Alpine and Anladet were escorted to the dungeon underneath the garrison by Captain Raines with the duke in tow. Al beseeched the duke to ask Silfa about their time in the woods. She would explain it. She’d exonerate them. The duke ignored them.

They were put in the cell closest to the guard’s station. It was fully made of iron bars and was open to face the jailer’s table, like the one across from it. The rest were only barred where they would open. The door was closed, but not locked, and the Duke left for some time.

“What are we going to do?” Al asked Anla.

“I don’t know, Al,” she said.  She always had an ace up her sleeve, should things get very bad, but she didn’t want to use it at this point.  Nor would she remind Al for fear of him getting upset about it again.

When the duke returned, he ordered the turning out and searching of their packs and sat back as he supervised.

“Where is this scrap of material?” the Duke asked Al. “Surely you would have kept it?”

“We lost it,” he said. “Somewhere in the woods.”

“How unfortunate,” he said dryly.

He thought about asking the duke to have someone follow the trail to find the sun carved in the tree, but stopped himself. It didn’t matter. It would only prove that a sun had been carved in a tree, not that the group who had done it was a Magrithon cult.

“What’s this?” the duke asked, holding up the little man carved from wood..

“Lady Silfa made that for me. I don’t know if its supposed to be me or not. She made it out of…” he tapped his chin with his thumb, “silver outoak, I believe. I don’t know trees very well so I assume the lady was telling the truth.”

The duke looked stunned. “My daughter made this for you?”

“Yes, while we were out in the woods, like I said earlier. She was quite helpful. She could light a fire better than I could. I thought it was strange that a noblewoman like herself would be skilled in forestry, but whatever got me out of fiddling with the damn thing.” He sat down on the floor and turned to look at Anladet. “I don’t suppose you have the gag or rope from when you cut her free, do you?”

Anladet wasn’t looking at Al. She looked beyond him at the duke and nodded at him.

“What else did she know?”

Alpine looked back at the duke and was surprised to see him close to the bars, looking directly at him. “She knew all the names of the plants in the forest. She pointed at a few and would say whether they’re good in tea or for healing. She knew which fruits were safe for eating and which were poisonous. May I ask why? The forest doesn’t seem like a standard primer for royals.”

“’A noble must know everything within the boundaries of his land. He must live as the poorest of his people before he can be the richest.,’” the duke said, just above a whisper.

Al turned completely. “That’s from Tichen’s The Golden Lands. You subscribe to his philosophy?”

“Wholeheartedly. Some day, one of my daughters will rule these lands, with her husband as the duke. To rule effectively, you must know what and who you are ruling.” He looked away for a moment, then beckoned the captain of the guard back over. “Fetch Silfa,” he said quietly.

The duke turned back to his two prisoners. “What else did she do?”

Al thought about this for a few moments. “She liked ‘dressing our wounds’, as she put it. We actually didn’t have anything worse than some scratches, but she still felt the need to bandage them with some cloth I had.” He moved his leg over to show a scrap of linen around his calf that had been tied in a bow. “She knew what all the animals were called, even the birds.”

“The shelter,” Anladet interrupted.

“Oh, yes, she helped us with the shelter the night we were in the forest before we reached Deshka. We were afraid the kidnappers might find us so we concealed our shelter. She knew the knots to tie the rope together, to lash the wood to make a convincing bush. They did find us, two of them at least, and I think we would have been caught if she hadn’t done that. If I may say so, Your Grace, your daughter is quite intelligent.”

Alpine was about to say something else when he heard the sound of running on the cement floors. A clean and polished Lady Silfa, her hair tied back in a pink ribbon and dressed in a light gray dress, entered the dungeon just ahead of the captain of the guard. “Daddy!” she exclaimed, running to him.

The duke picked her up in a tight embrace, kissing her temple and smoothing her hair before putting her back down. “Daddy’s being the Duke of Sharka right now.”

Silfa obediently curtseyed low. “May I see Al and Anla?” she asked.

“If you would like,” he said, nodding to the captain to open the cell and stepping back to watch what she did.

His daughter ran into the open cell and hugged both of them. “Does this mean you’re going to stay here? Dad, can we find better rooms for them?”

A smile quirked on the duke’s face for a moment. “Wizard Gray and Miss Anladet were just telling me how helpful you were in the woods.”

“We had so much fun! We got to go camping, like we do in the summertime, only we had to be quiet. We didn’t want the men who had stolen me to find me.”

Al dared a glance at the duke. His eyes were watery and he blinked a few times before looking at the two prisoners. “Silfie, please go find your governess. She’ll need to begin your studies again.”

After Silfa left, Duke Frenrell sat at the table and drummed his fingers against the wood. “Truly, it was a cult of Magrithon?”

“Truly, Your Grace. I wish it could be otherwise. I understand it will be difficult to root them out and eradicate them.”

He nodded. “I suppose I owe you an apology, then. You have it.”

There was a long pause when no one said anything. Finally, Alpine broke it. “Your Grace, about the reward…”

The duke blew his breath out slowly. “I do regret that I cannot give it to you.”

Al looked at Anladet quickly, then back at Frenrell. “Your Grace, I believe the deal was the safe return of your daughter for two thousand gold and various pieces of jewelry and gems. Did one of us read the signs incorrectly?”

“No, that is what was advertised. I mean to say that the reward I promised was beyond what I can afford to give at this moment. I would be more than happy to outfit your next adventure and repay you for any expenses accrued on your trip.”

Al couldn’t help but frown. Anladet wore a flat and sour look that made it seem like she had almost expected it. “Your Grace, it’s true that we’re fond of your daughter. She was a treasure to be with during the last few days. But, we did risk our lives to save her. The reason why we took up the cause was that we felt the risk was worth the reward.

“But now you’re saying there is no reward, that we risked our lives for nothing. Well, that seems to contradict what we were discussing earlier.”

“And what is that?” the duke asked, his tone dangerous.

“Tichen’s first postulation on ruling oneself, whether as a king or a pauper, is that your word is your gold. It is the finest currency you can create and can be worth more than a country’s treasury if you cultivate it well. It would not bode well if word of this were to reach the ears of your people and your peers.”

What am I to do?” he yelled, slamming his fists on the table so suddenly that they both jumped. “If I pay you, I would beggar my duchy and encourage others to try this again. If I don’t, I go against everything I believe in, everything I’ve worked so hard to create.”

Al didn’t think that, though two thousand gold was a sizable amount of money, it was going to beggar the duchy. Perhaps the money was earmarked for repairs from the massive storm that just cut through. Or maybe the duchy was in worse shape than he thought. Either way, they weren’t going to get what had been promised.

He sat back against the bars, his hands folded over his stomach.  He had no intention of leaving without something, and what the duke had suggested was far below what they should be getting.  Was there another option?

Al sat up quickly. “Perhaps we can come to an arrangement? As far as the sundries, I don’t think we were interested…” Alpine stopped when Anladet put her hand on his forearm.

“I only wanted one piece, Your Grace,” she said. “The necklace with the teardrop pearl and the four anuisse stones.”

“Really? But that one is the l…” He closed his mouth quickly. “Fine. It’s yours. And about the gold?”

“Neither of us were expecting to take all of it with us right now. It would seem foolish to carry so much money with us. Though I’m sure the fine city of Hanala has little crime, we would be begging to be robbed. If you were to provide the paperwork, we could take a portion now and a portion for each of the following years. Say, two hundred gold upfront, each? Two hundred per year for four years?”

“You would do that?” the duke asked. “Trust me, that is?”

“Your Grace, I believe we have no choice. Either we’re walking away with a little money and a pat on the back, or we’re walking away with a portion and a promise from a man whom I believe would keep his word if possible.”

“I suppose that is a fair way of looking at the situation.”

“And one other thing. We would like a favor from you.”

“Name it and I will try to see it made a reality.”

“It will be owed, Your Grace.”

The duke’s eyebrow furrowed. “No, that I cannot allow…”

“The favor would be in line with Tichen’s teachings. We wouldn’t make you do anything that would besmirch you or your duchy, nor put either in harm’s way.”

“If it is, I have the right to deny your request.” When Al nodded, Duke Frenrell shook both of their hands. “I think we’ve reached a deal.”

* * *

The duke allowed Alpine and Anladet the full use of his servants. Their clothes were thrown away, burned if Al knew what was best for the fate of the city. ThedDuke gifted both three sets of traveling wears. They stayed in the palace for two days, eating rich meals with the duke and his family. And, of course, they spent time with their new, favorite lady.

As the duke promised he would, he drew up a bank contract and signed it with a seal for the annual release of funds. He gave them each a sack with two hundred gold from various duchies, some being worth more than others. At that point, Alpine understood their welcome was growing tepid and he didn’t want to see it become cold.

They left from the same side gate, eschewing any fanfare the Duke had wanted to bestow upon them. Once they were safely beyond the stone wall that lined the ducal palace, Anladet turned to Al. “Thank you, for all of that. Everything. I mean it.”

“You’re welcome. I’m glad it worked out well in the end.”

She gave him a crooked smile. “Now that we’re out of earshot, where did you learn to argue like that? It’s like you’ve been negotiating with nobles your whole life.”

“My parents were thinking about sending me to Enshewer University, to become a lawyer. I begged them to enroll me in Amandorlam instead, convinced them thoroughly. Looking back, I suppose I should have listened to them. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t have learned anything new.”

They walked down several streets until Anladet turned to him, laughing. “Do you have any idea where we’re going?”

“I was just about to ask that. Where to? I am now rich and without a care in the world.” His smile dropped. “Mind telling me why you chose to bind me to you, now that this is all done?”

Her smile tightened. “I think you can gather what happened to me. I wouldn’t be living on the streets, hand-to-mouth, if my parents were still alive. My siblings and I made our way to Hanala and lived as best as we could. They’ve all disappeared. I want to find them and bring my family together again. I thought it would be easier with a wizard, or at least someone else.”

“Okay,” he said. “Do you have anyway to find them?”

“I hear their voices sometimes, at least Garlin and Raidet’s. That’s the only way I know to find them, though perhaps you have some other ideas.”

“I have nothing better to do. Let’s find them. Which way?”

Anladet closed her eyes and breathed in. She listened and heard nothing, but remembered where she had heard Raidet’s voice before. “North,” she said.

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