Duke Northstorm was taken aback by Charles’s sudden, irrational anger. He had never before seen Lewis behave so passionately. The duke’s first thought was that he must have said something Charles misunderstood, and to which he took umbrage. Desperately seeking to placate the baron; repair their ostensible friendship, and incidentally his influence over Charles that their friendship enabled; Northstorm chose to continue the unusual tact of explaining himself honestly in plain language.

“No, no, Charles. Don’t you understand what’s been happening? Haven’t you looked at the skies since you abducted the star? Haven’t you seen how angry red the sun looks, or how the moon isn’t always where it should be? Empress Moon is the star-maiden’s mother, and she is searching for her missing child. If she finds her child here, kidnapped and imprisoned as well, then the gods’ anger will be beyond measure. 

“And if the Empress finds her daughter here, she will find you. If she finds you, she will read the star-signs and find me. And because you are from Land, and I am from Sky, the gods will consider your achievement not an act of love and adoration, but a crime and a sacrilege. The soothsayers all agree that the gods, in their outrage and wrath, will lay waste to even the innocents of both our Domains.

“So you see, Charles, you must release the star-maid now, before Empress Moon finds her first. And then hope that when the gods find their star-child safe and unharmed, they will be appeased. Surely there will be much censure and many accusations, but nothing compared to what will happen if the star-maid is found here, imprisoned, and pleading to be free.”

Suddenly, Charles’s expression changed from fearful paranoia to calm comprehension, as if he had been delirious for a while and Duke Northstorm had thrown ice-cold water in his face. Before, Charles had been raging; now he was the picture of sobriety. Without saying another word, he nodded his assent to the duke’s request.

“So, you agree? It’s settled then?” Northstorm said, smiling with relief. His powers of persuasion had staved off calamity. “Excellent, my lord. Now, what spell do you have to chant, or lever do you have to pull, to free the star?”

A glint like a white-hot spark from a blacksmith’s anvil flickered in Charles’s eye.

“Free…her…?” Charles said slowly, as his expression changed from clear-eyed comprehension of the danger threatening the folks of Sky and Land; to single-minded, self-centered regard for only his beloved prisoner. “Free her!?” Charles exclaimed, his voice ascending into a mourner’s screech. “Never!”

Charles clutched a swatch of his wrinkled, wine-colored coat and feverishly wrung it into a knot as red as a boil. “I saw her through my gazing crystal, night after night, twinkling in the sky, and I fell hopelessly in love with her. How could I not? Have you ever seen such beauty? Such perfection?” Charles stared fixedly at his glass prison until the glow of his prisoner made his eyes hurt. “Duke, I thought you, a denizen of Sky yourself and my friend, of all people, would understand our love. How can you ask me to let her go—for any reason?” Charles’s previous singsong rants gradually returned to him. ”I can’t let her go. I won’t let her go. You can’t make me let her go. She belongs with me…always!

Northstorm felt the moment spin dizzily out of his control. For a moment, Lewis was as sane as a magistrate, and about to do the one thing that might save their two worlds from disaster. In the next moment, Charles was as wild-eyed as a madman. 

Words, words, words. Words and persuasion were Duke Northstorm’s stock and trade, and his weapon of choice. What words, then, could persuade a madman back to sanity?

“Charles! My dear friend!” Northstorm said solicitously, the way an honest man would. “Surely a man of your intelligence understands that with so many lives at stake, it is no longer sensible to keep the star-maid trapped in a box of glass. Besides, you were only able to achieve your ambition while you had your anonymity. But you have been found out by the Land King’s Master of Enlightenment, Kevin Galwynn. It’s true. My spies heard him. You are revealed, Charles, and I expect the forces of the Sky King to soon come here and exact justice—or retribution. Do you see?”

“I see nothing,” railed Lord Lewis, “except a transparent attempt to separate me from my beloved!” Charles’s eyes bulged with rage and spittle arced from his lips as he shouted invective.

“I thought you understood me,” Charles ranted. “You said you understood me. You encouraged me to pursue my dreams when others would quash them. You said no law of gods or mortals should stand in the way of me pursuing my true love!”

“Yes, I did,” Northstorm said as calmly as he was able. Charles’s shrieks shook Northstorm to the core, but he compelled himself to maintain his composure and attempt to make Charles feel likewise by projecting a calm demeanor. 

Although the words threatened to catch in his throat, Northstorm said, “Your love is a—beautiful—thing to behold. It’s simply not fair that others should attempt to bar your and her happiness.” Northstorm planted his fists firmly on his hips and said decisively, “I stand staunchly by my word: The two of you belong together.”

Hearing such words of support melted Lewis’s animosity like honey melts in hot tea. “Yes, you do understand. I can see that now,” Charles said incredulously, as if he had discovered a secret of the Cosmos. “You are my friend, after all.”

The glint in Charles’s eye seemed to have blown out.

In Northstorm’s estimation, Charles was suddenly as lucid and clearheaded as the duke ever remembered him to be. Once more he was the sensible, methodical, enthusiastic student of every wonder in the world.

“And your evaluation of the danger to Land and Sky is well taken,” Charles said astutely. “If the wrath of the gods should fall upon our two Domains, devastation will scour both world. Multitudes will die,” Lewis said, shuddering. “Such a tragedy would be the theme of dirges and coronachs for centuries to come.”

Then the scholar in him asked aloud, “Why did I do such a thing as—kidnap—a star?” His expression was crestfallen and lined with guilt, and a look of bewilderment limned his eyes. “I don’t know what…came over me.”

Pointing to a handle next to the glass prison, Charles said resignedly, “That lever will turn off the enchantment and free my captive. She will be free to leave me, then, and return to Heaven.”

Charles gestured for the duke to wait where he was. Then Charles strode downheartedly from the parlor toward the glass prison beneath the spinning whirligig. However, as he stepped from the sitting room and into the workroom proper, a faint rose-colored shimmer rippled around and away from his body, the way ripples spread across a pond when you thrust your hand through the tranquil surface of the water. Northstorm wasn’t sure what had happened, but it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

Standing beside the glass prison with his hand wrapped around the lever that would free the star, Charles paused one last time to gaze at the sublime light trapped within. Starlight dappled his face, and he seemed to hear his prisoner speak in words only he could hear. 

“Yes, I’m about to free you,” he said. “No, I’m sorry. I meant you no malice. On the contrary, I have adored you from far afar, for so long. No, you are being too modest. You are the most beautiful light in Heaven. 

“Then one night, as I watched you through my gazing crystal—so beautiful, so perfect!—I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I couldn’t bear to be without you by my side. I wanted us to be together, always. The feeling was like nothing I had ever felt before. It was palpable, unrelenting, irresistible. I knew then and there that feeling must surely be what more worldly men than me, a too solitary academic, call ‘love.’” Lord Lewis looked up, with his hand still on the control lever, as starlight and brass reflections dappled his countenance with shadows and light.

“Charles?” Duke Northstorm asked anxiously, from across the laboratory. “Is something wrong? Is the lever stuck? Can’t you free her?”

“Free her? Of course I can free her—“ Charles said in a strangely cold monotone. A glint like an ice crystal catching the moonlight glistened in Charles’s eye. Then his voice crackled like breaking glass as he suddenly exclaimed, “—But I won’t!” Charles snatched his hand from the lever and turned to Northstorm. The baron’s eyes were wild again, like the eyes of wolves seen by the light of the moon. “You want her, don’t you, Duke? Well, you shall never have her!” he shrieked. “I love her. Do you understand? She’s mine!

“What?—What!” Duke Northstorm sputtered. Charles’s abrupt reversal threw Northstorm’s composure completely out of kilter. The duke thought he had woven his arguments into a fabric of reason as flawless as fine silk. But in spite of his careful weaving, Charles’s madness had descended again with razor-sharp claws and ripped that fabric of reason to shreds. Stunned, random words fell haphazardly from Northstorm’s lips like raindrops sputtering from a gutter.

His Grace Clarence Northstorm suddenly became quiet and still. “Disaster pursues us like hounds,” he said more to himself than to Charles. “The gods threaten to lay waste to your folk and mine because of your consuming passion—and now I regret to say, my help. With all that at stake—all that!—you waste time more precious than pearls on… insane prattle?

The reality of the situation crashed in on Duke Northstorm. He was a proficient practitioner of persuasion, but his skills were of no avail when there was no rational ear to hear them. At a loss to say anything more cunning or inspired, he merely said, “Free her.”

“No!” Charles replied petulantly, turning half around. “I can see clearly now—more clearly than ever before—that you were never truly my friend.”

“Free her!” Northstorm repeated, more angrily this time. He marched toward Lewis with determination, feral eyes, and clinched fists. And with each step he took, fog eddied in his wake, and gusts of wind made the lamplight flicker. 

“No, I won’t!” Charles replied, as his mania swelled again. He lurched back to within feet of the duke. “Why do you torment me so, Northstorm? Is it because you want her for yourself? Well, you can’t have her!”

“Free her!” Northstorm bellowed. The duke’s patience had been ground to the breaking point by the fear of failure. Anger born of frustration flashed like lightning, sudden and hot, as Northstorm advanced toward Lord Lewis. “Free her now, yourself, or I’ll make you!”

In anger, Northstorm’s hands reached out for Charles’s throat, but collided with something the duke could barely see in the torchlight. Perplexed, Northstorm looked up and down and side to side at the empty air before him. When he squinted carefully, he could make out a pale, rose-colored shimmer checker-boarded with chevron-shaped sparks of ruby and amethyst.

Charles crowed triumphantly. “I knew my barrier would stop you,” he said, cautiously stepping farther away. “The shimmer you see is a weirding wall of my own design, and it seals this entire end of my laboratory. I crafted it from an admixture of natural and supernatural forces so that not even armies could breech it, let alone false friends like you.” Lord Lewis bragged, “There are wellsprings of magick beneath this tower that I have directed into the walls, floor, ceiling, and artifacts around me. Magic protects the contents of my tower from physical harm, and the weirding wall protects me from direct assault.”

Northstorm let out a long shriek of defiance that intensified into the howl of a windstorm. The duke disappeared from clear view and a raging, swirling tempest took his place. Tapestries rippled in the gale and cracked like whips. Delicate instruments and arcane devices flew off shelves and crashed against the walls like tides striking a distant shore. While piles of ancient scrolls collected from sunken galleons and abandoned tombs flew around the room like flocks of frightened doves. But despite every loose item being violently thrown about, none were broken or damaged. The magic protected them all.

Frustrated by this failure, the duke grasped the hilt of his sword, the blade of which was blue-white lightning, and slipped it from its sheath. Then he assaulted the weirding wall with a fury meant to give lie to Charles’s claims. The duke’s blade struck the ensorcelled barrier again and again, and each time a flash of lightning illuminated the interior of the peel tower and thunder echoed within its walls.

But in the end, the weirding wall did not fall. The more the duke raged, the more magic was tapped, and the stronger the wall became. Finally, Northstorm had to accept that there was no way for him—or as Charles had claimed, even an army—to breach the shimmering, rose-pink and indigo-chevroned wall.

The tempest that was Duke Northstorm became dead calm, and the defeated duke rematerialized in Charles’s parlor. 

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