DargonZine 19, Issue 2

Have You Ever Been to Northern Hope? Part 2

Sy 12, 1018 - Sy 14, 1018


This entry is part 19 of 27 in the series The Black Idol

Parris Dargon sat at a table outside Grey Talka’s and watched the barge docks. He had been spending a great deal of time watching the barge traffic on the Coldwell River for the past five days, and he had grown more nervous as each day passed. Behind him stood the immense wall of human flesh that was Rilk, his bodyguard and servant. Rilk didn’t share his master’s concern. As long as the coins in his master’s purse held out, Rilk would be quite content; of that, Parris was certain.

Parris wished for a moment that his life were as simple as the great oaf who stood over him. Rilk had nothing to worry about beyond following his lord’s next order. Parris dismissed the thought; he was the rightful duke of Dargon and had no time for self pity. Few even knew of his claim to the duchy and fewer — himself, and perhaps Rilk — recognized it, but that was going to change very soon. That was why he watched the docks, and waited.

Several months earlier, he had been traveling Baranur searching for a means to depose his cousin Clifton, the one-armed war hero who currently ruled from Dargon Keep. Parris had learned of a town called Northern Hope, where everything went wrong. The locals had told him that the town was cursed. Thinking that he could find whoever had laid the curse upon the town and persuade him to cast something similar upon his cousin, Parris had paid a gypsy witch to divine the source of Northern Hope’s misfortune. She had been able to tell him that the curse emanated from some object, but nothing further. That was when Parris had formed his current plan.

He would find someone more powerful than the gypsy witch, and pay him to find the cursed object and bring it to the city of Dargon. Clifton would be unable to put a stop to the disasters that befell the city and would lose the support of the nobles. When Parris arrived with a claim to the duchy and the means to lift the curse, the nobility would rally around him.

He had been elated, if somewhat surprised, six days earlier when a bird had spoken to him in the voice of Anarr, the mage he had hired to find the object and return it to Dargon. The bird, or Anarr, had reported that the object, a statue of the god named Gow, had been located and was in transit to Dargon via barge from Kenna. Anarr had even told Parris how to replenish the ward that kept the curse in check should the mage arrive late.

Parris had planned to watch from the causeway for his barge to arrive that morning, as he had for the past five days, but a large crowd had gathered there to observe the recovery of a corpse from the river. A one-armed body had been sighted in the Coldwell earlier that day. Parris’ cousin Clifton was supposedly missing, which had fueled rumors of his death. The rumors, in turn, had drawn the crowd. The throng of Dargon’s unwashed citizens had driven Parris to abandon the bridge in favor of Grey Talka’s, away from the stench of the crowd and speculation about the identity of the corpse. Whoever the dead man was, though, it couldn’t be Clifton. Parris could never have such good fortune. That was why he was making his own.

Parris looked away from the Coldwell and immediately wished that he had not. Tyrus Vage, the source of his nervousness, was walking up Dock Street toward him. Parris had approached Vage with his plan upon returning to Dargon two months earlier. Vage was a wealthy merchant and an old friend, and Parris had required funds to pay Anarr and to support himself until the statue arrived. In return, Parris had promised to let Vage know when the curse would strike and when it would be lifted, thus allowing the merchant to profit from Dargon’s misfortunes.

“It’s still not here, is it?” demanded Vage as he approached Parris’ table.

Parris looked up into the merchant’s scarred face and shielded his eyes from the late morning sun. “Would I be sitting here watching the river if it were, Tyrus?”

“I’m losing money with each day of delay, Parris. My ships should be plying the ocean, not sitting idle.”

When the bird had arrived, Parris had told Vage to prepare for the curse. The merchant had sent his ships to sea loaded down with food, medical supplies, building materials, and whatever other goods he could gather. They waited at anchor more than a day’s sail to the northwest for word from Vage to return. Parris knew his former friend’s patience was wearing thin, and wondered what would happen if it failed.

As Vage gently eased himself into the chair across the table, Parris saw that the merchant’s own bodyguard, Edril, had accompanied him. Edril was Vage’s secretary as well as his guard, and lately Vage had brought him to every meeting with Parris. Edril was a small, narrow-faced man with a dancer’s build. He was unfailingly polite, but Parris nevertheless had begun to think that this man would sooner kill him than clasp his wrist in greeting. Edril was the reason that Parris had dismissed his other servants and hired Rilk. The huge ex-sailor was easily twice Edril’s size. Parris wondered why it was that when the two locked eyes, it was always Rilk who looked away first.

“It has to get here soon, Tyrus,” said Parris. “It’s only a four day trip from Kenna.”

“And the barge left eight days ago.”

“Maybe they ran into some trouble. All the rain has swollen the Coldwell, after all.”

Vage stroked his bearded chin a moment, glaring at Parris. “Flooded rivers move faster. The barge should have been here in less time, not more.” The merchant spoke as if he were lecturing a child.

“Three more days, Tyrus, please. If it’s not here by then, I’ll … I’ll go talk to my cousin.” Parris owed Vage twenty gold Marks. He had borrowed ten when he originally approached Vage and another ten when Anarr and his own expenses had proven to be more than he had planned.

“Two days, Parris. I’ve already lost enough money to your foolishness. You should be thankful that all you are losing is your land and not your head.”

Vage had made him sign a note promising his lands as collateral. Parris would have to explain to Clifton how Vage had come to take ownership of some Dargon family holdings. The alternatives were unthinkable: he could confess his plan to Clifton and face execution or imprisonment, or he could not speak to Clifton at all. If that were to happen, he was certain that Vage would arrange for his death and then collect on the note himself. He had seen that quite clearly in Edril’s eyes.

“Ol’s balls!” exclaimed Rilk. It took Parris a moment to realize that the burly man was not reacting to Vage’s words, but instead to something happening upriver. His head whipped around to follow the sailor’s gaze just as the sound of distant rumbling reached them. The causeway was collapsing! Parris watched with his jaw gaping as a section of the enormous span crumbled and fell into the river. Chunks of stone and the bodies of spectators rained down into the water and onto two barges. One barge had split in half and was quickly sinking. The other spun out of control.

“They’ll be needing some help, yer lordship!” Without waiting to be dismissed, Rilk charged up Dock Street, joining a crowd of shouting peasants who were rushing toward the causeway. He moved with surprising speed for all of his bulk. Parris rose in confusion, unsure if he should follow.

“That’s an unlikely bit of bad luck, wouldn’t you say, Edril?” Vage’s voice was surprisingly mild in the face of the disaster on the causeway.

“Straight, sir. Most unlikely.” Edril had stepped behind Parris. He placed his hand on Parris’ shoulder and gently but firmly forced him back into his seat.

“Where is it, Parris?” asked Vage with more than a hint of menace in his voice.

“Where is what?”

“The statue. Don’t tell me it’s not here. That causeway collapsing isn’t just coincidence. You were trying to cut me out of the deal.”

The gravity of his situation began to creep into Parris’ numbed mind. He was in a public place, but with the chaos on the riverbank, not a single person would notice if Edril slit his throat and dumped him in the Coldwell.

“Tyrus, please. I would never try to cheat you. If the statue were here, I’d be making plans to take over at the keep, not sitting at the docks pretending to wait for a barge.”

The merchant’s dark eyes met Parris’ for a long moment. The sounds of chaos from the river seemed to fade as Parris’ world narrowed to that little table outside of Grey Talka’s.

“You were never a good liar, Parris. I’m surprised your cousin didn’t find you out years ago.” Vage glanced over the nobleman’s shoulder. Parris tensed, waiting for the thrust of Edril’s blade, but instead the pressure of the small man’s hand on his shoulder was released and he moved to his customary place behind the merchant.

Vage rose painfully from his seat. “You may not have the statue, Parris, but it is in Dargon. You have two days to find it. If not, I am quite certain that I can convince your cousin that I only just learned of your plans. I’ve no doubt that he has the resources to find this statue once he learns of its existence. My ships can still return to save Dargon once the curse is lifted; no matter who the duke is, my fortune is secure.”

Parris heaved a sigh of relief as he watched Tyrus Vage limp away down Dock Street. The sound of blood rushing in his ears was fading, replaced by the shouts of the crowd hurrying toward the causeway. As his heartbeat slowed, Parris realized that the merchant was probably correct: the statue was in Dargon.

If that were true, Clifton’s bad luck had begun. Perhaps the one-armed body in the river was Clifton’s after all. What could be worse luck for his cousin than drowning in the Coldwell on the day that such a disaster befell his beloved city? He began to smile, then realized that if the statue were in Dargon, and unwarded, then something had gone awry. Anarr should have brought it to him immediately and with the wards in place. Had the wizard decided to play his own game?

Parris tried to remember if he had noted any other ill luck prior to the barge crashing into the causeway. Nothing came to mind, which meant that the statue had just arrived. Could it have been on one of the barges involved in the disaster? He briefly considered going to the causeway, but decided that he would have little chance of finding Anarr or the statue there, and a much greater likelihood of being pressed into a rescue detail by the town guard. He decided to return home and wait for Anarr.

Halfway down Murson Street, Parris passed a burning house. With most of the town guard at the causeway, the flames destroyed a considerable portion of the home before a bucket brigade formed and managed to get it under control. He stayed to watch as the fire was finally doused and the family began looking through the charred and sodden ruins for whatever belongings they could salvage. Parris thought about how magnanimous he would appear when he offered to rebuild the family’s home after he became the duke.

As Parris crossed the marketplace, a bee-stung mule broke loose from a cart, which tipped. The contents of the cart, glazed pottery from Madenee, crashed to the ground and shattered. The sound further agitated the mule, which plowed through six vendors’ stalls before his owner got him under control. Parris had to fight hard not to chuckle as he walked past the enraged traders. When he arrived at his rented home on Merchant’s Way, he was greeted by the sight of a scaffold collapsing and dumping several workers, who had been refinishing the face of the house across the street, two stories onto the cobblestones. Parris waited until he had shut his door behind him to laugh. The masons’ broken bones were a small price to pay for having their rightful duke restored, but Parris doubted the men would feel that way.

***

By nightfall, his elation had begun to drain away. He was certain that the statue was in Dargon, but it would do him no good if it were not under his control. There had still been no sign of Anarr, nor any further communication from him. Parris had grown tired of looking up at the sound of every bird cry, wondering when another message from Anarr would arrive.

Rilk had arrived after ninth bell, soaking wet and covered in mud and blood. Greedy and lazy as the sailor was, he was loyal to his own and had spent the day pulling bargemen and other victims from the river. Parris hadn’t even rebuked the big man for running off and leaving him at Vage’s mercy. Instead, he ordered Rilk to get cleaned up and man the front door in case Anarr showed up.

As the evening wore on, Parris’ patience continued to thin. Had Anarr in fact betrayed him and decided to use the statue for his own designs? Or had the mage fallen victim to the curse himself? A thought suddenly struck Parris: Anarr and the statue might well be at the bottom of the river! Parris grinned for a moment at the idea of not having to pay Anarr the balance he was owed, until he realized that if that were the case he had no way to get his hands on the statue himself.

He sat in silence, wondering how he could recover the statue from the bottom of the Coldwell, when heard voices coming from his entryway. Had the mage arrived at last? One of the voices was Rilk’s deep baritone. The other was a young man, but clearly not Anarr. Moments later, Rilk escorted a bloody and bedraggled man with a tattered and equally bloody rucksack into Parris’ sitting room.

“Says ‘e works for Anarr. Name’s Edmond,” said Rilk.

“Is that so, young man?” asked Parris, trying to fight back a smile.

“Yes, milord.”

“And is that the object Anarr promised to deliver to me?” Parris nodded toward the man’s threadbare pack.

“Yes, sir, it is. Have you seen Anarr?” The look on Edmond’s face was half exhaustion, half hope.

“Don’t worry about Anarr. I can pay you.” Parris’ good fortune continued. The statue was being delivered from the river into his hands by this bumpkin, and he wouldn’t have to pay Anarr even if the mage were alive! He took four silver Rounds from a small cash box in his desk and handed them to Edmond.

“It’s not the money,” Edmond said, though he did deftly pocket the coins. “It’s the statue. The curse has been released again. It needs to be warded!”

Parris smiled at the young peasant’s statement of the obvious. “I can take care of that, Edmond. Don’t worry about that now.”

Parris listened as patiently as he could while the guilt-wracked Edmond related his tale of being lured away from his post by a pair of dice, and how two boys had managed to swap the statue’s ward for something they had needed to hide. After the barge had crashed into the causeway, Edmond had dragged the statue ashore. He had then been mugged by the same two boys while he searched for Parris’ home. Some time later, he had discovered the statue in the hands of another barge passenger, whom he had then slain. The boys had coshed him a second time and taken the statue, but had explained themselves and returned it, minus their own items, after Edmond had caught up with them.

Just as Parris hoped the man was finishing his tale, he began to rehash it. “If I hadn’t been gambling –”

“Then they would have hit you over the head — as they’ve done twice today already — and put their contraband in that way.” Parris could only take so much. He considered having Rilk cosh Edmond yet again, but decided to take a more civil tack. “Don’t worry, Edmond, really. You’ve done a spectacular job getting the statue here, and I’ve even given you an extra Round for your effort. I’ll take care of the statue from here.”

“You have the ingredients?”

“Yes, yes.” Parris began to edge Edmond toward the door. “Don’t get all caught up in guilt, now. At least you made some coin out of it, eh?” Parris tried to smile, but he knew it looked forced. Why wouldn’t Edmond leave?

He finally got Edmond to the front door and he had to restrain himself from shoving the peasant out into the street. Instead, he clapped the man on the shoulder in a way that he hoped was companionable and sent him on his way.

With Anarr’s servant gone at last, Parris turned his attention to what the man had delivered. He unfastened the buckles on the rucksack with trembling hands. The canvas slid aside to reveal a black stone statue of a muscular man sitting tailor fashion. A silver sword was laid across the figure’s knees. The man’s head was thrown back in a cry of rage, red eyes glaring, and mouth open to reveal sharp white teeth.

“So this is Gow.” A touch of awe crept into Parris’ voice.

“Ugly feller, in’t he?”

“No, Rilk. I think he’s beautiful.” Parris reached out to caress the statue’s face, being careful to avoid the teeth, which he knew were intended to draw blood. He briefly considered sending word to Tyrus Vage that the statue had arrived, but decided against it. In his current mood, the merchant was likely to try to take the statue from Parris and use it for his own ends. It would be better to have the idol in a safe location before informing Vage. He turned to the sailor. “Rilk, I need you to take this to the keep tomorrow, as a gift to the duke.”

Rilk’s brow furrowed, and he tugged his lower lip fretfully. “A piece almost the width of the causeway fell in the river, milord. What little’s left of it the guard’s not letting no one cross.”

Parris sighed. In his delight at finally obtaining the statue, he had all but forgotten the causeway disaster. He hadn’t expected the statue’s ill luck to affect his own plans. Gow was in his possession now, though. “Take a barge, Rilk,” he said, trying not to let exasperation creep into his voice.

Rilk reached down and lifted the statue, testing its weight. A sudden vision of Rilk holding the statue and leaning over the railing on the barge came to Parris’ mind. “Rilk, I want you to get a cart and tie the statue in the center of it. Take no chances delivering this gift to my beloved cousin.”

***

Rilk finished lashing the statue to the cart he had rented and muttered an oath as he watched Lord Dargon check all his knots. How dare his lordship check the rope work of someone who’d been a sailor for almost ten years? Still, the man did pay well, mostly for having Rilk stand around and look imposing. After working for Parris Dargon for a few sennights, he would have enough coin to stay at the Mother of Pearl for … well, for more days than he could count!

After Lord Dargon had checked each knot twice, he lectured Rilk for at least the eighth time about being careful with the statue. Rilk took it stoically. The admonishments of the dainty cousin of the duke were nothing compared to the tongue-lashings he had received from the captains and first mates he had served under. Once Lord Dargon was satisfied, Rilk lifted his huge frame up into the cart. He looked ruefully toward the sun, which was approaching midday. He had lost the better part of the morning renting a cart and a mule, and the rest of it to his lordship. With a mournful sigh for the lunch he’d never get to eat, Rilk flicked the reins to get the mule moving.

He ran into trouble on Murson Street, where the town guard had blocked traffic. Further up the street, Rilk could see flames licking up the side of a building. It was the third such house fire he had heard of in the past day. He was reminded of the warehouse fires that had plagued the city a year before. Seeing that the crowd was pressed too closely for him to turn the cart, Rilk climbed down. He took the mule by the reins and cleared the way for the cart to turn with angry glares and an occasional rough shove.

His luck was no better on Nochtur Street. A wagon full of barrels had overturned, blocking the way to all except those on foot. He spied an alleyway that passed behind a smithy; he was sure it came out beyond the overturned wagon. He was quite pleased with himself as he led the mule down the alley, until the cart stopped short with the crunch of wood grinding against stone. The mule brayed angrily at Rilk for tugging too hard on the reins.

Rilk sighed in exasperation as he saw the reason the cart had stopped short. The wall of the smithy was uneven, and the cart had become trapped between it and the next building. He thought about trying to force the cart though, until he noticed that the alleyway was narrower ahead than behind. He briefly considered cutting the mule loose and tying the statue to it, but he knew that Lord Dargon would dock his pay for disobeying orders if he discovered it. Besides, the cart would doubtless be stolen while he was delivering the statue, and that, too, would come out of his pay.

“Ol’s balls,” he muttered, “I left the sea so I wouldn’t have to bust my arse.” With a grunt, he shoved his considerable weight against the front of the cart to break it loose. After a moment’s hesitation, it moved, eliciting another angry bray from the mule.

“Quiet, you,” Rilk said, as he surveyed his situation. The cart was loose, but the only direction to go was back. He didn’t see any way to get the mule to push the cart. He could unlash the mule and lead it around to the other side, but there would be no way to get the beast past the mess on Nochtur Street. He was also unwilling to let the statue out of his sight. Lord Dargon would have him killed for that! Realizing there was only one thing he could do, Rilk unlashed the mule from the cart poles, and tied its reins to the front of the cart. Then the burly sailor began shoving the cart backwards.

Grunting and sweating, he emerged onto Nochtur Street. He had lost almost a full bell in the alley. The wagon blocking the street was still overturned, or, apparently, overturned again, since it was facing a different direction. It provided no clearance for his cart to get through. Rilk caught a whiff of ale from one of the smashed barrels. It saddened him to see good drink soaking into the ground when it could have been in his empty belly.

Rilk hitched his mule up again, turned back up Nochtur Street and onto Traders Avenue, and headed toward Commercial Street. He figured the wide road, open on one side to the shipping docks, would provide clear passage. He was wrong. Halfway down Commercial Street, he found his way blocked by sacks of grain piled one on another. A gang of dockworkers were scrambling in and out of a warehouse, bearing the grain sacks out into the street. Rilk climbed down from his cart again, and bent to pick up a sack, grunting as his back protested against further abuse.

“Here, now, where are you going with that?”

Rilk looked up to see one of the dockworkers, a squint-eyed young man, standing over him. The sailor straightened, ignoring another twinge of pain from his back, and stared down at the man. “I’m not goin’ nowhere with it, ye wretch, except to clear it out of my way. Why can’t you lot watch where you’re piling this mess?”

Squint-eye opened his mouth to retort, but then seemed to think better of it as he took in Rilk’s bulk. He settled for a half-hearted glare with his good eye before turning back to the warehouse.

“Hey!” Rilk called at his back. “What’s going on here, anyway?”

The dockman turned back and said, “Wharf rats. Dozens of ‘em. Some of ‘em bigger ‘n a cat. Whole place is overrun with ‘em.”

Rilk shuddered at the thought of having to go into a warehouse full of hungry rats, glad that his only task was to transport the statue across the river. He shoved a few more sacks out of his way, remounted the cart, and headed for Dock Street.

At the barge docks, Rilk found the street choked with carts and people, all eager to cross the river to return home or conduct their business. With the causeway closed, the crowd was too much for the regular ferries. There was even more traffic than could be handled by the barges and various small craft whose owners thought to make some extra Rounds from the city’s misfortune. Rilk waited with his cart for another full bell, growing hungrier and angrier, until he noticed that those with the most coins were getting across the Coldwell the fastest. He realized that he hadn’t asked Lord Parris for more than a few Rounds to rent the cart and pay for passage, and most of that was gone. Sunset was less than a bell away when he shoved his way to the front of the line. He pled his ca se with one of the bargemasters, saying that he had a delivery for the duke and offering most of his remaining coins: four copper Bits. The bargeman wouldn’t take anything less than two Rounds. Rilk balled his fist and thought about striking the man, but then he noticed the angry glares of the men he had pushed past. He decided to accept that he would not be reaching the keep that day.

He made his way back through the crowd, which parted more readily for him as he moved away from the barges. He grabbed his mule by the reins and started tugging at them to turn the beast and cart around. Halfway through the turn, he heard a loud creak of wood on wood. He glanced over his shoulder in time to see the cart tip to one side with a crash. The left wheel had fallen off.

“Nehru’s blood,” he swore, putting his fists on his hips and scowling. The wheel had slipped off its axle and lay on the cobblestone street. The cart was tipped to one side. The statue, its only load, was still secured in the middle of it, fortunately. Rilk was certain that Lord Dargon would have him flayed if the statue were shattered.

The sailor pondered this for a moment, one hand on his chin and the other on his hip, then looked toward the crowd. No one met his eyes, and one person muttered, “Serves him right.” Realizing that he would get no help, Rilk bent and lifted the cart upright. He tried to free one hand to pick up the wheel, but he couldn’t keep the cart steady. He dropped it three times, once on his foot, before giving up in frustration.

“Here, let me help,” said a young, dark-haired man who stepped up beside Rilk. The young man tipped up the wheel and rolled it toward the cart. Rilk, seeing what he intended, picked the cart up again. In a moment, they had the wheel back on its axle.

“Thank ye, lad,” Rilk said, as they clasped wrists. “I’d best be gettin’ back to his lordship. He’ll be mad this here statue din’t get delivered, but as soon as he’s done yellin’, I can get some dinner in my belly. Straight?”

“Straight,” replied the dark-haired man, as he bent to pick up a small stone. “Here, this should help.” He wedged the stone into a crack at the end of the axle and pounded it in place with a chunk of loose cobblestone.

“Thank ye, again.” With a sigh of frustration, Rilk finished turning his mule around and made the long trip back to Merchant’s Way.

***

Parris blinked his eyes and stared in disbelief at the statue of Gow, still encased in the bloodstained rucksack and lashed to the cart, instead of spreading misfortune from his cousin’s keep. He felt rage building within him as Rilk told the story of his failure at the docks. Parris berated the incompetent oaf for several menes before he calmed down enough to think clearly. He ordered Rilk to unload the statue for the evening, and to pay the cart’s owner for another day.

After Rilk was gone, Parris unwrapped the statue again and sat on the floor facing it, with his legs crossed like Gow’s. He looked at the god’s face, thrown back in either fury or anguish. Parris thought that he and Gow had much in common.

Parris recalled the family tale that had been passed on to him by his father, a weak and bitter man with no ambition. Duke Cedric, the great-granduncle of both Clifton and Parris, had been unable to conceive a child with his wife. He had decreed that he would name his first niece or nephew as his heir. His two sisters, Giselle and Alexis, had both been with child at the time. The healers had agreed that Giselle was due to give birth first, and preparations had been made to name her child as heir at the birth. Then Alexis had fallen down some stairs. The trauma had caused her to go into labor early, and her son, Cabot, had been born a month early. He had become the duke at Cedric’s death. Giselle had sworn on her deathbed to Parris’ grandfather Cecil that Alexis had thrown herself down the stairs to precipitate the birth.

Parris had vowed that he would not be like his father. Rather than bemoan his fate to his future children, he would make them heirs to his duchy. He had devoted his life to undoing his great-aunt Alexis’ duplicity. Rather than be a simple land-holder and distant cousin to the duke, he would regain his rightful place as Dargon’s lord.

***

After watching Rilk load the statue on the wagon again the following morning, Parris began to plan his rise to power. He didn’t want to leave the curse on Dargon longer than necessary — it *was* going to be his city — but he wanted to be sure that his actions were not too closely connected with the start of the misfortunes. Having Clifton missing complicated matters. If his cousin were truly dead, it would be easy for Parris to step in and claim his birthright, especially backed by the ability to lift the curse. However, if Clifton were to return at the wrong time, many would look to him as a savior. Parris decided to wait a sennight before making his first move.

He began writing some letters to deliver to several of the nearby barons, reminding them of the need to rally around a strong leader with a clear right to rule. He explained his own claim to the duchy, and called for those loyal to the Dargon family to rally around him rather than Clifton’s wife Lauren, who would surely try to rule the duchy until her daughter was of sufficient age. He would send those letters only when he was sure that Clifton was dead.

Parris was on his fourth letter when there was a furious pounding on his front door. He set aside his writing supplies and went to the door, wondering what calamity had befallen Rilk this time. To his surprise, it was not Rilk on the step but a red-faced and winded Anarr covered with bits of wood and smelling like eggs. The mage brushed past Parris and strode into the house.

“The wards have been removed,” Anarr said between breaths, as the natural color returned to his features. “The curse is active. Do you have the statue?”

“I have it, Anarr.” Parris suppressed a smile. Anarr hadn’t spoken to Edmond, and the peasant was no doubt on his way back to Northern Hope. The mage had no way of knowing that the statue had been delivered.

Relief flooded Anarr’s face. “Where is it? We must see to the wards.”

“The statue is no longer your concern, Anarr. I can see to the wards. Your bird messenger gave me the instructions. As for your payment, I think four gold Marks should be sufficient instead of the promised eight. You did, after all, fail to deliver the statue to me. I had to fish it out of the river.”

Anarr had begun to redden again and his eyes had widened in anger, but at Parris’ final words, the mage’s face fell. “The river?”

“Yes. The statue arrived unwarded, and the barge carrying it crashed into the causeway, making it collapse. Many died. When I discovered what had happened, I had my man find the statue in the wreckage.” Parris was pleased at how he was weaving together truth and lies. He hoped Anarr would decide to take his money and go, rather than get involved in, and potentially be blamed for, the causeway disaster.

The mage’s reaction was not what he expected. Anarr’s shoulders sagged and he whispered, “Simona …”

Before Parris could figure out how to usher Anarr out of his home, Rilk came bounding through the open doorway. The sailor’s massive chest was heaving. “Yer lordship! The statue! It’s been taken!”

Anarr’s head whipped around, and both he and Parris exclaimed, “What!?!”

“It’s true, sir,” said Rilk, gulping for breath. “I tried to go up Nochtur Street, but it was blocked again, so I headed down Atelier, and –”

Parris, used to Rilk’s rambling explanations, held up a hand. “Where was the statue taken?”

“The docks, milord.”

“Then start your story there.”

“Aye, milord. I got to the barge docks around fifth bell. I slipped a barge cap’n them Rounds ya gave me and he said I could go on his next run. As I was bringin’ the cart toward the gangplank, the left wheel fell off again. The statue came free of the lashings and slid offa the cart.”

Parris felt his anger rising. “I told you to check those knots!”

“An’ I did, milord! The knots held fine, but the statue slipped out from under the ropes. I din’t figure the wheel’d be fallin’ off anymore after that young fella fixed it for me.

“Well, the same young fella as helped me yesterday comes up outta the crowd. Fine stroke of luck, I thinks. He picks up the wheel, and I lift the cart up like I did yesterday. Only instead of puttin’ the wheel on the axle, he runs off with a woman who picked up the statue while I was holdin’ the cart up. By the time I get the cart set down again, they had hopped into a sailboat and cast off. I yelled for them to stop, but they just ignored me. The woman was a bard, too. Didn’t think they went around takin’ what din’t belong to ‘em.”

Anarr’s voice was surprisingly calm. “A bard, you say? Did she by any chance have long black hair and blue-painted lips?”

Rilk gave the mage a dumbfounded look. “Aye, that she did, sir.”

“Simona.” The mage’s lips curled into a smile.

Parris felt the situation beginning to slip away from him. “A friend of yours, Anarr? Did you send her to steal the statue back from me?”

Anarr glared at Parris. “Nothing of the kind. She was a traveling companion. I told her of the statue’s curse. She no doubt realized that the curse was affecting Dargon and, unable to find me, decided to get the statue away from the city.”

“Straight, then. Send one of your birds after her. Tell her to bring my property back.”

“It’s not that simple, Parris. A bird would never be able to find her within the influence of the curse. We will have to pursue her.”

“Beg yer pardon, milord,” said Rilk. “They coulda gone anywhere with that boat. How will ya find them?”

Anarr gave Rilk a haughty look. “I am a magus and I say that I can find the statue. That is all you need to know.”

“I’m not paying you any extra for this, Anarr,” said Parris. “This is still part of the original deal. Come, Rilk. Let me give you some coins to rent us a boat.”

Parris walked into his office with the burly sailor at his heels. He pulled open his desk drawer and counted out his coins. He had nine gold Marks and several silver Rounds: barely enough to pay Anarr the eight Marks he was owed on delivery of the statue. He glanced up at the sailor.

“How much will it cost me to rent a boat to catch that bard and her friend?” He spoke softly, so Anarr could not hear him from the entranceway.

“Quite a bit, milord, and you’ll have to put down a fair amount more to makes sure ye return it.”

Parris nodded. “Straight. I’ll need you to steal us a sailboat, then. With everything going on in the city, it’ll take days for anyone to know it’s been stolen. I’ll make it right when I’m the duke.”

Rilk hesitated. “I don’t know, milord. In’t right to be stealin’ from another man of the sea. I’d feel like a pirate.”

Parris dropped a gold Mark on the table. “Be a pirate, then.”

Rilk licked his lips and reached for the coin, but Parris scooped it up. “Not yet, Rilk. Get me the boat and help get back the statue you lost, then you get your payment.”

Rilk hung his head at the mention of the lost statue. “Aye, milord. What about that mage? He comin’ with us? I don’t like the way he looks at me.”

“I don’t like the ‘magus’ much either, Rilk, but we need him to find the statue and talk that bard into giving it up. We can attend to Anarr as we sail back to the city.” He opened his palm to reveal the coin again and was pleased to see that Rilk’s eyes went to it avidly. “Time enough for that later. The sooner we track down the bard and her friend, the sooner you will get your payment, and for that we need a boat. Go.”

Rilk nodded. “Aye, milord. I’ll have a boat ready to set sail by the time you and the wizard reach the docks. In fact, I know just the one.” The huge sailor turned toward the door, fingering the handle of his knife as he left.

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