The only instruction in the letter that Ilona Milnor followed was to come alone and that was only because she had plenty of confidence in herself. She ignored the lines about not carrying weapons or light. She needed those, especially in the middle of the night around the docks, outside the protective city wall. She received her instructions to come here just after she reported for duty at sunset. She had no idea who the note was from, but it was delivered by a young blond woman, perhaps in her early twenties. She was obviously upper class and very polite.
“Who is this from?” Ilona asked, re-folding the message.
“I can’t say,” the woman answered, as if she did not know herself.
“And who are you?”
The woman shrugged. “I’m just a messenger.”
“That’s not how I do business,” Ilona warned her.
“Then you’ll have to adjust.”
“I could have you locked up,” the lieutenant threatened. She had no patience for games.
“Aren’t we past the time when they killed the bearer of bad news?” the woman continued in her calm voice. “I told you, it came into my hands with intent of being passed into yours. Take it and follow the instructions.” With those words she turned and walked out of the guard house.
Ilona could have had her arrested, but the woman was right. The days of killing the messenger were long gone. Besides, she was obviously a member of the local mob and Ilona did not want to be the one to cast the first stone. It seemed she was on her way to being one of the organization’s members and the means to that end seemed more important. If she were to succeed in infiltrating the mob, a lot more than one criminal would be her prize.
Ilona shone the light of the lantern down the length of the docks, watching for movement and examining the rebuilding of the piers. Large portions of the dock were covered with fresh wood, while other sections were completely torn down. Most remained in the same bad condition that the war had left them in.
There were two large merchant ships that had come in over the last few days to sell their wares in town, braving their way past the enemy fleet and the pirates. She shuddered to think how many others failed to make it through. The ocean floor must have been littered with greedy merchants wanting to make a profit on the war.
Since most of the pier markers were lost in the fighting and the subsequent fires, Ilona had to count the piers before locating the proper one. Like the rest, it appeared to have been damaged in the fighting and was patched up in some places. She shone the lantern down the pier, then at the small clipper ship docked at it. By some miracle, some of the ships in Dargon’s harbor managed to survive. Many were only lightly damaged and repair and raising work had started the same day the Beinison fleet moved on.
“I told you no lights!” a harsh male voice floated down from above and Ilona shone her light up to the deck of the ship. Liriss, the crime lord of Dargon stood on deck, dressed in a black cloak, shielding his eyes from the light. “Come up here.”
Ilona made her way to the boarding plank and walked up on deck. Liriss was alone as far as she could tell.
“Kill the light,” he asked in a quiet voice. “Please.”
Ilona did so. She never imagined he could be polite.
“Please, sit down,” Liriss told her, standing before her nervously. He was not armed and there did not seem to be a weapon near by.
“Why am I here?” Ilona asked.
“Your first assignment.”
She sat on the second step of the ladder leading to the upper deck. “What do you need?”
“Your help. You’re one of the very few I can trust.”
“Me?” She was ready for anything but that.
“Yes, you. Not even any of my lieutenants. Not one of the three. You see, I was framed. I never gave the order to have your Captain killed and I’m already being blamed…” He did not often let his speech trail, but he was obviously deep in thought.
“What?” Ilona stood up. She was even worse prepared to hear that.
“I never gave the order,” Liriss repeated. “Someone else did and used my name. I suspect that one of my aides did this.”
“But the man said you ordered it. I was there!” She bit her lip, realizing she had given vital information away. In the official story, the assassin was killed long before she ever arrived at the castle. “And that note from you…” she hurried to mask her slip.
“Note? What note?”
“The note you sent last night, with the gem.”
“I never sent you a gem,” Liriss protested. “I wouldn’t dare leave evidence like that around. And I sent no note. What did it say? I must see it!”
“It said `You’re well on your way,’ and was signed by you.”
“You must believe me,” Liriss insisted. “I didn’t send you anything and I did not order Koren’s death.”
“Kesrin told Kalen that Koren’s death was a part of the deal,” Ilona said. She intended to corner the rat.
“For Darklen, not for you! I would have told you up front! I can’t afford the risk so soon after trying to make this deal with Darklen. Besides, Koren was too well guarded for me to send my men on a suicide mission. I have too few people now as it is. I would wait until he was home, alone, before acting.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“Yes! You must!” Liriss took a deep breath. “I did NOT have him killed. You have access to Darklen and that’s all I need for now. I’ve learned to be patient rising to where I am. And believe me that I sent no gem. If I wanted to pay you off, it would have been done with Rand gold, just like the Duke pays.”
“Liriss, you’re a thief, a liar, and a murderer. Why should I believe you?”
“You have to.” He shifted uncomfortably. “You must believe me. You’re an outsider to my organization. You’re one of the very few I can trust. Help me and I’ll help you.”
“How?” she sighed. The song was not going to change.
“You must prove that someone is trying to set me up. And you must find that person. I know that he or she is one of my people. If you find out who it is, I will gladly give them up to you, along with any evidence you will need to put them away.”
“All right,” Ilona sighed, “but you must tell me everything you know.”
It has been a whole month since Aimee Taishent moved to the Duke’s castle to live with her father, Jerid, who worked for the Duke. The Duke and all his soldiers were gone, even Captain Bartol, who always told wonderful stories, and her father was in charge of the whole castle. But he was also very busy and could not spend any time with her.
Once Aimee snuck away and went to her grandfather’s house in the new part of the city, beyond the old city’s walls. There were other kids where her grandfather lived and he always talked about magic and showed her interesting things. But then two castle guards came looking for her and took her home.
Her father was furious. He said he did not want her going outside the castle alone any more and told her stories about bad Beinisons and that they were still out in the new city, stealing little children and that is why so many of her friends were gone.
She cried and cried, until he took her into the city to show her that the Beinisons had gone far away, but told her not to go alone anywhere anyway. And then the guards would not let her out of the castle by herself. Her father bought her some new toys that she could play with, but all alone she could not keep her interest in the games.
Aimee had prowled the entire castle by now. She had been in all the corridors and halls and in many of the rooms. She checked the kitchen and the stables and the gardens. She had even been in all three spires of the keep and up on the wall that went around the castle. All the buildings on the other side looked small and the people even smaller.
But a month was more than enough time to see all of that and Aimee was once again getting bored. She had been sulking around the castle all morning when she found a large wooden door that had always been locked in the past, slightly ajar. She peeked through the crack and saw a long hallway with flickering torches and stairs at the other end.
Aimee wondered if she should get her puppy, Karl, from the kitchen, where he was begging and stealing scraps from the cook, but decided that he would bark and make too much noise and instead pulled the heavy door open and went inside.
Behind the door the corridor smelled like the ditch out by the docks and remembering the loud and rough sailors she had seen, Aimee thought about going back, but at the same time she desperately wanted to see what was at the bottom of the stairs, behind the door that has been locked for the last month.
The stairs were narrow and dark because the row of torches ended in the corridor above, but light shone in from the bottom of the stairs. Aimee carefully made her way down to where there was more light. The walls here looked grayer and were much older, dusty and cracked and the ceiling had arches and was rounded, unlike the ceilings in the castle.
There were many doors and cross passages everywhere Aimee looked, but the torches marked a single path, twisting and turning in the maze. Before Aimee could go too far, she heard running footsteps behind her and hid in a dark corridor. A moment later a castle guard, carrying something in his hands, ran by, his sword loudly bouncing up and down on his belt. As soon as he was out of sight, Aimee turned and ran back up the stairs.
To her dismay, the heavy oak door was locked.
Rish hid his hands in the folds of his robe, glad that he managed to get all three letters off by different messengers. He had spent the entire morning out at the market, taking his time, making sure no one knew what he was doing. He was charged an exorbitant price for two of the messages, due to their destination and the course of the war, but he knew the people taking them were reliable and the messages would arrive in less than a month. The third message was not going very far and Rish expected to get the most use out of it.
He made his way down one of the keep’s main corridors, trying not to look as satisfied as he felt.
“Good morning, Lord Chronicler,” a maid greeted him.
“Good morning,” Rish smiled back. He felt as if the weight of the world was lifted off his shoulders as the letters left his hands and felt more personable than usual as a result.
“You have not seen Sir Taishent’s young daughter, by chance?”
“Of course not,” Rish muttered. The child was always lost.
“The girl has been missing all morning.”
“I…” Rish began when an armored man ran into the hall.
“Excuse me, Lord Chronicler,” the maid hurried towards the soldier.
Rish proceeded out of the hall, thinking about the Lieutenant’s young daughter. She was a curious child, always underfoot. Once she saw him writing and asked for a bottle of ink, which he gave her. By the following day she had stained half the castle. He heard back from Jerid Taishent about that. Heard so much in fact, that he was not going to give Aimee anything ever again. To this day, almost a full month later, the servants still found ink stains here and there and had to spend hours scrubbing them away. And the ink bottle was still missing, the girl claiming she had lost it.
He hoped she had not gotten into any trouble or found the ink bottles he stashed away in the the library behind the old books on the far shelves.
For now, if he were to see her, he would bring her to someone’s attention, but he would not go searching for her on his own. He had plenty of things to do and being as busy as he was with his research into Captain Koren’s death, he had neglected to maintain the detailed records he usually made.
“Shut up!” Kalen shouted at the youth. “I don’t want to hear it!”
The young man fell silent.
“Now,” Kalen went on to one of the guards, “you throw him in a cell and keep him there and you find that merchant and ask what’s missing. If it matches, bring him here to talk to me. If not, tell him to go home and wait. Now get out of here, all of you!”
“But I didn’t do anything!” the boy wailed again as the guard turned him to lead him away.
“Shut up!” Kalen shouted again. “If I hear your voice one more time, you’re not getting out of that cell until you’re forty!”
The teen fell silent with a whimper and the guard led him away to the back of the guard house.
“Rough day?” Jerid asked from the doorway.
“Yeah,” Kalen sighed, turning, “but if that brat was just a year older, I’d backhand him so hard… Just look at me, threatening violence on kids…”
“If he stole something, the least he deserves is a good whipping,” Jerid noted.
“You know me. I’d just as soon let their parents thrash them. Come on, we can talk in my office now.”
Jerid nodded. “You know what this is about?”
“I have a good idea. Some of your men dropped by this morning.”
They walked up the stairs and into Captain Koren’s office, shutting the door so they would not be disturbed. Jerid paused at the door for a moment, looking about the room. It has been months since he stood here talking with Adrunian Koren. The normally spotless office was a mess with papers and boxes and a pair of crates of merchandise in the corner.
“What happened?” Kalen asked.
Jerid had to force himself away from looking at the mess around the room. “Aimee’s missing. I saw her at breakfast, but she didn’t show up for lunch and her mutt has spent the whole morning in the kitchen. The staff has been searching for her all day. No one saw her leave the castle. My father hasn’t seen her. No one.”
Jerid shook his head. “The cook, the castellan, the physician. She hadn’t even gone to the stables today.”
“Do you think she was kidnapped?”
“What else is there to think?” Jerid said bitterly, “but why would someone go to all this trouble and how would they ever get her out of the castle?”
“Would Liriss try to use her to blackmail you?”
“What for? I’m not the one who deals with the grief he causes.”
“I don’t know,” Kalen said. “It’s just a thought.”
“I’d rather someone kidnapped her than anything else,” Jerid admitted. “If they took her, she’ll be okay. I’m worried about the alternatives.”
“Do you need more people to look?” Kalen asked. He had none to spare, but he would gladly give some up for a task such as this.
“I just want you and your people to watch out for her. She probably just wandered off on her own like she always does, but I want to be sure. I’m amazed the guards didn’t see her leave the castle.”
“I’ll let Ilona and Caisy know,” Kalen promised, “and we’ll let you know if we find anything. Aimee will be fine.”
Unable to open the dungeon door, Aimee followed the lit corridor to where the guard disappeared. She reasoned that it was only a guard and she should not have gotten scared just because it was her first time down here. Her father would probably yell at her for coming here, but at least the guard would let her out.
She followed the lit torches to another staircase and down again, deeper into the dungeon. The walls became darker and the passages narrower. The shadows from the torch light cast frightening shapes on the walls. Aimee lost her courage many times, but each time she would remind herself that there are no such things as monsters, just like her father told her when tucking her in after nightmares. Shadows were just dark spots made by things standing in front of the light.
She made it very far into the dungeon before she could hear voices.
“The chiurgeon’s due soon,” a man said somewhere up ahead and Aimee carefully crept forward.
“Should I hide the mead?” a second voice laughed.
“After begging the cook for some?” yet a third male voice queried.
Aimee crawled up to a doorway and peered inside. In the room sat three men and a woman. Two wore blue jackets that identified them as city guards. The other two wore the Duke’s crest, making them a part of the castle guard. They all sat around an old wooden table, playing cards. Every so often one or another would take a sip from their goblet.
“You know, Elizabeth is really pesky,” the blond man with his back to Aimee said. “She always complains that we’re doing something wrong. At least old Griswald let us be.”
“He sold out, Tesky,” the man on his right said. This one seemed to be in charge. He was older and wore sergeant insignia and spoke with a deep, strong voice.
“And now we’ve got the war because of him,” the last man said.
“It wasn’t just him,” the sergeant corrected. “It was all the greedy people willing to sell out to Beinison.”
They finished the hand and moved something about on the table.
“I’ll hide this,” Tesky got a jug and got up. Aimee shrank back as he turned around, but he did not notice her.
“Let’s go check on the Great One, Altura,” the sergeant said to the woman. “Arellano, see that the torches are still burning.”
They all got up and left in different directions. Aimee hid in an alcove as Arellano passed by, followed by the man who took the jug. Sergeant Guralnik and Altura went into an adjoining chamber. Aimee held her breath until the two men that passed her were out of sight, then snuck into the room where the four guards had sat. The cards were still lying on the table, with some coins and mugs and two daggers. In the corner across from the second door lay sleeping bags, packs, weapon belts and some food. Feeling hungry, Aimee picked up a piece of dried meat, a large slice of cheese and a skin of water. She retreated into the corridor without checking what was in the next room and hid the meal up the corridor, then waited for the guards to pass back, nibbling on the cheese that she had stolen.
Aimee had no idea what the guards were doing here or why the Duke’s physician was coming to visit them or who the `Great One’ was. All this became an interesting mystery she felt she needed to solve. She picked contentedly at the cheese, waiting for her opportunity to arise.
“…be fine,” voices sounded in the corridor again. “Two or three days and we’ll be out of here. I doubt there’s a reason to be hiding for weeks. It’s not like we killed the Duke or anything.”
Aimee hid in the shadows of her room as the two men passed by. She wondered what they were talking about. Hiding? Killing?
“Well, I want to see my wife before I become a part of this place,” the other man complained. “I’m already beginning to forget what she looks like.”
They entered the lit room and Aimee snuck out into the corridor, still holding the cheese, and listened in at the door.
“We’ll need to replace the torches at the bottom of the stairs in an hour or so,” Arellano reported.
“Get ‘em when Elizabeth leaves,” the sergeant said.
A chair creaked.
“What happened here?” someone complained.
“Where?” Altura asked.
More footsteps. Aimee peeked in.
“Damn rats!” the man who carried the jug examined the pack that held the food.
“Put it up on the chair, Tesky,” the sergeant told him. “We can live with these rats. It’s the ones up above that I worry about.”
Arellano dug into his pack and pulled out a slingshot. “Just wait ’till I see one!”
Aimee shrank back from the door in fear, realizing that the slingshot was really meant for her.
“My Lord?” a man bowed before Kesrin. “I have news for you.”
“What is it?” Kesrin asked without turning to look. People had been having news for him all morning long and he now wanted some time to think about the unrest in the ranks of the mob.
“A letter, Sir. It was carried by that merchant who refused to pay for protection. The boys and I got him outside of the town wall just after lunch. He was leaving a day early.”
“Let me see it,” Kesrin put out his hand.
The scroll was handed to him.
“Did you break the seal?”
“No, my Lord, of course not! It was broken by the merchant.”
Kesrin’s eyes narrowed and the brigand took a fearful step back.
“You have read it?”
“Uh… Yes, my Lord. I read it to see if it was important.”
Kesrin unrolled the parchment and slowly read it, not dismissing the man.
“I didn’t tell anyone else, Sir. I was the only one sorting the loot.”
Lines appeared in Kesrin’s brow as he read on, but he did not respond to the man.
“And, of course, I thought you might want to bring this to Lord Liriss’ attention yourself, Sir,” the brigand went on.
“You did well, Misgen,” Kesrin said. “Remember not to discuss this with anyone. Come, we’ll show this to Liriss together.”
They walked out the door and down the corridor leading to the stairs side by side. As they approached the stairs, Kesrin drew his dagger and sank it into Misgen’s back.
“Are you sure you’re the only one who saw the letter?” he demanded.
“Yes,” the brigand gasped. “I was the only one.”
“My Lord won’t appreciate others knowing his grief,” Kesrin said, twisting the blade and pulling it out. He let the man fall down the stairs with a second thrust and continued on his way up.
Aimee recognized the sound of the physician’s soft sandals long before the woman appeared in the hallway. Aimee hid while Elizabeth passed by, then carefully followed her down the corridor towards the room where the guards were staying.
Maybe now that the physician had come down, she would hear why the guards were playing cards in the dungeon and who the `Great One’ was.
Waiting for the physician to show, Aimee ate some of the food she had stolen and thought about what she might tell her father about where she had been. She probably should have told the guards that she got locked in by accident and asked to be let out instead of sneaking around, and spying on them. It was an honest mistake on her part after all, but having heard the guards talking, Aimee’s curiosity grew and she wondered about just who was in the next room and why he would not come out.
Now that the physician was here, she could just wait and see and then sneak out before the others finished talking and simply tell her father that she was out on the castle wall and forgot to come back to eat lunch.
Elizabeth entered the room where the guards were sitting and greetings were exchanged, then she asked how `he’ is and one of the men said `he’ was the same as they had left him.
“Some doctor you are,” Elizabeth frowned and continued into the next room.
“Told you,” Tesky said to the sergeant, who smiled joyfully.
“At least she means well.”
Arellano picked up his slingshot off the table and followed the physician. “Better watch her, lest the rats get her.”
“Just shoot her once,” Tesky followed him in.
A moment later Sergeant Guralnik and Altura went in after them.
Aimee waited a while, making sure none of them were coming back, then entered the room and went to the doorway through which all five disappeared.
She could hear muffled talking as she reached the door, then saw the backs of the people before her. They were all looking at something, but she could not tell what. A moment later one of the guards moved and Aimee realized that lying on a bed was a large man. The man’s hand slipped off the cot and swung limply down to the floor. Aimee’s eyes grew wide and she bit her lip. The man was not moving! He was dead!
Then the physician also stepped away from the bed, revealing the man’s face and Aimee instantly recognized Captain Koren, the Captain of the Dargon Town Guard. She heard the servants talking the past few days about his murder and now, having finally seen his body, she knew that these guards and the doctor were involved.
Trying to be as quiet as possible, Aimee backed out of the room and into one of the unlit corridors of the underground maze, hoping no one realized that she was there and what she had seen.
“My Lord?” Kesrin entered Liriss’ office almost without knocking.
“I said I didn’t want to be disturbed!” Liriss snapped.
“My Lord, this information is of great importance,” Kesrin forced himself to remain pleasant, always his most difficult task when dealing with his boss. He had no idea that Liriss was troubled to start with, but he was not sorry to interrupt.
“Let me have it,” Liriss ordered sharply.
Kesrin delivered the rolled up parchment into the crime lord’s grasp, then stepped back expectantly.
“Leave and close the door behind you!”
“Of course, my Lord,” Kesrin smiled uneasily and backed out of the room. If Liriss was in a bad mood now, it was bound to get worse as soon as he read the letter and violent mood swings often caused violent reactions. As he stepped out into the hall, Kesrin made hasty plans to find something to do in the city, to avoid being underfoot. He shut the door firmly behind himself and went.
As the door closed, Liriss examined the roll Kesrin had given him. What could be so important that he would have to be disturbed? Usually Kesrin was bright enough not to disobey a direct order. He unrolled the scroll and read.
My Dear Captain Bartol,
I write you this letter in fear for my life and the future of the Duchy of Dargon and our Lord Clifton’s rule. Three days ago Captain Adrunian Koren was found dead in his room, poisoned by an assassin. Action was taken immediately to find out who sent his killer, but as time went on, I began to notice severe inconsistencies in the stories told and the actions taken. Please consider the following factors that have forced me to write you this dispatch and plea for immediate assistance.
When I personally had a chance to examine the room where the Captain was resting, I found that the supposed struggle that took place between the guard and the assassin could not possibly have left the room in the fine condition in which I found it.
More surprisingly, having locked myself in the room, I had learned that no one outside the door was able to hear me or see the light of the candle that I had lit. Based on this, I refuse to believe that a guard making rounds found the assassin in the room by accident. You see, the only keys were held by your aide, Lieutenant Jerid Taishent, the Physician, Elizabeth of the Pass, and the castle Castellan Molinar. A guard would be unable to enter this room, locked from the inside, by any legitimate means.
Even more astonishingly yet, the guard that apprehended the assassin was reassigned the following day and made unavailable to my inquires. In addition, while the body of the assassin has been returned to his family, the body of Captain Koren has effectively disappeared.
The final factor in my decision to write to you was information delivered to my attention by Tara n’ha Sansela, the Captain’s niece. In the possession of Lieutenant Ilona Milnor, of the Town Guard, she had found a valuable gem stone together with a note from the crime lord of the city’s underground, thanking her for her work and making a promise of things yet to come.
In the past three days I have also noticed a newly developed comradery between Town Guard Lieutenants Ilona Milnor and Kalen Darklen and your own aide, Lieutenant Jerid Taishent. The three of them have been instrumental in blocking information and dragging out the facts of the investigation. I believe that their involvement with the assassination goes much further than it first appears and sincerely believe the Ducal seat to be in jeopardy. Once again, I beg you to return to the capital to relieve the developing problems.
Your humble servant,
Dargon archivist, chronicler and historian
“Damn them!” Liriss slammed his fist on the table, flinging the scroll across the room. The silver wine goblet that stood on his desk tipped over, spilling the rich red wine on the table. “The bitch tricked me!”
He shoved his chair back, furious. Then, after a moment, a calm smile spread across his face. “Just as well. It always works out in the end.”