The guard allowed Atros through the outer gates of the Keep of Dargon without challenge. He was well known here in his guise as Raffen Yeggent, a young foreign noble and promising businessman. Still, he entered the small courtyard with a good deal of trepidation. Though the thick talc he wore should hamper his being recognized as the unidentified man wanted in connection with the recent street slayings, the sight of the dark granite Hall of Justice did little to calm Atros’ growing anxieties.
As it was early morning, the only other occupants of the small boxed-in area were several guardsmen out exercising their arms in mock combats on the straw covered flagstones. But even without these, the Keep was imposing in itself. It rose high above the outer walls and sprawled eastward toward the steep chasm above the river. In spite of the wishes of each generation of Lords to leave his mark on the historic edifice, it seemed that there was no longer room for the continual additions which had so expanded the Keep in past centuries. Actually, the whole structure bore the title of “Keep” only in deference to its humble origins, as it had long since outgrown this title.
Atros crossed the open courtyard and identified himself to a watchman who escorted him up the wide granite stairs and through the ancient portals of the west wing, which had served as the main hall of the Keep until the time of Lord Cabot, the grandfather of the current Duke. Since Cabot’s renovations, the west wing had been relegated to quarters of favored guests and courtiers. The role of Atros’ friend, Kite, as unofficial ambassador to the court of Dargon kept him here much of the time. The house of Winthrop had retained apartments in the wing for generations, so Kite’s fiancee could remain near him (suitably chaperoned, of course) during their stays in Dargon.
After introducing Atros to a housemaid at the threshold, the watchman returned to his duties. To Atros’ inquires about Kite and Pecora, the maid reacted only with a strange silence and unfathomable expressions. She appeared either to be mute or reluctant to answer his questions. Perhaps the servants were instructed not to speak with guests, as was sometimes done among the nobility. But Atros didn’t recall any indication of such a restriction during his earlier visits. In any case, Atros decided that further attempts to make her speak would be futile. He followed her through the fore hall and into a small chamber hung with shields bearing the coats of arms of various families. Atros recognized those of Baranur and Dargon, but the rest were a mystery to him. With a slight gesture and a quick curtsy, the maid silently bid him to stay in the ante chamber and hurried from the room. The ringing of her heels on the stone floor echoed into the distance.
Atros stood puzzled for many moments. This was not the reception he had anticipated. Finally, the stout wooden door opened. A tall, muscular man, who still retained much of his youthful appearance despite a carefully trimmed graying beard, entered. The exposed portion of the man’s face appeared rough, angular, and somehow vaguely familiar.
“Raffen Yeggent?” the man asked in a deep, resonant voice. After pausing long enough for Atros to complete his nod, he continued, “I’m Aspen Talador, Kite’s brother,” he stated simply. This was startling as Aspen’s build and height were so unlike his brother’s.
“I don’t understand. I came seeking Kite or Pecora.” Seeing Aspen’s expression, Atros added “Is something wrong?”
Aspen cleared his throat and said, “Yes, I’m afraid so. It’s a delicate matter. My brother left Dargon a week ago. Pecora has refused to see anyone since. It seems their engagement has abruptly come to an end.”
“That is surprising.” Atros’ honest concern and disappointment tinged his voice. “They seemed meant for each other… Kite just left her? It doesn’t sound like Kite. They argued, I suppose?”
“No, not really. That was the strange part. It happened very suddenly.” Aspen was obviously having trouble discussing such personal matters with a stranger.
“I don’t mean to pry, but Kite and Pecora were friends. I’m naturally concerned.”
“Yes, of course. Both Kite and Pecora spoke of you. I don’t think it would do any real harm to inform you. You know that Pecora fell ill a few weeks ago?”
“No, I’m sorry. I’ve been out of touch since the festival ended. All seemed well then,” Atros suggested.
“Oh, well then. She was struck suddenly by a debilitating illness soon after the fairs. It seemed that her life was threatened. The healers could do nothing.”
“How terrible! I had no idea. But she has recovered now?” Atros asked.
“Yes. Kite journeyed far to the southwest in search of some mystics rumored to possess a remedy. He returned with the cure, but it seems he had to pledge himself in service to these mystics in exchange for the remedy. He returned to the mystics soon after Pecora recovered.”
“Very bizarre. Did he say when he would be able to return?”
“No, he said very little. I am afraid he may never return.”
Atros was speechless. One of the few bases of stability in his life had just been removed.
“I partially blame myself. I was too busy with the healers and running the estate to take notice of Kite’s intention to go on the quest. If I had accompanied him, perhaps things would have gone differently.”
“You can’t blame yourself. Kite was obviously distraught by Pecora’s illness. He probably wasn’t thinking very clearly.”
“True, but I’ve always felt responsible for my younger brother. And the Winthrops and Taladors have been close for generations. I was Pecora’s friend as well as Kite’s brother. I should have found the time to go to the Winthrop holding in person when Pecora became ill. I should have seen Kite’s desperation. I was thoughtless.” Aspen was obviously a man to whom such matters as guilt, responsibility, and honor were paramount.
“You’ve been thinking of going after Kite and bringing him back, haven’t you?”
“Yes, but I don’t know if it would do any good. Kite is a very honorable man. He has given his word, I don’t think I could convince him to break it. Besides… my brother was different when he returned from his quest.”
“Different? Different in what way?”
“He was quiet… almost distant. These mystics have some sort of hold over him. He still cared a great deal for Pecora and people of the duchy, but I sensed that he was almost anxious to return to these ‘mystics’,” Aspen pronounced the word with visible distaste.
“Yes, I would very much like to talk with him now.”
“So would I, but my responsibilities keep me here. I must oversee the estate and see to Kite’s obligations at court as well. Not that I’m complaining… I just feel a little powerless in this whole matter.” Aspen’s fist flexed subconsciously while he talked. Atros could tell that here was a man who was accustomed to authority. Helplessness drove him to distraction.
It didn’t look as though the aid Atros needed could be found here. Atros hesitated for a few moments, pondering his next course of action. He had no other friends in Dargon he could trust, and he did feel some vague kinship for this man, due to their mutual concern for Kite. He really wanted to accompany Aspen on a quest for his brother, but Atros had no time. He must make his rendezvous with his enemies soon.
Atros felt like an intruder here. There was nothing he could do for this man, or Pecora for that matter. Only time would soften her loss. Aspen had politely inferred that she would not see him now, so there was little point in attempting that. It was best that he leave, and yet he felt compelled to linger.
“You came for more than just a friendly visit. Is there something you want?” Aspen asked interrupting Atros’ thought.
“Do you just casually read minds?” Atros asked startled.
“Well, that’s part of being a landowner. I see petitioners almost daily. One learns to recognize an unasked boon,” Aspen tried to coax Atros into making his request, but Atros remained silent. “You are a fair reader of minds yourself. You knew I wished to forsake my responsibilities here and follow Kite.”
“Yes, I suppose we are alike. We’ve learned to anticipate other’s thoughts…” Atros stopped suddenly, catching himself. He did not like to consider Morpheus by day, but he was beginning to realize how much alike he and Morpheus were.
“What is it, Raffen? If there is something I can do for you I will try. Kite spoke very well of you and I can see that there is much truth behind his words.”
“I am in trouble. I need someone I can trust to stand at my side. I thought perhaps Kite could help…. but I can’t involve you. We’ve only just met and there is a great deal of danger. Perhaps, I should not have even expected Kite’s help,” Atros finished weakly.
“I already knew that your request would be dangerous. Though you carry yourself well, your wounds are still apparent. They are not of the type that one would come by in an ‘accident’.” An expression of revelation crossed Aspen’s features. “Wait, the street fight near the wharves last night! You were there!”
At another time, Atros might have denied it, but now over wrought by the turmoils of the last few hours, he gave in easily. “You are too quick for me. Yes, I was there,” he resigned.
“Now, you have no choice, I am definitely involved. There was blood spilled, and what goes on in the streets of Dargon is of concern to me.” The tiniest of hints of the potential anger in this man showed in his hard brown eyes.
“I fought only in self defense.”
“There is no need to defend yourself to me. I know you are speaking the truth.”
“You trust me so readily?” Atros asked incredulously.
“Well, I will have to hear the whole story, but I am a fair judge of character, as was, no, IS Kite. I will know if you lie to me. Besides, if you intended to ask for my brother’s help, you certainly couldn’t have been too far in the wrong. Kite is, if anything, moral to the point of naivety.” Aspen began to chuckle then stopped abruptly.
“I will have to hear the whole story. Sit while I fetch some wine. It looks like we’ll be needing it. I’ll give orders to the staff not to disturb us… And don’t think about sneaking out in my absence. You’ll not be allowed to leave until I’m satisfied,” Aspen added stepping out the door.
Once again, Aspen had virtually read Atros’ thoughts. Slipping out had been a definite consideration at that point. Atros’ fear of involving this unknown man in his business was growing almost as quickly as the begrudging respect he was beginning to feel for Aspen. Still, it really looked like he had little choice in the matter now. Somehow relinquishing the responsibility for involving Aspen seemed to relieve Atros’ fears. Atros realized that he should be using this brief respite in the questioning to concoct and rehearse a clever story to cover himself, but he feared that Aspen might easily catch him if he lied. He had pondered this for several moments to no avail, when Aspen returned sooner than Atros had hoped.
Placing two pewter goblets on the walnut table, Aspen began pouring. “I hope you will forgive me. It is a family wine. The Taladors have bottled it for generations; it really is quite good.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve had it often. It does seem underrated.”
“Thank you, but back to our discussion. You were about to tell me how you got involved in these murders.” Aspen stared directly at Atros, sizing him up.
“Well, uh… it is a long story, going far back into my past… and the past of my family.” Atros finished with a smile.
“To put it in simple terms, it seems I’ve involved myself in an ancient feud between my family and another clan.”
“A feud… Yes, I can see that. While I don’t condone such things, I can understand and sympathize somewhat as a fellow noble.”
“Believe me, my involvement is involuntary. I actually came to Dargon trying to escape the situation. But it seems I will not be allowed any peace.”
“What was the cause of the feud and what do your enemies want of you?” Aspen inquired pointedly.
“I do not know the cause of the feud, yet. But it was pretty obvious that those thugs wanted my death.”
“What of your friends, the girl and the old man.”
“The girl is safe for the moment though she was badly wounded and is still under treatment for her injuries. The old man disappeared again. He comes and goes as he likes. I would hesitate to call him ‘friend’ though.”
“Now I understand the background, though you’ve omitted a great deal of the names and details.” Aspen paused to smile. “What happened the other night?”
“The girl and I – her name is Darla – were returning from a pub when we were ambushed by four hired thugs. I attempted to hold them off, but Darla was captured. While I fought the other attackers, Darla attempted to escape and received a bad head wound in the attempt. I tried to aid her but was badly outnumbered. Then the old man arrived and came to my aid. It was actually he who struck the fatal blows. We fled, while he covered our escape.”
“You’re telling me that an elderly man killed two men without the aid of a weapon?” Aspen inquired with notable skepticism.
“He appears feeble but is actually almost supernaturally strong.”
“That is difficult to believe, though I will not question your statement until I meet this man. Do you know where he might be found?”
“No, as I have said he comes and goes as he pleases. I know only that he will be following me if he can.”
“What else do you know of this man?” Aspen asked.
“Very little. It seems he is employed by the more radical side of my family to safeguard my life. He does not take orders from me.”
“Oh, I see. That explains his fortuitous appearance the other night. Hhm, you say you were ambushed. How is that your enemies knew your whereabouts that night?”
“I do not know entirely. I was investigating a lead that my enemies might have used the Inn of the Hungry Shark as a meeting place. Perhaps I was seen there by one of their agents, but I do not think that would have given them enough time to prepare the ambush. I stayed in the inn for only a few moments,” Atros added speculating.
“Interesting. And did your lead turn up anything useful?”
“Perhaps. A group of men did meet there for several days some time ago and it is certain that they were up to no good purpose….”
“There is something important you’re omitting,” Aspen accused.
“Well, yes. I hesitate to involve you but with your courtly connections perhaps you might be able to give me some information that would be difficult to obtain otherwise.”
“Ask your questions.”
“What do you know of the Court Magician?”
“Brutsam?” Aspen paused for Atros’ nod. “A passing acquaintance of an old Dargon family. From what I’ve been told he is both competent and perhaps a bit ambitious.”
“Then can you think of any good reason for him to go in disguise to the Hungry Shark at night and to meet with men seemingly engaged in some shady activities?”
“No, I wouldn’t think Brutsam would go into the wharf district at all after dark. He seems a bit timid. You’re saying you think he may be involved with your enemies?”
“It certainly appears so. I have the innkeep’s word for it,” Atros affirmed.
“That is rather provocative information. I will have to think on it.” Aspen paused to drain his goblet. “It grows late and I grow hungry. Would you object if I arrange to have dinner served? I can promise one of the house’s finest repasts.”
“I could hardly refuse while you hold me prisoner,” Atros accused wryly.
“Yes, that is a bit unfair of me. You may leave if you really must, but I think I might be able to help you.”
“And why would you do that?” Atros asked abruptly.
“Call it guilt over Kite. I was feeling particularly helpless before you came and distracted me. Or call it kindred spirits helping one another. With each passing moment I find even more similarities between myself and you.”
“Yes, frightening, isn’t it?” Atros smiled.
“You will stay for dinner, won’t you?” Aspen asked.
“I do not know. I have appointments to keep.”
“You haven’t told me what favor you came to ask of my brother. Something dangerous…something to do with your appointments perhaps?”
“Well, allright. I’ll let you drag it out from me over dinner,” Atros resigned. Giving Atros the choice to leave had broken down his defenses better than hours worth of badgering might have.
“No, after dinner. I have a feeling that the conversation may not be the best for our stomachs. I will go arrange matters then.” Aspen left for the second time.
After a very long period of waiting, Atros was escorted by the housemaid to the old dining hall of the west wing. The dining hall was much smaller than the more modern one which had housed the celebrations of the Dargon Festival only a few weeks ago. It was arrayed in musty tapestries depicting the wives of former Lords of Dargon, women who were now only known as adornments. After a few more moments, Aspen joined them. They enjoyed a long leisurely meal of roast duck and small talk about books, hunting, and speculation on trading with Bichu.
After the dishes were cleared, Aspen began his assault afresh. He began “What dangerous favor have you to ask me?”
“Last night my apartments were violated and robbed by my enemies. They damaged and stole much of my most precious properties. In their wake, they left a note demanding a rendezvous. I am of the mind to take them up on this offer, but I cannot meet them alone. I am an indifferent swordsman at best. I had hoped that Kite, who was well practiced in the art of combat, might accompany me.”
“Oh, I see. Yes, that is certainly a dangerous task. You know that it will most likely be another ambush?”
“Yes, but I cannot give up this opportunity to uncover their identities. It is my only lead besides Brutsam,” Atros admitted.
“Oh, I was meaning to bring that up. Just before dinner I made certain inquiries. It seems your Brutsam lead is a false one.”
“You did what!?!” Atros shouted rising from his chair. “You should not have acted in my affairs without my permission!”
“Be calm. No harm has been done and much was gained.” Aspen remained seated and calm, though quick footsteps could be heard in the hall outside the dining hall.
“How can you know that?! Word of your ‘inquiries’ will spread.”
“No, Raffen. I spoke only to a dear and trusted friend who won’t betray you or me. I asked him to keep the matter confidential and I am sure he will.”
“How can you be certain?” Atros said returning slowly to his seat.
“I can trust the word of the Lord of Dargon.”
“You spoke to Lord Dargon?” Atros asked incredulous.
“This is his keep and we are boyhood friends after all. And you should be grateful to hear that the city guards will not be searching for a man of your description after tonight.”
“What? Who knows what repercussions such an order will cause?” Atros accused his temper growing once more.
“No, no, Raffen. There will be no order. Lord Clifton is more subtle than that. He will simply divert the men needed for the search elsewhere. It will be quickly forgotten,” Aspen said calmly.
“And Lord Clifton is willing to let the matter drop at that?” Atros inquired in disbelief.
“He will let the matter drop only because I have chosen to involve myself personally. He is confident in my ability to right things with the minimum of turmoil.”
“So, I am not hounded by the guard only so long as I cooperate with you.” Atros’ features showed his disdain.
“Precisely. I thought it a very neat coercion.” Aspen smiled. “You are not exactly the type of individual whom I can trust implicitly – no offense intended. It’s just that you are much too smart and much too guileful. You think too much like myself. It is difficult for me to be certain that you would return after leaving these walls.”
“You would not accept my word!” Atros asked insulted.
“Yes, I would accept your word as a noble, but I notice that you have been careful not to offer it,” Aspen said smoothly.
“Well spoken. It does seem that you were born for politics,” Atros admitted.
“Thank you, but I think you are trying to distract me. But before we go on, I would like to relate what Lord Clifton has told me in confidence.”
“Which is?” Atros asked genuinely concerned.
“That he is aware of the meetings between Brutsam and these other men and that they do not concern you in the slightest. He was rather noncommittal but it seems you’ve stumbled into something big which must be kept confidential at this time. So you see, you’ve as much reason to trust Lord Clifton as he has to trust you.”
“Interesting. I’m still very curious about the Brutsam matter, but I’ll let it drop on the basis of Lord Clifton’s word. You see, I too have heard that his oath is a good one.”
“Speaking of oathes, I was about to commit myself and my troops to aiding you in this meeting with your enemies,” Aspen stated.
“Your ‘troops’? I’m not looking for a siege,” Atros said sarcastically. “Any use of ‘troops’ would probably frighten them off.”
“Yes, of course, I was thinking of one man only. An expert crossbowman who might be useful to us.”
“He doesn’t happen to be the same man as the one behind the aria over there?” Atros asked pointing.
“How long have you known?” Aspen seemed surprised.
“Since I raised my voice. He shifted his weight suddenly and made a silent ripple in the fabric. Later I noticed the peek holes.”
“Well, Glasker, come out and let me introduce you formally.” The curtain parted at one side and a tall, broad man wearing a leather jerkin and carrying a stout crossbow entered the room.
“Glasker is an old foot soldier and friend of the family. He is capable and extremely tight lipped, and as an additional bonus he has remarkable observation and memory powers. Glasker, how many times has Raffen drank from that glass this evening?” Aspen asked.
After a moment Glasker replied, “Twenty-one sir, but he lifted it twenty-five times.”
“Amazing! Did you keep track all night?” Atros asked.
“No, I recalled the entire evening from start to finish and counted,” Glasker said slowly.
“That seems a useful talent,” Atros commented.
“Thank you, sir.” Glasker turned toward Aspen, “You were about to get to some sort of oath, sir.”
“Yes, thank you, Glasker. Raffen, I and Glasker will accompany you in your meeting with these enemies. Is that agreed?” It was clear that Atros had little choice.
“Yes,” Atros conceded. Both men had impressed him as being extremely capable and useful to his needs.
“Then we will make plans, do you have the written challenge you mentioned earlier?”
“Why, yes,” Atros said smiling. “You could have avoided all this by searching me.”
“But then I would never have gotten your cooperation,” he beamed.
“Yes, of course. Let’s get to work.” Atros retained his smile for several minutes. Perhaps things weren’t quite as dismal as they had seemed only a short time before.