Ben awoke before the dawn bell rang. He tossed and turned in his bed trying to get back to sleep, because he knew it was too early to go to Matthew’s house. He was excited because today he would get to show all the people just what a dragon looked like. While in the marketplace yesterday, Matthew and he had found a sculptor who made stone figurines. Her name was Sharin, and she sculpted a dragon for them. To pay for it, they were to show it to everyone they met and to tell who sculpted it.
Light from the morning sun peeked through the window and Ben got up. He looked at his mother’s bed and found it empty. Breathing a sigh of relief, he got dressed. Normally, when she was home during the night, she had some man with her, both usually drunk. He hated those times. His father had left some months ago on a trading vessel and had not returned.
There was a knock on the door followed by Matthew’s voice, “Ben? I know you’re awake. Can I come in?” Ben opened the door and smiled. It was a crisp spring day outside with the sun just starting to burn the morning mist away.
“Mom’s not here, come on in,” he told Matthew. “I’ve been up for bells! Way before the sun came up.” Ben let Matthew in and then hurried to change into warmer clothes.
“So have I,” Matthew said. “I thought the sun would never shine, it seemed so long.”
“I’m dressed, let’s go!” Ben rushed to the door. “First one there gets to hold the dragon!” And with that, he ran outside and down the street.
Matthew was close behind him. Being older, Matthew didn’t have much of a problem keeping up with Ben. He could have passed Ben and reached the tent first, but he knew Ben loved that dragon sculpture. He would let him win.
“I got here first!” Ben yelled as he touched the tent flap.
“Ben!” Matthew warned. “She might still be asleep.”
“No, look, the tent flap isn’t tied shut. It’s just closed is all. She has to be up. Sharin?”
“Sharin?” Matthew echoed as he pulled the flap aside and stepped into the tent. He looked around, but couldn’t see much as his eyes weren’t adjusted to the darkness, yet. “Ben, hold the tent flap open.” When Ben pulled the flap open, Matthew’s eyes grew wide. “Ben!”
“What?” Ben asked, letting go of the tent flap and running into the tent. “It’s dark in here again.”
“You let the flap close!”
“Hello?” called a female voice outside the tent.
“Sharin?” Matthew called back.
“No,” Tara said as she opened the flap. “It’s Tara.”
“Oh,” Matthew said. “I thought you were Sharin. What are you doing here so early?”
“Sharin’s not here? Oh!” Tara exclaimed as she saw that the whole tent was empty. Nothing remained inside the tent. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Matthew said. “We just got here.”
“I know,” Tara remarked. “I saw you from down the street. Sharin and I were supposed to look for new cloth to make dresses yesterday, but I couldn’t make it in time. So I thought I’d show up early and we could look today.” As she looked around the inside of the tent, she remarked, “She wouldn’t have just taken her sculptures and left. Something must have happened. Even the small desk and the long workbench are gone.”
“My dragon’s gone!” Ben cried.
“So is Sharin, Ben,” Matthew replied. “She’s more important.”
“I bet that noble she argued with last night took it,” Ben said. “And her, too!”
“We have to tell my uncle!” Tara said, turning around to leave.
“Your uncle?” Matthew asked, following her. Ben was the last one out, and he let the tent flap fall closed with a quiet rustle of fabric. He thought about tying it shut, but realized that there wasn’t anything there to steal. His dragon was gone. Sighing, he turned to follow Tara and Matthew.
“I told you last night, my uncle is the captain of the guard. He’ll be able to find her.” Tara turned south on the Street of Travellers and headed out of the marketplace.
“Where are you going?” Matthew asked.
“I told you! To see my uncle.”
“No, *where* are you going. Where is he?”
“Oh! He’s in the keep right now,” she answered. Ben stopped suddenly.
“We can’t go there!” he said.
“Ben’s right, we aren’t allowed to go there,” Matthew agreed. Tara stopped and looked back at the two boys. She was torn between leaving them here and … she didn’t know what else to do with them. She realized that they were the only ones who saw the noble, and she needed them.
“It will be alright. You’re with me, and we’re going to see Captain Koren of the town guard. He’ll vouch for you once he hears what happened.”
“We aren’t allowed to go there! Rachel said so!” Ben reiterated. “If Rachel said we aren’t allowed there, then we aren’t allowed there!”
“But I need you to tell my uncle what the noble looked like,” Tara pleaded. “Please.”
“I can’t go,” Ben said, stubbornly.
“Ben, Rachel only said that we couldn’t go there by ourselves. Well, that’s what she meant, anyway.”
“She told us not to go to the keep,” Ben said.
“Yeah, but that was when we were headed out the door to go exploring. Remember. She got real serious and told us not to go very far. Besides, if she were here, she’d let us go to the keep with her. She’s not much older than Tara, and Tara’s uncle is captain of the guard.”
“I don’t know …” Ben said. “I guess I’ll go, but if she gets mad, I’m telling her it was your idea!” Matthew grinned, accepting the responsibility.
“Well then, come on! Sharin’s missing!” Tara said, turning around to continue down the street.
“Look Matthew!” Ben yelled as he caught sight of the stone causeway. He ran up to the beginning of it and looked across. It was built of large stones, logs, and bricks and spanned the Coldwell River. Arches underneath it let the river continue along its path almost undisturbed. The top part was brick, intricately woven from one side to the other. Ben ran out onto part of it and looked over the side. There were no railings and Ben could see that the river was murky and high from the spring thaw coming out of the mountains.
“Don’t get too close to the edge,” Tara warned. “I don’t want to have to explain why you fell over into the river.” They crossed the causeway and continued on toward the keep.
“It sure looks big,” Matthew said as he looked toward Dargon Keep. Three tall towers rose from the keep, two facing the river and one facing the sea.
“The keep is big,” Tara agreed. “There are two large ballrooms for dancing and the Duke’s reception chamber. That’s larger than the ballrooms. It has to be; that’s where he does all the public business, and lots of people are there. There are private chambers, too. Those are usually smaller. There’s the Duke’s library, and …”
As Tara continued to tell them about the keep, they started their climb up the road toward the main gate. The road twisted and turned to go around several large boulders as it winded upwards to the top. Once at the top, the road widened somewhat to pass through the keep’s large outer gate. Matthew and Ben stared at the walls, the gate’s opening, and the inner courtyard as they made their way into Dargon Keep.
The inner courtyard was a flurry of activity, mostly from the militia. The militia was training in one section and Matthew could see that all of the trainees were young. With the war only being over a few months, all the older soldiers weren’t home yet. There were also other people scattered about trimming hedges, digging the ground, and planting seeds.
Tara led them past all the people to the keep itself and then down several corridors to a large, sturdy wooden door. She pounded on the door and waited for an answer.
“Kalen! Quit knocking every time and come in!” boomed a voice from behind the door. Tara opened the door and smiled.
“If you think I look like Kalen, you need to step down and let him take over,” she teased her uncle. Koren looked up from behind his desk. He was a large man with grey hair and a long mustache that stretched out beyond his mouth, only to curl up at the ends. He was wearing a blue uniform jacket adorned with gold epaulets and brass buttons.
“I thought you wanted the day to yourself,” he replied. “You’ve come back to help me, I see,” he teased back. “I’m sure I can find something for you to do.” He looked behind her and saw the two boys in the hallway still. “What, you’ve brought help?”
“Help, yes, Uncle Koren. But it is me that needs your help. Sharin’s missing.”
“Eh? That friend of yours?” he asked.
“Yes. She’s gone and so are all her sculptures from her tent. You have to find her. A noble came and took her.”
“A noble?” he asked, his blue eyes narrowing. “And you saw this noble take her?”
“No, but the boys saw the noble,” Tara replied, masking the full truth.
“They did, did they? Well get in here, you two,” he said, his deep voice rumbling in the room. Matthew and Ben slowly stepped into the room. “Come on! I haven’t got all day! Who are you? And what did you see?”
“I’m Matthew and this is Ben,” Matthew said. “And we really didn’t see the noble take her.”
Koren gave his niece an icy stare, but said nothing to her. Turning back to the boys, he asked, “Well what did you see?”
“He did it,” Ben said. “I know he did it!”
“Who did it?” Koren asked.
“That noble,” Ben replied, quickly.
“Ben, we’d better tell him everything from the beginning. That way, he’ll understand,” Matthew explained. “We –”
“We who?” Koren asked, interrupting.
“Ben and me. We went to the marketplace to look around for any new stalls being set up. That’s when we found Sharin’s tent. She had some life-like figurines outside her tent. She came out, and we talked –”
“About her sculptures. She showed us some more, and Ben asked her if she could make a dragon. She said that if someone described it to her, she probably could –”
“And she did! A neat one! It has wings this big,” Ben said, spreading his hands to show how large the wings were. “And –”
“Enough!” Koren commanded. “I want to hear what happened, not what a dragon looks like. Continue, Matthew.”
“She made a deal with us that if she made a dragon, we’d have to show it off and tell everyone about it for four days. If we told people that she made it and where to find her for four days, we could keep the dragon. We agreed, and she pushed us out of the tent so she could start sculpting.
“We returned a bell later –”
“Just when was this?”
“It was yesterday. We returned and heard voices inside the tent. As we got closer, we could hear what they were saying. This man was threatening Sharin.”
“He was saying that she was going to work for him and she didn’t have a choice and he would make sure she worked only for him. He sounded mad, too. She told him she would never work for him. He told her that she would whether she liked it or not and she didn’t have a choice in the matter.
“He stormed out of the tent right after he said that and almost knocked Ben and me down. We just got out the way in time or he would have run us over. He glared at us as he walked by.”
“What did this noble look like?” Koren asked. Ben giggled at the question. Tara smiled, too. They had made a game of remembering what the noble had looked like.
“Can you remember, Matthew?” Ben asked, still smiling.
“Not all of it. I remember he had a small scar above his left eye.”
“He was a mean noble with no name who’s plump with a scar above his left eye without a beard who knocks people down,” Ben recited. Koren raised an eyebrow at the boy’s description of the man.
“That’s a fair description. How tall was he?”
“I couldn’t reach the top of him if I stretched my hand up,” Ben answered. Koren stood up.
“Was he as tall as me?”
“No,” Matthew said. Ben walked over to Koren and looked up.
“He would have reached to about your eyes,” he said. “He was rounder than you, too. Not as much muscle, either. His eyes were dark.” Ben seemed to be staring past Koren as he described the noble. “And no beard.”
“Did you remember all that, or can you picture him in your head?” Koren asked Ben.
“I can see him when I concentrate,” Ben answered. “But he gets blurrier as time goes by. I don’t think I’ll be able to picture him like this by tomorrow, but I’ll always be able to recognize him!”
“You’ve got a sharp mind, boy,” Koren said. “Are you apprenticed anywhere?”
“Apprenticed? What’s that? I work at the Golden Lion, if that’s what you mean.”
“No, that’s not what I meant, but it answers my question. Now, about Sharin. I can’t just go arresting this noble. Are you sure Sharin isn’t out somewhere on errands?”
“All of her sculptures were missing from her tent,” Tara answered. “Besides, it’s still early. Where would she take all the sculptures? And why?”
Koren grunted. “Okay, I’ll send some men to look for her. Tara, you can give her description to the men. No, better yet, go to the barracks and see who’s there. I know some of them have seen you and Sharin together. See if anyone there has ever seen her and bring them to my office. I’ll also send someone with you to go back to her tent. I’ll have him search for signs that might lead us to her.”
“But you can’t arrest the noble?” Ben asked as Tara left the room on her Uncle’s errand.
“No, I can’t, even if I knew whom it was — which I don’t. Just from what you’ve told me, I can’t arrest him.”
“Then what good is it to even look into the matter? Just find Sharin,” Ben said, disgustingly.
“Because, Ben,” Koren said, kneeling down to look Ben in the eyes, “if the noble did do it, then we may find something to prove he did it. And then we can arrest him. It’s not a great chance that we’ll find anything, but it’s what we do. We look for evidence. And I want you to pay close attention to what and how my man looks for it, okay?”
“Okay,” Ben replied, slowly nodding his head.
Tara returned a short while later with four men.
“You’ve all seen Sharin?” Koren asked them. They all nodded. “Hmmph. More than I expected. Would you be able to spot her in a crowd?”
“I only saw her once,” one guard said.
“I didn’t ask how many times you saw her, Roji,” Koren replied. “I asked if you could recognize her?”
“Yes,” Roji said.
“Yes, sir,” Garay replied.
“I’d know her.”
“I don’t know you,” Koren said to the fourth guard. “You’re new?”
“Yes sir,” the guard replied, his voice breaking on sir. “My name is Dralyn Kepson.”
“You know Sharin?”
“No, sir, but I’ve seen her before. I’ll know her if I see her.”
“Well, Roji, Garay, and Kepson,” Koren pointed to them, “go search for her, then. Tara believes she’s been kidnapped. If you see the patrols, give her description and tell them to keep an eye out for her.
“The kidnapper could be a noble, but that’s not known for truth. If you find her, report back to me but take no action — unless her life is in danger.
“And Westerly, take these boys back to her tent and see what you can find. See what tracks are there, if a wagon’s been by, what it looks like inside, and explain to the boy here what you’re looking for. On your way there, get the boys to fill you in on the rest of the details. Understand?” The men nodded. “Well, what are you waiting for?” The three men left the room while Westerly stayed, waiting on the boys.
“It’s the best I can do,” Koren told them. “Go with Westerly here, and he’ll show you what he knows and what he’s looking for.” Ben and Matthew followed the guard out the door, looking back at Tara.
“I’ll be along shortly,” she told them.
Matthew and Ben walked with Westerly back to the tent. The other three guards accompanied them, also. One mentioned that the best place to start looking for the girl was the last place she was seen. Matthew and Ben told the guards what they knew and saw.
As they reached the marketplace, Ben showed them which tent was Sharin’s and Westerly stopped them all several paces from the tent.
“I want to look around first,” Westerly said, “before we go adding more boot prints around the area. Ben, you’ll come with me, but walk right behind me. Stop when I stop, got that?”
“Walk right behind you and stop when you stop,” Ben reiterated. “Got it.” And so Ben walked behind Westerly, trying to see what the guard was doing. “What are you looking at?”
“Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you, didn’t I? I get so caught up in looking, that I forget to say anything. And if I don’t tell you what I’m doing, Captain Koren will have my hide, now won’t he?
“See these tracks here,” Westerly pointed to several sets of tracks in front of the tent. “I’m guessing that these are you and your friend’s tracks. Looks like sandals and they are smaller tracks than an adult would make. Looking at your sandals and your friend’s, I’m sure of it. The other track beside yours is probably Tara’s. Everything else is too covered over to tell for sure.
“I’m glad it’s dirt up to the tent, though. If it was bricked, I wouldn’t have an easy time of telling. Let’s look round the sides now.”
Westerly walked around the sides, telling Ben about what he found. Once around the tent, Westerly walked into the inside of the tent. He pushed the flap open, but when it wouldn’t stay, he had two of the guards hold the flaps open. With what light came in, Westerly examined the inside of the tent. He could see on the left side in the dirt that there had been figurines on the ground. Their depressions were still in the dirt. He made all kinds of remarks to Ben as he examined the ground.
“Not much to go on, it isn’t,” he said to no one in particular as he walked out of the tent.
“Well, what do you have?” Roji asked.
“Not much,” Westerly replied. “Except they were fairly good at what they did.”
“I don’t follow?” Dralyn said.
“It’s like this,” Westerly began. “If you kidnapped someone and knew that you left traces or tracks, you’d want to cover them. And that’s just what someone did, they covered their tracks. But, if you’re really good at it, you’ll make it look as if things were normal and nothing happened. Whoever took this girl wasn’t really good. They used something to smooth out the dirt where they had been inside the tent, they did.”
“I still don’t follow.”
“Where they did smooth the dirt out; there’s no tracks at all. It’s just smooth dirt. But, you have tracks and depressions in the dirt along both sides inside the tent. Nothing in the center as it’s been smoothed out, but they didn’t smooth out the sides. So, either they aren’t very good, or they just don’t care that anyone knows she’s gone; they just care that they aren’t found.”
“If that’s the case, they’re planning on taking her out of Dargon. Which means –” Garay started to say.
“That you’d better hurry and find her,” Westerly interrupted, looking at the two boys. “If you search hard and fast, you’ll find her in time, won’t you?”
“Yes, we will,” Roji replied. He understood that Westerly was trying to keep the boys from the fact that Sharin was most likely not in Dargon anymore.
“You two boys go home. I’ve done all I can here, and I’m going to help the rest search,” Westerly said. “The more of us there are searching, the quicker we’ll find her.”
“Can’t we go –?” Ben started to ask.
“C’mon Ben, let’s go home,” Matthew said, pulling on his friend’s arm.
“But, I want –”
“*C’mon Ben*, let them do their job,” Matthew told him. Ben turned around and walked slowly alongside Matthew.
“I wanted to go with them,” Ben whispered quietly, head tilted down looking at the street.
“I have a better idea,” Matthew answered. Ben looked up quickly at his friend.
“Rachel’s been seeing a lot of Jerid, hasn’t she? And he works with the keep’s guard, doesn’t he?”
“So, if it was a noble that kidnapped Sharin, then don’t you think the keep’s guards would be the best people to look into it? And don’t you think that Jerid, who’s a Lieutenant in the keep’s guard is the one to talk to?”
“He would be!” Ben exclaimed. “But how do we get in to see him?”
“We say that Rachel sent us,” Matthew said, smiling. “But we have to go back to the keep again. This time by ourselves.”
“We do?” Ben asked, eyes getting big. “Rachel wouldn’t like that.”
“Ben, please. It’s for Sharin. She’s in trouble, and she needs our help. Besides, we’ve been there once, what trouble can we get into? We know the way now.”
“I don’t know … we aren’t supposed to be out wandering alone.”
“But we’re not wandering,” Matthew said. “We know where we’re going.”
“We do, don’t we,” Ben replied, a smile forming on his lips.
“Let’s go see Jerid,” Matthew said, and they walked back to the Street of Travellers to make their way back to Dargon Keep.
“How do we find him?” Ben asked as they neared the keep.
“We find one of the keep’s guards and tell him that we need to see Jerid,” Matthew answered. “And if that doesn’t work, we’ll say Rachel sent us. That should get us in to see him.”
When they reached the keep, they looked for a lone keep guard to approach. It turned out harder than they thought as the guards tended to move about in pairs or squads. Going around the courtyard, they managed to spot a guard sitting alone. He was on a bench eating an apple and relaxing. They walked over to him.
“Could you take us to see Jerid?” Matthew asked.
“Eh?” the guard mumbled, and then swallowed the bits of apple in his mouth. “Jerid? You mean Lieutenant Taishent?”
“What do you want with him? He’s a busy man and doesn’t see just anybody.”
“He’ll see us,” Ben told him.
“He will? And how do you know that?”
“Because he visits our house often,” Ben replied.
“He does? I’ve never seen you around the Lieutenant before. Why does he visit your house?” the guard asked, his curiosity aroused.
“He comes over to see Rachel.”
“Rachel? Maybe Lieutenant Taishent will want to see you and maybe he won’t,” the guard replied. “We’ll find out, though. And if he doesn’t know you, I’ll have you thrown into the gaol for lying.” He took the boys into the main part of the keep and down a hallway to stop before a large wooden door. He knocked and waited.
“Who is it?” called a voice from inside.
“Sergeant Ryal, sir,” the guard replied. “I have two visitors to see you.”
“Visitors?” There was a scraping sound inside, and then they could hear boot steps toward the door. It opened and Jerid stood in front of them. “I told you I didn’t want to –” He stopped when he saw who it was.
“They say that you know them, and that you know a Rachel, sir,” Ryal said, watching his commander’s face for any reaction. If there was any, Ryal did not see it.
“Ah, yes. I know the boys. Come inside you two. Thank you Sergeant Ryal, you may return to your duties,” Jerid replied and shut the door after the boys entered.
“What in Stevene’s name are you two doing here?” Jerid asked, his voice edged with anger. “I know as a truth that you aren’t allowed here.”
“But a friend of ours was captured by a noble,” Ben spurted out. “And she was really nice to us. She made us a dragon and was going to let us work for it and she –”
“Stop,” Jerid commanded. “Tell me what happened Matthew.”
“We met this woman who makes stone figurines at the marketplace. She agreed to make us a dragon if we would take it around and show it off and tell people that she was the one who made it. She was making the dragon, and we came back to her tent to see if she was done. We heard this noble arguing with her. Then he threatened her –”
“What did he say?”
“He said that she would work for him, and she didn’t have a choice about it. She said that she didn’t want to work for him. He told her that she would work for him even if he had to make her. Then he came out of the tent and almost knocked us over. We got out the way just in time or he would have run us over.”
“What did he look like? And how do you know he’s a noble?”
“Ben?” Matthew asked, looking to his friend.
“He was a mean noble with no name who’s plump with a scar above his left eye without a beard who knocks people down,” Ben recited. “And he was just a bit taller than I can reach.” Ben raised his hand up to show how far he could reach. “He had a mustache, too.”
“He looked like a noble,” Matthew added. “He had on real fine clothes. They looked expensive. He acted like everyone should get out of his way.”
“This is the responsibility of the town guard,” Jerid told them. “Why didn’t you go there?” Ben looked down at the floor, and Matthew looked over at the wall. “You did go there. Why come to me?”
“They aren’t going to find her,” Ben replied. “They looked at the tent and couldn’t find any trace of who took her.”
“We thought that if he was a noble … well, you have dealings with nobles here in the keep, and we thought you might know who it was,” Matthew said.
“I don’t know anyone that looks like you’ve described. But I will look into it.” Matthew and Ben smiled. “However,” Jerid went on to say, “you two are going home, and are going to stay there! Is that clear?” Both boys nodded. “Good. Now come with me.” He led the two boys to the quarters of the keep’s guards. “Where’s Ryal?” he asked the closest guard.
“In the courtyard, sir,” came the reply. Jerid turned and led them back to the courtyard. He spotted Ryal sitting on a bench. Ryal happened to spot his commander, noticed the look on his face, and stood up at attention.
“Relax,” Jerid ordered. “Take these two boys home. They’ll show you the way. Make sure that either Rachel or Eileen is there before you leave.
If neither are there, you stay with the boys until one of them shows up.”
“Sir? I can’t watch children. I –”
“You brought them to me, you take care of them. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Ryal replied, and then turned to the boys. “C’mon you two. Show me where you live.”
“Thank you, Jerid,” Ben said. “We didn’t mean to cause any harm. We just want Sharin back. She was real nice to us.”
Jerid looked down at the boy and his face softened. “I’ll see what I can do, Ben. Now go home.” Jerid watched as the three of them left the courtyard. Muttering curses, he turned back toward the keep. The best thing to do would be to ask either Duke Dargon or Captain Bartol if they knew the noble. The duke was in the audience chamber listening to whoever was there. With any luck, there would only be a few people there pleading whatever case or quarrel they had. As he made his way to the chamber, he hoped it wasn’t full.
When he reached the audience chamber, he breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t crowded and it looked like the last few people were talking to the duke. As he made his way along the wall, he noticed Captain Koren standing alone.
Koren looked around and noticed Jerid walking toward him. “Lieutenant Taishent,” Koren acknowledged in a soft voice. Words tended to carry easily in this chamber, and it wouldn’t be good to interrupt the duke.
“Captain Koren,” Jerid responded as softly. “What are you doing here?”
“Cut right to the soul of things, eh?” Koren smiled. “I’m here about a noble. And you?”
“A noble? This noble wouldn’t happen to have a cut above his left eye, would he?” Jerid asked, already knowing the answer. Koren wasn’t surprised at the question, or if he was, he didn’t show it.
“Two boys. Names of Matthew and Ben?”
“Yes,” Jerid replied, shaking his head.
“Was my niece with them?”
“No, she wasn’t. Why?”
“I told all three of them to go home. I just figured if those two boys showed up at your office, Tara would have been there, too. Now, though, I’ve got to wonder what she’s up to. Did you send the boys home?”
“Yes, and sent a man with them to make sure they got there.”
“I did that, too,” Koren replied, a small smile on his lips. “If it didn’t work for me, why do you think it will work for you?”
“Because I don’t think they have anywhere else to go. Unless …”
“You don’t think,” Koren said. They both looked around the room, searching for the two boys. Not seeing them, they both chuckled. “I still find it hard to believe I’m standing here waiting to talk to Duke Dargon because of two small children.”
“That both of us are here,” Jerid amended. “We’ll have to keep an eye on those two. The last time our offices worked together was because of Liriss. That I can understand, but two small children?” Jerid was watching the last of the people leave the presence of the duke.
“Looks like no one else is going to speak,” Koren said.
“Is there anyone else who would like to appear before me?” Duke Dargon called out.
“Milord,” Jerid spoke up. Koren and he moved through part of the assemblage to appear before the duke. Duke Dargon was seated in a cushioned chair on a small dais. The war had not been kind to Clifton Dargon. He looked many years older now as compared to before the war. His left arm had been severed at the elbow while fighting in a naval battle. While still physically young, he looked tired, worn, and haggard. The smiles that once came often to his face appeared less frequently now.
“Lieutenant Taishent *and* Captain Koren. For both of you to be here, it must be a matter of importance. Had I seen you earlier, I would have spoken with you right away,” Dargon told them.
“Milord,” Jerid said, “we *are* here for the same matter.”
“That is something I have rarely seen,” Lansing Bartol said, interrupting any further explanation. He stepped up beside them. “Milord Dargon,” he bowed, “my apologies for being late, but to see two of our officers here together. Why, matters of utmost importance must be happening,” Bartol said, chuckling.
“Captain Bartol, you aren’t here with them?” Dargon asked.
“Ah. I had thought that you showing up right after, you were here with them,” Dargon replied. “No matter. Lieutenant Taishent, please proceed.”
“Milord,” Jerid began, “I have received news that a noble may have kidnapped a merchant.” Clifton Dargon’s face grew solemn and his brows furrowed as he stared at them.
“Come with me,” he ordered. Getting up from his seat, he turned to his right and walked to a door near the corner of the chamber. A page opened the door for him and held the door for Jerid, Koren, and Bartol also. They followed Dargon into another room which held only a table and six chairs.
“Sit,” he told the three of them after the door was closed. “A noble, you say? How — no, start at the beginning. I want to hear all of it. *All* of it, do you understand?” Jerid and Koren nodded. “Good. First you, Lieutenant Taishent.” Duke Dargon sat in a chair on the opposite side of the table. He leaned forward to show them that they had his complete and undivided attention.
Jerid and Koren did not realize that the duke would take the news so seriously. They did realize that it was too late to change things, so they told the duke the whole story as they knew it. At one point, Bartol gave out a short laugh, only to be silenced by a look from Dargon.
“Are you telling me that you are here because of something two children told you?” Dargon asked seriously.
“Not exactly, milord,” Koren replied. At a nod from Dargon, he continued, “You see, my men found nothing at Sharin’s tent. Everything inside had been taken. That makes me believe that something did happen. I do believe she was taken, but I don’t know who took her. The only thing I have to go on right now is the words of two children, yes, but it’s worth looking into. I can’t arrest a noble on what I have, but I can search and try to find the truth. Also, Sharin is the friend of my niece, Tara. It’s not some unknown merchant who may have packed up and left town, but someone we know.”
“Milord,” Jerid added, “I know the two children. They wouldn’t make something like this up.”
“Have you heard the bell sound, Bartol?” Dargon asked.
“Not yet,” Bartol replied. In public, Lansing Bartol was a bard, the Captain of the militia and Duke Dargon’s personal advisor. Formalities were normally observed. In private, Bartol was Clifton’s close friend, and formalities were dropped.
“Fortunately,” Dargon told them, “I have a meeting with some merchants and nobles about tax issues when the next bell strikes. You may accompany me and look for this noble. If he’s not there, I will ask if any there know of this noble. That is the best I can do.
“Family is important, I understand that. I also understand that there is the possibility, although small, that what you say really did happen. I won’t allow *any* noble to get away with things like that. They, too, must follow the law. Whatever the case, I want to know what happened, but not at the expense that you disregard your duties. Is that clear?”
“Yes, milord,” Jerid and Koren said at the same time. Bartol could not contain his laughter and it echoed around the room. Clifton Dargon smiled, and the two men relaxed some.
The meeting with the merchants and nobles about the tax issues went fairly well. It was held in a small audience chamber that contained one long rectangular table that seated twenty people. There was no sign of the noble that Jerid and Koren were looking for, however. Informing Bartol that they didn’t spot the noble, Bartol told Dargon, and Duke Dargon gave the description of the noble to the assembled group. He asked if they knew whom it was.
“Milord,” a merchant said, stepping forward. “I have done business with a noble who has a very small scar above his eye. This noble has a mustache and no beard. I don’t know for sure if he’s the one you’re looking for, but he fits the description.”
“Do you know his name?” Dargon asked.
“That I do know, milord. I keep records of every sale and purchase I make,” the merchant replied. Then smiling, said, “Just so I get the taxes right.”
“Just so,” Dargon smiled. “What is his name?”
“I’ll have to look in my records, milord. I don’t remember his name as I just met him. I remember faces, but not names. If I may look –”
“Yes, look,” Dargon agreed. The merchant searched through several sheets of parchment, turning them over and around. There was writing all over the parchment; some in the corner, some scribbled over others, but very little space was left free.
“Here it is. Samual Gathaelis, from Magnus. He is staying somewhere just outside of town. One of my delivery boys can guide you there. They made a delivery not too long ago.”
“We do appreciate your help,” Dargon said. He asked if there were any other matters to be decided, but no one spoke up. He concluded the meeting and sent them away, except for the merchant. “Lieutenant Taishent, Captain Koren, I expect you to use discretion. Have the merchant’s delivery boys show you where to go. But I want to know one way or another about this matter as soon as possible.”
Jerid and Koren both acknowledged the matter, making sure that neither spoke at the same time. Bartol held his laughter in check as the two left with the merchant.
“They’ll never admit it, but they’re more alike than not,” Bartol said.
“Yes,” Dargon agreed, smiling. “And they’d both go out of their way to prove they aren’t alike.” Clifton Dargon absently moved both arms to help himself out of the chair, until he realized that his left arm below the elbow was gone. He sighed as he stood. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it being gone.”
“Maybe one day,” Bartol suggested.
“Maybe … but not today. No, today has been far too serious. I’ll provide the wine,” Dargon said, changing the subject, “if you provide some songs.”
“Done,” Bartol agreed, and the two left the room.