Oboe swung Theodore off his feet as the music picked up. There was nothing to do but hold on as she spun, laughing as the violinist bounced between aching pulls of the bow to mad merry-making. It was like the happiest funeral dirge he had ever heard. She caught sight of the face he was making and let him fall against her shoulder, snorting and giggling at him. Apart from the nausea, Theodore was happy. After everything that had happened, it warmed his heart to see Oboe back to her old self again.
Burt the skeleton rattled his finger bones against his drum as the song came to a flourishing finish. "Alright. Looks like we wore you all out." He handed the flutist a mandolin. "How about a slow one until you catch your breath? Any requests?"
"Entombed with you!" Someone called from the crowd.
"No! Do Hold my Claws by the Sweet Fiend!"
Lola pulled an exhausted looking Bhargest back into the yard. "Do you know Stars in My Dark?"
"Bride gets to pick!" Burt said and swept his arm into the air. Gentle, lingering string chords filled the air. The tambourine player startled Theodore with her deep, rich singing voice. Together, Theodore and Oboe wobbled in what he could only hope was approximate to correct.
Oboe pressed her cheek to his chest. Theodore felt a bit awkward. The song was meant for couples. He had to admit it was nice, though.
"Thanks. For everything. For being there. …I never had a friend like you. Or many at all, really."
He couldn't help but chuckle. "Yeah. Me too."
"Um…" Her hands tightened. "Do you—"
The music stopped with a squelch, replaced with the sound of clanking chain mail. The singer trailed off into a mumble, staring. Theodore turned around to see the Knight Detective, Conrad Whitechain, marching onto the scene with a personal guard.
He assessed the crowd through narrowed eyes. "Why are there ghasts so close to the South Manor?"
Giselle pushed her way to the front. "They are guests here! What's it to you?!"
Conrad gave her a skeptical look. "This is a violation," he said. "Ghasts aren't to come within a league of government farmland. We can't risk it being spoiled by hexes."
Theodore stepped away from Oboe. "There's nothing to be concerned about! They're trustworthy. I gave them permission!"
"Of course you did." The Knight Detective rubbed his face. "Another of your questionable decisions. Which brings me to why I am here." He reached into his drake-skin coat, and whipped out a formal document. "Ranger Deputy Grayweather. I've come to inform you that you are hereby stripped of your rank and authority."
"What?" Oboe said. The surrounding ghasts gasped and murmured. There were shouts of 'no!' and growls. Conrad's guards kept a hand ready at their sword hilts.
"What are you talking about?" Theodore said, taking the document. "I am on official orders from the crowned prince to resolve the crisis in the Fairy Circle!"
He tilted his hat up to glare blades at him. "Perceval's authority is still provisional at best. He is a child. I don't care if he pardoned you for your crimes. You abetted him in abandoning his duties. You put the whole kingdom at risk for reasons that still are not clear." He sneered. "A man like you is not fit to serve Laien."
"Says who!?" Oboe stormed up, getting right in Conrad's face. "Theo is the smartest, most wonderful Ranger Deputy we ever had! I'm not letting you take him away from us!"
There was nods and snarls of agreement behind her. The guards drew their swords.
"Oboe! Don't!" Theodore said, eyeing the weapons.
"Why should I?! Do you hear all these awful things he's saying about you?"
Theodore scanned the document, realizing what he was holding. It was a formal dismissal, signed by a Justice. The Knight Detective had found the same loophole Theodore had meant to use months ago. Theodore did not possess the Advanced Knight Training certificate, a mandatory credential for the position of Ranger Deputy. Conrad noticed the look on Theodore's face, and smirked.
"You aren't qualified, Grayweather. I want you out of the Whirlwood by the end of the week, or I'll have you dragged out."
"No!" Oboe stomped her hoof. "You can't do this!"
"He can," Theodore said, feeling faint. "This is binding, and effective immediately." He wracked his brain to think of some way to fight this, but the law was firm and clear on the matter.
"This is just a start," Conrad said. "You're under investigation. I'm going to get to the bottom of your crimes. I won't let a lying, treacherous sneak like you twist the fate of Laien." He waved his hand, and the knights sheathed their swords.
"Until then…" He led his men away. "Enjoy your party."
The wedding reception stood in stunned silence. The mood had been killed. Theodore stared at the dismissal form, wondering what he was going to do.