Scarlet Jewel

Book 5 in the Chronicles of the Dragon-Bound

In the world of the dragon-bound: After a long and distinguished career protecting the dragon-bound king and queen of Landly, General Scarlet finds himself languishing in retirement. On a winter holiday night, Estretta Vaughn appears at his door with a problem—her daughter is missing. Happy to help the attractive woman, Scarlet quickly finds the case is more than a simple disappearance. Estretta, a gifted Newham Institute professor, offers both help and a challenge. Their search turns up the name Burros Wiles, a member of Tazzelton’s shadowy underworld. Both Scarlet and Estretta face swords, seduction, arson, and kidnapping. But Scarlet’s greatest challenge lies in his own long-hidden fears.

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Praise for Scarlet Jewel (Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh, March 2020)

 Well, I’ve fallen in love again. This time with General Scarlet in Scarlet Jewel, a fantasy by William L. Culbertson. This book is the fifth of six in the series Chronicles of the Dragon-Bound. Scarlet, a recent widower, is retired from his service to King Dax of West Landly. He was head of the king’s personal guard. Now at loose ends and not enjoying retirement, he’s intrigued when a late-night knock at his door brings Estretta Vaughn into his life. Her married daughter has disappeared, and Estretta needs help.

Scarlet, small of stature and seemingly mild-mannered, is whip-smart and, even at his age, probably the deadliest swordsman in the land. Estretta has come to the right place. But no helpless damsel she, Estretta has a depth of character that’s easily as interesting as Scarlet’s.

We get to watch as they work to unravel the problem of Arpetia’s disappearance and the unexpected problem of relating to each other.

Start reading: Chapter 1

Scarlet pondered the sunset from the balcony outside his second-floor study. The wind off the Western Ocean was icy. The chill seeped too easily into his old bones these days. He used to think it invigorating, but the wind ruffling his thinning gray hair tonight had too much bite. The sun was setting behind the king’s castle this night of the wintertide solstice, the darkest night of the year, a metaphor for his life since retirement.

Ah, but the king! With his wineglass he toasted the health of the kingdom’s ruler, King Darius Ambergriff XII, now in his second year on the throne.

A small man, Scarlet was deadly quick with a sword. For years he had worked in that same castle, protecting his friend Dax, the former king, and his queen. Scarlet had retired when they had stepped down from the throne. He was proud of his years of service to the crown. It was his legacy to the kingdom. But here he stood this eventide, watching the sunset while others ran the kingdom. His life was much more relaxed now. Tranquil—and tedious.

He took a sip of his wine and sighed with pleasure. Excellent. He held the glass up so it caught the last rays of light, and admired the deep-red color. Over the years, he had learned to appreciate a good glass of wine, but the first taste always held the most pleasure. The rest of the bottle awaited him inside. Yes, a bottle of wine in his warm study—a good evening. Dusk, with its winter chill, was not a time for an old man to linger out of doors.

As he turned to go inside, a movement on the street caught his eye. Tazzelton’s thoroughfares bustled with holiday traffic, mainly carriages, coaches, and horse-drawn cabs carrying people to the holiday’s traditional family gatherings. But one cab swerved out of the procession and drew up at the residential entrance to his home. A figure got out. Man or woman? There were mannish trousers below a warm full-length cloak, but a swirl of long, dark hair showed from under the brim of a brown hat. A small pack hung from the person’s shoulder.

A visitor? On this festive eve? He knew it was not family—the figure was too tall for either of his children, and besides, they no longer lived in the city of Tazzelton. Kort was a banker on the isle of Butterock, and Mariel and her husband lived far to the east in Frohliem City. Nor was it likely any of his friends. They were all celebrating with their own children on this night of family parties. Whoever it was, Scarlet would have to go downstairs to answer the door himself. He had given his assistant, Merrit Fennish, the day off, and Scarlet was alone in the front part of the house.

The staccato series of raps was on its third repetition when Scarlet opened the door. “Yes?” he inquired politely. He had to raise his voice to be heard over the barking of his neighbor’s wretched dog.

“I desire to speak with the master of the house—a General Scarlet.” Although the visitor’s face was shadowed by the hat rimmed with the light of the setting sun, the smooth, contralto tones were those of a woman.

“Who shall I say is calling?” Scarlet smiled inwardly. Much about a personality could be revealed in the way people treated servants.

The woman pulled off her hat, leaving a disordered swirl of hair around her head. “My name is Estretta Vaughn.” She shook out her hair and impatiently used her left hand to clear the locks away from her handsome face. She had strong features and blue eyes, but those eyes were troubled. “I would like to speak with the general about—” Her voice caught, and she looked away. “About my daughter. She’s . . . missing. Missing these last five months.”

She was taller than he was, but so were most people. Now that he could see her face clearly, Scarlet judged the woman to be in her forties—midforties, say. “And how old is your daughter?”

The woman studied him for a moment before she asked, “General, could I come in? It’s cold out here.”

“Yes. Yes, it is.” He blinked at the unexpected recognition as well as the reminder of the temperature. He backed away from the door and invited her in. “I apologize for not making you comfortable at the outset.” After she walked past him into the foyer, he closed the door. “Let me take your coat and things.” He offered a hand, and she gave him the pack. A moment later she shed her coat. He hung them in the alcove beside the door.

“In here, if you will,” he said, gesturing for her to precede him into the parlor. “I’m afraid you have the advantage of me, madam,” he continued, “for you have recognized me, yet I cannot recall having met Estretta Vaughn.”

There was a fire in the fireplace, and she went to warm her hands. She looked back over her shoulder. “We have not met. I assumed you must be the master of the house since a servant would not wear a lounging jacket and soft slippers to answer the door.” She smiled. “You were also described to me.”

Scarlet pushed a chair over in front of the fire and offered it to her. After he pulled another chair nearby for his own use, he sat down and looked at her curiously. “Yes, and you are concerned about your daughter. I’m not sure how I can help, since I no longer serve the kingdom of Landly in any official capacity.”

“Bindle Treyhorn sent me to you. She mentioned you were retired, but she said that was all the more reason I should talk to you. You have the time to take me seriously.”

“Ah, madam.” He arched his eyebrows and nodded respectfully, but he could not resist. The corner of his mouth twitched to a hint of a smile. “I would always take you seriously, even if Bindle hadn’t sent you.”

She pursed her lips disapprovingly. “She also mentioned you were an unrepentant little flirt.”

Her retort made him smile. “The very words she used the last time I saw her.” He shifted and cleared his throat. “Not that I wouldn’t willingly bandy words with you in front of the fire, but your concern is about your daughter? You said she’s been missing for five months?” He asked his earlier question again. “How old is your daughter?”

“Arpetia, that’s my daughter, is twenty-five.” Her expression had turned serious again. “She wrote me every month without fail until now. It’s been five months since I received her last letter.” Estretta gripped her hands together in her lap as if she were afraid to trust herself with a gesture. “And my last two letters to her were returned unopened.”

“Is she married? Betrothed?”

“I’m sorry. I should have given you the facts at the start.” She sighed and shook her head regretfully. A lock of hair fell forward onto her face, and she pushed it impatiently back behind her ear. “Arpetia is an instructor at Tazzelton’s School of the Goddess in Her Rational Aspect. She has been at the school for two years now, after doing advanced work at the Newham Institute of Rational Studies. That’s where I teach, by the way.”

Scarlet nodded as he took in the information. “Does Arpetia have a beau? Could there be, um, some other explanation for her lack of correspondence?”

“Udeous Wiles.” She snarled the name. “And she married him.” Scarlet did not react, but he saw a fiery temper lurking beneath Estretta’s sophisticated appearance. “She met him six months after she took the job in Tazzelton,” she continued. “A month later, they were married.”

“And you disapprove.” He stated the obvious.

She gave a curt, confirmatory nod along with a sniff of contempt.

Scarlet stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I know of a Burros Wiles who lives here in Tazzelton. Would Udeous be his son perhaps?”

“Yes, Burros is Udeous’s father.” She nodded as she spoke, then frowned. “I haven’t met the family, but I’m suspicious. Arpetia said they are well-to-do, but I’ve done some checking on my own.”

He raised his eyebrows skeptically. “From Newham?” Hearing the doubt in his tone, she gave him a stern, hard-eyed look. Yes, a teacher for certain. Scarlet thought the observation amusing, but he kept his face carefully neutral.

She leaned forward. “There are many in Newham who keep close watch on what transpires in the royal capital.” Her eyes were still hot. “I also correspond with several other scholars here in Tazzelton, and they have made inquiries on my behalf.” She shifted in her chair, and her challenge faded. She looked away uncertainly. “I’ve received suggestions that Burros is engaged in businesses that are dubious in nature.”

“I’ve heard that as well.” His eyes drifted to the window, and he steepled his fingers thoughtfully under his jaw. “I have not met him myself, but Burros does some sort of commerce in the city.” He tapped his fingers together and admitted, “As for what dubious means, I have no idea. Only innuendos.”

She frowned and sighed. “I haven’t been able to glean any details about either of the Wileses, but I do not like the hints.” She twisted her hands together in agitation, then looked up at him challengingly. “Do you think I’m being an overcautious mother?” She flipped her hand as if to casually shrug off her worries. “After all, if I waited in Newham for only five months before I set out for Tazzelton, there could have been a letter in the month I’ve been traveling.” She imitated indifference, but at the end she looked dispiritedly down at the floor.

While Scarlet might have been inclined to agree with that assessment, he could see Estretta’s concerns were quite real to her. His acceptance would keep her talking. “From what you have said of the regularity of your daughter’s habits, five months is a long time not to have written. Plus, there are the returned letters.” He nodded. “I understand your worry.” He understood it even if he did not fully agree with it. Newlyweds found many ways to fill their time.

She looked up at him. Her eyes glistened with emotion. “Bindle says you know your way around the city and could help me find where she lives.” She sighed and looked down for a moment before she met his eyes again. “Bindle also said you would know where to go and whom to talk to if I need more assistance. Please, General. Will you help me?”

Estretta appeared to be a strong woman, but her obvious concern for her daughter touched him. A damsel in distress had always been a weakness for Scarlet. Since his retirement, he had used his contacts with the authorities to help several people. With his wife, Attella, gone now these last four years, he had precious little to do. “Madam Vaughn—Professor Vaughn, I should say.” Scarlet nodded to her respectfully. “I am hopeful your daughter is well and it is only circumstance that has prevented her correspondence.” He smiled gently. “But to put your mind at rest, I will be happy to make inquiries on your behalf.”

This time she gave him a smile full of pleasure, an impressive smile. It lit up her face. Yes, Estretta Vaughn was attractive, but she had presented him a problem, a puzzle to solve. He had been too long without a challenge.

“I have money,” she offered eagerly. “I can pay.”

He waved dismissively. “That’s scarcely necessary. The king’s pension and my other investments have left me comfortable. For no more effort than it should take to set your worries aside, I would be embarrassed to have Bindle find out I charged you anything.”

She smiled again. “I’m sorry to call so late on a holiday eve. Can we meet tomorrow?” she asked. “I would like to go with you when you”—she waved her hand uncertainly—“do whatever it is you do.” She sighed with relief, stood up, and readied herself to leave. “Could you direct me to a good inn? I’m fresh off the ship Merry Winds out of Bington. We were late to port, but I came to you first.”

“Could I offer you a place to stay?” he ventured. His home was one of Tazzelton’s stately old residences that had plenty of spare rooms in the guest wing. “I have more than enough private sleeping quarters in this house to put up a scholar from Newham.” He smiled and gestured toward the students’ residence wing. “I could also offer you a room in one of the small student apartments. We keep a hostel for a few of the young people who come to Tazzelton to study at the Goddess’s school.” He kept his smile pleasant, although the mention of his late wife’s favorite project gave him a pang of loneliness. He loved the program, and it honored Attella’s memory to maintain it. “Mrs. Haymount looks after both the rooms and the students. Four of the six apartments are in use at present, so there would certainly be space for you.” He made a nod of a bow. “You would be most welcome in this house or the student apartments—whatever you find most comfortable. I will also be happy to recommend a good inn if you prefer.” No, he would not be happy to recommend an inn, but it was proper to offer.

“I—I really hadn’t expected such generosity.” She looked around uncertainly. “Except for my pack, the rest of my things are still aboard—”

“Then I shall arrange for them to be brought up.” He indicated the house around him. “What hospitality may I show you?”

#

Once Scarlet had summoned his housekeeper and houseboy, he placed Estretta’s comfort in their care. Finished with the unexpected guest, he climbed the stair back to his study. Another investigation? And why not? He had helped out Mary Maysfield last spring. That little enterprise had taken him somewhat far afield, all the way to Frohliem City. In the end he had been satisfied that getting the duke to acknowledge his bastard offspring had been the right thing to do. Sweet Mary and her young son would have a much easier time of it now with financial support from the duke.

He settled into his favorite chair with a sigh. Professor Vaughn had brought a breath of vivacious freshness to a lonely holiday evening. Instead of spending his time avoiding thoughts about the rest of the city’s celebration, she had presented him with a test. Maybe a puzzle, but at least a novelty.

A novelty? General Scarlet, the Scarlet Blade of Iron Moor, the King’s Shield, needed something new in his life? He smiled sardonically. He had always been one to instigate new experiences even after he and Attella had married. When had he become such a fusty old introvert? Had the years of responsibility worn him down like a boulder in the pounding surf?

And of course he had always liked women. He had grown up in a bawdy house surrounded with and looked after by women. As a young man, he had cut a wide swath enjoying the physical charms of many young lasses. However, once he had met Attella, he had been more than willing to settle down to the comfort of sharing life with a loving woman. And now an attractive professor from Newham had come to him for help.

His wineglass was still on the side table where he had left it. He savored the swallow that was left. So, where to begin this inquiry? The wine bottle was nearby, and he reached for it. He pulled the cork and inhaled the pleasant aroma. He started to tip the bottle, intending to pour himself another glass, but stopped. The first glass had been good. He still felt its warm glow. Usually he had a second glass, even a third, before he went to bed. However, he had promised Estretta he would make inquiries in the morning. More wine would make him late to arise and leave him at less than his best.

Scarlet set the bottle down and smiled. You are getting old and much too fond of the wine if you can’t change your routine for the sake of a woman, he chided himself. Without the comfort of the extra wine’s deceitful self-confidence, he sat for a while and pondered his first steps.

#

Did you have an agreeable night, Professor Vaughn?” Scarlet was waiting in his study the next morning when Estretta came upstairs after her breakfast. Lusa, his housekeeper, had come up moments before to alert him. Without the extra wine last night, he had risen earlier than his accustomed hour. He did not want to appear a slugabed to the canny woman. “I trust the staff made you comfortable?”

She smiled at him as she sat down. “Yes, thank you.”

“And the breakfast, was it to your liking?”

Now she frowned. “General Scarlet, sir, I appreciate your concerns about my well-being, but I would like to take up the matter of my daughter’s disappearance as soon as possible, if you don’t mind?”

“As you will, madam, but please, just call me Scarlet.”

“Then you must call me Estretta.”

“Nothing would please me more.”

She looked at him archly. “Are you going to continue talking like one of those stuffy old court dandies? Bindle said you were a person I could deal with directly.”

Her challenge echoed his own self-doubts from the night before so accurately that it made him smile. “Sorry. Force of habit, I’m afraid. Pretending to be a pampered, hot-house posy encourages the superficial to take me lightly.” He leaned back in his chair and propped his left foot up on a nearby stool. Several sheets of foolscap and a quill pen lay on the adjacent end table. He picked up the quill. “Since most people will be laggard to work after the holiday last night, I thought I would interview you and have your whole story this morning. You won’t mind if I take some notes, will you?” He started to arch his eyebrows questioningly, but he stopped himself. He smiled lopsidedly and started again. “I’m going to take notes, like it or not, so let’s get on with it.”

She smiled back, but quickly became serious as Scarlet led her through a complete recounting of her daughter’s life. Arpetia had been born in Tazzelton during Estretta’s tempestuous three years of marriage to Athios Vaughn. Retreating to her academic refuge at the Newham Institute of Rational Studies after their divorce, Estretta had raised her daughter in the intellectual community at Newham. Two years ago Arpetia, then twenty-three, had left home to take a teaching position at the Tazzelton school. There she had encountered the dashing, thirty-year-old Udeous Wiles and had plunged into a precipitous marriage. The couple had taken up residence here in Tazzelton. Arpetia had written a series of rapturous letters about her new husband, but the couple had not journeyed to Newham for any personal introduction. And now the letters had stopped.

“Arpetia’s besotted praise for Udeous notwithstanding, the man does not have a regular job but does chores for his father. She had all kinds of rationalizations, but Udeous was out of the house most evenings.” She sniffed contemptuously. “He has the habits of a weasel, if you ask me.”

Nodding absently as he wrote, Scarlet observed, “Much like his father then.”

Estretta frowned. “Bindle said something like that, only she called the old man a serpent.”

Scarlet smiled. “Being in charge of the safety of the royal family, I only ran across the name Burros Wiles in passing.” He waved his hand vaguely. “Dirty money from shady businesses down at the docks—the sort of thing we left to the city’s peace wardens.” Lest he get distracted by the father-in-law, he returned to the subject of Estretta’s daughter. “And you say your daughter wrote you regularly?”

“Yes, at least one letter a month. She sent them by King’s Post, and they came by packet boat up the Silver River.” She took two letters from her handbag and handed them to Scarlet. “Here are the last two.”

Scarlet scanned them quickly, noting the firm yet feminine hand. In a moment he asked, “Udeous was leaving for a trip to the Redbush Barrens?”

“She had mentioned two other trips he had taken there as well. After they were married, they acquired a house here in Tazzelton. My daughter didn’t say, but I think Burros bought it for them. Anyway, Arpetia did most of the work setting up their household. Udeous took trips for his father, and he was gone a lot. Even when he was home, he spent most of his days and evenings at his father’s businesses.” She sniffed disdainfully. “From what she says—and does not say—I suspect he spent his evenings at the gaming tables.” She nodded at the letters. “She had mentioned his good fortune several times, but she also once wrote how they needed luck enough to pay expenses. That sort of thing.”

Scarlet refolded the letters and handed them back to Estretta. “Could she have accompanied her husband to the Barrens on a business trip and found correspondence difficult?”

“Possibly,” she admitted, “but I doubt she would do it willingly. She does not enjoy travel.” She smiled faintly, eyes distant. “Her first letters following her trip down to Tazzelton would have a paragraph of news followed by several pages of complaints about the indignities of sanitation and cleanliness while traveling.” Now she looked directly at Scarlet. “I think something has happened to my daughter. She would not stop writing to me unless she was being prevented.” She looked down and hesitated before she softly added, “Or was unable to write—for some reason.”

Uncomfortable with her quiet worry, Scarlet cleared his throat. “Perhaps the King’s Post has had a problem?”

She raised her head and looked at him coolly. “For the last year, I have been carrying on a professional correspondence with Professor Sarbo here in Tazzelton. There have been no interruptions in his missives,” she answered with a little heat. When he arched his eyebrows and continued to look at her blandly, she sighed. “Yes, there is a possibility that those particular letters from my daughter could have gone astray, but it seems unlikely.” She smiled, but her eyes were sharp. “Perhaps you could ask a question of someone at the post?”

Scarlet nodded. “I am not questioning your judgment, Professor,” he replied formally. “I am merely spinning hypotheses that need to be eliminated along the way.”

She sat back in her chair, but her eyes were still skeptical. “Yes, yes, of course. You’re the investigator.”

“And you’re the one who knows the answers to all my unasked questions.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Scarlet caught a glimpse of his assistant as he passed the door of the parlor. Fennish glanced into the room, and Scarlet beckoned to him. Scarlet stood and smiled at Estretta. “I think I have the information I need, so we can venture on with our mission.” He gestured for her to precede him from the room. “I’ll have the carriage prepared while we fetch our cloaks.”

Fennish waited for them in the hallway. Scarlet’s assistant was a man of medium height, somewhat stooped in posture, but he was still taller than his diminutive employer. Twenty years Scarlet’s junior, he was more of an age with Estretta. Scarlet valued the man’s years of loyalty and his competence at the mundane tasks of running a household. In addition, his nondescript appearance made him very useful in going places and running errands where his well-known employer would be recognized.

“Good day, Merrit,” Scarlet greeted Fennish and turned to Estretta. “May I present Merrit Fennish? Merrit does much of the work around this household and will be invaluable to our investigation.” To Fennish, he said, “This is Professor Estretta Vaughn. We will be looking into the disappearance of her daughter, Arpetia.”

“Professor Vaughn.” Fennish nodded politely to Estretta before he turned back to Scarlet. “This morning I need to attend to matters that have arrived during my absence. If you need specific help, please let me know.”

“I won’t let you miss anything,” Scarlet replied. “Right now we’re going out to make a few preliminary observations and ask questions. Perhaps we can clear things up quickly. If not, we will have to explore further.” He started to turn away but recalled he had not told Fennish where they were going. “By the way, Estretta’s daughter is married to Udeous Wiles. We are going to try their residence first.”

Fennish frowned. “Udeous Wiles?”

“Udeous’s father is Burros Wiles.”

“Burros Wiles?” Fennish raised his eyebrows and nodded in recognition. “I’ve heard the name.”

Scarlet nodded. “I dare say you have.” He turned and smiled at Estretta. “You notice how discreet Merrit is. Not a word about serpents or weasels, just that he’d heard the name.” At that point, Scarlet offered his arm to Estretta. “And now, madam, let us see to the coach.”

He nodded to his assistant. “Thank you, and good day, Merrit.”

His town carriage was in the stable. He helped Estretta into the coach and gave the driver the address of Arpetia’s home. Once Scarlet had settled himself in the seat across from her, the driver rolled the carriage into motion. “Now.” He smiled pleasantly. “I think it’s time we visit your daughter’s house. With luck, she’ll answer the door, everything will be as it should, and this affair will be happily resolved.” His cheerful bonhomie was designed to put Estretta at ease. He did not discount her fears, but there would be time enough to worry if her concerns were born out.

She gestured at the cane he had rested on the seat beside him. “I did not realize you needed a cane.”

Scarlet lifted up the polished ebony cane. Its silver trim sparkled in the light through the carriage window. “Ah, yes, my cane.” He smiled at her and winked as he gave her a little misdirection. “Sometimes an old man needs a little extra support to keep his feet under him.”

#

The house at 42 River Way was not a pretentious estate. Nor was it a hovel. Located well outside the more fashionable central part of the city where Scarlet lived, it was decidedly modest, and it was modest in a long row of other humble pairs of attached homes. Estretta sat in the carriage, frowning at the residence as Scarlet got down from the coach, then reached up to help her out. She finally looked at him but ignored his offered hand. She stepped down by herself all the while staring at the house. “Old Burros didn’t hurt himself, did he?”

Scarlet nodded but said nothing. No, the property did not impress. From what he had heard, Burros Wiles could certainly have afforded better for his eldest son. Then again, perhaps it was designed as an incentive for the young man to move up.

A harried-looking young woman answered Scarlet’s knock. “Yeah?” she said stoically. She had dark circles under her eyes and carried a toddler, a girl, on her hip. From inside the house came the high-pitched shouts and shrieks of other excited children.

Since neither Estretta nor the woman had said a word to each other, the woman was a stranger. Scarlet doffed his hat. “Could we have a moment of your time, if you would, madam?” He bowed respectfully. “Do you know of a woman named Arpetia Vaughn, or it would be Arpetia Wiles now that she is married?”

The little girl in the woman’s arms had her finger up her nose, digging aggressively. The woman batted the child’s hand away from her face. “Never heard of her,” she stated flatly while she used her own finger to wipe a glob of mucus from the child’s upper lip. “We been here only two weeks now—”

A loud crash from the other room interrupted. The woman glanced back over her shoulder. “Stop that right now,” she called, “or I’ll blister your bottom, I will!”

The beleaguered woman turned back to the door. “Like I said, we’ve only been here a couple weeks.” A ragged lock of hair dangled off her forehead. “Maybe it’s someone who used to live here?” A wail sounded from inside the house. She snapped a quick look over her shoulder before she turned back to them. “Look, I’ve got to go,” she pleaded as she pushed the door closed in their faces.

Still standing on the stoop in front of the closed door, Scarlet looked at Estretta. “Recognize her or anything you saw in the room?”

Estretta shook her head and said nothing. Back at the carriage, Scarlet offered his hand, and this time she let him help her up into the coach. He joined her inside, but she did not look at him. When the coach started to roll, she asked, “Now what? Are we going back?”

“Hmm?” Scarlet had been considering that exact question when Estretta interrupted his thoughts. “No, I thought we might check in with the constables to see what we can learn of the Wileses.” Yes, the constables. He pondered the best way to approach the city’s peace wardens.

“Will I be a help or a hindrance?” Estretta inquired.

“Interesting question.” That was no answer. He had dodged reflexively because he did not want to admit a weakness in front of her. He looked at Estretta. “Your question is interesting because I have had a rather mixed relationship with the peace wardens during my career. When I could help, they thought I was a paragon of law enforcement virtue.” He smiled. “Of course when I was forced to decline, they regarded me as a poxy sore on the buttocks of their authority.”

She did not return his smile. Instead, she asked, “Why would you not be able to help the constables?”

“There were a variety of reasons, but the most vexing to them were those where the diplomatic functions of the King’s Watch were at cross purposes with theirs.”

She frowned at him, and a little crease of vexation formed between her eyebrows. For a time she just looked at him. “So will I be a help or a hindrance?”

Now he smiled. “Come with me to the Office of Public Safety. We’ll let them hear your story. We can certainly get some general information about the Wileses if nothing else.”

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