DargonZine 31, Issue 2

Between Mallet and Slab

Vibril 19, 1019 - Vibril 20, 1019


     Battered and exhausted, Gilvelle Marser sat on the cold flagstones and watched the slim man stalk away, thinking about how close he had just come to dying at that man’s hand. He continued to sit for another moment, regaining his breath, and scanning the courtyard that had just been a battleground. He thought that he and his two companions, Celia and Cael of the Town Guard, might be the only ones left alive after the departure of the slim man.

     The courtyard, part of a former hidden brothel in the heart of the wealthy section of Dargon’s Old City, had been in a state of disrepair when he and his companions arrived; now it was a shambles. That was mostly due to the Doravin, strange visitors to Dargon who worshipped stone and could work magic with it. Their arrival in the courtyard had likely saved the lives of Gil and his friends, who had come for a secret auction that had turned into an ambush. The Doravin had interrupted that ambush in spectacular fashion, causing a great hole to form in the outer wall of the courtyard, and turning the stone that had been the wall into a swirling cloud of dust. A pitched battle had taken place within that cloud among the different factions representing buyers in the auction, the criminals running it, and the Doravin.

     It was in that cloud of dust that Gil had met the nameless slim man — or woman, he still wasn’t sure — who had at first saved Gil and then tried to kill him. This was because Gil had inadvertently allowed a large hammer-wielding man to escape with the object of the auction as well as the cause of all the death and destruction: a piece of milky white crystal that had been stolen from the Doravin.

     After Gil tried and failed to rise, Celia and Cael helped him to his feet. He stood unsteadily, continuing to survey the courtyard. The two guards looked around as well. The Doravin, their prize gone, had apparently slipped away during the argument, leaving the way they had come: through the large and perfect circle in the wall. Everyone else appeared either dead, unconscious, or too injured to move.

     “Can you stand on your own?” asked Celia.

     Gil nodded, not sure he was being truthful until the guards released him and he remained on his feet.

     “Come on,” she said to Cael. “Let’s see if there’s anyone left alive to arrest and question.”

     Gil doubted anyone from the other two groups was still living. The man running the auction, who’d given himself the imaginative name of “Auctioneer” had also named each party in the auction, ostensibly to hide their identities, but at least Gil’s had been an insult to indicate that the Auctioneer knew who he was. There had been Lord Apple, who hadn’t understood it was an auction and brought guards wearing his livery. Lady Stone had been next. She and her group had been closest to the entrance made by the Doravin, and thus likely saved from the ambush when they were obscured by dust. This put them closest to the attacking Doravin, though.

     Gil had been dubbed Lord Sot. It had been a cutting insult; until recently he’d been drinking away his troubles in at the Inn of the Serpent disguised as a common stonemason. The locals would never have drunk with him had they known he was really Dargon’s master architect: the man who was helping the Doravin drive them from their homes and take their jobs. It was at the Serpent that he’d first seen the crystal, in the hands of some men who’d stolen it from the Doravin camp. The Doravin had come and a fight had broken out. In the confusion one of the men, Navin, had escaped with the stone.

     As Celia and Cael moved around the courtyard checking bodies, Gil tottered to the Auctioneer’s table to steady himself. Behind it lay the still form of Navin, in a puddle of his own blood. The stone was, of course, nowhere in sight, but Gil stepped around the table to get a closer look at the body.

     There was a scraping sound from under the table as the Auctioneer, who had been cowering beneath it, began to climb out with the bloody dagger he’d used to kill Navin still clutched in his hand. Gil reacted without thinking and punched. The blow caught the Auctioneer in the temple just as his head was coming up, and sent a jolt of pain up Gil’s arm. The man fell to the ground and lay still.

     “Gil, are you okay?” called Celia.

     “Straight,” he said. “It was the Auctioneer. I … um, well, I don’t think he’s getting up any time soon.” He shook his hand, trying to ease the pain.

     “Did it hurt?” she asked, with a small smirk.

     “Cephas’ boot! Yes!” He looked down at the fallen man. “Worth it, though,” he muttered. “‘Lord Sot’, eh?”

     “Well, I hope you didn’t kill him,” said Cael, with a small grin. “We need someone to question. Almost everyone is dead. Your thin but dangerous friend left a few alive, but they look like nothing more than hired muscle. They won’t know anything, and will claim to know even less.”

     “What about the other buyers?” asked Celia.

     “Dead,” said Cael. “‘Lord Apple’ and his men fell in the first volley of crossbows. His two companions had some sort of livery sewn into their shirts. Some kind of animal, and three red circles.”

     “Apples,” said Gil. “Don’t you see? He must be from some lesser house from Leavenfell.”

     “Not much call for learning to recognize livery, growing up on the streets of Dargon,” Celia muttered.

     Gil felt his cheeks flush. After he and Celia had shared a kiss, she had rejected him, saying she was beneath his station; she had grown up among Dargon’s homeless youth, the shadow boys. Gil sought to change the subject. “Did you learn anything about ‘Lady Stone’?”

     “I think the Doravin were the ones who killed her,” said Cael, “and the woman who was with her. The big guy ran off with the stone, of course.”

     “Any idea who she was?” asked Celia.

     “Just this.” Cael held out his hand. A metal disk covered most of his palm. A pattern of interlocking circles was stamped into the metal.

     Gil stared at it intently. “That looks familiar.”

     “It looks like it came from the Doravin,” Celia said.

     “It … does. But that’s not what I was thinking of. Something else. A painting somewhere?” Gil wracked his brain. He’d seen a pattern like that before, but where? Who was this ‘Lady Stone’? “Stone …” he murmured. “Great Stevene! That hammer! That man worked in the new quarry. Aidona, the quarry master, said the Doravin had found something in the old quarry. It was clear she didn’t know what it was, but maybe some of her workers did, and came here tonight to get it back.”

     “We need to get to the new quarry, then,” said Cael. “And see if we can track that man down. Would Aidona help us find one of her workers?”

     Gil grimaced, remembering his last encounter with Aidona, on the topic of the Doravin. “She can be difficult, but I think I can talk to her. If something like this is going on right under her nose in the quarry, she’ll want to put a stop to it.”

     “We’ll need to do something with the Auctioneer, though,” said Cael.

     “We could turn him over to Kalen,” said Celia, “if we weren’t in the wrong house. He and a dozen of the Town Guard probably just finished storming that house on Sumner Street where we started. It’s too bad we’re not there.”

      Cael frowned. “We don’t have time to go through that tunnel again, even if we could find the way through.”

     “That,” said Gil, “isn’t as hard as you might think. But there’s no need to bother with the tunnel. We can just take the street. It’s only a block and a half away.”

     “Are you sure your wits aren’t a bit addled?” Celia asked. “We were down in those tunnels for almost half a bell.”

     “They were designed that way,” said Gil, “by my father. I used to play in those tunnels as a young boy while they were being built. Trust me, just go out,” he started to point to the courtyard entrance and then realized the gaping hole left by the Doravin was closer, “that way, and turn right.”

     “I’ll go,” said Cael.

     “No, I’ll go,” said Celia. “You look ridiculous with that … thing on your face. You’ll scare some nobleman looking out his shutters and he’ll wet his silk nightclothes.”

    Cael put a hand to his face, where a large orange beard had been glued, part of his disguise as “Balthis the Reaver”, a Comarrian mercenary, since Gil couldn’t have come to the auction with town Guards as his escort. “I dinnae want to make some noble pansy piss his jammies,” he said in his best Comarrian, which wasn’t half bad. “You’re not exactly looking your best, Cele.”

     Celia had made a public show of quitting the Town Guard and going back to her shadow boy roots so she could be Gil’s other escort. She was dressed the part. She stopped, framed in the opening made by the Doravin. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll be beneath the notice of any passing nobleman. Or they’ll just think I’m some whore on the way home from an evening’s work.” She left, and Gil gazed into the void created by her departure. The street beyond was dark and silent

     He felt a twinge of jealousy at Cael’s use of the diminutive of her name, and the easy camaraderie Cael shared with her. Gil wondered if there was something between them. The memory of Celia in his arms, her lips pressed to his, was still fresh in his mind. Her upbringing and station meant nothing to him; he’d tried to explain that when she had pushed him away. Ever since, she hadn’t given him a chance to bring it up again. Gil suddenly realized that it wasn’t Cael’s appearance that had made Celia volunteer to get the Town Guards.

     “Lord Marser?” called Cael.

     Gil sighed. “Again? For one thing, it’s Master Marser; I’m no lord. But I told you before, my friends call me Gil. Cephas knows I have few enough of those these days. I’d like to consider anyone who’s saved my life at least twice as one of them.”

     “Straight, uh, Gil. Sorry. It’s just that when Celia talks about you she calls you ‘Lord Marser.'”

     “Celia talks –? Ah, never mind. What is it?”

     “I found our money pouch. I think we’re rich.” He grinned and tossed a coin to Gil.

     Gil caught it. It looked and felt like a copper Bit, which it was. Not long ago, the same coin had looked like a gold Mark, and felt like a copper Bit, at least until you looked at it, and then it seemed bigger and heavier.

     “Tanbry’s spell didn’t last,” Cael said. Tanbry was a member of the Cortinas family, a small group of mages that supported the Town Guard. Their involvement was an experiment – many would claim a failed one – by Adrunian Koren, the previous Captain of the Guard.

     “It did the job,” said Gil. “Those Bits got us in without getting us killed. It’s just as well the spell didn’t last. Imagine if mages could really turn Bits to Marks.”

     “We’d have rich mages.”

     “We’d have anarchy. Gold would suddenly be worthless. The duke — the king! — would be bankrupt.”

     “I guess I didn’t think that all the way through,” said Cael. “That’s frightening. Hm.” A smile formed behind his fake beard. “I just had a very interesting idea.” He crossed the courtyard toward the remains of Lord Apple’s party.

     Before Gil could ask Cael about his interesting idea, a voice called his name. Kalen Darklen, current Captain of the Town Guard, stood with Celia in the large hole in the wall, surrounded by guardsmen. “Gil! Are you okay?”

     “Kalen,” he said, “people keep asking me that. I’ve had better nights, but then I’ve had worse. I won’t say I’m starting to enjoy the occasional brush with death, but I’m getting a little more used to it.”

     “I’m sorry this happened,” said Kalen. “We were ready to burst in at a moment’s notice, but as you know, at the wrong location.”

     “There was no way for you to know that,” said Gil. “I wish there had been a way to get word to you once I figured out they were using the tunnels, but it was too late. I’m still glad we did it. I was in good hands.” He tried to smile at Celia, but she wouldn’t meet his eye.

     “I’m just glad that you’re not hurt,” said Kalen.

     Gil rubbed his jaw with one hand, recalling an elbow. He balled his other hand, the one that had felled the Auctioneer, and winced. “I’m not sure I would say that.”

     Kalen laughed. “I heard about that. We were thinking you should change your drinking name from Stonecutter to Stonefists.” This brought a laugh from the other guards with Kalen, and a flush to Gil’s cheeks, though he did notice Celia scowling at her companions.

    “I … ah … don’t know that I’ll be needing a drinking name any time soon, Captain Darklen.”

    The sudden formality in Gil’s tone hung between the two men for a moment, then Kalen looked away. “Cael!” he called. “Anything to report? Celia filled us in up to the point that she left to get me.”

     “Not much more, then, Captain. Everyone is either dead or fled, except that Auctioneer fellow, and I’m hoping Master Marser didn’t scramble his brains too much. Maybe he can tell us something about the stone, or his employer.”

     Kalen shook his head. “Unlikely. Gilliam Hytheworde would never let himself get close enough to something like this to get blamed. He’s had his fingers in half of the dark dealings in the city since Liriss disappeared, but we can never catch him at it. What about the rest of his men? Recognize anyone?”

     “No, but remember I’m new to Dargon. I think one or two might have known Celia from her days in the shadow boys.”

     “I’ll take a look,” said Celia, “but it’s not going to tell us much.” She set about inspecting the corpses.

     “And everyone who ambushed you is dead?” asked Kalen. “Seems unusual.”

     “I won’t swear that no one else slipped away in the confusion, but everyone here is dead. The Doravin weren’t pulling any punches, and neither were Celia or I. And the man that attacked Master Marser toward the end –“

     “What man?” asked Kalen. “I thought …” he looked at Celia.

     Celia looked up from her examination of a dead man. “I thought that was a woman. What do you say, Gil? You tackled her.”

     “It was quick,” Gil said, “but I would have said man. I’m still not sure, though.”

     “Straight,” said Kalen. “Let’s go with man. Celia said he did all of this killing without weapons. Is that true?”

     Cael nodded. “I’ve never seen anyone move like that. Well, maybe Bren kel Tomas, but this was different.”

     “How so?”

     “Kel Tomas is big, and powerful. He’s very direct. This person had a much different style. He was fast and elusive.”

     “And you let him go.”

     Cael looked down. “We had to. I mean, it was two against one, but we were both exhausted, and we didn’t know how badly Master Marser was hurt. Plus, we weren’t sure what side he was on.”

     “He was threatening to kill Gil!” yelled Kalen.

     “He killed all of the crossbowmen who would have shot at us, and saved Master Marser at least once in the fight. He only turned on us after Gil tackled him.”

     Kalen turned to Gil. “Tell me about that.”

     “I was trying to save him. The big man with the hammer, the one who ended up with the stone, was bearing down on him. I hadn’t seen at that point just how fast he was, or how strong. Had I known, I might have tried tackling the other guy.”

     Kalen chuckled. “I think you should have let them fight it out themselves. So, this guy was what? Someone from one of Hytheworde’s rivals? A vigilante? An agent of the Doravin?”

     “I’d say his only interest was the stone,” said Gil. “I don’t know how a rival would have found out about this location. The Doravin did, but they seem to be drawn to the stone, just like they were at the Inn of the Serpent. Maybe this man has some way of tracking it, too. I doubt he’s with them, though. They take rather a dim view of outsiders.”

     “From what you’ve told me of your dealings with them, Gil, that’s an understatement. So, some independent operator, after the stone for some unknown reason. I want him found and I want him questioned. Got that, sergeant?” This last was to one of the guards who had accompanied him. The man nodded.

     “Straight. What about the other buyers? ‘Apple’ and ‘Stone’, was it?”

     “Except for the big fellow,” said Cael, they’re all dead. “Master Marser said ‘Lord Apple’ was from Leavenfell.”

     “Is that right, Gil?” asked Kalen.

     Gil looked at Celia, who was still examining bodies. “His men had livery, with apples on it. I’m not a noble, so I never studied livery, but I live in Dargon Keep. I’ve seen enough nobles from Leavenfell. They love their apples up there. Someone at the keep will know it. Try Rish Vogel, the scribe.”

     “Sergeant, have two men take ‘Lord Apple’ to the ice caves,” said Kalen. “We’ll need to get word to Baron Leavenfell about this. I’d hate to think what that body would smell like by the time someone gets back from Leavenfell if we don’t keep it in the cold. And send someone to the keep with one of those tunics.”

     “Aye, sir,” the sergeant said, and then began giving orders.

     “What about the other buyer?” Kalen asked.

     “Just this symbol,” Cael said, and held it out to be inspected. Kalen glanced at it and shook his head. Cael continued, “Master Marser has a theory about them, though.”

     “It’s not much, Kalen,” said Gil. “The big man — his hammer looked a lot like a mason’s hammer, only bigger. Then I realized that they use that sort of hammer in the quarry. And, well, the white crystal came from the quarry.”

     “I can have someone ask around at the quarry, then, see if anyone is missing.”

     “That … may not be the best idea. They’re kind of a tight-knit group, and the Quarrymaster might get upset if you start questioning her crew. I think it might be a good idea if I go talk to her.”

     Kalen snorted. “You think talking to Aidona Callen is a *good* idea? The last time I tried to speak to that woman, she –“

     “I didn’t say it would be pleasant, Kalen. And she’ll never talk to you. I’ve had to work with her for years, though. I’m not her favorite person at the moment — actually because of the stone, in a way — but I think she’ll talk to me.”

     “What do you mean ‘because of the stone’?”

     “She was upset that we let the Doravin drain the old quarry and start using it without asking her. She came to me later, all enraged. She knew they had found something; I assume it was the stone. So, she might know something. Also, even as prickly as she is, I’m worried she might be in some danger.”

     “Straight, you can go talk to her. Not until morning, though, and I want two guards to go with you, though. Sergeant –“

     “I’ll go,” said Celia. “I got him into this; I feel responsible.”

     “And me,” said Cael.

     “Straight,” said Kalen. “But I want you both to go back to the Old Guard House first, and get some rest. No heading up into the hills until you have some daylight. And get rid of that beard and the earring, Cael. You look ridiculous.”

     “Aye, sir. There is one more thing, though.” He held up two pouches; one was the pouch Gil had used to present the enchanted Bits. “Our treasury just got quite a bit richer, I think. One of these belonged to ‘Lord Apple’, but the other, well, unless we connect ‘Lady Stone’ to someone …”

     “Nice work, Cael. You don’t think we can confiscate Lord Apple’s coins?”

     “Well, he wasn’t actually committing a crime, sir.”

     “Sometimes you are too honest for your own good, Cael. Still, you’re right. Now go get some rest.”

***

     Gil, Cael, and Celia walked in silence down the dark streets of the Old City. Gil was exhausted from the night’s events, and tired of speculating again and again about the same information. There was some awkwardness, too. Celia seemed unwilling to make eye contact, and Cael had started calling him Master Marser again, despite his offer of friendship. There was one thing bothering Gil, but he didn’t bring it up until they were on a ferry and crossing the Coldwell River.

     “Cael,” he said. “Those bags you showed Kalen. One of them was Lord Apple’s, but the other was the one with the enchanted Bits, wasn’t it? What about Lady Stone’s? I don’t mean to accuse you of anything, but –“

     “Am I stealing ten gold Marks? Is that the question, Gil?”

     This actually elicited a snort from Celia. “Straight. The most honest man in the Town Guard. Or was that your plan all along, Cael? Just wait for a big enough score, and go live like a nobleman?”

     “Of course not! And that reminds me …” he fished in his pocket and pulled out some Bits, which he handed to Celia. “Here’s what you kicked in for Gil’s ‘gold’.”

     “Thanks,” she said, pocketing the coins. “But now that we’ve established you aren’t a master thief, or even a petty one, what about Gil’s question?”

     “Well,” he said, “I am up to something.”

     “Spill it,” she demanded.

     “Just imagine the look on Tanbry’s face if I bring back this pouch and it’s full of real gold Marks.”

     “Heh,” she said with a smile. “Baiting Captain Koren’s mages, eh? I think that’s kind of beneath you.”

     “I … well, I don’t mean it that way. I don’t want to be mean. It’s just for a laugh. I won’t do it in front of everyone. You don’t think she’d think it’s funny?”

     “Oh ho!” said Celia. “You want to know if *she’d* think it’s funny? You know what I think? I think someone has a thing for our little mage. I guess she is kind of cute if you like bookish types.”

     Cael writhed. “I — um, that is — what if I do?” When Celia only grinned at him, her eyes dancing, he turned to Gil. “What do you think, Gil? Could a Town Guard and a mage …”

     This was too much for Gil to process. He was just piecing together that Cael and Celia weren’t involved with one another after all, and wondering why he felt so relieved, since she had made it pretty clear that she didn’t think it would work between them. So he decided to change the subject. “What I want to know is why am I Gil again, all of a sudden? Back in the courtyard, you started calling me ‘Master Marser,’ and right after I told you my friends call me Gil.”

     “I’m sorry about that,” said Cael. “It’s just, well, I was talking about you and not to you. And I didn’t want the captain thinking I was showing you disrespect, and it seemed like you were mad when you called him ‘Captain Darklen’, so …”

     “I see,” said Gil, taking it in, and wishing he could go someplace where titles didn’t matter, where he could be together with Celia, and where no one had heard of the Doravin or Gillem Stonecutter. “I wasn’t so much mad as embarrassed by Kalen’s joke.”

     “I’m sorry, Gil, that was my fault!” Celia blurted out. Her eyes were downcast.

     “You made the joke?”

     She met his eyes. Her face was stricken and her mouth made a small circle. “No! I just said that you dropped the Auctioneer like your hand was made of stone. It was Trent — he was with us that night when we found you at the Inn of the Serpent. He said it and everyone laughed. I’m so sorry I embarrassed you.” She put her hand on his arm.

     Her touch sent a shock through him. He wanted to take her in his arms again and kiss her, and to hell with what Cael or the ferryman though of that. Instead, he just patted her hand. “You did nothing wrong. Any embarrassment from that I brought on myself. You weren’t the one dressing up like someone else and drinking yourself stupid every night.”

     She smiled at him. “Thanks, Gil. I’m glad we’re still friends.”

     He nodded, wanting to ask “only friends?”, but staying silent. He knew the answer.

     After the ferry landed, they walked back to the Old Guard House. Celia and Cael offered to escort Gil home, but he opted to take a spare cot in the barracks, not wanting to lose any time in the morning. His hand was aching abominably by the time they arrived. Celia roused a guard with some training as a healer. This unfortunate man, who lacked any sense of humor about how often he was roused to treat an injury, scowled at Gil and applied a foul-smelling poultice, and then wrapped a bandage so tightly that Gil hissed with pain. Cael returned with a spare tunic and blanket and led Gil off to the men’s barracks. Celia bid them goodnight and went the other direction.

***

     Gil woke to daylight streaming through the barracks windows, and a hand on his shoulder, shaking him. He looked up to see Celia, looking better than he imagined he did after only a few bells of sleep. She grinned, thrust some clothes at him, and turned away.

     “Get dressed.”

     Gil threw back his blanket and started pulling on the clothes. They weren’t quite as nice as his normal wardrobe, but then they weren’t down to his Gillem Stonecutter workman clothes, either, and they fit. “What’s going on?” he asked Celia’s back. “Are we going to Aidona’s?”

     “Not quite yet. Cael’s about to play his little joke on Tanbry, and I don’t want to miss it. I thought you might enjoy it, too. Come on. He’s getting the bag out of lockup now. We should get to the stables about the same time as he does.”

     Gil finished putting his clothes on, thinking that he might have enjoyed a few more menes of sleep rather that watch someone else’s blossoming romance, but he let Celia lead him across the courtyard of the guardhouse to the former stables. Inside they saw Cael, clutching the coin purse in his hands and talking to a young woman with straight, dark auburn hair.

     “I thought you might –” Cael’s head whipped around at the sound of the door closing, and he looked at them in surprise.

     Celia grinned. “Oh, don’t mind us.”

     He glared at her, and then turned back to Tanbry, who had an eyebrow raised.

     “That is, I thought you might want to see how your spell worked out.”

     Tanbry smiled, and her face brightened. “Oh! Was it a success? I really appreciate your coming to tell me. Usually, we hear nothing … or complaints when things go wrong. Did the spell hold long enough?”

     Cael, looking ever more uncomfortable under Celia’s scrutiny, passed Tanbry the bag. “Take a look.”

     She took it, hefted it, and then cocked her head to the side. Then she opened it and stuck her hand inside. Her eyebrows shot up. Then she pulled out a coin out and dropped it with a little shriek as soon as she saw it. “It — changed! Did it really change to gold?!”

     Cael grinned. “No. I switched the coins to make you think that.” His grin fell a bit with every word, and he clapped his hand over his mouth when he finished.

     At the sight of this, Celia barked one short surprised laugh, and clapped a hand over her own mouth.

     Tanbry scowled, looking back and forth between Cael and Celia. “I don’t know which is worse, your stupid prank or your lame delivery.” She poked Cael with a finger. “Why would you do this?”

     Cael pulled his hand away from his mouth. “It’s just that I’m so attracted to you –” He put the hand back so fast that Gil winced at the sound it made.

     “Oh, so first it’s trick the little incompetent mage, and then pretend to like her so you can let her down in front of all of your guard friends? What’s next? A bucket of water on top of the door? I think I’ll go see if I can find a spell to turn you into … something!” She threw her hands up and stormed out. Cael just stood there and watched her go.

     “Well, that was … interesting,” said Celia. “Is that what passes for a prank in Heahun, Cael?”

     “That’s not what I meant to say,” said Cael. He spoke slowly and carefully.

     “I should hope –“

     “No, you don’t understand. I was trying to say something else –“

     “And you lost control of your tongue in front of a pretty girl. You small town boys are all alike.”

     “Wait,” said Gil, “don’t you see? It’s just like when we got to the auction. Cael, did you mean to say your own name instead of telling them you were Balthis the Reaver?”

     “Ol’s balls,” muttered Cael. “I’d forgotten about that. But you’re right, I meant to say Balthis, and my name just came out. What do you think it means?”

     “It means you’re a small town dolt who can’t think straight under pressure,” said Celia. “Now, let’s get that gold locked up and get going. We can figure out what’s wrong with Cael’s brain later. Gil, if you’re going to keep wearing that nasty thing, can you walk downwind?”

     Gil had almost forgotten the poultice. While Cael went to deal with the gold, he unwrapped the bandage, releasing a fresh wave of stench. He flexed his fingers while he wiped a layer of brown gunk off his hand. There was a large purple bruise across his knuckles, and down his palm and the back of his hand, but nothing seemed broken and the pain was bearable.

     Celia brought a damp cloth and helped him wipe the hand clean. When she was done, he took her hand with his uninjured one. This was the first moment he’d had alone with her in a while, not counting when he was half asleep and half dressed. She met his eyes and didn’t pull away.

     “Celia, why can’t we –?”

     “You know why, Gil. Let it go. It was just a kiss — a nice one — but that’s all it can be. We’re from different stations. I grew up on the streets, and now I’m just a guard. You’re –“

     “None of that matters to me.”

     “It should. Think it through, Gilvelle Marser. Can you imagine me in a fancy gown at the duke’s Melrin ball?” She pulled her hand away. “I’ll get us some horses. Are you okay to ride?” Without waiting for him to answer, she stormed off.

     “Yes, I can,” he whispered to her retreating back. “Only I can’t dance.”

***

     It was a strange ride to the quarry. Celia wasn’t talking or making eye contact again. Cael spent it lost in thought. That is, when he wasn’t announcing, successfully, to anyone who would listen that he was Balthis the Reaver. It was much less believable without the clothes, axe, earring, and beard, so he garnered nothing but funny looks from his fellow guards and passing tradesmen.

     The near silence — apart from Cael’s odd declarations — suited Gil. He tried to put his feelings for Celia aside and think about what he was going to say to Aidona. He couldn’t just go in and accuse her workers of … what? Theft? Murder? What had the big man actually done? He knew she was protective of her people. Maybe he could use that. Or start by telling her she might be in danger, which could actually be true. As they passed through the Travellers’ Gate and cleared the city walls, Gil began to worry for her safety. As difficult as she could be, he’d rather find her unharmed and angry than hurt, or worse.

     The flat dirt road gave way to a winding path. It was wide, and worked its way between the hills rather than over them, to make it easier to transport stone from the quarry. As they rounded the first mound Cael stopped and looked back. The city lay to the south, looking bright and full of promise in the morning sun, with no sign of hidden passages and secret hatred. Gil saw that Cael’s gaze was to the west, to the hills overlooking the city.

     “What do you see?” said Gil.

     “The Stone Man,” Cael said.

     “The … oh, the rock formation. I’ve never been to see it.”

     “You should,” said Cael. “He watches over us.”

     “Nehru’s Blood!” said Celia. “Cael, you weren’t even born here. You believe that? I grew up here. You know who watched over me? Me!” She turned her horse away and continued down the trail.

     “I don’t really … ah, never mind!” He rode after her.

     Gil followed, keeping silent, not wanting to stir the argument any further. It was some relief when they came to a fork in the trail. The wider part went to the old quarry. The other wound its way up a rocky slope to the Callin home. It had been built long before Gil was born. The Callin fortune was at least as large as the Marsers’. The families had been awarded their titles of master architect and quarry master for the work of Gil’s and Aidona’s ancestors in rebuilding the city after the Siege of Dargon in the Great Houses War. Aidona kept to herself. This house was the only visible sign of her wealth. It was large, and almost as imposing as Aidona herself.

     There was no one to greet them when they arrived. This was not a surprise to Gil. He knew Aidona had some servants to clean and cook, but there were no footmen to take their horses. The Callin home seldom had visitors. Gil himself had been here a number of times, but always for business.

     The entrance was two large oak doors, bound with iron. Gil tried the knocker and received no response. He knocked again, still silence from the other side.

     “Maybe a window?” said Celia.

     “We’re here to talk to her,” said Gil, “not arrest her. If she’s not here, we could try the quarry.”

     “Try the knob, first.”

     “She never leaves –” he began, and then the knob turned in his hand.

     They entered. Gil almost flinched at the idea of Aidona discovering them in her home without permission, but she didn’t burst out and surprise them.

     Cael was looking at the wooden floor when he asked, “Is that blood?”

     Celia joined him. “I think so. Do you see any more?”

     Gil looked where they were standing. Three irregular circles of reddish brown marred the finish of the floor. He scanned for more, and quickly spotted another two drops. “Here!”

     “Where does that lead?” she asked, pointing at an open doorway in the direction of the blood trail.

     “Her office.”

     “Get behind me, Gil. Cael, watch our backs.” She drew her sword, and advanced slowly. Gil fell into step behind her.

     The office was empty. Aidona’s desk stood in the center, large, and very neat, with even stacks of parchment, sealed jars of ink, and a small container of sand. Behind it hung a tapestry with a simple pattern, more for keeping out drafts than enjoying. The only decoration in the room hung opposite the tapestry, where it could be admired from the desk. Gil remembered gazing at it often as a child, when he’d been here with his father. Since he’d become the master architect, all his visits were taken up with arguing with Aidona, his father’s old role. He looked at it now. It was a stone sculpture, but not of any object. It was a cylindrical shape that wove through itself in great swooping arcs that curved through three dimensions. It was deceptively simple at first glance, but he remembered spending bells as a youth trying to trace the pattern. As he stared at it, another memory stirred.

     “More blood,” said Cael from the entrance hall. “Here, on the stairs.”

     “What’s up there?” Celia asked Gil as they rejoined Cael.

     “I don’t know. I’ve never been up there. Bedrooms I suppose. Maybe a study.”

     She arched an eyebrow. “Never? How many times did you say you’ve been here?”

    “Dozens. Often with my father when I was his apprentice, and even as a young boy. And, of course, to meet with her once my father passed. But you have to understand, Aidona is a very private person, so we only ever saw her in her office. So I never –“

     Gil stopped speaking when a chill ran down his spine. He had been up here once, as a very young boy, and something had scared him. It was not just the wrath of Aidona — and later of his father — when he was discovered. He’d been exploring and gone into a closet, and in that closet he’d seen … Aidona? But how could that have been so? Aidona had been downstairs with his father and come running when Gil had shrieked in terror.

     “Gil?” Celia poked her face into his field of view. “Did you have a thought there that you wanted to finish?”

     “Ah, sorry. Once. I was up here once, when I was very young. I got lost and a little scared. I’d forgotten that until now.”

      “Lost … in a house,” she said. “Hm. Remember anything useful?”

     “Not really.”

     “Let’s go then.” She climbed the stairs, and pointed out more drops of blood as she rose.

     At the top of the stairs was a long hallway, with doors to either side. They worked their way down the hall methodically. Celia checked each room for occupants, or blood, while Gil played lookout in the hallway.

     Celia and Cael had just entered one door when the opposite door burst open. With a bellow, a huge figure charged through the open door, raising a hammer overhead, moving straight toward the two guards. Without thinking, or at least without using the lessons of the previous night, Gil threw himself in the path of this juggernaut, ducking low to avoid the hammer. He was thrown to the wooden floor and barely slowed the brute, but it was enough. Cael was only clipped in the arm by the hammer rather than having his head pulped. He stumbled into Celia from the force of the blow and they both went sprawling. The huge figure raised his hammer for another blow. Gil rose and threw himself at the massive torso again. He rebounded from the wall of muscle and bone, which had budged not a finger’s width from the force of Gil’s charge, and found himself looking up into the face of the man from the auction, the one who had escaped with the milky white stone.

     “Marser,” said the man. His voice was deep, and he sounded a bit surprised. Then he began to raise his hammer for another blow. Gil knew there was no place to run where he could escape the reach of that hammer before it came down on his head. Then he remembered this man was wounded; he looked down and saw a large patch of blood staining the giant’s breeches on his right thigh. Gil could see a tear in the fabric and the rent flesh beneath it. Without hesitation, he punched as hard as he could, directly into the wound.

     Instinctively, he’d struck with his left hand, the same one he’d used to hit the Auctioneer the night before. It erupted with fresh pain, but not as much pain as his adversary felt. The enormous man let loose a wail and stumbled, clutching his thigh and letting his hammer fall to the floor.

     “Take him!” snarled Celia, and the two guards were upon him, trying to tackle him to the ground. He shrugged them off, knocking Celia sideways into the doorframe. Cael tried to twist the man’s arm behind his back, though it was clear he was favoring his own right arm. The big man just jerked his arm free and backhanded Cael. Then Celia was back in, low, trying to wrap up his knee and take him down. He just laughed at this until she drew her sword. Then he grabbed her by the wrist and started shaking her like a doll.

     Her sword clattered to the floor in front of Gil. He snatched it up and lunged forward, plunging it into the big man’s midsection.

     The large man grunted and looked down. “Oh,” he said, and sank to his knees, releasing Celia. He fell over on his side and rolled to his back, panting.

     “Marser,” he called.

     Gil moved to stand over him. “I’m here.”

     “Marser,” he said again. “You’re between mallet and slab, aren’t you?” When Gil didn’t respond, he continued. “I think you killed me, architect. No matter. My work is done. You, and the Doravin, both. You …”

     “Where is the stone?” Gil whispered, expecting no answer. Gil had twice held friends who were dying. He knew the sound of a man’s final breath.

     Celia came up beside him. “We wanted him alive.”

     “He was going to kill you.”

     She paused to consider this. “Can’t argue that, I suppose. What did that mean, what he said?”

     “‘Between mallet and slab’? He worked in the quarry. They swing big hammers, like that one, against great slabs of stone. Between them is the last place you want to be, because you’re about to get crushed.”

     “Huh. Well, that’s ominous. Cael, are you in one piece?”

     “More or less. I can’t really move this arm.”

     “That’s fine. We need your eyes. Look around.”

      “Straight,” Cael said and began to scan the room where the big man had been lurking. “Some more blood here, quite a bit more, but probably his.”

     “Let’s keep going,” said Celia.

     As she opened the next door, Gil felt again that thrill of terror down his back. This was the room where they had found him, wailing and sobbing. And pointing through a doorway at —

     “Wait,” he said, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice. Why was he suddenly afraid? He pushed the fear aside. “I do remember this room, but it’s not right.”

     “What do you mean?” she asked.

     “There was a doorway, right there. I — I’m not sure where it led.”

     “Check it,” said Celia.

     Cael moved forward to inspect the wall. “He’s right. There’s a seam here.”

     “Spread out,” said Celia. “Find the way to open it.”

     Gil watched in growing amusement as the two guards started to broaden their search, moving away from the hidden door and checking candle holders on adjacent walls, bedposts, and even a half-full jug of wine on a small table in the middle of the room. He approached the door.

     “I think you two have been listening to too many tales in the tavern. It has to be something close.”

     “You’re suddenly an expert on hidden doors?” Celia asked.

     “Architect,” he muttered. “Ah, here.” A floorboard near one side of the door yielded to firm pressure from his foot. There was a wooden scrape. He pushed the door gently open and looked inside.

     “Ah!” he said, covering his head and making no effort to disguise his terror. “Ah!” There stood Aidona, just as she had been all those years before, glowering at him from the shadows.

      The two guards charged forward. “Gil, what –?” Celia began, and then started laughing.

     A moment later Cael joined her, though his laugh was a bit uncertain. “What is that?”

     Celia smirked. “It’s called a dressing dummy. Ladies’ maids use them to prepare their lady’s clothing. Imagine being so rich you can pay someone to dress you.”

     “I don’t know which is worse,” said Cael. “That Gil is scared of a dressing dummy, or that you know what one is.”

     “Shut up,” she said. “I know things. I had a friend who was a lady’s maid. Come on, Gil. Let’s take a look at the scary dress.”

     This finally penetrated Gil’s terror and he looked up. Now that he knew what he was looking at, it was obvious. It was just a dummy in the back of a closet, wearing a long green dress, one of Aidona’s favored colors, and a wig of short blonde hair. He could see how he’d mistaken it for Aidona herself when he’d been a young child. He’d never known Aidona wore a wig, though.

     “Care to tell us what that was all about?” asked Celia, as Cael began to poke around the closet.

     “No,” Gil replied. “Not even a little.”

     Cael gave a low whistle. “Wow. That is one impressive mirror. I’ve never seen one that big, and look at the carvings in the frame. I bet that costs as much as I make in a decade. Imagine keeping something like that hidden away.”

     Gil moved forward to look at the mirror. It was a perfectly smooth plate of silvered glass, as tall and as wide as a man. The frame was ornate. He suspected Cael’s estimated years of salary might be off by a factor of two or three.

     “And what’s this?” Cael said as he plucked something off a small table. “Gah! It’s a nose!”

     “What?” demanded Celia and Gil in unison.

     “Not a real nose. It’s something like a performer might wear. And look at these little jars.” He opened a few. “Face paint and glue, I think. Gil, was your friend Aidona on the stage in her spare time?”

     “I can’t imagine too many things less likely than that.”

     “Straight. Enough,” said Celia. We can poke around the quarry master’s secret life as an actress another time. It doesn’t look like the hammer man was in here. So far, we’ve seen no sign of Aidona or the stone. What do we know? He was up here, maybe resting his leg with that wound. So, he either hid the stone on his way here, or gave it to someone here. That someone either took Aidona, or killed her, or it was her. Straight? Either way, I think we need to talk to Kalen.”

***

     Kalen listened as the guards related the events of the morning. Celia omitted the part about Gil collapsing in fear, though she did give him a little grin when she got to the part about his opening the hidden door. When they were done, Kalen asked a few questions, and then said, “Straight, I think it’s time to inform the duke, and I want him to hear it from you. He may have questions I didn’t think of.”

     “Another ferry ride,” murmured Celia.

     “Fortunately not,” said Kalen. “Duke Dargon is on his way to this side of the river. He’s actually going to the Doravin encampment. Well, outside of it. Apparently, a group of Dargon’s citizens are camped outside and refusing to leave until they get to talk to him directly. I was just going to run them off – they’re lucky not to get worse. Imagine a group of peasants *demanding* to see the duke? Then I remembered, his lordship is paying close attention to the Doravin situation, so I sent word. And he’s actually coming to address this lot. Now they’ll go away satisfied instead of battered about the head and shoulders, and I don’t have to put any of my men at risk. I was just about to go there to meet him when you arrived.”

     They joined Kalen and a contingent of four guards, returning to the Travellers’ Gate and then continuing south along the Street of Travellers toward the Doravin camp. Gil could see as they approached that a large group of locals was indeed gathered near the entrance to the Doravin camp. Some, not many, held improvised weapons — farm implements and tools. A group of guards, no more than a half dozen, stood between this crowd and the entrance to the Doravin camp, which was a gap in the low earthen wall that the Doravin had raised one night with their magic. Across the road from the Doravin encampment was Pickett’s Let. The former swamp had changed a great deal in the past several months as the Doravin used the detritus from their work on the bridge to fill in the swamp. It was still a morass in places, but the trees were less dense. In some spots, it was dry and almost flat.

      As they drew closer, he could hear shouts from the crowd.

     “We want the duke!”

     “Down with the stoneheads!”

     “Give us back our homes!”

     The crowd, though angry, was not advancing on the guards. The guards, for their part, stood tense, with spears pointing out toward the crowd. The guards were also casting nervous glances behind them. As their path brought them to an angle where Gil could see inside the Doravin rampart, he could see why. A row of Doravin stood motionless just inside the wall, their stone garments seeming to complete the gap in the wall.

     Kalen reined his mount. “We need to get in there before this gets any worse. Dismount. You two, tend the horses.”

     Gil dismounted, and approached Kalen, who was straightening his uniform. “Shouldn’t we stay mounted in case there’s trouble?”

     “You’re used to watching the duke’s soldiers drill at the keep, aren’t you? Well, these are no war horses, and my folks aren’t trained to fight from horseback.”

     “I see. And where would you like me to wait?”

     “Wait? Gil, you’re coming with us. We may need to talk to the Doravin, and you’re the only one they speak to most of the time.”

     Celia came up from behind him. “Don’t worry, Gil. With us joining the ranks it’ll only be five to one, or so.”

     “You always know just how to put things, Celia,” said Kalen.

     “Thank you, captain.”

     “She’s right, though, Gil,” said Kalen. “An untried, poorly armed group like this won’t be much of a risk. Half of them will turn tail at the first sign of conflict, and the others will be stumbling all over each other. Let’s move.”

     They walked the rest of the distance, skirting the crowd as they drew close. Gil was very conscious of being between the steep earthen wall and that many angry people. The crowd muttered as they passed, but made no move to advance on them.

     “Look, more guards.”

     “Here to protect those slinking stoneheads from good people like us!”

     “Who’s that with them?”

     “Him? Don’t you know Gilvelle Marser, chief toady to the Doravin?”

     “Marser? As in ‘Marser Mansions?'”

     Gil winced at the derogatory nickname that had been given to the houses he’d had built for the people who’d been relocated from their ramshackle homes in Pickett’s Let. He’d been nervous enough passing this close to the mob before they had recognized him. Now that they were citing specific reasons to hate him, he was having a very hard time not bolting for cover.

     Then they reached the thin line of guards standing between the crowd and the Doravin camp.

     “Sergeant Griebel! Report!” called Kalen.

     “Aye, sir,” replied the sergeant. “Things started turning ugly about a bell ago, or so. More people showed up, and they started getting impatient. There was the one fellow … there — no. I can’t see him now. Blue tunic. He started stirring things up. It’s nothing we couldn’t handle, unless the Doravin attack, too. They haven’t budged since the crowd first showed up. Still, I’m glad you’re here, sir. Even up the odds in case of a fight. Less likely we have to kill someone.”  

     “Thanks, Tyn,” said Kalen. “And … looks like the odds just shifted in our favor a bit more. Duke Dargon’s arrived.” He pointed past the mob and further down the road, where the Street of Travellers sloped down toward the river.

     A small group of horsemen rode into view. Most wore the ducal livery, and bore small round shields, with spears at rest. The duke was with them, dressed in the same blue and gold. They stopped, and a swordsman beside the duke began giving orders. He dismounted along with two other men. The duke and this man exchanged words for a moment.

     “Who’s that with him?” muttered Kalen.

     “Bren kel Tomas, I’d say,” said Gil. “Clifton always says that no one barks orders quite like Bren.”

     Kalen stared at him for a moment. “Hm, well, I’d say he has some brains to go with that sword. He’s held some horsemen in reserve, but of the party headed this way, only the duke is mounted. That will be less threatening to the crowd, but it will keep the duke safe, and let him address the whole crowd.”

     As the duke’s party approached, Bren kel Tomas began to yell, “Make way! Make way for the duke!”

     The people backed up a few steps, no more than enough to allow Clifton’s horse to stay on the road as he approached the besieged guards. The shouts and taunts began to die out and soon were no more than a low rumbling.

     “Captain,” said kel Tomas.

     “Sir,” said Kalen. Gil was glad to see he wasn’t the only one who didn’t quite know how to address kel Tomas, another man from a foreign land, who had earned a place as the duke’s swordmaster and advisor. “I still don’t understand why the duke came himself,” continued Kalen. “I only wanted to alert him to the situation, in case I needed to use force to break this up.”

     “Ever the Dargon way, though, isn’t it?” said kel Tomas. “I think most nobles would have those horsemen ride the people down, and some would have them all rounded up and beheaded. He said it was time he spoke to the people directly about the Doravin.”

     Clifton took position in front of the crowd, expertly steering his horse with his legs while holding his empty right hand up in greeting. The stump of his left arm was hidden by his cloak.

     “My people! You have called, and I have come. I understand you have some concerns about our guests –“

     “Guests know when to leave!” called a voice from the back. This brought some laughter from the crowd.

     Clifton didn’t alter his pleasant tone. “Well put, sir. I should choose my words more carefully. Guests also don’t rebuild fallen bridges. Let’s just call them by their name: the Doravin. I have granted them this land behind me to live upon in exchange for their work. They’ve asked for no other recompense.”

     “Why did you let them build a wall around their camp?” cried another voice. “It’s like the siege all over again.”

     Gil thought this would be difficult to answer. The Doravin never had permission to build that wall; it had formed overnight, by magic. He could see why it might remind them of the armed camps of Beinison from the war.

     Clifton paused for only a moment before replying. “Consider if you were forced to flee Dargon, and found yourself on Duurom, surrounded by strangers who don’t understand your ways. Wouldn’t you want a wall to sleep behind in order to feel safe?”

     “They attacked the Inn of the Serpent!” called a third voice.

     “That’s under investigation, isn’t it Captain Kalen?”

     “Yes, my lord!”

     “And if those Doravin truly did attack that bar, I assure you they will face my justice,” said Clifton.

     “They steal children!” This might have been the first person again, but from a different place in the crowd.

     “Do they?” asked Clifton. “Who here has had a child stolen by the Doravin?”

     The crowd fell silent for a moment, waiting for someone to speak up. In the lull, Gil heard Celia whisper to Kalen, “More coming.” Gil looked toward the back of the crowd. He’d been so focused on listening to the duke that he’s missed seeing more people wandering over from the ‘Let in groups of two or three to join the crowd.

     “They’ve taken our homes, and our land!” said one man near the front of the crowd.

     “That’s the duke’s land, you scum!” said Sergeant Griebel. “It’s all the duke’s land. He just lets you live on it, you ingrates!”

     “Easy, guardsman,” said the duke. “These people are upset. There is no need to insult them.” He looked at the man who had spoken. “You lived in Pickett’s Let, didn’t you?”

     The man looked around. He seemed uncomfortable now that he was the full focus of the duke’s attention. “Y-yes, my lord.”

     “And were you not given another place to live?”

     “Yes, my lord, only …”

     “Only what?”

     “It’s not my place, what I built for my family with my own two hands. And they say …”

     “Yes? What do ‘they’ say?”

     “They say you only had us put there, so … so you could keep a watch on us.” As he finished, his voice weakened. By the end, it was clear had no confidence in what he was saying. The crowd began murmuring questions to each other and shaking their heads. Some began to back away.

     “Why is he here?” called a voice. Gil was sure now it was the first to have spoken, now raising another challenge. “Why is Gilvelle Marser, lapdog of the duke and spy for the Doravin, here? To report more of our secrets? To give away more of our land and rights?”

     Whatever energy had begun to drain from the crowd now surged back in. An angry muttering grew up, and the people pressed forward, though still out of the range of a spear thrust.

     Gil heard a grunt of effort and looked up just in time to see something flung from the crowd moving directly toward his head. He froze, unable to move. Then something flashed in front of his eyes, and with a loud clang the object was deflected. Bren kel Tomas stepped in front of him, with sword bared.

     “That’s enough of that,” said kel Tomas. “The next man who throws a rock, I will personally run through.”

     “Stop!” called the duke, with the iron of command in his voice. “There is no need –“

     Whatever he was going to say next was lost in a roar from the crowd and a barrage of objects — rocks, branches, pieces of broken pottery — began to rain down on the duke and his entourage. One thrown rock struck the duke’s horse in the eye and the beast whinnied in pain. It kicked out, striking one unfortunate guard in the chest, and then reared up. Clifton, holding on with only his knees, was thrown off the beast and landed hard on his back.

     Cael and another guard immediately moved to stand over him. The guards formed up as the crowd pressed forward. Those on the front line seemed more interested in avoiding the spears and swords of the guards than attacking, but they were being pressed forward by those behind, and rocks continued to rain down. Gil cast around for an avenue of escape, but the mob had closed around them, forming a semi-circle that pressed up against the earthen wall. The entrance to the Doravin camp was within, but the Doravin themselves were formed into a wall there.

     Gil ran to this human barrier, dodging hurled objects. “I am Gilvelle Marser! Where is Na Chok?” He used the Doravin term for the member of their group assigned to speak to strangers, a title that rotated each day. He was met with only silent stares.

     Behind him, kel Tomas was helping Clifton to his feet. “My lord! Let me give the signal!”

     “No!” cried Clifton, “We can still –“

     He was interrupted by a scream as a guard was dragged into the crowd, who fell upon him, roaring, and kicking. Gil felt relief that it had been a male voice, not Celia’s, and then immediate guilt for that thought.

     Clifton seemed to sag in kel Tomas’ grasp. “Do it,” he said, in little more than a whisper.

     Kel Tomas, still holding the duke up with one hand, raised the other to his lips and whistled, three times, short and loud. In response, there was a shout in the distance, and the sound of approaching hoof beats. Some members of the crowd cried out in terror, but others redoubled their attacks. The guards fell back, forming a defensive wall around the duke, until they were almost pressed up against the Doravin. Still the angry mob advanced.

     “Marser!” called a familiar voice. “I am Na Chok!”

     “Noval? Is that you?” Gil cried in return. Only one Na Chok had ever given him a name. He was almost certain this was her voice.

     A gasp arose from the Doravin, and they began muttering and glancing at one another.

     The voice yelled something in the Doravin tongue, with the whipcrack of command. The Doravin fell silent. “It is I, Marser! Do you and your duke seek our aid?”

     Gil looked back at the ever-tightening mob, driven to a further frenzy by their fear of the rushing cavalry. With nowhere to run, they seemed intent on fighting their way into the Doravin camp to escape the horses. The horsemen had arrived and were wreaking havoc on the flank, but there was no telling if they would fight their way through the crowd in time to save the duke and the guards — and himself. Worse, the crowd was pressed so close he thought the horsemen might end up trampling the people they were saving in the chaos. “Yes!” he shouted.

     Noval shouted another command in Doravin. The human wall of Doravin collapsed and Gil found himself stumbling into the Doravin camp. Then the Doravin warriors formed up into groups and pressed between the Town Guards. Where there had been a crumbling half-circle, an unbroken line stood firm, Doravin and Town Guard fighting side by side. The mob of Dargon’s berserk citizens broke like a wave against this new wall; then the cavalry swept through and obliterated them.

     Gil moved up beside Clifton, who was down on one knee. “Are you injured, my lord?”

     “Wind knocked out of me by the fall,” said Clifton. He tried to stand and grunted, going back to one knee. “Maybe a broken rib.” He looked up at the battle, which had become a full rout. “Gil, what have we done?”

     “Saved your life, I think, my lord,” said Gil.

     “But at what price? How many of my people, guards and citizens, will die this day? And what will be the price of the Doravin’s aid?”   

***

     No guards died in what came to be known as “Clifton’s Betrayal” in whispered discussions in the alleys and dark corners of Dargon. Even Quot, the guard who had been dragged into the crowd, survived — albeit with some broken bones. Thirty seven of Dargon’s citizens died that day, and another score were too wounded to flee. Of those that fled, none ever learned how many there were or the extent of their wounds. But if all the whispers in the coming sennights were to be believed, there were hundreds in that battle, and every cut and bruise revealed over weak beer in some seedy tavern was inflicted by the Doravin, or by the duke himself, though in truth he never raised a hand in the fight.

     The man in blue was discovered among the dead. In a crowd of Dargon’s destitute and disaffected, someone with enough money to afford dyed clothing stood out. He was lying on his back, with the shattered end of a spear emerging from his chest. Gil stood over him, with Duke Dargon, Kalen, kel Tomas, and Celia, who had found the body. The man was, perhaps, in his forties, bald but for a fringe of hair running around his head.  His face was round and beardless.

     “Anyone know him?” asked the duke.

     When no one replied, Kalen said, “Search him.”

     Celia bent to the task, turning out pockets that were empty but for a few small coins. Then she pulled down the collar of his shirt. In a soft voice, she said, “Gil.”

     He knew before she pulled out the necklace what it would be: a metal disk stamped with the pattern of interlocking circles.

     “Lady Stone,” he whispered. Then it came to him, what had been eluding him for bells. “Great Stevene! The sculpture in Aidona’s office. Picture it pressed flat. This would be the pattern!”

     “Aidona?” asked the duke. “The quarry master.”

     “Yes, my lord,” said Gil. “She is either in danger from these people, or involved with them.”

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