Liriss looked out the window at the people rushing about the street. It was late afternoon and the traffic of midday shoppers and travellers filled Dargon’s streets as always. He sipped at the wine from the glass in his hand, wondering how to deal with the problems that surround his life. Rebellious workers were becoming the norm, rather than exception and he worried greatly about how to get order reinstated in his ranks.
Ever since Kera left without being brought back, it seemed that discipline had become lax and the activities of the men centered more and more around pleasure, instead of work. Liriss turned around at the sound of the door opening. “Kendall,” he hurried to greet the man walking in.
Kendall nodded in acknowledgement and pulling up a chair sat down, knowing full well that Liriss would consider it rude. “What do you want?”
Kendall was quite right in his assumption and Liriss stood in the middle of the room, staring at him for a long moment, before returning to the window. He took another sip from the glass, wondering just how much he should try the assassin’s patience, then sat down at his desk. “Do you remember Kera?” Liriss asked.
“Quite well. She was popular among your men for a time.”
That time, a little over a year before, Kendall did another job for Liriss, one that forced Liriss to swear that he would never hire this man again, but as circumstances would have it, the town guard forgot the incident and the need for reliability once again exceeded cautious instincts. “A little under two months ago she joined forces with a man who has caused me much grief,” Liriss said. “I’d like to arrange a termination.”
“My fee hasn’t changed,” Kendall hinted.
Liriss pulled a pouch from a desk drawer and tossed it to Kendall. “Take a look at the coins. Kera stole these from the man before joining him.”
Kendall drew the strings on the pouch open and poured the coins into his hand. “Very old. Expensive. He could certainly buy her.”
“At least two centuries old,” Liriss said, ignoring the remark. Kendall was a professional assassin and as such he could often get away with comments that would cost a mere worker a good flogging. Of course even Liriss believed that there was a limit of what a man in his employ, no matter how temporary, could get away with and this temporary hire was approaching it fast. “Kera stole fifty-seven from that fellow,” Liriss continued. “I am sure these five will more than cover your fee…”
“They are sufficient,” Kendall answered, returning the coins to the pouch. “Give me a description of the man.”
Liriss nodded. “I got one from the survivor of a party of four I sent after them.” His gaze became hard. Tilden was a reliable man, but a bad job forced him to snap. He hardly deserved the punishment, but failure should be discouraged in a business such as this. “The guy is about six foot, blond with grey eyes. Somewhat muscular.”
“That’s all you know? Where?”
Liriss honestly didn’t know. “They were headed out of town, towards Tench, but that was almost two months ago.”
Kendall stood up. “I’ll let you know.”
Liriss stood up as well. “Kill him, bring Kera back alive,” he gave his final instruction and Kendall stopped.
“No. I am not a chaperon. Once the money is down, they’re both dead.”
“Whatever,” Liriss slumped back in his chair as the assassin left. It wasn’t really that important to get Kera back alive, but for the sake of self indulgence, Liriss wanted to kill her himself. Maybe kill her, maybe not. There might still be a use for her…
“…Maari’s death does not trouble me,” the old warlock Natay was saying. “I don’t know anyone whom she could call a friend and I doubt she knew anyone well. What I see as a problem is that strangers may know our secrets.”
An old woman on his right whispered in his ear and he nodded. “My judgement,” Natay continued, “is that the book must be located and returned and those who took it, killed.” He stood up, casting one last glance around the table, challenging the members of the coven to comment, then, when the room remained silent long enough to assure that there would be no descent, disappeared through a doorway at the back of the room.
Other members of the coven started getting up, quietly talking among themselves and leaving. “Mija, Alicia,” the old woman, Tsazia, called. The two young witches approached. “I will instruct you on executing your job. Be prepared to go tomorrow morning.”
Mija and Alicia waited for the room to empty, then sat down at the table again.
“So much for that job Maari had for us,” Mija said.
“My heart wasn’t set on it anyhow,” Alicia answered. “I could never stand the way she looked at me. Come tomorrow we’ll be hunting people for her.”
“That’s stupid,” Mija said. “We’re going to be killing people not for killing Maari and not for stealing, but because we suspect they may know something, which is down right stupid! Most people can’t even read!”
“Maari always wrote in Old Script,” Alicia added. “I doubt too many people can read that. Maybe a few mages and scholars… Maybe we won’t have to kill…”
“We’ll have to kill,” Mija reassured her. “You know how it works.”
The two fell silent as Tsazia returned and placed a sack on the table. “What are you sitting around for?” she asked. “I told you we’re leaving in the morning. Go get ready!”
“Didn’t I tell you not to come here?” Taishent demanded of Rien.
“You did,” Rien admitted, “but that does not lessen my necessity of speaking with you.”
Taishent stepped outside and closed the door behind him. “I don’t want my granddaughter exposed to either your disease or the people looking for your friend. Go or I’ll call the town guard.”
“Sir, I don’t think that anything you or the town guard will do to me can be worse than what I’ve been through this past month.”
“Why are you so stubborn?” the old wizard shook his head. “What is it you want?”
Rien looked about and although the street was almost deserted, said, “You might want to step inside for that.”
Taishent shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Very well,” Rien produced a thick black leather covered book and handed it over.
The mage looked at the cover, then opened it to the first page. The book instantly snapped shut. “Where did you get this? Do you know what it is?”
Rien nodded. “A shadow book,” he said, not changing his tone.
Taishent looked about. “Step inside for a minute.”
Rien calmly followed the old man into the house.
“Where did you get it?”
“That old woman you sent me to find. She wasn’t very friendly,” Rien said.
“So you killed her?”
“No. Someone who had a much older conflict with her did that.”
“Do you know what this is worth?”
“I can imagine,” Rien said. “A cure most definately.”
“So you came back to me?”
“I came to you,” Rien said, “because it’s written in Old Script, something my education did not provide. I want to trade the contents for a translation.”
Taishent thought for a while. “All right, it’s worth the risks. Leave the book here, come back in a week.”
With a slight hesitation, Rien thanked the mage and left. It was somewhat of a risk to leave the book behind, but it was no more of a risk that he took with Terell and at this point promptness was of great importance. As he walked down the street, a small dark shape jumped off the roof and followed him in silent flight.
“Rumor has it Liriss brought in an out of town sword for you and your friend,” Ellis whispered to Kera. “He’s been nosing around the market place, asking questions. Lot’s of people are willing to sell you, if only they knew where you are. Most have no more to go on than a bad description.”
“I was hoping to learn more,” Kera said. “Who is he? Where does he stay?”
“Sorry,” Ellis responded. “He asks a lot of questions, but keeps a low profile. I don’t think anyone has really seen him. Each time it’s a different person that asks.”
“What else’s new in Dargon?”
Ellis shrugged. “The Duke got married to some girl from Magnus just a few days ago. Luthias Connall was made Baron…have you heard about the war?”
Kera shook her head.
“There are rumors of a Bichuese invasion by the end of the year. Everyone’s ready to panic. Everyone except Simon, that is. He said they’d be crazy to come this far. There’s plenty of good pickings elsewhere.”
“An invasion…” Kera repeated.
“Don’t worry about it,” Ellis hurried to say. “I don’t think anyone’s coming before winter.”
“Like there aren’t enough problems as it is,” Kera sighed. She glanced around to make sure no one was too close. “I don’t know where I’ll be in the mean time, but keep your ears open, huh? I’ll try to stop by again soon.”
“No problem,” Ellis answered. “There’s plenty of talk on the streets.”
“Great,” Kera smiled. “I really appreciate what you’re doing. See ya.” She turned away from the cart and quickly disappeared in the crowd.
As a city of over ten thousand souls, Dargon had plenty of crowds to assist people in need with escaping the unwanted attention of others. As the crowd thined out towards the edge of the market place, Kera took a side street off Traders’ Avenue and made her way down back alleys to the docks. She spied a crowd gathering as a large ship made its way into port and stopped to watch. The ship swung around wildly in the heavy current at the mouth of the Coldwell and to the cheers of the sailors on shore, neared the dock.
In the moment of anticipation of watching the ship dock, Kera was startled by a hand landing on her shoulder and throwing her to the ground at the mouth of the alley. The hood of her cloak fell back, completely revealing her face. Above her stood a muscular sailor, smiling, holding up a belaying pin.
“Don’t reach for anything,” he said, noticing the dagger in her belt. “Keep those arms spread out.” He reached down to grab hold of the dagger and brought it up with a jerk, without releasing it from the belt.
The blade cut completely through the belt and the sailor’s smile became vicious. “So what would you be good for? Or should I just turn you over to someone?”
The dagger went flying across the alley and Kera pushed herself back, a little closer to the wall. She still had a second dagger at her side, currently hidden by the folds of the cloak.
“I think you’ve got the wrong person,” Kera said, knowing full well this man knew she was bluffing. Even in Dargon accusations like this would not happen so casually.
“No, I’m pretty sure it’s you they’re looking for, bitch. You think the town guard or Liriss would pay more for you?” the sailor continued asking.
“Suppose someone offers more than either of them?” Rien’s voice sounded from behind the sailor.
Kera was grabbed by the waist band of her pants and remainder of the belt and shoved up against the wall. “I don’t think you could afford it,” the sailor eyed Rien.
Rien flashed a few gold coins. “How much would it take to make you forget you ever saw her?”
The grip on Kera increased as the sailor eyed the coins. She quickly pulled the second dagger from beneath the cloak and planted it squarely in his side.
With a scream the sailor brought his staff around to strike at Kera, only to have it blocked by Rien’s arm. With a twist of the staff, the sailor’s arm was forced back down.
Kera, in the meantime, pushed the dagger forward, cutting almost a quarter circle on the sailor’s body, before pulling it out. Another strike at his arm convinced the man to let go of her as he sank to the ground.
“How much do you think you’re worth to the town guard?” Rien knelt before the sailor. “That’s what I thought,” he said, watching the man’s face contort in pain. “Here,” he tossed a coin. “Give this to the healer if you manage to make it to one.”
Rien got up and pushing Kera ahead of himself, hurried down the alley. “We’re not splitting up in this town again.”
As they ran down the alley, a small black creature jumped down on the dying sailor and picked up the gold coin. The seaman stared in horror at the grotesque little man with wings standing before him, then fell to the ground, gasping from the loss of blood.
“What do you think?” Kera spun about, showing off her new belt to Rien.
“We’re in more trouble than a few coins could take care of.”
“Relax! No one saw us!”
“It’s not that we may have been seen. We have a bigger problem. This town looks to have a bounty out on you.”
Both fell silent as they approached the store clerk to pay for the belt. The man eyed Kera suspiciously while making change, but said nothing.
“I found out Liriss brought in an out of town assassin to kill me,” Kera said as they left the counter. “He’s been asking around about me. Bad strategy, I’d say.”
“Is it?” Rien asked. “Looks like the whole town is on the lookout for you. If he is being paid to make sure the job is done, the best thing for him to do is spread the news, then lean back and wait for a return of the information on where you are.”
“There isn’t anything we can do then,” Kera said. “Sooner or later someone is going to recognize me again.”
“We have to keep you hidden,” Rien agreed. “Perhaps there is also a way to lure the assassin out into the open…”
“Pardon me,” Taishent pushed his way between Thuna and an apparently potential costumer into Corambis’ market place booth.
“Hey! Wait your turn, geeb!” the girl shouted after him, but the door slammed shut before the girl could follow. “Old geezer…!” she started on a lengthy string of explicatives, making the customer retreat to the street.
“You’ll never believe what I have!” Taishent said to Corambis breathlessly inside the small casting room.
“What?” Corambis stood up, surprised at the intrusion. “You didn’t pick up another orb from that crazy old gypsy, did you?”
“No, no! Look!” Taishent unwrapped a large cloth bundle, pulling out a thick leather tome.
Corambis picked up the volume and carefully opened it to the first page. “Esch ed aur. Er ols, er kalt,” he read. “Where did you get this?” His stern gaze focused on Taishent.
“That young man who was bit by the wolfling I found brought it to me. Do you realize what we could learn?”
Corambis thought for a moment, mumbling “the risk…the risk…” then, putting the book on the table, went to the door. “Thuna, make sure no one disturbs us. I’m closing shop for the day.”
“If we keep this up, I might as well wear a sack over my head,” Kera complained to Rien. “Why don’t we just go to the city guard and tell them there’s an assassin after me?”
“Announcing this to the guard would only disclose your location,” Rien said. “If this assassin is as good as you said, he is waiting for us to seek outside help as well.”
Kera sighed, staring at the plate of food before her. “I’m not really hungry. Let’s go do something.”
“Like what?” Rien asked.
“You’re not planning to spend a whole week at this inn, are you?”
“Is there something else we need to do?”
“I’ve done things more exiting than eat wrapped in a cloak.”
“Don’t think I’m comfortable,” Rien said. “And I haven’t heard any better ideas.
“We can go look for the assassin,” Kera suggested.
Rien shook his head. “That would only call more attention to us and alert him.”
“I don’t want to spend another evening watching you stare out the window,” Kera protested.
“I was meditating,” Rien explained. “The assassin is waiting for someone to announce that you have been caught. I could do it, but I expect he is looking for me as well.”
“Then why don’t we go upstairs, relax, have some fun and forget about all this?” Kera asked.
Rien smiled, but caught himself. “I already told you; not when someone is hunting us.”
Kera smiled too, remembering the episode in the forest. “We’re in an inn that has locks on the doors,” she laughed.
“No,” Rien said sternly. “I am not willing to take a risk like that.” He turned to face the common room door and froze looking at a man who was looking at him. “Oh, not now…”
The man, dressed in chain armor and carrying a sword at his side, started towards the table and Kera pulled out her dagger.
“Put that away,” Rien said as the man approached.
The warrior was young, clean shaven and noticeably both excited and in a hurry. “My Lord,” he saluted Rien and handed him a parchment.
“The seal is broken,” Rien noted, unrolling the paper and staring at the man sternly.
“I am sorry, my Lord,” the man answered. “It was to be delivered to you before the first of Melrin, but because I was unable to find you, I was forced to read it to see how urgent it was.”
Rien did not respond. He read the message, then returned it to the messenger. “Can you find someone else to take care of this? There is no indication of urgency.”
“I was told to deliver this to you specifically, sir.”
“You indicated you were willing to deliver this to someone else if you ran out of time,” Rien said. “Take it to Sharks’ Cove — the trip should take about a month.”
“Are you sure, my Lord?” the courier asked.
“Positive,” Rien nodded. “I came here on vacation and haven’t had much rest yet. I shall forward a message as soon as I am ready to resume my duties.”
The courier bowed and hastily departed.
“You want to tell me what’s going on?” Kera asked.
“Not really,” Rien said and Kera frowned. “My work caught up to me in an inopportune time.”
“What do you do?” Kera asked. “Even a lord makes a living somehow.”
Rien sighed, beginning to tell a story which would not reveal much. In the rafters above him the little black man with wings bent forward to hear better and somewhere across town three witches watched a pair of water filled cups displaying the common room of the inn.
“See the cheek bones?” Tsazia asked. “The straight forehead? He is elven.”
“He looks normal to me,” Alicia said. “I don’t see the difference.”
“Neither do I,” Mija said. “I think he looks as human as anyone.”
The old witch shook her head in disappointment at her students’ blindness. “It may be a good idea to take him alive so you can examine him closely. You watch. I’ll begin the preparations.”
Back at the inn Kera looked at Rien with a confused expression on her face. “You’re a mercenary? Bounty hunter?”
“Not really,” Rien said after some thought. “I don’t have the authority to transport criminals. I have to deal with them through other means.”
“Kill them, give them something new to worry about so they keep out of the way. Even set them up to be arrested. Any means to keep the peace.”
Kera still looked confused. “But that’s what the town guard is for. Why would someone do something like that? Most people are just happy with their money and take care of problems when they affect them. I can’t imagine anyone paying for something like this.”
“As you can see,” Rien answered, “someone does invest money into it. To be more precise, my employer found it would cost him less in the long run to invest money in troubleshooters and practice preventative measures rather than wait for the problems to mature.”
“Who do you work for?” Kera asked.
“I can’t tell you, but you can easily eliminate all the people who would not be able to afford my services.”
Kera was, again, dissatisfied with the answer.
“If you’re done playing with your food,” Rein prompted her, “I’m more than ready to go.”
Alicia tapped one of the cups to disturb the image of Rien and Kera walking upstairs in the inn. “Go find the two old mages,” she instructed.
The view in the two cups dropped down and concentrated on a partially open shutter high above the bar. The window quickly neared and bright blue sky and white clouds rapidly came into view.
“Let’s get the book back tonight,” Mija said. “We can kill the mages and have only the elf left to worry about. I want to see just how different these creatures are.”
“What about the girl?” Alicia asked.
“I don’t know. Kill her, experiment on her. Whatever Tsazia says.”
“You know,” Alicia said after some time of watching the running image in the cups, “I never killed anyone. I’ve watched it done, but I’ve never done it…”
Mija looked away from the image in the water as well. “I did only once. Just don’t think about it. Treat it like sacrificing an animal. As a matter of fact, it’s just a sacrifice without a ceremony…”
“I have problems sacrificing animals too. They all look so cute.”
“But you’ve done it.”
“I didn’t like it.”
Mija thought for a moment. “If you start on a job and whoever you are going to kill knows you will kill them, they will retaliate and only one side will survive. Does that make it easier?”
Alicia nodded, although deep down inside it still felt wrong.
In the two cups an enclosed booth in the market place became an obvious destination as it rapidly grew in dimensions.
The dark creature swooped over the wooden shingled roof and catching itself on the edge tried forcing itself inside through a narrow crack between the roof and the wall.
“Bah! How do you expect to finish this in a week?” Corambis looked at Taishent.
The old mage looked up from the book. “If we work quickly and…”
“Fifty years and your handwriting hasn’t gotten any better!” Corambis grumbled.
“Do you want to read mine or Maari’s?” Taishent asked.
“Yours,” Corambis answered after shuffling some notes before him. “I’ve been working on reading it for too many years to give up now.”
The two men returned to work in silence as their uninvited guest made his way along a fold in the cloth that protected the booth from rain and settled comfortably by the main beam.
Another few minutes of silence and Corambis spoke “What’s `laht’?”
“I think it’s seaweed,” Taishent said.
“Indeed,” Corambis acknowledged. “Seaweed soup?”
“What?” Taishent looked up.
“You tell me. You copied it. Two quarts water, pinch of garlic, four carrots, laht, two live mice, pinch of ginsing…”
Taishent madly flipped a few pages back as Corambis went on, “…birch bark, poplar leaves…”
“Sorry,” Corambis interrupted him. “Four carrots, half pound of potatoes, beet juice…that must be the soup.” He turned the page. “Then here it talks about flying potions. Water parsnip, sweet root, cinquefoil, laht, two live mice, pinch of ginsing, poplar leaves and 250 drams of cannabis Indica. Boil for half an hour and drink immediately.”
Corambis frowned. “The mice too?”
“Doesn’t say,” Taishent answered. “This sounds pretty bad, you know.”
“It’s bound to make one crawl before flying,” Corambis noted. “If Thuna gets out of hand again, I may have her try it.”
Silence fell in the room again. The two men continued to work and their uninvited guest to watch. The view of his eyes still appeared in the two cups of water as the witches studied their targets. “They’re learning far too much,” Mija said. “Let’s go dispatch them now.”
“No,” Alicia stopped him. “Not in broad daylight in the middle of the market. It will keep.” Secretly she hoped it would keep much longer.
Kera lay horizontally across the bed, staring at Rien as he undressed. “You sure you won’t change your mind?” she asked.
“Positive,” he answered, laying his tunic and pants across a chair. “Don’t you have any will power?”
“Sure,” she said. “I can go all night long.”
Rien sat down on the bed. “That’s fine. I intend to rest. I suggest you do the same.”
Kera got up and started removing her clothing. “Are you sure?” she asked again.
“Positive,” Rien repeated himself. “What’s gotten into you, anyway?”
“What if there is nothing in that book to help us? Maari said there was no cure…”
“Then we’ll have to work on an alternative. A little quicker and more to the point.”
“What about whoever you work for?” Kera asked. “Aren’t you supposed to be a good investment?”
“We don’t have the time to reach Magnus,” Rien said. “We never did. Besides, in Magnus solving this problem would be a lot easier due to the sheer number of doctors and sages.”
“But shouldn’t your employer at least know?”
“He is aware that I can die at any time because of the dangers involved in my job. My profession is filled with risks.”
With a sigh Kera finished undressing and got into bed. “At least you’re warm,” she said, blowing out the candle.
Rien picked up a pillow and muffled his companion. “I don’t want to hear it,” his voice sounded in the dark.
It was a little past midnight when the two young witches made their way to the market place. They observed a dim light from the cracks in Corambis’ booth, indicating that work was still going on.
“I was worried we’d be too late,” Mija said. “Let’s hurry and get this over with.” He produced a pearl from a leather pouch on his belt. “This is one expensive spell. I hope it works.”
He started walking down the street, when Alicia grabbed his arm and pulled him into the bushes.
“Wha…?” Mija begun to say as her hand clamped over his mouth. She pointed in the direction of the booth, not twenty yards away. Before it now stood a half dozen armored men.
Lieutenant Kalen Darklen looked at the shimmering light dancing on the ground through a crack in the wall. “This is strange,” he commented to the guard next to him. “Come along. You four wait here.”
Kalen and his men started their shift a short while before, and as usual, having taken the road from the main gate up Traders’ Avenue, they were planning to check out the market place and proceed down to the docks. For the last few days, due to unrest in the local crime organization and an outpouring of bloody, sometimes viciously killed corpses, the patrols were raised from three or four people to a minimum of six.
Kalen and his assistant made their way to the entrance of the booth and knocked. After a second, louder knock, the door was opened by Corambis. “Yes?” he looked at the Lieutenant of the Guard. “I regret to say, sir, I am unable to make a casting for you at this hour, but if you come back during the day…”
A smile spread on Kalen’s face. “I was checking to make sure everything was all right, sir,” he explained. “It’s very late.”
“Well, yes, yes,” Corambis said. “We,” he gestured to someone inside, “we’re working late. Everything is just fine,” and began closing the door.
“May I offer you an escort home?” Kalen asked, stopping Corambis from shutting the door completely. “I’d prefer not to have people to worry about this close to the docks at night.”
“Dyann,” Corambis called inside, “this young man wants me to close up the shop for the night.”
There was a shuffling of papers before the response. “Let’s call it a night. I was beginning to fall asleep anyway.”
“I’ll leave two men to escort you home,” Kalen said. “I am sorry for the intrusion.”
Off in the bushes Mija released an aggravated growl. “Damn them!”
“Be glad we came late,” Alicia whispered. “We could have been caught.” As Mija got up to return to their inn, she let out a sigh of relief — there would be no blood spilled tonight.