Lt. Nimbus was right about Master Galwynn not needing to worry about making small talk. Duke Clarence Northstorm upstaged the celebration and talked the night away. To be fair, His Grace was an excellent raconteur, and a comment from any of the other diners was inspiration for a good joke or a droll story. All Galwynn had to do to fulfill his responsibility as guest of honor was look up from time to time, nod and smile agreeably, and then continue with his dinner.
One of the few people Kevin actually paid attention to, was Lt. Nimbus. Aaron whispered commentary in Kevin’s ear, explaining who the various lords and ladies of the court were; that Kevin shouldn’t gamble with the captain of the guard—he was an excellent bettor and seldom lost; and that His Grace Major-General Northstorm, Most Excellent Commander of the Seventh Reserve Legion (which was his full title), was a soldier in name only. Northstorm’s father had indeed been a hero in the War, but the Duke’s title had been bought as an indulgence from profits he made as a merchant.
Not only did Northstorm profit beyond measure from selling raw weather in the form of rain-grass and sun-corn to wizards and weather merchants, he was constantly expanding into other markets. His latest windfall was selling lightning-wood to metalsmiths on Land to make their forges burn hotter and their metalwork flow purer. No smith worth their salt could go a day without smudging their face a little with purple lightning-wood smoke.
But of all the royalty and military at the board, it was the least of them that caught Kevin’s attention. At the back of the hall, in a corner with a bad view of the proceedings, was the shepherd that had found the debris that was now guarded in the storeroom. The old man looked uncomfortable amidst the throng; and ate the soup, meat, and crust offered him humbly and without comment.
Kevin leaned towards Nimbus, gestured at the shepherd, and asked in a quiet voice, “What do you know about that man?”
“Nothing much,” Nimbus replied. “Northstorm suggested there was no need to bring him to Castellanus. But my King’s orders were to bring back everything at and around the site that Duke Northstorm hadn’t crated up already. That included the shepherd. Why do you ask?”
Kevin answered slowly, hesitating between words as if he suspected something, but was carefully mulling over each suspicion before he voiced it. “We’ve only heard Duke Northstorm’s version of what happened on the mountaintop. But his story is secondhand. That shepherd was actually at the scene. Perhaps he saw something that hasn’t yet been related.”
“You’re wasting your time,” Nimbus said. “You can be sure that if there was any detail left to be told for which Duke Northstorm could receive credit, he would have told it.”
Galwynn regarded Nimbus quizzically. Aaron had repeatedly referred to the Duke with derision. But Kevin sensed there was more strong emotion and moral outrage behind Nimbus’s criticism than could be explained by mere distaste for the Duke’s puffery and bombast. The Master of Enlightenment’s mission depended on Nimbus’s help, but if that help could be distorted by outrage, then Galwynn needed to know the reason why sooner than later. “Aaron,” Kevin asked bluntly, “why do you hate the Duke?”
Nimbus was caught aback by Galwynn’s question. People who speak ill of others often forget that the reason for their animosity isn’t always self-evident to others. Nimbus tried to conceal his embarrassment by pretending to not hear the question because he was assiduously examining the tasty gust-peas and whipped tornado-root remaining on his dinner plate with his fork. However, he quickly discovered that examining vegetables was a pitifully insufficient tactic for deflecting the infinitely patient gaze of a Master of Enlightenment.
After many long and awkward moments, Nimbus looked up from his plate and confessed, “All my life, my family was as poor as that shepherd; and when my parents died, there was little to show for their lifetime of toil. But despite that, I always dreamed of becoming a knight of the King’s Ethereal Legion. So instead of indenturing myself to a relative and their farmhold, I made my way to Castellanus and offered my services to the Sky King’s court.”
As Aaron spoke, he noticed there was something about talking to a Master of Enlightenment that felt easier and more natural than talking to any other person he knew. He felt at ease telling his tale in detail. There was something magical about it.
“At first they laughed at me, a mere country boy barely old enough to shave, but I was persistent and would not accept their rejection as final. The stable master must have seen something in me that he liked, because he let me work in the stable and sleep in the loft, in return for keeping the premises clean and caring for the horses.
“I took on every odd job I could, and did them to the best of my ability. And I vigorously sought those who were willing to teach me things about service and knighthood that I didn’t know how to do. In time, I acquired a reputation as a hard worker. And many were the late nights when I would collapse from exhaustion after a long day’s work, only to rise with the next day’s dawn to start anew.
“Eventually I was offered a chance to become a squire, and I took it eagerly. There were border skirmishes to fight and marauding bandits to catch, so even as a young squire I saw mortal combat and bloody battle.
“Over time, I performed—,” and here Nimbus paused out of modesty, his silence bespeaking more horror and heroism than he could bring himself to admit, “—services for which I was awarded a field commission of private in the Ethereal Legion. Since then, I have worked day and night to deserve the trust put in me.”
Galwynn’s eyes had narrowed as he listened, but now they widened and he asked, “From what I have seen of you, Lieutenant, such honors are well deserved. But how does this put you at odds with Duke Northstorm?”
“His Grace Major-General Northstorm has traveled a… different…career path than myself,” said Lt. Nimbus. As he spoke, the nightside of the caul across his face became as dark and brooding as an approaching storm front, and began to slide ominously across his visage.
Abruptly, across the dining hall, amused laughter broke out among the guests as Duke Northstorm began to wittily explain how skillfully he would have won the Battle of Rainbow’s End against the Bandit Nation, had he been there leading the charge of the Celestial Army.
“His Grace’s title is bought and paid for,” Nimbus spat out. “He didn’t earn his rank.” A thunderstorm of emotion swept across the lieutenant’s face and his voice rose from a whisper that only Kevin could hear, to something others might notice had it not been for the laughter across the way. “He’s never felt fear clutch his heart just before battle, and he’s never had to find the courage to go on in spite of that. He’s never looked into the eyes of a berserker, and he’s never watched his comrades fall in combat.” Aaron’s voice began to louden incautiously. “That’s why I feel as I do about Major-General Duke Northstorm.”
“What was that, Lieutenant?” said the Duke, who was distracted from his storytelling at the mere mention of his name.
“Oops! So sorry to interrupt,” Kevin answered quickly, drawing attention from Aaron to himself. “The lieutenant was telling me that you’re getting to the best part—the part that so clearly demonstrates how brilliantly you would have done things—and he simply couldn’t contain his excitement. Do go on with your story.”
“Well, if you insist,” replied the Duke, who was luxuriating in the attention afforded him by this occasion’s guest of honor. “So, as I was saying, I would have brought my left flank…,” Northstorm continued…and continued…and continued; but by then, Nimbus’s resentment had subsided.