DargonZine 23, Issue 2

Essart and the Lady

Vibril 12, 1014


I should start by saying that I have not always been a nice man. In fact, there are times that I have been quite the scoundrel. I have stolen, lied, cheated, and otherwise been the kind of person with whom you hope your children never associate. I have never killed a man, though I have also been fortunate never to have to.

Somewhere in the year of 1013, prior to the King’s Birthday Ball, I met three characters of interest. The most disreputable and dangerous of the three was named Borzhu the Dealer. A man of few if any scruples, and brightly-dyed hair, Borzhu was an unfortunate requirement in my predicament. I also believe that if he had paid me half of what my stolen items were truly worth, I would have stolen far less — but then, it is not the volume of theft that condemns me, rather that I stole at all. In any case, Borzhu would purchase my purloined items and thus became an alternate means of keeping myself in the latest fashions.

On the recommendations of a friend, I met the second character of note: Genarvus Kazakian. A florid man who makes broad hand gestures when he speaks in his heavily accented Baranurian, he was quite useful. I took to bringing unique items to Genarvus prior to selling them to Borzhu. This ensured I was able to get the most profit from my light fingers. I truly did abhor stealing. Honestly, I assure you, I regretted having to do it. But I also thought that, if I was going to steal, I might as well do it properly.

On the 24th of Ober, the very day of the King’s Birthday Ball, I met the third. I had received a rather ominous note from Aardvard Factotum, whose name I’d heard in certain circles. I knew him to be a broker of information, handler of rare magics, a healer, and other mysterious things as well. The note said simply, “See me today before fourth bell, or your secret will be out.”

I paled immediately, of course. What did he know about me? I had certain secrets, as I’m sure we all do, that I wished to keep safe. But how was I to do that? If I responded to this note and went to see Factotum, that would confirm in his mind that his information was accurate. If I did not, he might spread one or more of my secrets, which would ruin me.

I fretted about it over breakfast, a delectable ensemble of sausage, bacon, fried eggs and warm breads from the kitchen. My landlady had the most wonderful skills in the kitchen, and my growing waistline was testament to that fact. But when the culinary distraction was over, I was still faced with my predicament. I determined that I must go see the man, even if only to find out what secret he knew.

My rooms were in in the Old City, at a house in Coldwell Height, which is a rather wealthy area, replete with stone-constructed town homes, gabled windows, and cobblestone streets. From there I walked to the city gates, where I hired a wagon driver to take me over the causeway and up the long, hilly Street of Travellers outside the New City to Factotum’s home. The expense of a driver is not something I would normally waste on a journey across the river, but I had to keep up appearances.

When I entered Factotum’s home, there were copious signs of wealth: his floors were paved, and covered in grass mats, thick tapestries and books in cases adorned the walls, and the strong smell of incense filled the air. My well-practiced eyes spotted a few trinkets here and there that could be pocketed easily and sold to an unscrupulous dealer I knew, but I quieted that part of me. I was here to find out what secret Factotum had unearthed.

“Come in, Essart, come in,” he said to me. “My apologies, my secretary is out at the moment.” I noted the scrimshaw pipe he held in his left hand while he indicated a chair for me to sit in. The smoky atmosphere was heady and irritated my eyes. There was not a scrap to eat anywhere on his desk to console my discomfort.

“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” I said. “I have heard the most impressive things of your reputation.”

“And I have heard something of yours,” he replied. He squinted at me, and I believe I wrinkled my nose at the man. He had no tact, nor guile, nor artful edifice in conversation. I knew I could only approach him at his level.

“So,” I stated flatly, “you believe I have a secret to hide.”

“I know you have one,” he said. He smiled, leaned back, and drew on his pipe. His eyes, I noted, were heavily lidded and reddened from the atmosphere. “And we won’t play guessing games, there’s too much at stake, and you have too much work to do for me.”

I raised my eyebrows in disbelief. “I am going to work for you? I don’t work at all,” I responded. It was true. I lived something of a leisurely life in my rented rooms, though I was hardly wealthy.

“Oh, I think you do,” Aardvard stated. He placed the pipe in a silver holder on his desk and leaned forward to stare at me. “You work very hard to appear leisurely. You work hard to appear inconsequential. Being shorter than most, and a bit plumper — you’ll forgive my assessment, I hope — you do not strike an imposing figure, and most people assume that your clothes tell an accurate story of independent wealth.”

“But?”

“But,” Aardvard continued, “You are a thief. You take items of small value from the homes of you friends. You are good at being discrete and never taking anything too large or too valuable. And you have an unfortunate knack of selling your purloined items to the same person who, recently, was also exposed to me. He paid his debt with your name.”

At this point, I believe I twisted my face into a scowl because he read my reaction instantly, though inaccurately. Factotum thought I was upset at being discovered, which was true. But more revolting was the fact that Borzhu had become untrustworthy. It is a horrible thing when a thief cannot rely upon a buyer to be discrete.

“Oh, don’t worry. I have no interest in telling the world how you keep yourself in waistcoats.” He paused for an unnecessary dramatic effect. “But I will, if I have to.” I nodded my understanding of the obvious threat. Honestly, could the man be more blunt? “I trade in information. The fact that you nick a few items here and there from wealthy people is not that valuable to me. What is valuable, however, is finding out the origins of Sir Purvis.”

The smoke in the room was burning my eyes at this point. I was relieved, of course, that he had no interest in spreading my secret, but I also did not want to be under his thumb. He was trying to hide blackmail behind a business deal. I suppose I had no right to be offended by it, being that I was a thief, but blackmail is so uncouth. After all, none of my acquaintances actually missed the small items that I acquired at their homes, and they could easily afford to replace them. “I do not know this Sir Purvis,” I said.

“Nor do I, nor do I.” He waived his hand in the air as if to dismiss the fact, and the pipe smoke made errant patterns around his head. “In fact, I haven’t met a person who does know him overly well. But he arrived in town last evening, and he’s been the talk of the court. He’s young, handsome, and mysterious. He’ll be at the King’s Birthday Ball this evening, at the castle, so get yourself invited and find out all you can of him. When you report back to me, the cost of maintaining your secret will be paid. It’s all very simple.”

***

And so I found myself standing in the duke’s ballroom that very evening, amidst a crowd of Dargon’s elite, celebrating the king’s birthday. Soft silks and satins decorated the ladies in shades of blue and brown. Their hair was worn up, in the majority, exposing their delicate necks and the jeweled earrings they wore. Sometime tonight, a few of those earrings would fall loose, and a quick, practiced eye might profit from the diamonds and rubies in their midst.

I knew many of the attendees, of course, but most only by name. While I circulated among the less influential landholders and merchants, the nobility have ever been just beyond my reach. I knew that I could use this opportunity to further my own position; if I could secure an appointment, or broker a deal that would elevate my status, I would not have to steal and cheat the people I would rather count my friends. However, my primary goal for the evening was this mysterious Purvis, and so I scanned the crowd for an opportunity.

I had no idea what this Purvis looked like, of course, but I was informed that he was a young knight, and would be wearing a green jeweled belt and golden spurs. Those colors were not standard in Dargon, but spoke of foreign, or at least southern, influences. While I searched the room, I noticed the appetizers laid out on the tables. Mollusks and clams, drenched in wine and mustard sauces, adorned the interior tables, surrounded by warmed breads and smooth butter. Small cuts of meat wrapped in bacon were placed delicately next to greens. Serving staff darted through the crowded room with small strips of fish and beef, cooked to tender and lightly salted.

I dabbled at the table, just taking a few bites, and sipped a charming red wine I took to be Comarian, as the grapes were particularly dry and oaky. It was then that I spied an acquaintance of mine. His name was Kroan, and he stood next to a peculiar looking man with a cowl over his head, and the deepest darkness beneath. I approached Kroan and bid him good evening. The man in the cowl, which was remarkably impenetrable to my gaze, said nothing. Kroan seemed a bit on edge, so I decided to be direct.

“Perhaps you can help me, Kroan,” I said. “I am looking for a Sir Purvis.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know the man,” he said.

“Nor I, really. But I’m told he’s wearing a remarkable belt bedecked in green jewels, perhaps emeralds, and wearing golden spurs.” As soon as I relayed this description, the cowled man turned his head directly at me. I could see nothing under the hood, but I sensed the deepest anger emanate from beneath it. Kroan put his hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “I believe he went through the door to the east wing. Perhaps you can find him there.”

I thanked him and made my way. It was curious how the cowled man reacted to me, and even more so that I could feel his reaction, but not so curious that I wished to discuss the matter. I am not heroic. Too many people end up injured or dead over minor insults, in my opinion, and I had no wish to be one of them.

It took more than a bell to search the available rooms in the east wing. Many of the rooms were simple closets and storage areas, and if I did not have my eye out for special trinkets I probably could have covered the area in half the time. There was nothing for me, unfortunately, until I stumbled into an unlocked room where lay, quite immobile, a young knight sprawled on a bed. He met the description Factotum gave me perfectly, but he appeared dead! I went to his side and could barely detect his chest rising and falling. A fine white dust, very faint to the eye, covered his face. I wondered if this was pipe dust, and perhaps the knight had a nasty habit. Additional information, of course, might have been valuable to bring back to Factotum.

But, to business. I searched the man’s pockets and pouches immediately. I found the usual snuff in a golden box and pocketed that for myself, as well as a signet ring and parchment. The ring I could hardly steal for surely that would be missed by its owner! But the parchment had a list of names. It meant nothing to me, so I decided to put it to good use. How much time did I have until the knight woke up? I had no idea.

My heart raced as I grabbed a burning candle from the dresser. I poured some wax on the parchment. As it cooled and thickened, I took Purvis’ hand and pressed the signet into the wax. This should suffice Factotum! Sweat dripped from my palms as I replaced the candle, but its slippery form slid through my slick fingers. The heavy candle landed on the wooden floor with a loud thump! I turned to see the knight begin to move … and then stop. His chest no longer rose and fell. Had he died? Was the white dust poison? Was I now exposed to this?

I replaced the candle and returned to the knight’s side. I detected a soft breath still flowing through his lips. I sighed. I felt lightly at his pouch; it jingled with the sound of heavy coin, so I removed it deftly and pocketed that as well. The knight would certainly know he’d been robbed, but by whom, and how, would be a mystery. It was his own fault for getting drunk and drugged in a strange town.

The knight’s belt, I admit, I eyed longingly. Emeralds reflected the candle light, and were accented by some small diamonds and rubies. It was worth a fortune. But how would I take it? I had no way of hiding it, and certainly it was unique enough that I could not simply wear it back into the ballroom. But a faint stirring from Purvis ended my internal debate. I ran to the door, composed myself briefly, then exited as calmly as possible. Sweat continued to bead down my forehead, but the hallway was empty. I returned to the ballroom and the delectable foods.

While I enjoyed a cut of beef and some wine, I engaged in conversation with a charming woman and apparently made an excellent impression on her. I cannot honestly say how, as I spent a majority of the time trying to extricate myself from the conversation. It was my habit, you see, to depart an area as soon as possible once I had stolen something. If I was not immediately visible to the offended parties, I rationalized, then I was less likely to be suspect. Despite this, and my attempts to deter the woman, I found myself waltzing her around the dance floor to a traditional tune.

The mass of bodies in the hall had a stifling effect, so someone opened the tall doors that led to the grounds and let in the chill Ober air. The castle is built upon a rocky outcrop that looks over the northern sea, and the sound of the surf crashing against the rocks mixed with the stringed and brass instruments in an odd collaboration that both enhanced the music and magnified those aggressive waves of water. It was a most memorable moment. The wine, and my success, must have made me giddy. I was positively enjoying the dance.

“You are quite light on your feet,” the lady said.

“I? I am an overlarge stumbler, madam. It is your dexterity that carries us.”

“You and I are not so differently shaped,” she said. In truth, she was not thin. “Are you suggesting that I am overlarge?”

I smiled. I knew how to play this game. “Not at all, dear lady. Any largeness you might have is quite well … strategically placed, shall we say?” I smiled and winked at her, and she laughed as gaily as might a woman half her age. I had not intended to bed a woman that evening, and still had my eye on leaving as quickly as possible, but the temptation she hinted at gave me pause. It bears repeating that I am not a striking figure, and to have a woman this interested in me was a rare thing.

Quite suddenly, the music came to a stop. Everyone looked to the orchestra, perplexed, until the voice of the young Duke Dargon called out. Due to security concerns, the ball was being cut short. My heart skipped a beat: they had found Sir Purvis. There was no other reason I could deduce. I scanned the room quickly looking for guards. None were readily apparent. They would be searching the guests as they left. I would have to make some excuse on my way out, in case I had to leave the parchment and snuff box behind.

“How dreadful,” the lady said as she pouted. “I was just beginning to enjoy myself.”

“There’s plenty of opportunity for enjoyment left in this night,” I said. It was more of an off-hand flirtation, an instinctive and, to be honest, not even sincere suggestion. I was far more concerned with keeping my head attached to my neck.

“Well then,” she said, “the duke has provided me some rooms during my stay. Perhaps you could entertain me there?”

I turned and stared into her eyes. They were startlingly green. How had I had not noticed that before? “That would be quite enjoyable,” I replied. And an excellent means of avoiding a search.

***

The morning after the ball, the lady — her name was Vivian, I discovered — and I enjoyed a light breakfast composed of quail, juices, and an assortment of breads. Most were, I suspect, remainders from the previous night’s festivities, but the flavor was still excellent. Vivian was a widower and owned a small estate to the south, in Pyridain. She had a number of suitors now that her husband was gone, she told me, yet none of them made her happy. She asked if I had ever been to Pyridain, and I confessed to her that I had no intention of leaving Dargon. She pouted in such a charming way.

I apologized for having to leave her, but I had an appointment I had to keep. I was anxious to be done with Factotum’s blackmail. But how was I to know the meaning of the signet ring? I needed someone with knowledge. I needed someone I could trust. I needed Kazakian.

I entered Kazakian’s shop. The patchwork of carpets on his floor was his homeland’s style, I’d been told. Like many stores, this one doubled as his home. There was a hearth on the right hand wall, and a large tapestry on the left. Genarvus himself sat, as usual, at his desk, bent over his work.

While I explained my situation, he hardly looked up from the pile of work in front of him. He was obviously performing some intense research. Finally, I showed him the parchment with the wax seal on it.

“Ah, yes. This is interesting. This parchment details a bloodline descending from an early lord of Pyridain … the brother of a deceased duke … and the familial connections that lead us down through five generations until this man, here. I don’t know his name, of course, because there is a wax imprint of a seal blocking it.” Genarvus looked up at me. I admit, I felt the blush in my skin. “Just let me get another book …”

Kazakian stood up and walked into a small room off to the side. On the wall I noted his infamous tapestry, showing a giant serpent winding its way through a large valley bounded by mountains. There were also many interesting things around Kazakian’s desk that might find their way into my pockets, but one does not steal from one’s own sources. Bad form, you know.

Kazakian returned with a leather-bound tome and placed it upon his desk. It landed heavily despite his care. He opened the yellowed pages in the middle and began to scan them. I inquired as to the book’s relevance, and he informed me that it was a compilation of known seals of the kingdom.

“Known?” I asked.

“Certainly,” he replied. “Any lord that owes fealty to the king has his registered seal. And those lords that report to the dukes and counts have their seals registered. But after that, some land owners register and some do not. Some successful merchants are allowed to purchase their own seals. Some marriages between families create a merged seal, though unofficial in capacity … it all gets very confusing.”

Indeed, it was far more information than I was hoping for. I simply wished to know who Sir Purvis was. “And this signet tells us?”

“Vosh! It tells us nothing, but gives us clues. Whoever wears the signet is some minor noble, probably Pyridain, and possibly related to Duke Khysar Araesto.”

That information was all that was necessary for me to be assured of Purvis’ descent and identity. Duke Araesto was well known throughout the land, if for no other reason than that he was King Haralan’s Royal Treasurer. The nobility there had significant wealth and resources, which meant that even a minor lord like Purvis could certainly afford a jeweled belt of emeralds and diamonds.

“My deepest thanks, Genarvus. This has been most helpful. How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing, my friend. It is a favor. I may have need of a favor in return, something as simple as this one was, I assure you. Payment! Vosh! We are closer than that, I think, yes?”

“Yes.” I smiled and extended my hand. Genarvus was one man I would never steal from, even though his shop was littered with valuables. He was a good man.

Within the bell, I was sitting in Aardvard Factotum’s lavish home and breathing in his smoky atmosphere. The conversation was not memorable. I provided him the information, including the parchment with the impression of the signet. He agreed with my deduction, and assured me my secret had been forgotten. I felt relieved, and yet … and yet. Something bothered me. Factotum himself no longer held sway over me, if his word could be trusted, and I knew his reputation was indisputable. So what was it that bothered me? I could not have known that Aardvard’s simple blackmail, so easily resolved, had already entangled me within a deeper, more sinister plot.

***

I returned to my rooms in Coldwell Height to relax. A note was waiting for me, but I had no time for it until after I had slaked my hunger. The morning’s ingestion had been tasty, but hardly lasting. I needed a small celebration of food. Roast mutton and potatoes, rubbed with herbs and spices, accompanied by a warm burgundy. Fresh-baked breads, a touch of quail, and buttered vegetables. This was not the normal fare of my landlady, but something special I had to request. I paid dearly for it as well, but then I had a purloined pouch of coin, and a golden snuff box in my pocket. I would have to visit Borzhu in the near future to collect on its worth, and knowing that he had given up my name, I was uncertain how to proceed.

I tilted the last drops of burgundy from my goblet. And here, let me make a quick note: wooden goblets are, in my opinion, superior to pewter, gold, or any metal. While wood’s aesthetic is more plain, it does not inflict the liquid with an external flavor, leaving the drinker to enjoy the purity of the grape.

I looked upon the waiting note with trepidation; after all, just yesterday I had received a note from Factotum, and the past 20 bells had been quite eventful. But I let go my fear as I cut away at the lacy ribbon holding the small scroll tight, and opened it.

I must have made a better impression upon Vivian than I thought, as this was an invitation to join her for tea. How she had found me, I had no idea. I enjoyed her company immensely, of course, but she was headed to Pyridain, and I … well, I was a thief. A card player. She was much better off without me, and she had plenty of suitors. I jotted a quick apology, then went to the doorway to summon a page. As I handed a young girl the note, and a Penny to pay for its delivery, I heard the castle bell toll seven times. “Ol’s beard!” I thought. “Is it seven already?” I imagined it an uncomfortable time to visit Borzhu, or perhaps I was procrastinating. But I suddenly remembered a card game being held that evening, so I went up to my rooms to wash and change clothes.

***

The next morning, the 26th of Ober, I went to visit Borzhu the Dealer. He is a man of few scruples; fewer than even I had thought, considering that he had given my name to Aardvard. His establishment is in an unadorned merchant building at the edge of the Old City, completely devoid of signpost or windows: simply a door in a wall. Anyone who looked upon it would think it a storage building, although oddly located.

As I walked down the street to approach the building, I noticed a squirrelly man leaving that doorway. Normally I would not spend so much time identifying someone who was obviously of the servant class, but this man had the oddest habit of walking at the edge of the street and up against the buildings. It was as if he feared to touch another person. My attentions must have unnerved him because he passed me quickly and broke into a run. Despite his oddity, he seemed quite happy upon leaving Borzhu’s offices, so I believed that he had just made a nice profit. All the better for me to deal with Borzhu.

Borzhu’s valet was a tall, thin man with an expressionless face. I have no idea how Borzhu acquired him, but he seemed to serve the dual role of butler and enforcer. He never spoke, but he gestured quite meaningfully with his hands and face. When he saw me, a quizzical look came upon him, but he let me in. Borzhu himself was seated at his desk, his bright red dyed hair clashing with his otherwise tasteful wardrobe. He and I had that much in common, at least. When I entered his office, he hesitated only the briefest moment, then gave me a broad, welcoming smile.

“Essart! My old friend!” he called to me boisterously. “Welcome, welcome! Have you something to sell me, today? I’m in excellent spirits! I fear you’ll take me for more than usual.”

I smiled warmly back at him and replied, “Certainly, of course. I just want to ensure that the deals we broker here are between you and I only. My public safety is a matter of significance to me, as I’m sure yours is to you.”

“Most significant, my friend. Truly.” Borzhu’s smile faded only slightly, but I think it became sincere. “Am I to take it you had a conversation with a mutual friend of ours? I think he required something, and needed someone to do a special task for him.”

“I was able to complete the task he mentioned, though his payment was below what I am accustomed to receiving.”

Borzhu understood immediately what I was implying. He responded happily. “Let me then make it up to you. What have you got for me today?”

I reached into my coat and removed the pouch of coins and the golden box of snuff I had taken from Sir Purvis. I gazed again at the snuff box; it had a simple design on the outside, a common circle of thorns and roses that any artisan might have created. Something about it, however, spoke to me of elegance. Someone who owns a golden snuff box, I suddenly thought, is wealthy. This was more than a trinket. To me, this was a symbol. I replaced the box within my coat and held out the bag of coins.

Borzhu took the pouch and dumped its contents on the desk. Seven coins of silver and gold fell out. He looked up at me in surprise. “Is this it?”

“Of course,” I said. “They were stamped in Pyridain, not Dargon. I want to exchange them.”

Borzhu pushed them back at me. He nodded to his valet, who left the room. “Three nights ago, a shipment of Bichanese sweets arrived for the duke’s ball. I know the captain, and as I’m sure you are aware, not all crates reach their destination. Stevedores drop some … handling charges … you know.” The valet returned with a small, ornate box of black wood and gold inlay. It was something I would expect to find holding jewelry in a lord’s manor. The valet placed the box in front of Borzhu, and stepped back. Borzhu opened it up and displayed its contents.

“White crystal sugar,” he said. “Highly concentrated sweetness. You’ve never tasted the like! And incredibly hard to create, some secret method, Bichanese wizards or something, I don’t know. Have one. But careful,” he cautioned as I reached forward. “They are delicate, crumble in an instant.”

I gently grasped a small cube. “It looks like a games-man’s die,” I said. He nodded and smiled, so I placed it on my tongue. I felt it melt into my mouth instantly, the small granules spreading into my tongue. My saliva ran quickly as the sweetness overcame my palate. “This is amazing!” I exclaimed.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” he said. “I offer you that rare experience of delectable sweetness as reimbursement for the trouble you have endured. Now, take your coins and leave.”

“But -”

“But nothing!” Borzhu stood up and his happy facade became a mask of anger. “You are a fool, Essart. You steal little things here and there. Hardly worth my effort to fence, and certainly nothing of high demand. Do you know why I gave your name to Factotum? Because you are the least valuable thief I know. Coins from Pyridain! Fah! They are common enough here that you can spend them freely without fear. Trinkets and scarves? Who am I? I am Borzhu the Dealer! You are worth slightly more to me alive than the cost of having you killed, and that is all.”

I was appalled to hear this from Borzhu. Worse, I believe I feared for my life at that time, though I didn’t honestly know what fear was until sometime later. Borzhu was being harsh. Perhaps he was more a friend than he thought, because he did try to help me. He sat down in his chair. His tone softened slightly.

“Essart, you are not a good thief. Or at least, not a profitable one. You will forever be those little questions in the backs of the minds of the wealthy: ‘how did I lose that ring, where did I drop that bracelet?’ I stand to make fifty or even seventy gold Marks profit from the man who just left here. He, too, is a fool, but he brought me something of incredible value. You bring me a few silver Rounds at a time. You will never be a great thief.”

“I don’t wish to be one,” I assured him. “I am here by necessity only.”

“You have been here for over five years, my friend. You should either exult in your position, or abandon it. You are not a farmer to toil away the days doing the same job, over and over again. Do you understand what I am saying?”

The words came slowly from my mouth. “I do.” My head felt heavy. My self image had just been shattered. My escapades with small criminal activity were unimpressive. I was neither a thief, nor a lord to live among the wealthy, but something in between. I was little more than a shadow boy, a petty criminal that lived by preying upon the public. The only difference between us was that my version of public was wealthier than those street urchins I so despised. I needed to decide what I was to be. If a thief, then more exquisite acquisitions would be my goal. If not, then another form of income, perhaps taking larger risks at the card tables. How would I keep myself in waist coats? Worse, how would I enjoy those delectable foods upon which I had become accustomed to feasting? What would my landlady think when I asked for a simple leftwich?

I do not remember leaving Borzhu’s or the ensuing walk through the Old City. My mind was a fog of emotions and thoughts. How would I earn a living? Would I be willing to steal more significant items from my own friends? Did I truly have any friends? I reached the front door of my home before I reached a decision. I do remember walking up the stairs to enter my rooms, and the wonderful surprise I saw awaiting me there.

“How did you find me?” I asked.

“You have your secrets, and I have mine,” was all she replied. It was Vivian, that wonderful, delicious, spectacular woman. Oddly, her clothes did not befit her station, but were somewhat … low class. Sultry. Almost revealing.

“I do not like being put off, Essart,” she said. She had a pout about her lips that on a younger woman might have stopped an army of men. Despite her age and size, it still had a tantalizing effect upon me. “So I wear this silky disguise. It would not do for a lady of my station to come calling to a gentleman’s rooms, would it?”

I shook my head. “It would not.”

“Exactly,” she said. She smiled and lay back upon my bed, stretching languorously. “I’ve dressed as would a common whore, so that I could come running after you.” She locked eyes with me while she lay back in that position. “I enjoyed the other night, and I intend to enjoy more of them.” What was this offer being placed upon my plate? A day’s dalliance? At best, a sennight’s distraction from my otherwise challenging predicament. I could lose myself in her for a time, if I wished. I could run away from myself and my conundrum. It would change nothing. I knew all this, but I did not care. I took what was offered.

***

We spent several days in that manner, playing in my quarters or the rooms Duke Dargon had provided her. I had never lived so lavish a life, but I knew it was due to end. The entire time, I believe I was distracted even from my distraction. Troubles that weigh heavily upon us tend to hinder our attempts to escape them. She could see that. Several times she asked me what was the matter, and was never satisfied when I told her it was nothing. She redoubled her efforts to capture my mind as well as my body. She was truly the most amazing woman I had ever known, and not simply for her bedroom prowess.

She was witty and intelligent, and a woman who took her own fate in her hands. She relied only upon herself to get what she wanted. She managed her own properties and created her own connections in Pyridain’s court as well as Magnus’. To be honest, she was everything a man could want, and that cast a stark contrast to what I knew myself to be. Her distraction proved to be a clarifying experience to me. She made me want to be a better man. Even though her station was far above mine, I had it somehow in my mind that if I could find another way, some other means, perhaps I would deserve the attentions she showered upon me. I wanted to be someone who did something productive, someone who gave something of worth to society, not just a card player and pilferer of trinkets.

At the end of a sennight, I bid her farewell.

“Essart, come with me,” she said. We lay together under thick blankets and furs. The open window allowed the chill Nober winds to blow in off the sea, painting her castle room with the fresh smell of salt and spray.

“I am no farmer or gentry,” I said to her. My head was bowed, and I kept my eyes from looking at her. I already knew I could not resist this woman. And yet, to go with her now … she would be losing out in the bargain. It would be so easy for me to go with her, so simple to run away. I could not. I had to be more than I was. There were other words and protests. She said she would not give up on me so lightly, that she would marry me before the sennight was out. I smiled and told her she was beautiful, but by the second bell I walked out the door.

I had spent seven days leaching off Vivian, both physically and emotionally, and now had to face my future. I knew I must learn how to be a better man. There was only one reputable person whom I considered a friend in this city, only one who was not himself a thief, liar, or cheat. So I returned to the doorstep of Kazakian.

He welcomed me into his study, then slumped into a chair. His desk was conspicuously devoid of the mess of scrolls and tubes that regularly infested his work area. Instead, a large, battered volume was the sole occupant. The tome was closed, however, which conveyed to me a sudden insight regarding my friend: he was troubled. “Oddly enough, Genarvus, I had come here seeking advice. But it appears to me,” I gestured toward the book, “that you may be needing some consolation of your own.”

I stood and walked to Kazakian, whose head drooped down from his shoulders. This icon of constant vivacity had, it appeared to me, felt some great weight heftier than my own. Perhaps, in assisting this man of strong morality, I could glean some insight into helping myself. Perhaps I would be a better man because of it. I reached into my coat pocket and produced the golden snuff box I had acquired at the castle. I opened it and offered it to him.

His eyes gazed quickly over the symbol on the box and gauged its excellent workmanship. “This was not yours before,” he said slowly. His eyes reached up toward mine and found them.

“No,” I said.

“You are a man of few scruples,” he continued. His hand reached to the box and removed a pinch. He brought his fingers to his nose and sniffed deeply. His eyes brightened suddenly. With a quick whipping motion of his arm, he produced a rag from within his sleeves and sneezed violently. “Yet, I have always liked you. You are a character.”

“I may be a character,” I replied. I placed the box on the desk in front of him. “But you have character, and that is greater by far. Tell me how I can help you. Perhaps I will be imbued with your virtue.”

“Essart the Thief become Essart the Odd?” He smiled at the concept. “Perhaps there is hope for you, friend. Vosh! But I sound so depressing. It is a simple matter I need assistance with, yet one that may be dangerous … indeed, very likely will be. But I cannot choose who to send on this endeavor.”

Until that point in time, I had always eschewed danger. Let others be brave and noble, I was for survival and comfort. But as surely as I knew I was unworthy of Vivian, I knew that I must take this task. If I was to deserve the affections she so generously afforded me, I must earn them through sweat, strength, bravery, and even by fire, if necessary. I leaned forward and took his hand. “Let me take this task,” I said.

Genarvus was stunned. He knew my character better than most, I think. The concept of bravery was entirely alien to me. “Vosh! Essart, you know not what is being asked.”

“I know only one thing, Genarvus. I came here to ask your help. For my own selfish reasons, I would be a better person. That sounds contradictory, I know. And yet, here you offer me a chance to prove my fortitude. If this task be dangerous enough, and I survive it, may hap that will suffice.”

“There is no wisdom to be learned in risking death, Essart. Only that one should not risk it lightly. What reason could you possibly have for taking on an unknown danger?”

“The greatest reason of all, friend. I am in love.”

Kazakian smiled. “That truly is an excellent reason, friend Essart. And, oft times, the worst! Are you truly set upon this course?”

“I can see no other alternative,” I said.

“Then come with me. We go to meet a lord regarding a dangerous, mystical item.”

***

We arrived at the Lighted Candle, a popular stay for wealthier travelers in the Old City. There I met a bard named Nakaz, whom Kazakian described as a fast friend. Nakaz was a bard of some rank, with ash-blond hair, grass-green eyes, and a rather large nose. Nakaz introduced his companion, Lord Aldan, who was also rather tall, but with long chestnut hair and dark eyes. Something within me said the two men were more than close. That was not unusual among nobility, however, so I left it alone. Then Kazakian spoke.

“My friends, Essart here has volunteered to be your courier.”

“Him?” Aldan replied immediately. I believe I have spoken before of my less than impressive figure. These men were both over a hand taller than me.

“Myself,” I said. I hoped I sounded confident.

“Essart,” Nakaz said, “has our friendly sage informed you of the danger you will be in?”

“In truth, it was told to me that the task would involve significant risk.”

“And how much are you charging us?” Lord Aldan asked cynically.

“Not even a Bit,” I replied.

“Hah!” Aldan cried. His youthful distrust of older people was palpable.

“Surely,” Nakaz said, “you don’t expect us to believe that you are taking this task for free?”

“There is nothing free about it,” I replied. “It is a price I believe I must pay.”

When the two men looked quizzically at Genarvus, he spoke again. “My good friends, the man before you is truly on a quest to make himself worthy of a lady. Dramatic, classic, romantic!” Genarvus nearly cried out the last word. Fortunately, at this time, the common room of the Lighted Candle was thinly populated. “Yet true,” he finished.

“You trust this man?” Lord Aldan asked.

“Vosh! I have known him much longer than the two of you,” Kazakian replied. “I think I know him well enough to ensure you that he will complete any task to which he has given his word.”

“Well, on Kazakian’s word, then,” Nakaz said, “you are welcome among us.”

“Then please,” I asked, “tell me what it is I must do for you.”

It was an interesting tale, told quickly and, I fear, much of the more interesting details were left out due to the time allotted. These two men were in possession of an item that another man, called Flane, wanted. I was to meet the man and trade the item for a significant amount of money. Once the trade was complete, I would return to the Lighted Candle and inform the lords, who would then accost him themselves. Their task would be to prevent the man from summoning his dark mistress, a being of great power bent on the domination of mankind.

Flane was dangerous and not to be trusted, I was told. He had killed before. A small voice in my head suggested that I thank the lords and be on my way. But I held that voice in check. I was determined. I had originally feared that this task would not be dangerous enough, that its completion would not make me feel I had risked enough to warrant Vivan’s affections. I was wrong. Surely, this man would attempt to take the item without paying, and a struggle would ensue. I might die today, I mused. But if I lived, if I survived the assured battle, whether I won or lost will be immaterial. I will have risked my life for a noble cause. By mid-morning, I shook Lord Aldan’s hand and left the Lighted Candle.

***

The meeting was set for the sixth bell at the Sailors’ Shrine. I was to return to the Old City via a skiff. It would be a faster, over-water route than Flane’s walk through the New City. This would enable Nakaz and Aldan to set an ambush for Flane. My only task was to trade the object, and depart alive.

I arrived at the Shrine fully half a bell before the meeting was to take place. The bell at Venilek Market would not be audible from here, but there was a repeating bell at Market Square. I was certain I would know the proper time to look for Flane. I was given a specific description of the man, and it was one I could not forget: his right ear had beencut off at the top, and a scar marred the brow over his left eye. Certainly a disreputable type, I mused to myself.

I had never visited the Shrine in earnest, though I’d lived in Dargon most of my life. I was not a sailor, and therefore thought it unnecessary and impertinent to do so. However, this was a dire situation. My stomach weakened as the meeting drew near. Despite the cold Nober air, the cloak I had wrapped around me felt stifling. There was an old cart near the shrine, with a few rotting apples strewn about its bed. It seemed to mirror my disposition.

How dangerous was this man? I could not be certain. Surely, anyone of his description could tell that I was no threat, and would therefore be worthless to accost. But the skiff back to the Old City. Had Aldan and Nakaz taken into account the wintery blow that churned the harbor into white capped waves? I knelt before the statue and prayed earnestly, perhaps for the first time in my life, that I would be alive at the end of the day.

I was a fool, I realized. Vivian did not care for acts of bravery or chivalry; nor did she expect them of me. She enjoyed my simple company, and the fact that I enjoyed hers. I could not earn her love through this romantic bout of self-inflicted danger. Vivian already loved me. This was my own vanity, my own ego, driving me forward. I had enjoyed several days of enthralling bliss. For the first time in my life, I found someone that I cared about more than my own person. And now, instead of being with Vivian, I was risking my life to prove to no one but myself that I was worthy of her.

I stood up from my prayer before the shrine. I would leave this foolish meeting. Let Nakaz and Aldan get someone braver, more capable of self defense, to perform the exchange. I would not risk myself one moment longer.

Then Flane appeared.

I knew about his ear and his scar, but the intensity of the man was overwhelming. He was a zealot, a true believer in whatever it was he was doing. It magnified his presence, and every characteristic of his appearance. His eyes seemed to interview my very morality, to query and seek answers within me that I myself tried to hide. In an uncomfortable instant, I felt true fear. He seemed to sense it. Then he smiled. It was reminiscent of a shivaree’s grin.

I had intended to bargain with him, to achieve some small profit for myself while performing the task. After all, he was here to purchase the item, was he not? When he spoke, however, I knew I would give it to him for free.

“Where is it?” he asked. His voice scraped through my head like a sharp stone. I reached under my cloak and removed a bundled up kerchief. The brief period my cloak was opened, I could feel the chill of the wintery sea air. I was no longer stifling. Instead, I was chilled to the bone. My hands shook as I extended the kerchief to Flane. He did not move to take it. Instead, he delved deeper into me.

“Not asking to see my purse?” he asked. “This item is extremely valuable. The gold I offer you could make a man comfortable. Yet,” he looked around the deserted location, “I see no guard. Not even a horse to provide a speedy escape.”

“I — I — ” I had never stuttered in my life. “I trust you,” I said.

His smile was wicked and hungry. “You trust me?” He laughed. “You are either a stranger to these parts or a fool, and your accent tells me you are not the former. The Sailors’ Shrine is well populated in warmer months. But in the wintery months, this site is all but abandoned. Even the muggers and thieves of Dargon avoid this place.”

He closed the distance between us. He towered over me, the darkness of his unshaven face added to the malice in his eyes. “I could take this item from you now, leave you lying in a pool of your own blood, and no one would stop me.” His right hand reached into his cloak. I was aware of the movement, but could see only his eyes. He withdrew something. How long had I left to live? Would I still see his face as the blade stabbed into my heart? Would I feel it … for long?

“You have no one to protect you,” he said. His voice was low, but clearly audible.

A lone voice called out in the wind. It was an angel’s voice, calling from afar. It was Vivian’s voice. “Release him!” she cried. In the distance, from side of Shrine Hill, I saw her. A long cloak covered much of her figure, and was clasped about her with a belt. The tip of a scabbard protruded from the bottom. She looked a more formidable figure than I knew her to be.

Flane looked back at her, then returned his gaze to me. “Perhaps not so foolish.” He smiled that hungry shivaree’s smile again. He held up his hand and showed me the pouch of coins he had removed from his cloak earlier. It had not been a blade after all. I sighed like a man pardoned from the gallows at the last instant.

“Have your gold,” he said. He grabbed the leather bundle from my hands and replaced it with his pouch. Vivian approached from behind, then came to my side. “Ultimately, it is meaningless to me. My mistress has far greater rewards.”

“Thank the gods,” Vivian spoke. “I had feared this would not go well.”

“I had no intention of breaking my word,” Flane spoke. “This prize is worth far more to me than the trinkets you call money.”

It was almost over. When Flane left, Vivian and I would go down to the skiff and sail across to the Old City. Aldan and Nakaz would be alerted. It would be done. Then Vivian looked at me and said, “I don’t understand. If he isn’t dangerous, why are you making this trade for those two men?”

And it all fell apart.

“What two men?” Flane asked. His smile was gone and replaced with suspicion.

My head hung. Vivian replied, “Some lordling and a bard.”

Flane’s face turned wild. The shivaree returned, fierce and combative. “Trickster!” he cried at me. His strength was palpable. With a swipe of his arm, Vivian and I were knocked to the ground. He cast his eyes about the area, and I saw him chance upon the apple cart. He crossed the six paces to the cart in a leap. With a great effort, he lifted the cart over his head. The spoiled fruit within scattered at his feet. I saw him heave the cart, and in what I believed would be my last act of bravery, I flung myself over Vivian.

The impact of the barrow on my back felt like a tree falling on me. One of my legs snapped at the calf, and I screamed out in pain. Then something popped in my chest, and I could barely breathe. My eyes watered and my head felt dizzy, but I was lucky. The wood had been rotting in rain and salt air. That cart should have killed me, but I was alive. Vivian was pinned beneath me. I heard Flane laugh gleefully as he ran off to fulfill his dark deed. We were safe, but I was useless to the men who had hired me.

“Vivian,” I gasped.

“I am unhurt,” she said. “But I can’t move.”

We struggled to twist her out from beneath my aching body, and the remains of the apple cart still atop me. She squirmed beneath me while I gasped for breath. She joked. “We’ve never used an apple cart before.”

I smiled despite my pain. “We can implement furniture into our exertions at a later date. I need you to get to the Lighted Candle.”

“What about you?” she asked. She pulled her legs out from under me and began shoving the broken wood off my back.

“I will live, but I’m not going anywhere right now.” I rolled over as the last pieces of tinder were removed.

“I will get you back to the inn,” Vivian said. But I interjected.

“No, I will be fine. But I think my leg is broken as well.”

“Essart –”

“No! You must get to the Lighted Candle. Tell them to hurry.” I was wheezing. My breath still burned in my lungs.

“I’ll do nothing of the sort, Essart. I love you.” She beamed at me. Tears welled in her eyes, but she fought them back. “You must marry me.”

“You want to talk about this now?” I asked. She laughed a bit. I tried, but my back ached painfully. I winced. She immediately stopped smiling and tended to me.

“Straight, forget marriage,” she said. She had been in Dargon too long; she was using its slang. “Just let me get you up.”

“Don’t be a fool woman, of course I’ll marry you,” I said. “I love you! But run! Get to the Lighted Candle. Tell them I’ve broken my leg and they must start immediately.”

“As you wish,” she said. “My horse is just up the hill. I won’t need this.” She stood up and reached under her cloak. She unclasped a belt, and the scabbard I had previously noticed fell to the ground, empty.

Despite my urgency to see her depart, I had to ask. “No sword?”

“Silly man,” she replied. “What would I do with a sword?” She smiled at me again. “A large woman draped in a cloak, with what appears to be a sword at her side. That can be an imposing figure.”

“You’re a goddess,” I told her.

“I’ll return with a goddess of healing,” she replied. Then she was off, running as best she could back up the hill and to her horse.

***

Vivian returned within a bell, a healer in tow, and the two of them cared for me. Lord Aldan and Nakaz were able to complete their mission, though I never saw them again. Genarvus speculated that they had left town as soon as their mission had been accomplished. There were twelve gold Marks in the pouch Flane had given me. More than enough for a man to live comfortably on, if he was frugal. I gave half of them to Genarvus, and kept the rest for myself.

As for me, I packed my waistcoats into a trunk and accompanied my Vivian to her home in Pyridain. We were married within a month, and have been happy ever since. I thought Dargon was my home, but I have come to love Pyridain’s warmer climate and gentle plains greater than that cold city in the north.

Word has reached our duchy of an impending invasion. War is brewing, and the Beinison Empire, so close to our borders, is threatening. But the Knight Captain of the Southern Marche, Dame Westbrook, is bringing an army and soliciting recruits. I am no soldier, as I have said. But this duchy bears defending, and the last time I did something brave and adventurous, I found the love of my life. Why not try it again?

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