An hour before dawn, Duke Bugley's breathing began growing short and rattling. Aurei had sat at mother Bugley's deathbed and knew what was happening. Her voice boomed out loud in the still of the quiet Keep, "GUARD!!! GET BROTHER DARV IMMEDIATELY! DUKE BUGLEY IS FADING!!"
It was as if a lightning bolt had hit the Keep, suddenly formerly sleeping servants were running all around. Aurei didn't notice, she was standing, wide eyed with tears blurring her vision, her hand tightly clutching Gamel Bugley's rapidly cooling hand. She was aware of others around her - Krys, Alis, Brandi, Thorm and more-but all she could focus on was each breath of Father Bugley. Brother Darv's strong, soothing voice filled the room as he chanted the Yeshian song of redemption:
Though the darkness surrounds me, I know thou accompany me,
Though the night falleth, I walk in the light of thy mercy,
Though the grave awaits me, it shall not contain me,
For Yesh my Savior redeems me,
He that walks beside me is Lord of all,
I shall not pass this life alone,
For my God is my companion,
Fear not death, beloved of Yesh,
For He dwelleth in paradise,
And awards with eternity,
Those who put their faith in him
Aurei found herself moving as if in a terrible, terrible dream. Brother Darv's chant ended and seemingly at the same moment, Father Bugley took one long, ragged gasp of breath and gave up his soul. She stood there, surrounded by weeping and voices of consolation, still holding the hand of the man who had raised her. Aurei suddenly felt very, very alone. Someone guided her out of the room, blanketing her with love as she cried hysterically at the passing of her adopted father. She heard the bells of the Church of Yesh sounding the mournful announcement of the death of the Duke of Westmark as she was led down the stairs of the Keep into a sea of townspeople assembled in the Keep's Great Hall.
* * *
Aurei was very glad for those around her during the days that followed Gamel Bugley's death. The Muddy Boot closed for the day, which was the first time that had occurred in many, many years. The residents of Westmark were a continual stream of visitors to the Keep, all wishing Aurei well, offering various tokens of assistance or advice and as tactfully as they could, inquiring of who would be the next Duke. That was one sobering thought; for she knew it would logically fall to Gamel's nearest living blood relative, his nephew Pinel Sheldos of King's Reach. The thought of the sour-faced man who had never liked her in the least just made Aurei feel more sick at heart.
He was an elderly man himself - or at least seemed as such by his dour expression and balding head. Pinel was the deputy administrator for the large, powerful merchant's bank and was as wealthy as he was prolific. The thought of his large family tromping through the old Keep and the Muddy Boot was no more pleasant for her then the knowledge that he would, no doubt, want to change everything. The first thing, she suspected, was to give her the axe from both her job and her living quarters. Of this she was quite sure. Yet she had been required to contact him, sending a courier with a message to both him as well as King Harolodris, who she expected would attend the funeral at the end of the week. She had scheduled the funeral for 10 days after Gamel's death to give those travelling by horse from King's Reach time to arrive.
It was two days before the funeral when word came from King's Reach. Two dispatches were delivered to her as she was waiting on tables in the Muddy Boot, late in the evening. The first bore the Royal Seal of the King of Northmarch, Harolodris IV. The courier that delivered both messages wore the royal crest, so she knew it was from the King himself. Tearing it open she read the quick message:
It is with great sorrow that we have learned of the passing of Duke Bugley. We thank you for notification of his funeral and it is our desire to attend the service. We shall reach Westmark the evening before the funeral.
With deep sympathy,
This of course was no surprise to her, but she was very nervous at finally meeting the King of Northmarch. The second letter had its own crest upon its seal --- that of the Merchant Banking Clan. It was from Pinel. With a sigh she opened the seal and found an equally short note:
Aurei the barmaid,
We shall travel with The King's caravan. I shall be named the next Duke of Westmark by the King following the funeral. I expect all of your personal belongings to be removed from the Duke's Keep by the time of my arrival. I have ordered Brother Darv along with the ducal guards to witness the removal of your items. You shall be allowed to continue to reside at the Inn until I have decided its future. We will arrive tomorrow evening. Have my Keep in proper order by that time.
Duke of Westmark
Though she wanted to toss the dispatch into the fire, Aurei just swallowed back her dislike for Pinel and hurried off to find Brother Darv.