“Did Ludovic kill Burian?” Ballard Tamblebuck asked as he straightened the last table in the common room at the Inn of the Serpent. He pulled out a chair and sat down with a sigh, wiping perspiration off his bald pate; he needed some rest, for he had been hard at work in and around the inn since the first bell of the day.
“Oh no. They don’t think Ludovic did it.” The instant reply came from his friend, Farquhar, a young man about eighteen years of age, with close cropped dark hair and dark eyes. He was slender and wiry, and his short-sleeved tunic laid bare the whipcord lean muscles in his upper arms.
Ballard asked, “How did Burian die?”
“They say one of Ludovic’s knives was found in him.”
Ballard knew both Ludovic and Burian, who were twin sons of a gem-merchant named Einar. The two had always been at each others’ throats until two days past, when Burian had been found dead in his room. The Town Guard had put Ludovic in jail on suspicion of murder.
This morning when Farquhar had stopped by the inn, Ballard had seized the opportunity to find out what was happening in the investigation. The young man always seemed to know of everything that happened in Dargon almost before it happened; information was what he bartered for his needs.
“They also say that the two of them got into a fight and Ludovic swore he’d kill Burian,” Farquhar finished.
Ballard sighed. He thought of the twins and wondered if Ludovic could have done it. While Ludovic had been a serious gambler, Ballard had never felt that he had any other vice; in fact, it was an open secret that Ludovic used his winnings to pay a physic to heal animals. Ballard himself had seen Ludovic almost cry when a kitten had died in his arms. It was just inconceivable to Ballard that Ludovic was suspected of killing a man, especially his own brother.
“I can’t believe it of him,” Ballard said. “Not Ludovic who –”
He was interrupted by the sound of sobbing that wafted through the open door between the common room and the kitchen. It was faint but it seemed to be coming from the kitchen.
“Deserae’s crying?” Farquhar made the two words into a question, and slipped off the table he’d been sitting on. Deserae was Ballard’s daughter and normally the only other person in the kitchen at that time of morning.
“Wait for me, will you?” Ballard went into the kitchen, leaving Farquhar in the common room. The kitchen was at the back of the inn, with a large window that remained open most of the time, as it was now. Raizel, one of his waitresses, was seated at the small kitchen table, crying, while his daughter stood nearby offering comfort. The two girls made a pretty picture, with Raizel’s red hair contrasting with Deserae’s brown.
“Sweetling, don’t cry. We can take care of it,” Deserae soothed.
“What’s going on?” Ballard asked.
Both girls jumped and looked at him with a combination of expressions; Raizel looked scared, guilty, and annoyed at his interruption while Deserae looked relieved. “Father, –”
“No, Deserae, please,” Raizel interrupted, hurriedly wiping away her tears with the back of her sleeve. “Straight, Ballard, nothing’s wrong. It’s just the baby — I’ve been sick.” Her expression changed as soon as she said that, and she turned to find a convenient bucket to retch. Raizel was carrying Burian’s child, a fact that Ballard had only recently learned.
“That’s not why you’re crying,” he said. “Is it?”
Deserae looked up at him. “She –”
“I’m just upset,” Raizel drew in a deep breath and paused for a moment before continuing, “because Burian’s dead.”
“Raizel, please. You have to tell Father what’s happened. This is serious. You need help.”
“But there will be a fight, and then someone will die,” Raizel wailed. “I’m scared. I don’t want anything to happen to Ballard.”
Ballard held on to his patience, knowing that it would take time for Raizel to tell him the truth. He knew that Raizel did not care for fights because her mother died in one, but he also knew that he could take care of himself. “Raizel,” he said. “Look at me. I won’t let them hurt you. Now you have to tell me what’s wrong.”
“I’ll tell you,” Deserae began purposefully and then paused to look at Raizel. The red-haired girl did not object and she continued, “Two days ago, when Burian was killed, Raizel went to see him. He was already dead.”
“What?” Ballard stared, thinking at a furious pace. He had been marginally interested in the murder and its solution, but this piece of information made the whole situation much more immediate. If the Guard knew of this, surely it would help them to find the real killer?
Ballard said firmly, “She needs to tell the Guard this so that they can concentrate on who went into his room before she did.”
“No! I can’t!” Raizel cried. “I won’t tell them anything. If I do, I’ll have to tell Donato I went there, and I couldn’t. When he found out that I’m with child!” She shuddered, and then gasped. “By Ol, what if … no, no, I couldn’t bear it.” She began to weep again and Deserae patted her shoulder absently while looking at him with a questioning expression on her face.
“What?” he asked. He knew that Donato, Raizel’s brother, had disliked her friendship with Burian; now Ballard wondered if Donato had killed Burian on account of the latter’s being the father of Raizel’s child.
Deserae said rapidly, “That isn’t all, Father. This morning, someone came here to see Raizel. He said that he saw her go into Burian’s room and if she doesn’t give him money, he would go and tell the Guard that she killed him.”
“What? That’s ridiculous. Who was it?” he asked, anger distracting him from wondering about the real killer. “I’ll teach him a thing or two about honor, the cod–” he broke off, glancing from his daughter to Raizel. “Did you see him, Deserae?”
“No, I didn’t. You have to do something about it.” Deserae looked as determined as he felt. “You can’t let him do this to her; it’s wrong.”
“Don’t worry; I will. Raizel, look at me.” Ballard glanced down at her. She had stopped crying and was wiping the tears off her face with her sleeve.
“Ballard,” she began hesitantly. “I don’t know who it was. But I can describe him to you if you promise you won’t get into a fight.”
“Look, lass, I’ll promise you that I won’t get hurt, that I will come back, straight? Is that good?”
She looked up at him and then slowly nodded. “Promise?”
“I promise that nothing is going to happen to me, straight?”
“I’m going to ask a friend of mine to come in. You’ll tell him, won’t you?” He turned away without waiting for her response and went out into the common room.
Returning with Farquhar moments later, he said, “Raizel, why don’t you tell Farquhar what happened?”
“Straight,” Raizel nodded. “I — I –”
Ballard looked at her and then turned to Farquhar. “Sit down. Care for something to drink? No? Let me get you something anyway.” He filled four mugs with ale and placed one each in front of Raizel and the young man before handing one to Deserae and seating himself at the kitchen table.
“Ah … yes. Ballard, thank you for the ale,” Farquhar said, taking a sip, looking around at the kitchen. He glanced quizzically at Ballard, who nodded infinitesimally at Raizel.
Then he prompted, “Raizel?”
She started, “I went to see Burian on the day he died. That morning. But he was already dead, I swear. He was dead! He was lying there, on the ground, his leg turned away so awkward-like, I –” her voice quavered and she stopped, breathing heavily. “There was a knife sticking out of his chest and … and I touched his hand — it was still warm.” She cried for a moment before sniffing and subsiding. Deserae patted her on the back, offering wordless comfort.
“Drink up, Raizel,” Ballard ordered.
Farquhar asked sharply, “Why didn’t you tell anyone when you saw he was dead?”
Raizel rubbed her face with her sleeve before replying. “Because I thought it was Donato. He was so angry when I told him I was with child and he swore he was going to kill Burian. I didn’t want the Guard to catch him!”
There was silence in the kitchen. Ballard stared at Farquhar, unsurprised at Raizel’s suspicion; after all, he had himself wondered the same thing. Well, he did understand what it was to succumb to that protective rage that was so characteristic of Donato; at one time, he himself had been capable of the same thing. His empathy with Donato made him hesitate to carry his suspicion to the Town Guard. Ballard turned to Raizel. “Go on.”
She said, “Today someone came here. He said that he’d seen me go up to Burian’s room, and that he’d tell the Guard that I killed Burian if I don’t give him money.”
Farquhar looked up at Ballard with enlightenment on his face and said, “You have a description, do you?”
“Don’t cry, Raizel, we’ll take care of it,” Ballard said gently. “But you have to tell us what he looked like. How tall was he? What color hair? What color eyes?”
“He … You promised not to get into a fight,” Raizel hiccuped.
Ballard smiled. “Of course, Raizel. Don’t you trust me?”
Farquhar gave him a look that said he didn’t, and Ballard narrowed his eyes at the young man.
Raizel sniffed and said, “Straight, I do, Ballard. He had brown hair and eyes. Sort of thin. His eyes watered all the time and … That’s all I remember.”
Farquhar asked a few more questions before nodding to Ballard and walking to the back door of the inn. “What do you want me to do?” he asked, pausing at the door.
“Truth is, I can take care of it, but I don’t know who it was that threatened Raizel,” Ballard replied. “I need you to find out. When I get my hands on him …” He let his voice trail off. “Can you find out who it is?”
“I’ll find the rat for you,” Farquhar said frowning. “If I find him in one day, you’ll owe me a favor. Otherwise, this one’s free. I don’t like blackmailers.”
It was almost dusk of the same day and the bedroom was dark except for the dying rays of the sun let in by a small window set high up in one wall. Einar sat on the bed and brooded.
“What’s wrong?” Udele, a merchant who had been a friend to him and more besides, sat next to him. She was not a beautiful woman by any means; her nose was slightly flat, her lips were thin and her forehead rectangular. Her hair had once been a lovely blond, but was now more white than otherwise. Her eyes were her most memorable feature; they were a deep greenish-blue and the color was arresting.
“What’s right?” Einar sighed. Despite his age, he still maintained a slender physique. His brown hair receded from a narrow forehead, which, combined with his sharp gaze and beak-like nose gave him a vulturine look. “Burian is dead and Ludovic is in jail for his murder. In one stroke, I have been deprived of both my heirs.”
Udele leaned against him and said, “Are you sure Ludovic did it? I can’t believe it. When they were young, he was so gentle. I cannot believe that he is even capable of it.”
“The two of them hated each other. They were always competing to see who I would choose as heir. I know; you’re going to say I encouraged it.”
Udele frowned. “Yes, you did. You know I never approved of the way you encourage them to go against each other like that. It was wrong. You are setting up –” she paused abruptly, and Einar glanced at her.
“I know,” he said. “I keep expecting him to come and ask me for money.”
She sighed and continued in a softer voice, “You were setting up a situation in which they were going to be enemies. How could you ever expect them to be friends if you encouraged them to fight against each other for something as important as inheritance?”
“We never agreed on that.” There was silence for a few moments before Einar spoke again. “Are you saying that this happened because I encouraged them to compete against each other?”
“I don’t know what to say.” It was Udele’s turn to sigh. She rubbed her face against his arm and he tightened his hold.
“I can’t believe Burian is dead.”
Udele did not reply and his statement seemed to hang in the silence. Einar wanted her to say something, to refute his statement, but how could she refute the truth? “And dead by the hand of his brother,” he murmured. “Because of me.”
“No, don’t say that.” She turned his face toward her and looked into his eyes. “I can’t accept that it was your fault.”
Einar could almost laugh at the contradiction if it were not so serious. “You were the one who said that Ludovic killed Burian because he wanted the inheritance. And I was the one who encouraged that competition. Now you’re saying that it wasn’t my fault?” His tone rose, making the last statement a question.
She shook her head. “If it did happen because of that, then it means Ludovic did it. And I simply can’t believe he could kill anyone, much less his own brother.”
“Even if he didn’t do it, it was his knife. What does that mean?” Einar rose and picked up the tankard of ale that was on the table by the door and took a deep swig. “I don’t understand why this happened.”
“You should go and talk to the guard who is investigating. They should have more information by now as to whether or not Ludovic did it. It’s been two days already.”
“Straight, I will.”
Early the next morning, Ballard was in the cellar rolling out barrels of ale. Several casks had been delivered the previous evening and he had supervised from the common room, with the result that the cellar was in some disarray, barrels everywhere. The large room was cold and dark, the only light coming from a small lantern that he had brought down with him. One wall had shelves with jars stacked neatly on them, and to one side there were several full sacks lying haphazardly.
“Ballard! Where are you?” The words floated down the stairs and he looked up; there was someone in the kitchen and it sounded like Farquhar. He called back, “Down here.” He was glad to hear the young man’s voice; he could use some help. Footsteps sounded and then Farquhar came into sight.
“Give me a hand here, would you?” Ballard asked between gasps. Farquhar began to roll one of the barrels toward the staircase.
“Stack them right here,” Ballard straightened from placing a barrel in a standup position near the steps. “I’ll take them up later this afternoon.” He went to the sacks and began to organize them into a neat pile.
Farquhar lifted the cask he had been rolling and stacked it atop another. “I think I’ve found him for you,” he said.
“Tell me who it is.” With a fierce expression on his face, Ballard lifted the last sack and placed it on the bottom shelf and turned to face Farquhar. “I’ll break his leg for him!”
Farquhar hesitated. “I’m not entirely sure, Ballard.”
Uncertainty was very rarely Farquhar’s companion, and his hesitation was surprising to Ballard, who asked, “Why? If you know who it is, then why won’t you tell me? This is important.”
“Yes, I know. It’s just that I don’t want to be the reason some poor snupper gets his leg broken.”
“What do you need to be sure?” Ballard went and picked up the lantern and led the way to the stairs.
“Raizel saw him, didn’t she?” Farquhar asked. Ballard nodded as he climbed the steps followed by Farquhar. The young man continued, “Then I need her to go with me, and when I point him out to her, she can tell me if he’s the one.”
“Straight. Do you know where she lives?” They reached the kitchen and Ballard opened the top of the lantern to douse it. From the corner of his eyes he saw Farquhar nod. Ballard hung the lantern neatly on its hook and added, “And if he’s the one, you come back and tell me who it is, straight?”
Farquhar nodded, a slight smile on his face and Ballard grinned back, sharing his sense of anticipation at teaching the blackmailer a proper lesson in manners.
It was about mid-morning, just past the third bell of the day when Einar entered the guardhouse. He was filled with trepidation because he did not want to hear that Ludovic was the killer and was being taken to the justiciar’s next meeting and thence before the duke for execution, but at the same time, he was unsure of his feelings if Ludovic were to be released. Ludovic had never been his choice for heir and it galled him that he had not realized that before.
“Sir, can I help you?” A guard barred his way into an inner corridor.
“I need to speak with Sergeant Cepero about my son Ludovic.”
The guard raised his voice and shouted, “Page!”
Within a moment, there was the sound of running and a small boy came up. “Take him to Sergeant Cepero,” the guard nodded at Einar.
As he followed the little boy, Einar continued to brood. If only Burian were not dead … But what if Ludovic had killed him? He would be taken to trial at the next meeting of the justiciar and would be sentenced to death. Einar stopped walking for a moment as the image of Ludovic dead grew vivid in his mind. Horror spread through him at that image, and he realized that he did not wish Ludovic dead. The guilt he had been fencing with disappeared. Even though he wanted Burian alive, and even though he had more affection for Burian than he did for Ludovic, he could absolve himself because he wanted both his sons alive, and failing that, at least one.
He sighed. It was just that Burian had reminded him of his own youth in certain ways. Einar threw out that excuse and faced the truth bravely: he had loved Burian more than he did Ludovic. Yet he did not want Ludovic to die. He embraced that thought with fervor; he wanted his son alive and free.
Meanwhile they had arrived at the sergeant’s office, and he entered behind the page who had knocked at the door.
“Sergeant, do you have any more information about the murder of my son, Burian? What about Ludovic? When are you going to release him?” Einar could not wait to get answers and shot out question after question as soon as he saw Cepero.
“Master Einar, please have a seat.” The sergeant gestured to the empty chair before the desk.
Einar felt that Cepero was trying to delay talking about the matter. He did not care about sitting; he only cared about knowing what they had discovered. However, since he needed answers, he forced himself to reply politely. “Thank you. But please tell me what you’ve found out; tell me you can let Ludovic go.”
“I am afraid I cannot release Ludovic quite yet.”
“But why? He didn’t do it; Burian was his brother!” Einar could not believe that they still thought Ludovic had done it. He did not know how he had become sure that Ludovic had not killed; maybe Udele had convinced him, or perhaps it was simply the thought of losing both his sons. Still, he refused to believe that Ludovic had murdered his brother, and that was the truth, his truth.
“You didn’t seem to think so two days ago when you sent for us,” Cepero reminded him sharply. “What changed your mind?”
“It was his brother!”
“It was his knife …” Cepero’s voice trailed off and Einar sensed more than saw the guard’s attention tighten.
Einar didn’t understand why, but he responded immediately, “Yes, but if he were to kill his own brother — which I don’t think could happen, at all — he would never use his own knife. Ask him; see what he says. And have you talked to everyone in the house? Have you talked to the servants? I don’t understand what you’re doing, Sergeant. It’s been two days and you have made no progress. I –”
Cepero rose from his seat and approached him. “Master Einar, we are trying to get at the truth. We have been questioning everyone. Why don’t you let us do what we can? It’s time for you to grieve over the loss of your son Burian, not tell the guard how to conduct an investigation. Ah, Kaaye, there you are. Master Einar was just leaving. Why don’t you show him out? Our corridors can be quite confusing.”
Just like that, Einar found himself escorted out of the building.
About two bells later, it was lunch time and the common room at the Serpent had but few people, all regulars. Ballard was ladling stew into bowls that Deserae was serving. The windows were open even though spring had not yet arrived. But at midday it was pleasant enough. The outer door swung open to admit another patron and behind him came Farquhar.
Ballard glanced at him and Farquhar nodded in the direction of the kitchen and disappeared down the corridor.
“Can you manage for a mene or two?” Ballard asked when Deserae next approached the hardwood bar for a bowl to serve the new customer.
“Yes, I can. Go, I saw him come in.” She smiled at him and Ballard left hurriedly.
Farquhar had made himself comfortable in the kitchen, and was eating a bowl of stew that Deserae had left out, probably for Raizel who was upstairs cleaning. He said as soon as he saw Ballard, “I checked. His name is Ruarc. Lives on Murson Street. What are you going to do?”
“I’d like to kill him,” Ballard growled. “But I won’t. Probably just frighten him a little. Why do you ask? Do you want to come along?”
Farquhar laughed. “No, no. He’s a weak little snot. Half of you could take two of him. You don’t need me.”
“I owe you a favor,” Ballard said, grabbing a tray of bread from the counter to take back to the common room.
“No, you don’t. This one is free,” came the answer. Then Farquhar grinned. “I could use some bread though.”
Ballard laughed and passed him two thick slices from the tray he held before turning to go back to the common room. “Here, you useless lad.”
The younger man chuckled.
That afternoon, Udele entered Einar’s bookroom precipitously. “I just got away. The girls are watching the store, and I have to get back. What happened? What did you find out at the guardhouse?”
Einar accepted the embrace she offered him and kissed her briefly before answering. “Nothing. I talked to them, but they didn’t have anything. I don’t know if they’re even going to free him.”
“They have to. I can’t believe he did it. Besides, what am I going to say to Jessamina?” Einar and Udele had arranged that her daughter Jessamina would marry Ludovic. Unfortunately the wedding had had to be cancelled when Ludovic had been taken into custody by the guards.
Einar laughed and it was a harsh sound. “Even if he is released,he will never marry her. If he won’t bed women, how am I ever to have grandchildren?” The question resounded in his mind as he realized the answer; with Burian dead and Ludovic’s lust taking him in another direction entirely, he would never see a child born of his son. His line ended here.
“No,” he whispered, feeling himself shake with the force of his feelings. He tried to separate them, identify them: grief at Burian’s death, fury at Ludovic’s tendencies, a deep resolve not to lose his only remaining son, and above all, a determination, dedication almost, to do anything to keep his line from ending with Ludovic.
“He will be freed; I cannot believe anything else,” he muttered, realizing that Udele’s arms were around him. Both their faces were wet and he did not know with whose tears. He knew she understood his feelings only too well; that was why she had been willing to let her own daughter marry someone like Ludovic, even though it was well-known that he preferred to bed men rather than women. He sighed. “Thank you, Udele,” he whispered into her hair.
The eighth bell that night had rung a while past. The streets of Dargon were gloomy and silent, even those who drank and conducted activities in the dark in bed. It was the quiet time of predawn. A slender figure crept out of a house on Murson Street. It headed toward the docks, keeping to the shadows near the buildings on the side of the street. The figure seemed apparently unused to stealth, for it kicked stones on the ground, and every so often, forgot to stay in the darkened corners.
Ballard Tamblebuck watched and followed. He was much more experienced at stealth than the figure he followed; he had little difficulty in moving silently and even less in keeping to the shadows. When at last the figure stopped near the docks, Ballard stepped out of the gloom.
“You Ruarc?” he asked.
“Yes,” came the whisper. “I got a message last night that I was going to get my money –”
Ballard let out a crack of soft laughter. “You threatened Raizel that you’d tell the guard she killed Burian if she didn’t give you money, and you thought you were going to get it now?” His voice rose on the last word, making the statement a question and he saw Ruarc shrink back from him. Ballard continued, “Listen to me, you worm! No one threatens my girls, do you hear me? Least of all a stinking, codless little snupper like –” Tamblebuck threw a punch “– you.”
Ruarc collapsed. “Don’t! Let me go!” His voice rose on the last word.
“Hush. Do you want the Guard upon us?” Ballard stepped forward and grabbed the youth. He pushed him against the wall, holding him by the neck with one hand so that Ruarc’s legs dangled just above the ground and raised a hand to punch him again.
Ruarc struggled, both hands clawing at Tamblebuck to no avail. “I won’t ask for any money, I swear. Just let me go,” he gasped.
“Gah! Gutless coward,” Ballard muttered under his breath, dropping his hand without throwing the punch. Then, in a slightly louder voice, he said, “Straight, you won’t, because if you do, *I* will tell the Town Guard you killed Burian. Do you understand me?”
“No!” Ruarc wailed loudly. “Don’t tell them!” He struggled and managed to grasp Ballard’s left thumb. He twisted it, and Ballard gasped, releasing him.
Ruarc fell to the side and fell hard on the cobblestoned street; there was the sound of a pop and then he screamed, one short burst. Tears came out of his eyes, and his breath came in quick gasps.
Ballard swore. The boy had probably broken his knee, and if his scream had alerted the night lookouts, then the Guard would be there shortly. He swore again.
At least Ruarc had stopped screaming. Ballard bent and turned the boy around. Sure enough, the knee lay in an awkward angle to the rest of his leg. Ballard picked him up a bit roughly, upon which Ruarc gave a low moan and fainted. The return walk seemed even longer than the outbound, what with the dead weight on his shoulder. Ballard’s thoughts went back across the years to the last time he had carried someone to his home. If only … He sighed, feeling the useless regrets wash over him. The past crept up on him every now and then when he only wanted to forget.
When at last they reached Ruarc’s house on Murson Street, Tamblebuck tried the door, which was unlocked. He walked in and gently laid the youth on the ground before exiting quietly.