Many hours passed before Aimee gathered herself and forced herself to look for a way out. Her father always taught her that she should never be afraid and running to hide in the darkness was the wrong thing to do. Of course neither did she want to let anyone here know she had seen them and Captain Koren and that she knew that they killed him.
At first she ran back up the stairs to the heavy oak door and tried to get out, but the door was locked and banging on it did not help. Aimee then went back to the base of the second set of stairs, to hide in the maze of rooms and corridors, not far from the guards. She was afraid of them, but she was more afraid of the dark, far reaching tunnels. At least she would not get lost if she hid near the guards.
Aimee wandered up and down the passages, looking into rooms, but never letting the lit corridor fall out of her sight. She heard the physician leave and cowered in the corner of a side corridor, afraid to breathe, while a pair of guards replaced the dying torches along the corridor. After they had all left, she again checked the corridor and her stash of stolen food, to make sure nothing had happened to it, but she was still afraid of going to look in the room where the guards watched Captain Koren’s body.
She was very tired now and, taking her food, Aimee retreated to one of the rooms in a dark corridor and fell asleep in a corner, wishing she had a blanket or a sheet to wrap herself in on the cold stone floor.
Kalen closed the door to Captain Koren’s office and took a seat in the chair before the desk. Across from him sat Ilona Milnor, surrounded by piles of paper.
“It’s my shift,” he said when she looked up.
She nodded. “We need to talk.”
They had not seen each other for almost a full day now, ever since the last shift change between them. There was a lot of work to be done, perhaps too much. In the last day alone there were two murders, one of a man suspected of being an employee of Liriss and another of a now dead merchant who ventured out a day before the rest of his caravan was due to leave. His two horses, wagon, goods and even clothes had disappeared and his body was simply left to lie in the road, not a quarter league from the guard gate.
There was also the usual rash of fights and thefts and a priest who showed up early in the morning, saying he had found a dead rat floating in his pool of golden water. Above all, Aimee Taishent was still missing and after so much time, foul play was suspected. The guards, who were already on extra long shifts, were forced to spend more time looking for the girl. Jerid himself had not slept at all and did nothing but continue to question people who had seen her and dispatching guards to check all possible leads.
Ilona brushed her hair back, looking through the papers on the desk. “It’s been a busy day,” she then got up and walked over to Kalen. “You look like you haven’t slept.”
“I did,” he answered, “a little. Sergeant Griebel and I searched the outside of the town wall earlier.”
“Kalen! That’s a couple of leagues!”
“I know,” he agreed, “but Jerid will kill himself if we don’t help. I also spoke with Dyann and he has an idea that he said he’ll try tonight.”
Ilona sat down in Kalen’s lap and put her arms around him. “I don’t think Aimee was kidnapped.”
“What?” Kalen tried to look at her, but Ilona did not release the embrace.
“I saw Liriss last night,” she said, “right after I transferred the shift to Caisy. Liriss asked me to help him. He said he suspects one of his lieutenants of trying to ruin him, by setting him up. He claims he never gave the order to kill Koren, nor did he send the note or the gem.”
“Do you believe him?” Kalen asked, again putting his arms around Ilona.
“I don’t know…he was surprised when I mentioned the gem and the note. I think there might be something here.”
“But if that’s true, all it means is that he didn’t kidnap Aimee. Someone else could have.”
“I just have the gut feeling that she wasn’t kidnapped,” Ilona said. “Other things would have happened by now if she had been…”
“Who would be setting Liriss up?” Kalen tried a different approach to the problem.
“Just about any living being in Dargon. It’s not like he’s well liked.”
“I’d suspect there’s someone on his side,” Kalen said. “He can’t be so desperate as to run to us!”
“Well, a woman delivered the message to me,” Ilona said. “I guess she’s one of his whores, so Madam Tillipanary is probably still with him. I would guess Kesrin is also loyal, even though Liriss doesn’t want to believe that.”
“You’re probably right,” Kalen said. “Maybe we can use this to our advantage.”
“How?” Ilona asked. “I’m in good with Liriss. I’d rather not have to start this over.”
“If we could only bring them all down…” Kalen thought out loud.
Ilona hugged him tightly. “What if we help him now…?”
“I knew I saw him here,” the maid smiled, picking Karl up from where he slept in the alcove by the heavy oak door leading down into the castle dungeons. She brushed off the dust the puppy managed to pick up off the spotlessly clean floor and handed him to Dyann Taishent.
“Thank you, my girl,” the mage accepted the puppy.
“I sure hope you find your granddaughter, sir,” the maid bowed and left to resume her duties.
Dyann looked Karl, who licked his nose, over and took him to the kitchen where Corambis and Thuna were preparing for the enchantment. It was late already, but Aimee had gone missing for well over a day and Dyann was not going to lose more time while the guards beat all the bushes around town.
Although it was almost midnight, there were still people in the kitchen, cleaning up from the previous day, preparing things for the next.
“Blast it, woman,” Corambis snapped. “I know it’s late and you just washed it, but I want that pot!”
“Sage, I warn you,” the elderly matron declared, “if I come down tomorrow and the pot is dirty, I’ll have your hide!”
“You will be more than welcome to try,” Corambis said, taking the clay pot from the woman. “Thuna, get me those herbs and some water.”
Dyann submerged Karl in a prepared bath while looking at the exchange and smiled.
“Goodness, what are you doing to that dog?” the cook exclaimed, having finished with Corambis.
“We shall be cooking him, madam,” the sage snapped and held the clay pot out for Thuna to fill with water.
“You will do no such thing!” the woman declared. She looked around, then picked up a large roller and looked menacingly at the two men. “I will not have the two of you cooking dogs in my kitchen!”
“Relax, madam,” Dyann said firmly. “The dog will not be harmed. He is the subject of our enchantment to find my granddaughter.” With those words he wrapped Karl in a towel to dry him off. The puppy struggled, but soon settled down to the rubbing and scratching he received and produced a yawn.
“Here are the herbs,” Thuna put a bag before Corambis.
“Very good,” the sage approved. “Dyann?”
“Thuna, would you hold Karl?” the mage asked and as soon as she took the dog from him, stepped past the cook to help Corambis with the preparations. “Be careful not to let him leave the towel,” he added as Thuna adjusted Karl in the bundle.
The two elderly men carefully measured a batch of herbs, mixed them in a clay pot with some water, then filtered the brew into a shallow dish and offered it to Karl, who started lapping at the liquid.
“Am I glad I’m not a dog!” Corambis sniffed the pot with the wet herbs.
Dyann also took a sniff. “We made it a little strong.”
“So much the better,” Corambis muttered. “It will make the dog more sensitive.”
The two men waited until Karl finished the brew and stopped licking the dish. Dyann took out a tunic Aimee had left lying on the floor of her room and let the puppy sniff it. Karl was already very familiar with Aimee’s scent, but the tunic and the potion were used to reinforce the smell and make him more sensitive.
Dyann took the dog from Thuna and went into the corridor.
“Wash the equipment,” Corambis instructed Thuna and followed his friend out.
Dyann put Karl on the ground and the two men stood over him, looking down. “Karl, go find Aimee,” Dyann finally said.
The puppy looked up at him and yawned.
“Karl!” Dyann warned. He rubbed the tunic in Karl’s face again and gave him a push. “Go find Aimee!”
Karl stood up, but did not budge.
“He’s not a bloodhound,” Corambis sighed, “and he’s too young to understand what we want.”
“He’s stubborn just like Aimee,” Dyann said, slapping the dog’s behind. “Get going!”
Karl let out a yelp and took off down the corridor, quickly outdistancing the two elderly men.
“Well, now you’ve done it,” Corambis sighed. “He’ll find her and lose us.”
The two men hurried down the corridor after the puppy. After some twists and turns they reached the great hall and stood there, looking puzzled.
“Which way?” the mage muttered to himself.
Corambis pointed in the direction of the exit. “He might have ran out.”
“Or back to the kitchen,” Dyann pointed down the great hall, where it forked.
“Let’s check with the guards first,” Corambis suggested and the two men went to the castle entrance to question the men.
The two sleepy soldiers on duty could do little more than shrug. If there was a puppy that ran out past them, they had not seen it.
“…but the gates are closed,” one of the men assured Dyann. “The dog won’t be able to leave the castle.”
“Great,” the mage worded and the two men went back inside.
“We should have tagged him,” Corambis said, “or at least found some rope to put him on.”
Dyann nodded. “Let’s check the kitchen and if he’s not there, we’ll get some torches and look outside.”
“Let’s do that,” Corambis agreed.
The two men walked up the steps leading out of the great hall when the maid who had helped Dyann find Karl earlier stopped them.
“Sirs, did that lazy mutt help?”
Dyann shook his head. “That lazy mutt ran off soon after you found him.”
“Oh, sir, I’m sorry,” the woman apologized. “I had sincerely hopped you’d be able to find the girl. The puppy I just saw sleeping by the dungeon door, just like earlier. He probably just found a cool spot on the stone, where the draft is.”
“Who is it?” Ilona asked over the sound of the rapid knocking on the door of her apartment.
“Ovink,” a male voice coughed. “Lord Liriss wishes to see you.”
It was a voice familiar to Ilona — she had brought him in for questioning a number of times — but it was also the middle of the night. “Do you realize how late it is?” she asked.
“Yes, but I was told not to return alone.”
“All right, then. Wait.”
Ilona quickly dressed, strapped on her belt and sword and left a note on her table for Kalen. It read:
`Ovink came for me. I will return by mid-day.’
She folded the note and left it on the desk, right under the ink bottle.
“All right, let’s go,” Ilona opened the door.
Instantly two men rushed in, knocking her off balance. They wrestled her down to the floor and tied her arms behind her. From the other room Ilona could hear sounds of a struggle and Tara yelling something at the men.
“Let her go!” Ilona struggled against her attackers, forcing one man to lose his grip on her. She swung her legs, knocking him off balance and he crashed down to the floor.
Ovink appeared above Ilona, holding a dagger. “I’d hate to have to cut you prematurely, Lieutenant,” he smiled viciously in warning. Ovink was well known for his bad temper and sadistic streak, in contrast to Cissell’s cool arrogance and Kesrin’s politeness. She stopped struggling as he brought the knife a little closer to her neck and his smile deepened.
“Good. Tie her legs.” The dagger did not leave Ilona’s neck. It slid slowly up to her jaw and then along it to the back of her head. The blade left behind a cold trail that Ilona could not identify — was it blood or just her imagination? The men continued to fumble with the rope and Ilona did not dare breath so long as Ovink stood over her.
“That’s a good soldier,” the brigand chuckled, getting up and hiding the dagger before Ilona could see if it was stained with blood. She could still feel the lingering chill on her jaw and neck. A drop ran down her throat and dripped off to the floor. Sweat or blood? She could not tell by Ovink’s reaction, but guessed that it had to be sweat. If he drew blood, he would do more than just stand and watch the men tie her.
“What do you want?” Ilona asked. “Why did Liriss send you?”
“To be honest,” Ovink’s smile grew wider, “Liriss didn’t send me. You see, Liriss needs your help. On the other hand, many of us want to see him hang…and you’re a good device to get the wind blowing.”
Two more men brought out Tara, tied and wide eyed.
“Let her go, Ovink,” Ilona insisted. “She’s just a girl.”
“Don’t worry about her,” the cutthroat fingered his dagger. “She won’t be joining you. She’s young enough to get a good price on the market. Perhaps even in Beinison, as soon as they win the war.”
Ilona kicked her tied legs at him, but did not have the reach to hit.
“Take her to the blocks,” Ovink ordered. “And take the girl to the pits.”
One of the men stuffed a rag into Ilona’s mouth, managing to avoid getting bit. A bag was placed over her head and she was wrapped in a blanket.
There was little Ilona could do in the way of struggling against two full grown men while tied and blind and for the time being had to accept her fate of being loaded onto a wagon. She was glad that she left the note for Kalen and that she directed it at Ovink, not Liriss. If need be, it would save a lot of time and perhaps her life.
She hoped she would live through Ovink’s plans, anyway.
“Where’s Aimee?” Dyann demanded of Karl. The puppy lay stretched out on the floor by the heavy oak door leading to the old castle dungeon, his black eyes looking up at the mage.
“I know you know what I want!”
Karl buried his face under his paw.
“Oh, for Sevelin’s sake!” Dyann stood up. “This will never work!”
“We’ll find her,” Corambis assured Dyann. “We just have to use better methods.”
“What better methods?” the mage grumbled. “This was the best one!”
“Well,” Corambis thought, “you know, I did a casting yesterday while waiting for Madam Labin to come for her second casting and the future showed no change. I did the same casting on Clifton and again on Koren. I had Clifton on fire and Koren on water. And that’s wrong!”
“That could be interpreted either way,” Dyann said. “It’s easy going for Koren — he’s dead now — and Clifton’s in the middle of a war.”
“But that’s now, not down the road!” Corambis protested.
“For all we know the war will last years,” Dyann retorted. “That’s not a problem with castings.”
“But that’s wrong,” Corambis stressed. “You know how the table works.”
“It has a mind of its own, you said so yourself.”
“Through three castings?”
“Well…” Dyann scratched his head. “It could be a minor mana shift.”
“In Dargon? Goodness, no,” Corambis said. “There hasn’t been one for ages, not since the Fretheod ruled!”
“Then we’re probably due for one.”
“That and Stevene’s return,” the sage grumbled. “I tell you there’s nothing wrong with the casting. What’s wrong is that something’s going on that we don’t know about.”
“Perhaps,” Dyann agreed, “but what worries me now is that the potion didn’t work. We made it together. It wasn’t wrong.”
“Well, we had a clay pot,” Corambis said. “If it was made of red clay…”
“It wasn’t,” Dyann interrupted. “You yourself looked. It was brown as mud.”
“What then? What are we missing?”
“We’re becoming senile, my friend,” Dyann laughed.
“Indeed,” Corambis said.
Dyann shook his head, “and when looking for Aimee of all people!”
“Come,” Corambis pulled his friend away from the puppy. “Let’s try something else. Let’s try some real magic.”
Tara fought the ropes that bound her hands. If she could only free them, she could untie her feet and run. The window of this room was on the second floor, but it overlooked the docks and that meant that she could be helped by the sailors. She hoped she could be helped, anyway. The rope that bound her delicate hands was coarse and thick, good for holding a large man or an animal, but not enough to hold someone as small as she. At the same time, the rope was extremely tough, scratching her hands and making it hard for her to work herself free.
She had no idea what she would do if she could get away from the men that kidnapped her. Run to Rish? Tara knew she could only trust him in this war between the mob and the town guard, but could she really safely stay in the castle? Obviously the mob’s infiltration of the guard was great and one would have to believe that the inverse was true as well, but who could be trusted? More importantly, why had the mob turned on one of their own?
When being transported, bound and gagged, Tara heard one of the men say that Ilona was no longer something that Liriss could afford to be gentle with and that she was a weight he should no longer have to carry, whatever that meant. It sounded like she did something he did not like and would now have to pay for it. Tara always liked Ilona, since that day she met her when she had finally found her uncle. It was she who would go shopping with Tara and talk to her about things Uncle Glenn tried to avoid. What did Ilona do to make Liriss so upset? Whatever it was, it had to be the right thing. She always said how much she wanted to rid Dargon of crime. Tara struggled with the rope more furiously than before. If Ilona were to die before she could go for help, it would be her fault. She did not want to see anything happen to the Lieutenant, no matter what she had done.
Tara ground her teeth into the leather gag securely tied in her mouth as one coarse loop of rope slipped off her hand. `One more,’ she thought, `one more loop and I’m free.’
It was obvious to Tara why she was taken. She was a witness to Ilona’s kidnapping, but having had a chance to sort things out in her head, Tara could not believe that Ilona had sold out to Liriss. Why then did she plead for Tara’s release and did not once ask to be released herself? What good would it do her if Tara could identify her as a member of the mob? Perhaps Rish was right when he said not to trust anybody, but Tara could not bring herself to believe that such a good friend was responsible for the death of her uncle.
With one last effort, Tara pulled her right hand out of the ropes and having brushed the lose coils off her left arm, proceeded to untie her legs. She still did not know where she would go. All she knew was that Rish was suspicious of everyone and that Ilona knew more than she let on, but there were others in town who might be able to help. Lieutenants Darklen and Taishent could be helpful, as could her uncle’s neighbors, Doctor Savitt or Madam Labin. They were of noble birth and could not possibly be involved in any sort of crime.
The rope on her legs was off and Tara was quick to remove the gag. It skipped across the room and hit the opposite wall with a wet squishing noise.
The dirty window, covered with soot and tar on the edges where it was sealed against the elements, was very small, but not too small for Tara. She looked out through the torn waxed paper for the sailors she had seen before, when first brought into the room. She carefully tore away more of the paper covering the window and looked down. All that was in her line of sight was a sleeping drunk, up against the wall of the building. Tara hesitated, then tore the remaining paper off and started climbing through the window. Just then she heard the sound of a key being inserted into the lock.
Leaning back in his chair, Kesrin set his jaw, listening to Ovink tell his story. He was contemplating his new plan, made when Liriss received the intercepted note from the chronicler to the Captain of the Ducal forces. Kesrin’s ascent to the top had started, but it would have to be a slow process, one step at a time. Ovink was going to be today’s step.
“…so I thought we’d keep the girl for the next time Lord Isom is in town… If you don’t mind, of course, my Lord,” Ovink finished his report.
“That will be fine,” Kesrin approved. “Liriss will be happy with the extra profit.”
Ovink smiled. “Yes, Sir. I’ll bet he will.” Ovink appeared so happy with his success, that Kesrin had no doubt the man would not see the wool being pulled over his eyes.
“You did the right thing by bringing the girl. I had hopped we could take the Lieutenant alone, but it’s just as well. Her death will give us an entrance and we can put the girl to good use as well. Just be sure to have her out of here tomorrow. By tomorrow night this place will be filled with guardsmen.”
Ovink’s smile changed to a laugh. “I like your idea.”
Kesrin chuckled as well. He told Ovink that a dead member of the town guard, and especially a high ranking member, would be a strong incentive for the authorities to take action — her home was already filled with clues that would lead the guard to Liriss — things like the gem and the note. What he neglected to mention was that Ovink would not have the time to leave town. “Everything is set now. Tomorrow take the girl and your men and take a trip to Tench to sell her. I shall abandon Liriss for a few days myself and soon we will all be a step closer to the top.”
“With your leave, Sir,” Ovink stood up, “I will begin the preparations.”
“Just be sure to leave by way of the pier first thing tomorrow,” Kesrin reminded him. “I don’t want the guard to stop you if you go through the main gate.”
Ilona stirred as cold water licked at her side. She had been well aware of her unfavorable position, chained to a large rock sticking out of the water under a pier, with a gag in her mouth. She tried struggling against the chains, but they were far too strong for her to escape. At first she believed she was only being held here, but the incoming tide made her acutely aware of the danger of drowning.
Now, as the water level slowly rose, a lot of things started to make sense. All those unexplained drownings, sometimes one or two every night, made sense. People whom everyone knew could swim well being fished out of the ocean early in the morning as sailors loaded and unloaded their ships along the docks. At times the dead men and women had unexplained bruises on their wrists and ankles. Now those could be explained as well.
Ilona wondered if she would live long enough to tell others about this method of execution, or if she would die when the tide came in. She tried working on the gag, hoping that she would be able to call out for help, but she had little hope of that working. The gag was tied tightly around her head and refused to budge. Besides, she was probably right beneath Liriss’ personal pier. No one would come, even if they heard.
Perhaps if Liriss came down, Ilona mused, but she knew it was a slim chance. He had no reason to be here. When he killed people, he more than likely sent others to do it for him. No one at all would find her tonight and by tomorrow it would be far too late.
As the door to the room she was in opened, Tara exerted the last bit of effort, knowing full well that once she is out through the window, her only path would be an uncontrolled downward plunge.
“Stop!” she heard a male voice shout. She increased her efforts.
A second later she was falling to the ground, not far from the sleeping drunk she saw previously. She wished it had been the drunk she had fallen on — that way the landing would have been much softer.
“You! Stop her!” Tara heard the same voice from above her and looked around. Except for the drunk, she was alone in the street.
She looked at the man yelling down at the drunk. “Shut up and do it yourself, you bastard!” She slowly got up off the ground, holding on to her skinned arm. Blood dripped to the ground. To her surprise, the brigand started climbing out the window.
Tara slowly backed away, watching him, then picked up a rock and threw it at the man. It hit the wall, but was close enough to make him take notice and give what he was doing a second thought.
Tara turned and bolted.
As Ovink left, Kesrin took out his dagger and balanced it on his desk, the tip of the blade cutting into the fine wood grain. Soon he would not need this desk anyway — his fist came down hard on the hilt, making the blade sink into the wood — he would soon be using Liriss’ office. Kesrin stood up and walked over to the window. The view. It would also change. Instead of seeing the docks and the dirty sailors burning tar and frying fish, he would look out at the market place. One step at a time. Today Ovink, tomorrow Liriss. In a month he would be no less than the undisputed lord of the city. Lord of all that his window would let him see and finally, after so many years, his heart could finally rest for having kept the promise he made years ago.
“Stop!” he suddenly heard Ovink’s voice come through the window, followed by a dull thud of something falling onto the boardwalk outside.
Kesrin stepped closer to the window and looked down. A teenage girl lay on the ground by the wall of the building, not far from a sleeping bum. She clutched her arm as if she had hurt it in a fall.
“You! Stop her!” Ovink appeared in a window of the second floor. “Get up!”
Kesrin chuckled sadly. This was a man Liriss trusted to do his work?
“Shut up and do it yourself, you bastard!” the girl yelled back, getting up to her feet. Kesrin suspected she was Captain Koren’s niece. She looked around, picked up a rock and threw it at the wall of the building, then, with another moment of hesitation, turned and ran down the boardwalk. Another moment passed and a crashing sound signified Ovink falling out the window. The man quickly got up and, limping, ran after the girl.
With a soft chuckle Kesrin turned from the window and walked out of the room. The plan was slowly coming together. Now the last step needed to be set into motion.
Ilona desperately fought the chain cuffs that held her arms and legs to the stone block now submerged in the water. In the course of the last hour the level of the ocean had risen high enough to cover the rock completely and the water continued to rise. She knew it would cover her soon as well. The shackles on her refused to come off as they had for countless other people who must have died here in the last few years. They were too well made and too strong to even think about tearing them free.
Ilona looked up at the wooden walk of the pier above her, where occasionally a person or two would walk by. She wanted to yell for help, but the gag in her mouth would only make her choke on her own spit. Nothing. There was nothing she could do, but at the same time she refused to wait to let death come and take her. She had always fought and this time would be no exception.
Uneven splashing of water alerted Ilona. The noises sounded like someone walking towards her, disturbing the rhythmic motion of the waves. She tried to raise her head to look, but a strong wave forced her back down, making her swallow the salty ocean water.
A shadow paused over her, looking. Waiting. Ilona blinked to clear the ocean water from her eyes. Kesrin. He looked somber and tired, as a man ten years his senior.
“You know, it’s strange what twists fate puts on our lives,” he sighed. “Just yesterday I wanted you dead, out of my way. I would’ve killed you with my own bare hands, if necessary, because you were bad for my business, but now I have to come to you for help.”
Ilona continued to look at him, listening, unable to speak and well aware of the quickly rising level of the tide. Another wave passed over her head and lifted Kesrin off his feet.
“Something changed last night,” he sighed. “I realized my life was in danger and I could do little to help myself. What I want…” he paced to the other side of the rock in the stomach deep water, “…what I need is for you to help me. In exchange I will let you go and give you evidence against Liriss. Is that fair?”
Ilona had little choice now. She was willing to promise almost anything, including this. She nodded.
“Good,” Kesrin said. “You already know it was Liriss who ordered Koren’s death. It was Ovink who kidnapped you on his orders. Ovink will be heading out of town early tomorrow by the East Gate, taking some men and Koren’s niece to sell to slave traders in Tench. If you capture him, he’ll sell his own mother, not just Liriss.” With those words Kesrin took a chain with a key from around his neck and placed it in Ilona’s hand, leaving her to fend for herself.
“Don’t forget I did this for you when the day of reckoning comes.”
He disappeared from sight, leaving behind the sound of splashing water as he waded towards the stairs.