DargonZine 4, Issue 3

Pact Part 1

Yuli 10, 1014 - Yuli 11, 1014


This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Pact

Kalen stood on a wharf at the north end of the town of Dargon, looking into the darkening ocean. The sun, setting to the west, was a red disc half engulfed by the water. Menacing red shadows fell across the port and the city walls as a fresh reminder of the Beinisonian invasion only a month ago.

 

He paced, looking at the havoc raised by the fighting. The piers were ruined, torn apart so that the Baranurian fleet had no place to dock after the battle was won. A large, hundred foot, merchant ship was almost completely submerged in the water not far away. It had been in port when the Beinison ships arrived and minutes later it was deck deep in the water. Now the hull was half buried in the sand and the tides were slowly dismantling the ship. There was nothing to salvage.

 

The city walls were battered as well. The solid stone was cracked and chipped and in one place the stone wall had all but crumbled to dust.

 

A creaking of the wooden walk alerted Kalen to turn. He noted a dark shape walking towards him from the eastern end of the docks, almost completely hidden by the dark. Two days ago Kalen received an anonymous note asking him to meet the sender here. The missive was brief and cryptic and could not be traced, but the lieutenant felt that it was something important. Ilona insisted that he not go or to at least bring guards, but the note explicitly told him to come alone, so he did.

 

The shadow approached and Kalen recognized it for one of Liriss’ henchmen. He wondered again if it was a trap or a set-up, but the man he was meeting was not armed. Kalen likewise had not brought his sword, but his eating dagger could always be used as a last resort weapon, as it has done a few times in the past.

 

Kesrin Mardos stopped a few feet from Lieutenant Kalen Darklen, carefully studying the acting Captain of the Guard. He was carrying a heavy proposition, ready to create a life-long associate or a life-long foe.

 

“What did you want?” Kalen asked.

 

“What my Lord wanted,” Kesrin answered without emotion.

 

“What did the rat send you for now?”

 

Kesrin suppressed a smile. He would have to use that line later. He often thought of Liriss as a rat, himself — the same moustache, grown recently, unkempt hair ever since the Beinison invasion, and a growing need to be the master of all he could, whether it served a purpose or not. Like a dog on a stack of hay, will not eat it and won’t let a horse near.

 

“The rat,” Kesrin spoke in a dry voice, it was all he could do to contain his amusement, “asked me to deliver you a proposition.”

 

“Which is?” Kalen was just as dry. There was nothing pleasant about being propositioned by a gangster in the middle of the night on a dark pier with no weapons or guards in sight. It would be like making a deal with the death god, J’Mirg, or Amante, or Nehru, or Balen-Ruk, or whatever all those religions called him, and hoping to come out ahead. Kalen was not sure where he got all that religion, but these were all one and the same. In this case Liriss.

 

“He wishes to hire you.”

 

“For what?!” Kalen exclaimed, realizing he had begun to drift. Working on both sides of the fence was just what he needed.

 

“For information! Control!”

 

“No,” Kalen shook his head, the grim darkness agreeing with him. “That’s absurd. That’s against the law.”

 

“Hear me out,” Kesrin said calmly. What was Kalen expecting? Information about a whore-house to close down? “We are ready to do things for you. We can make you the Captain of the Guard…”

 

“You’re not the only one,” Kalen interrupted.

 

“But we can do it now! We know you want it.”

 

“I’ll wait until Captain Koren retires,” Kalen said. He knew he was the logical choice for the position as soon a the present captain would become tired of the job, something he did not expect to happen for years.

 

During the Beinisonian invasion of Dargon, Captain Koren was severely wounded and for the last month had been in the care of Duke Dargon’s personal physician, Elizabeth of the Pass. He was not expected to be up and about for at least another month more and Kalen held his job by default, pending Adrunian Koren’s improvements under the care of the physician.

 

“I’ll wait until he is ready to step down on his own,” Kalen repeated.

 

“You will naturally be provided with inside information on our competition, to aid you in their apprehension,” Kesrin continued.

 

“You don’t understand…” Kalen started, but Kesrin did not yield.

 

“We will also pay you the exact same salary as the Duke. Think about it! Double the money for one job!”

 

“What would you want from me in return?” Kalen asked cautiously.

 

“Nothing that you’d have to work hard for. Just ignore what Lord Liriss does and make sure his competition stays out of the way…”

 

A rather simple job, Kalen thought to himself, but still not worth doing. Money is not everything. There was also a certain part of living that’s involved in life and to live well morality must be upheld.

 

“I can’t say I’m interested,” he answered.

 

“There are others…” Kesrin let the threat trail off.

 

“Not others that can make captain,” Kalen returned.

 

“Not if you’re alive,” Kesrin agreed.

 

“If I had my sword, I’d take you in,” Kalen said through his teeth.

 

Kesrin smiled. “What for? Being outside the city gates after dark? Curfew was lifted a fortnight ago. Or are you upset over being threatened? It’s only your word against mine…and you’re the acting Captain of the Guard.” It was not certain if that last was being used in a mocking way.

 

“If I had my sword,” Kalen corrected himself, “I’d run you through.” He turned, walking away from Liriss’ right hand man. There was nothing to talk about and nothing to fight with…or for. If not Kesrin, then another. It never stopped. It was better to keep known criminals where they were, in order to track them with ease.

 

Kesrin grabbed Kalen’s shoulder and spun him around. The Lieutenant cringed from the pain that shot down his arm. “If we don’t hear from you by tomorrow night, we will assume you made up your mind. We’ll make the same deal with someone else. You are neither the first, nor the last.”

 

Kalen grabbed Kesrin’s collar, violently yanking him up, but not being able to lift him off the ground in this manner. His shoulder screamed out in pain again. “Who else, you bastard? Who are you paying off?”

 

Kesrin broke the grasp on his tunic. “Lieutenant Shevlin was working for us. He died an honorable death. Make sure you don’t wind up just another body on the street! You have until tomorrow!”

 

Lieutenant Kalen Darklen watched Kesrin return into the darkness. He wanted to follow, but the danger of that was hundreds of times greater than the meeting itself. He watched the man disappear into the darkness, then slowly walked back through the hole in the fortification to return home.

 

Although the darkness had only settled, the streets of the city were already empty and quiet. The winding street that Kalen chose took him to the deserted market place. He stood at the opening to the alley, studying the square, wondering about the proposition Kesrin presented. Kalen could not imagine that Lieutenant Shevlin, a man he worked so closely with for a number of years, could be a turn-coat, but he had no evidence either way. Shevlin always did his job and did it well — he was Kalen’s main competition for the position of Captain of the Guard — he was one of the most efficient officers in the guard, being offered twice to switch to the Duke’s personal guard. Yet, Kalen had wondered in the past about how Shevlin could afford to buy some of the things he had on a lieutenant’s pay. Either way, he died in the invasion. No answers would come from him.

 

Kalen wondered if he should accept the offer extended to him, to go in under cover, to watch the criminal underworld and then strike when least expected, but then he remembered the price he would have to pay — Adrunian Koren’s life — and eventually his own. It was too steep.

 

A pair of lanterns appeared on the other side of the square. They were carried by six men — a patrol. With a sigh Kalen decided to return home.

 

***

 

Ilona Milnor paced back and forth in her small rented apartment. She had warned Kalen not to go to the meeting, but he stubbornly insisted. When she said she was going to go with him, he made her swear that she would wait for him to return. Now she was angry she made that promise. It could have been a trap and she just let him walk off. She walked over to the table on which she had placed her sword and belt and started putting them on, but then unstrapped the buckle and returned the belt and weapon to the table. She had lost count of the number of times she went through this procedure this evening.

 

Kalen was an ambitious officer. He became a lieutenant after only five years of service and at the age of twenty-nine was already, the best candidate for the position of Captain of the Guard. He almost got that that job, not to long ago. Captain Koren was gravely wounded in the invasion and there was some doubt as to weather or not the Captain would make it. Kalen was one of the few who said he would. He confided in Ilona that he was afraid of taking the Captain’s place, that there was still so much he needed to learn and do before he could admit to himself that he could take care of the town. For now, while Captain Koren was still recovering from his injuries, Kalen was getting some of the experience he claimed he lacked and in the last month he had done an amazing job of running the city on his own.

 

Ilona once again went over to the table, contemplating the sword. If Kalen was not back in a few more minutes, she would go after him. The thought of this made her chuckle. She had been thinking about going all evening and accumulated two or three hours worth of these “few more minutes” intervals. This was it. She put the sword-belt on, got the sword and went out. The air outside was cooler, though it was very humid. Ilona looked up and down the street. The way the street was situated, Kalen could return from either direction. She hesitated, not wanting to miss him because of lack of patience and an over active imagination. Kalen always complained that she was not patient enough.

 

As she stood there, contemplating what to do, someone appeared up the street, walking towards her. Ilona immediately recognized the person as Kalen. She hurried towards him, meeting him half way. She immediately spotted the red stain on his left shoulder.

 

“What happened to you?”

 

“It was Kesrin. He wanted to talk,” Kalen answered, not quite grasping the question.

 

Ilona gently touched Kalen’s bloody shoulder. “You fought?”

 

Kalen shook his head. “Kesrin grabbed me to prevent me from leaving. It’s not his fault — he didn’t know.”

 

“Let’s go inside,” Ilona suggested, taking Kalen’s right arm. “I’ll take a look at it.”

 

They slowly walked back to her apartment, with Ilona thinking of a good way to get her message, perhaps plea, across to her lover. His shoulder was injured during the Beinison invasion in Yule and he stubbornly refused to let anyone know about it until they wound up in bed a few days later. It was not a life threatening injury, but it would not heal without the proper care and rest. Instead, Kalen felt the absolute need — that misplaced loyalty of his — to coordinate and supervise guard activities until Captain Koren was ready to resume his duties, ignoring his own needs in the process.

 

Inside Ilona sat Kalen down on the bed and helped him remove his tunic. The scab on his shoulder was freshly torn and a trickle of blood ran down his chest. She soaked a clean rag in a basin of water and began cleaning the wound.

 

“This is the second time this week,” she noted.

 

Kalen grunted in agreement. It was hard to tell if he was being sarcastic or not.

 

“I want you to make me a promise…”

 

“I’m very bad with commitments.” He tried to smile, but only gritted his teeth as Ilona ran the rag directly across the wound.

 

“It won’t heal unless you rest,” she said as Kalen jerked back.

 

Kalen took Ilona’s hands into his. “This town won’t stop running just because I’m sick.”

 

Ilona looked into his eyes with a pleading expression. “It does not have to. I can do the job. So can Lieutenant Azyn.”

 

“You don’t understand,” Kalen sighed. “Before the invasion there were four of us to help Koren. You telling me two people and less than half the regular staff can do the job?”

 

Ilona picked up the rag, washed out the blood and returned to Kalen. “We don’t have a choice, do we?”

 

“We do. I’m here. I can do the work.”

 

“Kalen, everything is returning to normal. The people are beginning to rebuild. The looting has stopped. The Duke’s personal forces are out on the streets along side the town guard…”

 

“…a ship was stolen three days ago,” Kalen interrupted her, “a warehouse was burned to cover a robbery, we have dozens of urchins holding citizens up in the night and I was propositioned by the mob. We need people now more than ever!”

 

“Kalen! You’re making it worse. That wound is turning into an ulcer!”

 

Kalen lay back on the bed, staring at the ceiling. “I wish I could say there was a choice, but now there’s a new problem…”

 

“They propositioned you?” Ilona asked, Kalen’s words finally catching up with her. She expected anything from the mob, but a blatant offer from the them to pay off a public official was too much.

 

Kalen’s expression was as grim as ever. “Kesrin told me they will match what I am getting paid if I help them out now and again.”

 

“Help them out?” Ilona picked up the strips of bandages and started wrapping them around Kalen’s shoulder.

 

“In addition to the money, they will insure my standing in the guard, provide leads on other criminal dealings and the like…all they want is free run of the city.”

 

Ilona shuddered. “They can’t be serious. What did you say?”

 

“I said `no’. What else could I tell them?”

 

Ilona put her arm around Kalen and pulled him to his side, to face her. “Please stop trying to be a hero. Let the wound heal.”

 

Kalen put his arms around her, pulling her closer and hiding his face in her long light brown hair. “I wish I could…”

 

***

 

The following morning Ilona left for work at sunrise, leaving Kalen asleep. It was late when they finished talking last night and he spent the night with her. She hoped that he would sleep well into his shift, but knew it to be an impossibility. The day went normally; at least as normal as any this week. Shortly before lunch she took a patrol on a quick tour of the market place. This was the area of town that suffered the most damage during the invasion. What could be easily carried off was and over half of what remained was burned to the ground. Then, a week after the Beinisonian forces were fought off, a mob of people raided the merchants restoring their businesses and destroyed what was left. The town guard, already reduced to half strength, was helpless to do anything and the looting extended into the rest of the city.

 

It was not until a week later, when the remainder of the Duke’s forces were able to place a greater effort into restoring the Ducal Capital, that peace was restored to the city.

 

Duke Clifton Dargon, who was placed in charge of King Haralan’s navy, left for Sharks’ Cove where the Beinison invasion was in full swing. Most of his troops either went with him or were sent on to other areas of the duchy. Only fifty or sixty men remained in the town, in addition to the sixty-two members of the guard. Dargon no longer needed to be defended against invasions. Any damage that could be done to the city was already inflicted. Besides, Duke Dargon’s flotilla was to engage the ships that posed the greatest danger to the city. Any infantry troop would have to first take two other duchies and then most of Dargon, in order to reach the city.

 

A temporary guard station was set up in the middle of the market place. In spite of the damage inflicted on the market, it was the first part of town to be almost completely rebuilt and return to normal. Ilona spotted Lieutenant Jerid Taishent of the Duke’s personal guard and after telling her troop to spread out and look around, proceeded towards him. Jerid was the only man of any rank from the Duke’s troops still in the city. The rest, together with Bartol, their chief, had either left with the Duke or with the troops distributed to keep peace in the duchy.

 

“Are the natives restless today?” Ilona called out to Jerid.

 

He turned to her from watching the mobs pass by. “They are well behaved. We arrested three or four since sunrise. What about your side of town?”

 

Sometimes all sides seemed like here. “All right for now. Someone threw a dead rat through the Guard House window, but little more.”

 

“No trouble?” Rats were common these days.

 

“None that I heard off yet.”

 

“Are you planning on staying here?”

 

“In town or the market place?” Ilona smiled.

 

“The market place,” Jerid grinned back.

 

Ilona shook her head. “Just looking around to see that everything is all right. You’re not here because of those arrests, are you?”

 

“I stopped by to pick up a present for my daughter,” Jerid said. “This war business is a little much for her.”

 

“You go on, then. I intended to stay here through lunch.”

 

Jerid saluted Ilona and called over to one of the men at the guard post, “Ryal, get that package and let’s go!”

 

One of the men picked up a sizable package and followed his commander.

 

Ilona returned the salute as Jerid left. She looked at the market place, studying the people and their wares. Merchants and shoppers alike looked tired and worn out, much as they had the first days after the invasion, but the bruises and injuries they wore a month ago were now mostly gone. The merchandise also looked better and better every day. New merchants came daily from the villages in the south, unaffected by the war, and a few caravans from Tench have also delivered their wares. Yet, in spite of all this progress, Ilona knew that all was not as well as it would seem. The economy was dragging along and the prices were very high. The local merchants could not compete with those who travelled to Dargon. Many lost their homes, capital and stock. All had lost family and friends. Ilona sighed, knowing how lucky she was that Kalen was merely wounded.

 

During the invasion she, herself, was put in charge of the castle defense — the last line of defense. Someone, somewhere decided that since she was the only female lieutenant in the duchy, she should be as far away from the fighting as possible, behind the castle walls, waiting, just in case she was needed. And she was needed indeed. Needed to tend the wounded when they were brought in. Ilona was angry at the way she was treated, simply because she was a woman. She was trained as well as any in the guard and quite likely, better than most. But then, being behind the castle walls, she was safe, not injured, not violated. It was something Kalen did not have to worry about and there were plenty of things to worry him where he was.

 

Looking around the market place she noticed the old sage, Corambis, talking to a few people on the corner. His was one of the few local businesses that did not suffer the after effects of the invasion. As soon as his booth was rebuilt, he started seeing customers, all seeking advice for what to do next. Ilona hesitated a moment, then, seeing the people leaving, hurried to Corambis.

 

The sage waited for her to approach, then smiled. “Good day, Miss.”

 

“Good day, Sage,” Ilona returned the greeting.

 

“Is there a reading I can do for you?” Cormabis asked.

 

“I…” Ilona shuddered. She should have thought first. “There is something I need advice on, but I can not discuss it.”

 

The sage smiled. “State secrets are the most fleeting ones of all. Come with me. I will only ask what I must.”

 

Ilona obediently followed the old sage into his booth. `I must be crazy!’ she thought. `If he doesn’t sell me out, I’ll get killed pulling this stunt!’

 

The sage absentmindedly held the door to the casting room open for Ilona to come in. “My assistant is out helping a friend of mine, a doctor, so I have to make do on my own. Please, be seated.”

 

Ilona took a seat at the table sporting the wheel of life. It was so new that it reflected what little light there was in the darkened room.

 

“From my daughter,” Corambis said proudly, taking a seat across from Ilona. “She had a wood-crafter make it as soon as she heard I lost the old one.”

 

“A good gesture,” Ilona muttered. “You’re a lucky man to have a daughter like that.”

 

“Lucky, yes,” the sage agreed, “but she had it made of pure oak. Now I fear it favors the Valonus, but never mind that,” Corambis smiled, pride still on his face. He gave her the velvet pouch with the casting chips inside. “Hold this while you tell me your woes.”

 

Ilona accepted the bag. “I don’t know where to begin. Some new information has reached us in the Guard and I want to act on it. Lieutenant Darklen may missunderstand…and if Captain Koren were around, he would tell me to keep out of it as well, but I think I can do a lot of good by acting on it.”

 

“Give me that,” Corambis took the bag from Ilona. “You don’t need a fortune told. You need to do some soul searching. It’s a good thing I do both.”

 

Ilona smiled, in spite of herself.

 

“Now,” the sage continued, “don’t think yours is a one of a kind problem. We all have to make hard decisions. You must do what you feel is right.”

 

“But what if I’m doing something I shouldn’t be?”

 

“Like what? Taking advice from someone who knows nothing of the problem? What makes me more qualified than you? That I tell fortunes? Lieutenant, in true honesty, this is a case of the blind leading the blind.”

 

“But what if I’m wrong?”

 

Corambis shook his head in dispair. “Do you know the problem?”

 

“Of course!”

 

“And you know how you want to solve it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And you believe yourself to be on the right track?”

 

“Yes!”

 

“Then why are you here wasting my time and your money?”

 

Ilona blushed lightly in the dim light. “Two years in this position and I still don’t have the confidence I need,” she sighed an offered the sage his fee.

 

Corambis sternly pushed the money back. “If you’re wrong, pay me later. If not, come back and tell me about it.”

 

“I will, sir,” Ilona promised and left the sage in his booth. At least now she knew she was crazy. Corambis was right. She was wasting time. She was not assertive enough, not confident of her abilities — she knew what she had to do. She should just do it and accept the results as they come.

 

Ilona again scanned the market place, walking from one booth to another. The crowd had been steadily growing all morning, now being so thick, it was hard to see more than two booths away. Ilona fought her way through the crowd to an intersection in the rows, where the crowd was not as congested. “Simon!” She stopped across from the old sailor and his stew cart. The monkey jumped with a scream and pulled out a spoon.

 

“Yes, Lieutenant Milnor?”

 

“How about some stew?”

 

“Which will it be?” he asked.

 

“Sun-sweet,” Ilona answered. “I’m in a particularly vile mood just now.” She took the spoon from Skeebo and gave him the coins for the stew.

 

“Here you are,” Simon handed a steaming bowl to Ilona. “If you feel bad enough, then even this will taste good going down.”

 

“Is it true that only you and Guiseppi have been able to finish a bowl of this?” Ilona asked, carefully sipping the spicy stew.

 

“What do you think?” Simon asked.

 

“I think it’s a tall tale.”

 

“Actually it is,” Simon laughed. “I only poured myself half a bowl and Guiseppi never had taste.”

 

“Then I’ll just have to be the first to do it,” Ilona said. “I’ll see you later.”

 

“Ah! But it won’t be legitimate if I don’t see you do it, Lieutenant,” Simon said and Skeebo took hold of her belt.

 

She petted the monkey until it let go. “I’m with the Guard, Simon. You know we don’t lie,” she told him and went back into the crowd. Behind her the old sailor sadly shook his head. Not all were pure and innocent and not all were as honest and reliable as one might expect.

 

***

 

Ilona felt a little better as she ate the burning stew. She was determined to finish the spicy concoction and then go through with her chosen assignment. If Kalen was not going to take the opportunity, she was ready to do it on her own.

 

Looking about the market place, she noticed a young boy carefully crawling between the feet of the people gathered around a merchant’s table. As soon as he was on his feet, he started running and she, dropping the bowl of Simon’s finest, leapt after him. It was not long before the crowd got too thick to continue and after a bit of struggling and dodging, Ilona grabbed hold of the boy and pulled him up to his tip-toes by his ear. The boy was young, no older than eight, skinny and by the looks of him, homeless. “So what did you get?” she asked him, leading him out of the crowd. The boy did not answer.

 

“Ten Bits for that ear!” somebody next to Ilona proclaimed.

 

She looked over her shoulder to see a man in his twenties, looking anxiously at her.

 

The boy jerked hard, but she still firmly held his ear and he cried out in pain. “If he does it again, I’ll give it to you for free.”

 

“You’re not going to arrest a child, are you?”

 

“Are you planning to adopt him?”

 

The young man reached into his purse. “Five Silver?”

 

“Are you trying to buy a human being?”

 

“I wish to take care of his fine.”

 

“So he can rob another merchant to pay you back,” Ilona’s eyes narrowed. “Tell your boss I wish to have a word with him about a deal he was making yesterday. I know someone who is looking for a job…”

 

“I am not leaving without the boy,” the man declared, seemingly missing what she said.

 

Ilona pushed the child to him. “Tell Liriss he has until sunset.”

 

***

 

Kalen stared at the ceiling, studying the crack that ran almost directly above him, dividing the ceiling of Captain Koren’s office evenly in half. A sheet of parchment appeared in his line of vision, held by Ilona.

 

“That’s it.”

 

Kalen thumbed through the sheets. “A bit sketchy. There’s more paper than report. You could fit it all on a page or two.”

 

“I’ve got a lot on my mind,” she said.

 

“Like what?”

 

“Like you not getting enough rest.”

 

“That’s not your problem,” Kalen said. “I know my limits.”

 

“I won’t argue with you,” Ilona answered. “You already know what I think.”

 

“I know,” Kalen nodded. “Just tolerate me, please.”

 

“I’d better go.”

 

Kalen got up. “I’ll walk you out.”

 

Ilona put her arm around his waist and her head on his shoulder as they walked through the guard house. Kalen returned the gesture with his good arm. “Do you want an escort?”

 

“I’ll be fine,” she said, hoping he would not insist. He did not. At the large double doors they exchanged one final embrace and Ilona hurried off into the darkness. She was worried about what she was going to do, but the thoughts of what it might produce in the long run helped relax her fears. More importantly, she believed that if Kalen was not involved, he would not be compromised as the acting Captain of the Guard.

 

The darkness hid Ilona’s figure, draped in a black cloak, as she made her way to the oldest part of town, just a few blocks from Dargon Keep and stopped in the shadows of a building. When her eyes adjusted to the added darkness of the alley, she spotted a tall muscular man, also robed in black, walking in her direction.

 

Releasing the strap holding her sword, Ilona started towards the figure. The man stopped a few feet from her and she recognized him as Kesrin, Liriss’ lieutenant.

 

“What do you want?” he asked.

 

“I wanted to meet with someone of authority,” she answered, trying to provoke him on purpose.

 

Kesrin did not appear to be affected by her statement. “Tell me first.”

 

Ilona did not like the sound of that, but if it was the only way she could get to see Liriss… She told him all she had to; perhaps a little more colorful than it really was, but it was plenty to convince him to get her a meeting with Liriss.

 

Kesrin considered deeply if he should, but in the end decided it was better not to come back empty handed and took Ilona down the narrow winding streets of the old portion of the city. It was obvious he took the long way and Ilona was pretty sure she saw someone trailing them, probably to make sure that she was not being followed. Finally Kesrin stopped at what appeared to be a random door and opened it without knocking. Ilona followed him in.

 

Inside, at the end of a long corridor, was a small room, furnished with a single table and two chairs. It was dirty, with a musty smell and plenty of dark stains, some appearing to be blood. The walls and the ceiling were rough and in bad shape.

 

“Wait here,” Kesrin said once she was inside and left her alone.

 

Ilona sat in one of the chairs, looking at the single greasy candle burning in the middle of the table. It cast little light and there were no windows, not that having any would provide more light on a night as dark as this. There were some noises in the corridor and Ilona looked at the door, noticing deep cuts in its surface, as if it had been attacked with an axe.

 

As she watched, the door opened and a tall, broad-shouldered man in his forties walked in. His eyes looked tired and the hair at his temples was beginning to turn grey. The last year must have been a hard one for him.

 

As Ilona studied Liriss, he took the opportunity to study her. This was not their first meeting. They last saw each other a little over a year ago, in the spring of 1013, at a celebration thrown by one of the local merchants on his daughter’s wedding. Both were guests, on neutral ground, unable to confront each other, but this was different. Liriss tossed back his cloak, making sure that Ilona knew that he was armed. “It’s been a long time, Lieutenant,” he greeted her.

Ilona rose from the chair, politely greeting the crime lord. “Not so very long, Liriss.”

 

“Please be seated,” he indicated to her.

 

Instead, Ilona moved away from the table. “I will be more comfortable standing up.”

 

Liriss nodded. “Up to you.” Uneasy silence set in for a moment before he continued. “If you are here to let me know that Lieutenant Darklen is not interested in my offer, I already knew that at sunset.”

 

Ilona faced Liriss, her face a calm mask. There was no reason to stall. They both knew why she was here and there was no turning back. “I did not come here for him. I came here for myself. I want the job.”

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