DargonZine 27, Issue 4

Insecurities

Ober 2, 1018 - Ober 3, 1018


Birds hailed the morning with their musical language as the Ober sun crested the distant mountains and set the city of Dargon alight with dawn’s glow. I led my finely-dressed guests Ril Alnik, captain of the merchant ship Sorilyar, and his wife Sefshon into the warehouse that contained my private vault. The Fifth I shipping house was already busy with my men scurrying about, taking notes on sheets of vellum and hauling goods to various storage areas within the compound as they cataloged and stored goods for different merchant ships. The season had been profitable, one of the best my business had enjoyed in its two score years of operation, and I smiled to think of the mark I’d made in this city. With a sweep of my arm, I guided them to a side door within the warehouse where a guard stood, and we proceeded. As I approached, the guard opened the door and stepped aside. Beyond the door, the windowless passage was well lit by oil lamps, and ended in a massive door at the other end. I heard footsteps running behind me, and I turned to see my son-in-law, Tanjural, hurrying up beside me.

“Percantlin,” he said, “if I might have a moment of your time?”

I dropped back a short distance and whispered, “Make it quick and quiet. The captain and his wife are royalty back where they come from, and I would like to present a better image of the Fifth I to them than chattering away behind them like rats in the walls.”

Tanj grinned, knowing that I wasn’t serious about the rats comment. He whispered back, “Since you are headed to the vault, I just wanted to let you know that late last night, a merchant came in and asked to store two things in the vault for no more than a day, until the ship he had hired was ready to leave. I quoted the usual price, and he came up with the coins without protest, so I let him put a mirror and a box in with the other valuables.”

“A mirror and a box?” I asked quietly.

“The mirror is large, with an ornately carved frame, and the box was a small, jeweled piece. They looked valuable,” Tanj answered. “But he paid the fee up front, so I didn’t figure it mattered what he wanted to put in the vault.”

I said, “I suppose you’re right. Did he say what ship he was waiting for?”

“No. Should I have asked?”

I shook my head. “Never mind, it doesn’t really matter. After all, we’ve got the fee, and the items, so we’re ahead if he never bothers to come back for them.

The four of us had reached the vault door by that time. Captain Ril Alnik turned to me and said, “Thank you for escorting us personally, Master Percantlin. I’m glad that your vault was available to keep our priceless cargo secure while Sorilyar was being repaired.”

The captain was young, probably no older than Tanjural, with a broad chest and strong arms, and a winning smile on his unlined face. He walked and talked like someone used to authority, but aside from that he didn’t look much like a ship captain, or at least not one who had spent many years at sea. His black hair was cut short, and he was beardless, which was another oddity for a sea-faring man.

His wife, Sefshon, was out of the same mold: large and strong, full of authority, but still feminine for it. She performed as first mate on Sorilyar, answering only to her husband, the captain. Her hair was long and brown, her eyes were an icy blue, but she smiled as widely as Ril Alnik.

I gave a little bow as I stepped between them and started shifting levers on the vault door. “The Fifth I is here to provide whatever services the good ship captains that come to Dargon need,” I stated quickly. The vault didn’t get all that much use, actually. Fortunately, the wards and protections on it had been paid for in favors and trade, rather than coin, or I would still be paying for it even now.

The locks on the door clicked, and I pulled the door open, pretending it weighed a bit more than it actually did. The strength of the door – indeed, of the entire vault – wasn’t due to its physical construction, but to the magic that was built into it. People still expected to see a vault door with a little heft to it, though, so I pantomimed some effort into swinging the thing wide.

I knew something was wrong when I saw the smiles flee from the faces of the captain and first mate. Next, Tanj stifled a little moan by slapping his hand over his mouth. So, when I turned and looked into the vault and saw that it was empty, I wasn’t entirely surprised.

Two mornings ago, when Captain Ril Alnik and Sefshon had come to me with a sledge bearing several rugs, chests, and oblong boxes, they had only been able to put their precious cargo into the vault by stacking it up against the walls of the fairly small room and setting the sledge on end with them. The cargo from the Sorilyar had outnumbered the original contents of the room, which had consisted of three small chests on a narrow table, and two lumpy bags in a corner. Adding in the mirror and small box from Tanj’s merchant, the vault should have been reasonably full.

Now, it was empty. Well, it actually only seemed empty because of how full it had been before. There were in fact three things in it: the so ornate as to be gaudy mirror standing against one wall; a small, open box in a corner; and a body lying on the floor, facing the open box.

I darted over to the body, grasping the wrist to feel for a pulse. There was none. I turned the body over, revealing unnaturally ruddy skin and a face twisted up in horror. The captain gasped out, “That’s my son!”

I heard the woman yell, “Lir!” and suddenly they were both at my side. Ril grasped his son’s hand and held it to his chest. Sefshon pressed her hands against her son’s face.

“It may not be safe to do that,” I said. I placed my hands on Sefshon’s, and she allowed me to gently pull her hands away. Sefshon nodded and I saw tears on her cheek. She stood up, a hardened expression on her face. I watched as she scanned the room, and then walk to the mirror. She touched it gently, then pulled back her fist and plunged it through the center of the glass.

There was no sound of impact, and yet the glass seemed to shatter. It burst into silent fragments that filled the air around her, and then the fragments burst into a silvery dust, glittered like tiny stars in the dark vault, and disappeared. Only the frame remained. “That’s no mirror,” she said. I saw bitterness on her face. I recognized it in the look I’d seen in my own reflection, a hundred times before, the anger that a loved one had been lost, and there was nothing I could do about it.

“But what’s that?” said Tanjural, pointing at the open box. We all looked, and saw a faint red mist rising from within it. Ril Alnik immediately dropped his son’s hand and pulled a kerchief from within his coat and pressed it against his nose and mouth.

Sefshon glanced sideways at it. “Necromancy,” she said. “Or rather, its lingering presence. The enchantment that allowed this portal to open,” she gestured toward the mirror frame, “comes at a great price.”

“You seem to know a lot about this kind of thing,” I said. “Perhaps you could enlighten us.”

Sefshon glanced quickly at Ril Alnik, and Ril removed the kerchief from his mouth before he spoke. “Master Percantlin, my son is dead,” he said. He sobbed through the words, keeping his mouth covered, but I saw no tears. “I expect a thorough investigation into the matter. Moreover, the goods I left in your care are gone. The only explanation for both is the presence of this mirror in your vault. In a single stroke, you have robbed me of both fortune and family. I am devastated. The duke will be hearing of this.”

I heard the captain’s words as their implications echoed in the vault around us. The Fifth I was responsible for this debacle, and as its sole owner, I was culpable. The business I had spent a lifetime building was now implicated in the death of a noble, and the loss of a fortune. “Captain, I assure you, I have not robbed you. Nor have I ever seen or met your son before. I could take an accusatory manner of my own, but I prefer to get to the bottom of this mystery in a logical and orderly fashion. As for the mirror and the box … well, my assistant here,” I indicated Tanjural, “allowed them to be placed in the vault last night.”

“So it was you,” Ril Alnik stated as he turned to stare at Tanjural. He turned back to me and said, “Master Percantlin, the heir to my fortune is dead. My only son. Additionally, the loss of my cargo may well ruin my family. If that is the case, your part in this will not go unnoticed.” I marveled at the man’s sudden composure. Moments ago, he was sobbing in his kerchief. Now, it was as if his son was an asset whose worth could be calculated. This was inconceivable to me. There was no value on Makdiar I could place upon the life of my daughter; there was no sum I would not give up if I could have her back. Yet here, in front of me, stood a man — a young man, to be certain — who treated his own flesh and blood like a commodity.

Captain Alnik motioned to his wife and they both turned to leave. I took two swift steps and placed myself in their path. “Captain, I can only assure you that we will be investigating this incident to its fullest extent. I have many resources upon which I shall be calling immediately. But I must also ask that you not yet leave until a few of my own questions can be answered.” I thought for a moment. The cargo he had placed in my protection was worth more than my entire business. The Fifth I itself would be forfeit if I could not recover the stolen goods. And even then, my reputation would be devastated. It was therefore my highest priority to both recover the goods, and minimize the news of the robbery. If Alnik refused, he would be the primary suspect in this investigation, and the body of his son lying on the floor would be suspicion enough to cause him significant embarrassment. It was a cold, heartless tactic I took, but I judged correctly that his money was more important to him than his son.

“If you truly do wish to recover your goods …?” My words implied that his interest in his cargo was paramount, and he reacted as I suspected he would.

“You are correct, Master Percantlin. Please forgive my outburst. You can understand, I am distressed at the situation.”

“Of course,” I replied. “First, let me bring some of my own people in.” I turned to Tanj and spoke. “Summon Heerans, and see if the wizard Cefn is available. And send in the peacekeeper at the front of the building.” Tanjural nodded, then turned and ran out of the vault. I turned back to Alnik. “Heerans is my personal assistant and has helped me with several matters in the past where magic has been concerned. Now,” I continued, “I’ll need to take a look at your son’s body. And if you don’t mind my asking, Captain Alnik, how is it a man of your apparent age has a son of … seventeen summers?”

“Fourteen,” Alnik said. “He is often mistaken for older. My wife and I have no offspring currently. We are both involved in assuming leadership of the business from our parents, who merged shipping companies when Sefshon and I married. It is customary to have an heir before embarking on business, however, and a cousin of Sefshon’s had an accident about a year ago, leaving Lir orphaned. On the eve of our wedding, we adopted Lir as our son.”

As he was talking, I was searching through Lir’s vest and jacket. The material of his clothes was finely made and well stitched, properly befitting of a nobleman. His vest and jacket were bare of discernible clues, revealing only a small snuffbox of fine silver. I checked the seams for hidden pockets and discovered a note. I handed it to Ril, who opened it. His expression was hard to read, but the note appeared to have little meaning to him.

“What does it say?” Sefshon asked.

“It is public information. I have no idea why it would be hidden in his jacket. It merely states the name of our ship, Sorilyar, and repairs in Dargon.”

The peacekeeper I had requested walked in at that moment, a stunning dark-skinned woman named Youmna who had been in my employ for several years and I knew I could trust. Tanj had chosen well. From what I observed of Captain Alnik’s sudden attention, Youmna’s appearance was a distraction to him. Sefshon’s eyes became narrow slits of assessment.

“Youmna,” I said, “this boy is the son of Captain Alnik and his wife, Sefshon. Please wrap and secure the body for an ocean voyage. I am certain Captain Alnik and his wife will wish to take him with them upon their departure.”

“Of course, sir,” she replied.

“And bring that … mirror to my office, if you please.” I returned my attention to my guests. “If you will be so kind, Captain, to accompany me?”

Menes later, we were seated in a semi-circle of chairs observing the decorative empty frame. I eschewed my customary position behind my desk in order to adopt a more collaborative tone with my guests. Only by working together, and establishing complete honesty, did I feel I would be able to learn all I could from Alnik. Heerans and Tanjural had met us there, but the wizard Cefn was unavailable. “Captain,” I began, “what can you tell me about Lir?”

Ril let a small frown decorate his lips before answering me. “He is Sefshon’s relative. To be honest, I do not know him very well. We have been very busy over the past year, and I do not spend a lot of time with him.”

“Very well,” I said, “then if you don’t mind, Lady Alnik, perhaps you can shed some light on Lir?”

She smiled slightly, as if remembering a fond summer day, before answering. “He is handsome and energetic. Or was,” she added sadly. A lone tear trickled from her left eye, but she made no move to wipe it away. “He had an eye for the girls even at his age, and was not unaccustomed to lying with women twice his years. But he was susceptible to their influences, as well. There have been several occasions where I’ve intervened on his behalf to prevent unnecessary … family burdens.”

“I understand,” I said. So the boy played a man’s game in his relationships. It was possible he played other games meant for men as well. And that might have gotten him into trouble. “And what can you tell me of the mirror you broke?”

“Ah,” she said. She sat back in her chair and assumed a more comfortable position. “As I said, that was no mirror. It was a portal, and a very complex one to make. Whoever did that had power.”

“So you’re familiar with this level of magic?” I asked. I was surprised. I suspected she had some training, but why would anyone with significant puissance in magic go into the shipping business?

“Yes,” she replied without hesitation. “I’m not saying that I could do it,” she quickly added. “But the theory is sound. You understand that ships often travel with a magus of some level or other on board, as it helps to smooth the trip and protect from pirates. I am that magus, for Sorilyar, as well as First Mate. But for the mirror … well, you saw what happened. There was no mirror; that was an illusion, and well conceived. If you see this frame before you as you do now, without a looking glass, then you wonder why someone has created it, you wonder at the intricate runes carved into the wood, or perhaps ask why it appears to be assembled as some sort of puzzle. But place a mirror within it – or rather, the appearance of a mirror – then you do not question the frame. It has a purpose, to your mind, and you don’t ask about the details. The frame itself contains the enchantment to create the portal, and there can be nothing blocking it, so it must be an empty frame; there can be nothing within it.”

Sefshon stood up and walked to the ornate wooden rectangle. She touched it gently and pulled at a section of it. A small, delicately-carved piece of wood no greater than the length of my hand came easily away from the rest of the frame. I was astounded! I had no idea the frame was not constructed of whole lengths of wood.

“Using a mirror illusion provides a rationale in the observer’s mind for the existence of the object. The frame itself, however, is constructed of individual pieces.” She held up the part of the frame she had removed from the whole. “Each piece performs a separate function that, when working together, create the ability to open a gateway between two locations. But the cost for magic like that … it is not inexpensive.” She returned to her seat and handed me the wooden carving.

I have been exposed to more magic in the recent past than I cared to describe to Sefshon. And I was aware that there were costs other than just money involved. “So in this case,” I asked, “what kind of price?”

“Blood,” she stated. “Human, at least, and a lot of it. Enough to kill a man or a woman. It’s less about the blood itself, and more about the dying. And each piece of the portal would have to be a part of that process.” I nodded. So, Lir’s death activated the magic. I was appalled not just in the killing of a person to create magic, but in the idea that somewhere back in time … some *when* … there were wizards who actually researched this kind of thing, the killing of living creatures and human beings just to figure out how to cast a spell. How many lives over the years — decades? centuries? — had been lost so that someone could steal some treasure from my vault? How many lives had been lost to figure out other magic? What was man, who would kill other men for the sake of mystical research? Was it any worse than killing for land, or gold, or the love of a woman? I did not have the time to philosophize about it. There was still the matter of the missing treasure.

Something else, though, was nagging at me, but I was unable to discern it. I needed some fresh air and some time away from the Fifth I. As well, it was past midday, now, and I had not eaten. My housemaid’s excellent cooking might offer me the opportunity to clear my thoughts while filling my stomach.

I stood up from my chair. “Captain and Lady Alnik, I thank you for your assistance. There is much more to be done, and I am certain I shall need your assistance again in the near future.”

“Of course, Master Percantlin,” Ril said as he stood. “You know how to contact us. If there is anything else we can provide, we are eager to assist, I assure you.”

“I’m certain you shall hear from me shortly.”

 

***

 

By seventh bell, Tanj and I sat at my oak dining table, each of us with of a plate of my housemaid Margat’s roast mutton and vegetables. It was a tasty treat, dabbed with spices from Bichu to add extra flavor, but the pace with which I inhaled the food was an indicator of both my hunger, and my true goal: the large slice of mince pie Margat had baked this morning. I looked up at Tanjural and saw that, instead of satiating himself, he was looking through some paperwork. “What’s so interesting?” I asked between bites of pie.

“The ledger,” he said. “The merchant who owned the mirror said his name was Haronk. But –”

“Likely a falsehood.”

“In all likelihood,” Tanj replied.

I pushed my lunch plate aside and stabbed at the pie. I heard footsteps at the door, and Heerans came in followed closely by the wizard d’Jarn. I swallowed the first bite, savoring its flavor only briefly, but my responsibilities pushed aside my respite while I pushed the plate away from me. Tanj, who had not yet tasted the dessert, frowned slightly before doing the same.

“Master Percantlin,” the wizard addressed me. “A pleasure, as always.” His voice was like a millstone grinding grist, and his words were slow and slurring. He was dressed like a vagabond, with ill-fitting clothes repaired by patchwork and hope. His graying hair was disheveled and his face full of white stubble. He had likely started drinking earlier in the day, possibly as soon as he woke up. He was a talented mystic who could weave complex spells, but with absolutely no ambition to better himself or the world around him. It was a waste. And yet, he had been very useful to me in the past, and I to him.

“Always,” I said. “Please sit, both of you.” As they took chairs, I continued. “d’Jarn, you and I have done business together in the past, and it is that business which precipitates our current situation.” His blue eyes, though obviously clouded, focused on me intently. His unkempt long hair and unshaven face lent the impression that he was some woodsman’s magician. This was an illusion. In fact, he lived in a modest home in the new city, and could afford fine clothing if he wanted. He was not a sot, like some retired sailor living off the good will of tavern goers, but an industrious individual … to an extent. That extent seemed to be whatever provided him enough coin on which to live for a period of time. Much like a sailor, however, once he took payment for his services, he would spend the ensuing sennights or months on a different sort of magic: making money disappear, usually through drinking and whoring. When his money was low enough, he invariably found another job.

“What is it you need, Master Percantlin?” d’Jarn asked. “I could use some coin to get me through the rest of the winter.”

“Your winter would be perfectly comfortable enough without booze and whores,” I replied. “But that is your business, not mine. Where our mutual businesses intersect, however, is in a certain vault in my warehouse, a vault that you ensorcelled.”

“And what of it?” He waved his hand vaguely. “That vault is impregnable by almost any means.”

“Almost,” I replied. “But a portal has –”

“Bah!” d’Jarn interjected. “A portal! Who told you this?”

“I have seen it. A piece of it is here,” I said. I reached into my jacket and removed the section of wood that Sefshon had taken from the frame, and slid it toward him.

d’Jarn’s face turned grey and his eyes widened as he sat up in the chair and pushed back from the table. His voice was suddenly clearer than it had been. “Do not give it to me,” he said. “You should not carry such a thing with you. Burn it, instead. Or throw it in the ocean. Or gift it to an enemy. But do not keep it.”

I immediately removed my hand from the piece and sat straighter in my chair. “Is it so powerful?”

“Yes,” was his simple response.

“Could you make such an item?”

“Me? Hah!” He chuckled darkly. “Any mage that could make such an item would have no need for gold, as I do. No, I could not do that, nor do I know who could.”

I nodded. My clues were leading to dead ends. My business was about to be ruined by both the cost of the goods I would have to reconcile, and the damage to my reputation. Everything I had done, and all I had accomplished over the years were to be destroyed in moments. And who could I blame for this? Tanjural, who had simply done exactly as I would have? No. Myself? Of course not. Only an unnamed thief. Haronk? But whatever name he’d given was likely a pseudonym as well. My shoulders slumped, and I leaned back against my chair.

“Then I am lost,” I said, “for the vault your magic protected contained an almost priceless cargo that was taken through this portal. I shall never recoup the losses — the goods could be anywhere on Makdiar at this moment.”

“Why didn’t you call on me earlier?” d’Jarn asked. “Might have been helpful.”

“I was enquiring after master Cefn, if you must know. And it was, after all, just this morning that we discovered the missing cargo.”

“Well, if it was taken just this morning,” d’Jarn said, “then it can’t be just anywhere on Makdiar.” He emphasized the word any, and it caught my attention. “Not even anywhere on Cherisk, or even anywhere in Baranur. Likely not even ‘just anywhere’ in Dargon. It couldn’t have gone more than a league, at most. Not by the portal’s magic.”

“What?” Hope sprang in my chest. The amount of goods in that vault could not easily be transported, and if the portal only opened for a short distance, there was hope that whoever stole them had not yet left town. “How can you be so certain?”

d’Jarn just sat back in his chair and smiled, though he still eyed the wooden piece. “I was once involved in a ceremony to transport a tiny circlet a few hundred leagues. It was an instantaneous transmission of a single, small object — a far easier task. It took days of preparation, and no less than thirty-seven wizards in a single room — none of us slouches, mind you! — and that took bells worth of chanting and incantations. And an Araf, to boot!” He shook his head. “No, this portal — to stay open long enough to move goods through it? Not far. Not far, at all.”

I leaped immediately to my feet. “Come, Tanj! We’ve no time to lose!” Tanjural knocked over his chair as he stood and rushed to join me in my sprint for the door. “Heerans, pay the man!” I called out behind me. “And send the Guard to Captain Alnik’s quarters!”

 

***

 

The cobblestones flew beneath our feet as we rushed to the Inn of the Golden Lion. I hadn’t moved this quickly in years, but desperation lent speed to my legs. Tanjural’s youth allowed him to keep pace easily with me. “So, you think it’s Alnik?” he asked.

“I’ve no idea,” I gasped out as we ran. “But Alnik and Sefshon can surely help us search the city. And –” I stopped to catch my breath at the door of the inn. “And, I have to wonder why Sefshon never mentioned the distance factor in that portal. She seemed to know an awful lot about them, for someone who never created one.” I tucked in my shirt, which had come loose from running, and straightened my coat. I heard eighth bell ringing at Venilek Market; the laborers of the city would be taking their evening meal soon. After another deep breath, I nodded to Tanjural, and we entered the Lion.

Alnik was seated at a table taking his meal. He nodded to us when he saw us enter, and took a quaff of ale to clear his palate before rising to greet us. “Welcome, Master Percantlin. This is a sooner visit than I expected, but I am glad to see you. I hope this means there’s been a development?”

“We think there may be time, yet, to recover your cargo,” I said. Alnik indicated the empty chairs around the table and we all sat. “According to my sources, it can’t have been transported far at all by the magic — less than a league, perhaps — and that means whoever stole your goods is likely still within the city, as any merchant attempting to leave with that fortune would be heavily scrutinized. We must begin a search immediately, and will need yourself and Sefshon to help in identifying the items.”

“We’ll be glad to help,” Alnik said. “Sefshon left a few menes ago for an inspection of the Sorilyar. Repairs were completed ahead of schedule.”

Tanjural leaned toward me and asked quietly, “Percantlin, the repair docks are not terribly far from our warehouse. What if the other end of the portal was back on Sorilyar?” His voice carried farther than he intended, I think, because Alnik’s eyes flashed.

“What? You think Sefshon might have stolen them?” I thought it was curious how he was not angered by the thought, but instead surprised.

There was no polite way to ask the next question. “Is it possible?”

“It may be,” he nodded slowly.

Again, I stood up quickly, the sound of my wooden chair scraping against the floor. “Then we must make haste to the Sorilyar immediately,” I said. “The evening tide is less than a bell away.”

As we made toward the door, a pair of guardsmen entered the tavern. “Master Percantlin?” one of them asked.

“Follow me,” I said, and pushed past them.

 

***

 

The cobblestones gave way to wooden planks beneath our feet as we raced to the docks. Tanjural continued questioning Alnik along the way while I had to save my breath for running. “Captain Alnik,” Tanjural cried as we dodged our way through dock workers, shipmen, passengers, and food carts. The sun was low in the sky, sparkling brightly off the Valenfaer’s gentle waves. “Do you know a man named Haronk?”

“Good work, Tanjural!” I thought. That was the thing that had been nagging me earlier in the day. I wondered how that man had been connected to Lir, and if Sefshon might have any knowledge of him. But I had been so entranced by Sefshon’s description of the portal and its creation, I had forgotten to ask. Was that a form of witchcraft?

“He’s a merchant associated with Sefshon’s family,” Captain Alnik replied. “He came with us to Dargon on the Sorilyar.”

We ran along the dock and headed for the Sorilyar. Tanjural continued his investigation. I thought his tactics in this situation were excellent. There was no time to lose, and the urgency of the situation would force Alnik to drop any social deceptions and get right to the point as we raced to our destination. “And what of Sefshon’s family?”

“There are none left,” Alnik replied between breaths of air. “Lir was her last cousin. And I am the sole heir of my family. She will inherit everything.”

We reached the gangplank of the Sorilyar, and the ship’s guards stood aside as Alnik led the way. “To the cabin, first,” he said. “If she’s not below, she’ll be there.” I rushed up the planking to the deck of the ship and followed Alnik; Tanj and the two guardsmen were close behind. Alnik ran to the cabin door and stopped. He waited for the rest of us. Once we were all at the door, he nodded at the guardsmen, and then thrust against the door. The two guards ran in first, followed by me and Alnik, with Tanjural taking up the rear.

I heard Alnik scream, and saw Sefshon crouched over the body of a man lying on the floor. Judging by the gash across his neck and the amount of blood on the floor, he was dead. Sefshon stood to face us, a look of shock and horror on her face as we entered the room. The blood on her hands was fresh. “Sefshon!” Alnik yelled. “You’ve betrayed me!” Alnik tried to draw the sword from his belt, but he struggled to remove the blade from its decorative scabbard.

Sefshon never hesitated. She raised her hands above her head like a pair of red claws, and shouted an incantation. Fire leaped in an arc between her bloody palms, but she never had a chance to use it. Both guards drew their swords and swung at her. The first guard cut deep into her left shoulder, and lucky it was for her. She crumbled to the deck as the second guard’s swing sliced the air where her head had been. She was lying on the floor, her eyes shut as blood welled from her shoulder.

“Nehru’s Nose,” Alnik cursed. “She was going to kill us all!” Tanjural and I just stood there a moment, not certain what to do. The guards were sheathing their swords. “Check that box she left on my desk,” he said. He pointed at the captain’s desk that occupied the back half of the cabin. “I’ll check the hold to see if the goods are on board.” Alnik stepped out of the cabin and I heard his footsteps retreat down the deck of the ship. I walked to the captain’s desk and picked up the box. Its sides were intricately carved, and the top was inset with small rubies along the edges. As I moved my hand to release the clasp on its lid, Tanjural placed his own hand on top of mine.

“Wait,” he said. He reached into the satchel he carried at his side and removed another small box. It, too, was carved with runes and inset with rubies. “This one was on the floor of the vault, next to Lir’s body. They are the same.”

I stared at the box in my hands. “Alnik was quick to have me check this box while he left the room,” I said. My brain raced furiously over the past few bells’ time. I saw moments, words, and connections that had seemed unrelated, but now appeared to make sense. The outline of a plan developed in my mind. “Switch with me,” I said, handing him the new box. He placed it inside his satchel, and I put the old one back on the desk. “Now, let’s take a look at the man lying on the floor.”

“That’s Haronk,” Tanjural stated. I nodded. The cut to his neck was deep and long, not the even slice of a sharp dagger; rather, the coarse work of a larger blade.

“Interesting that Alnik’s blade got stuck in his scabbard,” I said. “But that’ll happen if you don’t clean them properly. Now, what about Sefshon?” I briefly inspected her as she lay slumped against the wall of the cabin. She was losing blood, but still breathing.

“Wrap her wound somehow,” I said. I walked over to the cabin door and turned to face the room. “Let’s set the stage. Tanj, kneel over Sefshon. Alnik will return soon, and when he does, say she’s dead. Block his view; don’t let him see she’s still breathing. Guards, stand on each side of the door. Once Alnik comes in, step in front of the door so he can’t leave. Try to be casual about it. And prepare for a fight. If he gets that blade loose, I don’t want to be killed.” I looked around the room once more before I heard footsteps fast approaching the cabin. I ran to the desk and sat on it, feigning indifference, and held the ornate box in my hands.

Captain Alnik opened the door on cue. His head peaked in tentatively, as if expecting an entirely different scene, before the rest of him followed through the door. “Master Percantlin,” he said. “The hold is empty, I’m afraid. She must have hidden it elsewhere. Or perhaps Haronk, there, was double-dealing. That would explain why she killed him.”

I nodded. “Yes, that explains things rather nicely.”

“Is she …?” He raised his eyebrows and looked at Tanjural, who was making the best mourner’s face I’d seen.

“I’m sorry, Captain Alnik,” he said.

“Of course,” he said. “It’s a shock, really. But a relief, I suppose. I’m lucky to be alive.”

“Indeed,” I said. “Well, if the cargo isn’t below decks, perhaps there’s some clue in here.” I lifted the box and showed it to him quickly. Then I tossed it to him, while ‘accidentally’ opening the lid as it left my hand.

Alnik’s reaction was instantaneous. His face blanched. He turned to run out the door, only to bounce into the two guards that were blocking his path. When he realized there was no escape, he took a deep breath and covered his face with his arms as he curled into a ball on the floor. The decorative box bounced on the deck with a hollow sound, and came to a rest next to his head. Tanjural chuckled at the sight, and the two guards smiled, but I did not find it as humorous. After all, the man had tried to kill us.

“That’s not the poisoned box, Captain,” I said, “but the one we found in the vault.”

Captain Alnik raised his head and looked around the room. I imagine, from his perspective, things looked fairly desperate: damning evidence lying by his head, and four accusers staring down at him. He stood up slowly, his eyes casting speedily about the room. “Well, thank the gods for that,” he said. “Obviously, she planted that box there to kill me. It’s a good thing you recognized it so quickly.”

“As did you,” I replied. I saw his right hand move slowly toward his belt. “And before you draw that blade, remember how it stuck in your scabbard the last time you attempted it.” His hand froze at the words.

Captain Alnik should be commended by his smooth demeanor and quick wit. He was nobility, after all, or near to it, and has probably been trained in responding to stressful situations. “I had no intention of doing so, my friend,” he said as he raised his hands to shoulder height. “I have nothing to fear, here. All evidence of the crime points to Sefshon, and she lies dead at your son’s feet. I am innocent, and will protest the matter to the Duke.”

“You are welcome to do so,” I said. “But Sefshon is not quite dead.” I pointed toward Tanjural, and he moved away from Sefshon. Her eyes were open now, and staring back at Alnik with a hatred only a woman could master. The ragged, makeshift bandage Tanjural had fashioned was blood stained, but her breathing was regular. “As to the evidence, your sword should be all that we need. I suspect it’s covered in blood, which is what made it stick in your scabbard.”

“That,” said Sefshon in a weak voice, “and the goods in the hold. I discovered them there before coming into the cabin.”

 

***

 

The morning light shone through the window of my office at Fifth I. Tanjural and I were reviewing the monthly profits and forecasting goods and prices for the coming season as second bell pealed in Venilek Market. There was a quick knock at the door before Heerans peeked his head in.

“Visitor for you, Master Percantlin. Captain Alnik.” Tanj and I shot quick glances at each other before the door opened all the way to reveal Sefshon. Tanjural sighed in relief.

Sefshon smiled. “Forgive your assistant, Master Percantlin. I could not resist the joke.” Tanjural and I rose to our feet as Sefshon moved slowly into the room. Her left shoulder and arm were wrapped expertly in bandages and hung in a sling. Her clothes were modest, but the cloak she wore about her shoulders was regal, and the large clasp at her neck displayed the symbol of a ship’s captain. “I am, technically, now the captain of Sorilyar, and I did take my husband’s name when we married. That was part of the arrangement.”

Heerans guided Sefshon to a chair and helped her sit before Tanj and I took our seats. “I am sorry about your cousin,” I said. “I was too interested in the case, yesterday, to remember to extend my sympathies. I am also sorry that your marriage –” Sefshon raised her right hand to stop me before I could finish.

“Thank you for your sympathies. I did not know Lir well before we adopted him, but I wanted to ensure my family would retain something from the merger. He was the last of my kin, and had no prospects once Ril and I wed. It was a tactical move on my part. The marriage was a tactical move on Ril’s. There is no lost love to mourn, here.”

“There’s something I don’t understand, though,” I said. “What did Ril have to gain from all this? His family is already wealthy. As the sole heir, he –”

“Is that what he told you?” Sefshon asked. She chuckled softly. “No, he was not the sole heir. He is the youngest of four brothers. My mother died in childbirth, and my father refused to remarry. I was the sole heir, but we are a smaller shipping company. Ril’s family name, Alnik, is well respected in our country, so the arrangement was to align my small family with their name, providing us longevity in business while providing Ril the ability to control the action of an industry. I gain nothing from his death, other than the title of Captain.”

“So he lied!” Tanjural exclaimed.

I glanced at Tanj with a quizzical smile. “You know that he killed a man,” I said to Tanjural. “Why is lying so hard to believe?” Tanjural just shrugged. I returned my attention to Sefshon. “How will your family handle this betrayal, then? Won’t this be quite the scandal?”

Sefshon briefly flashed a thin smile. “What betrayal? Lir’s death certificate will say he died at sea, not an uncommon thing in the shipping business.”

I nodded. “But what of Ril?”

“He’ll probably be celebrated as a hero … posthumously. It seems he dove into the ocean trying to save Lir’s life.” Dryly, she added, “We’ll put a small statue in the graveyard.” She stood up suddenly, and Tanjural and I followed suit. “I wanted to thank you for your assistance in resolving this matter, as well as for your discretion.” She removed a small, nondescript box from within her cloak. “A souvenir, if you will. And so you don’t think I’m trying to poison you …” She opened the box and brought it to her nose, then took a deep, dramatic sniff. Then she smiled and put it on the desk in front of me. I glanced at the gold coins within it before returning my gaze to hers. “Good travels to you, Master Percantlin,” she said. “I hope we can do business again.”

“The Fifth I is at your service, Captain Alnik,” I said as I bowed.

When Sefshon left, the office was quiet for a few moments. Tanjural and I sat down and stared at our papers, pretending to work. After a mene or two, Tanj broke the silence. “She’s an attractive woman, and they are both young nobles. If I were Ril Alnik, I would have tried to make something work.”

“Who says he didn’t?” I asked.

Tanj’s face betrayed his confusion. “But the mystery is solved. He murdered Lir, and tried to blame his wife. Then he tried to kill us.”

I stared at the door Sefshon had recently passed through. “That last part is true,” I said. I turned to Tanjural and considered him for a moment. The loss of my daughter devastated me, but in my son-in-law, I had gained a true son despite Bronna’s death. And like a true father, there was still a portion of his education that I felt was my responsibility.

“The others,” I continued, “who knows? We suspect; we might even believe. But the only people who know for certain are Ril and Sefshon. It could all have been a lie. Perhaps Sefshon wasn’t really the heir to her family. Maybe Lir was, and they adopted him so that they could kill him and take his fortune. Maybe Lir wasn’t even related to them. How do you and I really know what to believe? We know nothing other than what we have observed, and we can’t even trust that.”

“Well, we have to believe something,” Tanjural said. “And if nothing else, I believe we have a box of gold coins on your desk.”

“Yes, about that,” I said. I leaned back in my chair and took a deep breath while I stared at the box. “Summon the wizard d’Jarn, just in case. I’d like to ensure the coins aren’t cursed.”

 

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