had a gaping hole in his chest. The Baron was desperately trying to keep the blood from flowing between his fingers. He stared above him at the stranger with his sword in hand.

Rades' reaction was incredible. Kelly knew that he had changed since the Ice War, before he'd always been a haphazard fighter, now he was a sharpened killer. His new sword flew from his scabbard before he probably even realized it and he threw it handle over hilt towards the stranger. The brilliant blade flashed beautifully and imbedded itself up to the hilt in the stranger's chest.

Kelly had seen Rades kill before and although she never got over it, she was used to it. Everyone else screamed and rioted. Rebeka standing beside her screamed briefly and burst into tears. She grabbed Kelly and began sobbing uncontrollably on the Princess's shoulder. Not knowing what else to do she put her arms around her and tried to comfort her.

Rades was kneeling beside Osmond, helping him to stop the flow of blood that just seemed to keep coming. He didn't remember sprinting across the room, or even killing the stranger. Everything was going too fast!

"Rades!" shouted Derick, running up and kneeling beside the Graf. He tore the arm off his silk tunic, ripped it in strips and started to wrap it tightly around Osmond's chest. "Mop up that blood!" he ordered Rades.

A lifetime in the army had sharpened Rades to the point that he didn't stop to argue. He knew that stopping to argue would mean he'd only get in the way. His eyes caught Osmond's as he wiped the splattered blood from the Baron's forehead. "You'll be okay. I've seen worse." He had seen worse, but that didn't mean the owners had lived to tell about it.

"Of course he'll live!" muttered Derick. "The blood is just making the hole look bigger than it really is!" Already Derick had managed to bind the baron's chest to the point that the flow of blood was lessening. He ripped the other arm off his shirt and continued to bind the wound. "Lord Redhawk lost twice this much and you saw him just this morning!" he said to Osmond with a reassuring grin.

"Who was that guy?" Rades demanded, pointing at the stranger, lying dead on the floor. He frowned when he saw the man's sword. It was similar to Rades' new one.

"A Cherten. Domingo, Dominco, something like that!"

Rades shook his head. "Nevada," he muttered.

You can buy The Paladin Assassin ($3.99), Ice War ($4.99) and King Culprit ($4.99) on Amazon Kindle. Or buy the whole set for $9.99.

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