Author’s note: This story builds on material presented in Winds of Change (FSFnet 8-2), A Scent in the Air (FSFnet 11-1,), and A Sudden Storm (FSFnet 11-2), by Becki Tants; it also references The Dream (FSFnet 6-3, FSFnet 6-4) by John White. The first part of this story was in volume 10-5 of Dargonzine. Therein was explained the purpose of Mouse Kervale in coming to Dargon.
II. Kittara Smells a Rat
Sy 7, 1012
Since it was fairly close to the wharves, only a short way inland from Commercial Street along Traders Avenue, the tavern named the Rogue and Quiver might’ve been expected to be a rowdy and raucous place. However, the owner, Malcom Shortclip, had several close personal friends amongst the City Watch, not to mention off-duty members of the Watch among his employees, so order usually prevailed. In spite of this, Kittara and Sylk occasionally stopped there for the above-average ale.
“That was interesting.” Kittara Ponterisso brought the two mugs to the table where Reyakeen Sylk waited. It had been her turn to buy and Sylk knew better than to try to be gallant with her.
“Jastrik’s health,” he toasted perfunctorily, taking one of the mugs and quaffing a third of the contents. “What was interesting?” he then asked.
“You know Rales Spinner?” Kittara preferred to sip her ale.
“Also referred to as Onions.”
“You’ve mentioned him before, haven’t you?”
“He’s City Watch. He’s also been trying to bed me ever since I settled here.”
“So he has good taste.”
Kittara smiled. “Flattery will get you everywhere. Onions hasn’t tried that approach though — at least not that obviously. He prefers just to tell me everything about what he’s up to and hope that I think he’s interesting.”
“How’s it going for him?”
“Come on, Sylk. He’s Watch.”
“Silly me.” Sylk quaffed some more ale. “So why are we talking about him?”
“Because tonight he is doing something interesting.”
“He’s off Watch tonight?”
Kittara pushed her chestnut hair back. “Actually the interest is Watchwork.”
“Are you sure we should be talking about this?” Sylk drained his mug.
“He’s been assigned to watch a warehouse.”
“Sounds like typical City Watchwork.”
“All night. They’re watching the warehouse one back from the wharf on Division Street.”
“Makes me glad I’m — did you say — ?”
Kittara nodded. “That’s Duke Jastrik’s warehouse.”
“All right,” Sylk admitted. “Now I’m interested. Why’s the Watch watching our Duke’s warehouse all night?”
“Onions had no idea,” Kittara said. “The way he saw it, he was just glad he wouldn’t have to walk around the docks all night the way he usually does.”
“So the rest of the dock area won’t get patrolled tonight?”
“I suppose not,” Kittara admitted. She shrugged and drained her mug. “Still, that’s hardly our problem. Think we should know what’s so interesting about Jastrik’s warehouse?”
III. The Queen of Air and Darkness
Ariel lay in bed, covered by a blanket and gloom. She had been in Dargon only four days but, running from crisis to crisis it seemed like much, much longer.
Stefan was dead. That was how it began. No. It began with Stefan alive and visiting her town and the inn where she worked for her father. Yes. That was how it began: with her breaking away from everything she’d known for nearly eighteen years. Stefan was exotic — not in appearance, perhaps. But he’d strolled around her old town and seen everything new. And he’d talked to her about all of it, asked her about the stabler’s wandering, unfocused eye, wondered why the cobbler’s son walked with a limp. He had captivated her attention, focussed her interest on himself. Wings! She’d already fallen in love with him and was willing to go anywhere he wanted — and then he’d invited her to come along with him when he left. The suggestion had been casual; a flicker of surprise sprang up in his eyes when she’d accepted immediately. But she could not possibly have stayed in that same small town after Stefan departed. So of course she’d gone away with him. And she never said a word to her father before leaving.
Then, on the road, her story began again. And it was a wondrous tale, because it was filled with magic. Stefan was an air mage. He’d not mentioned that outright in the town, but the news didn’t surprise Ariel. She’d known already that he was special. And he explained that it was prudent to be circumspect. Mages of the air often had enemies that they didn’t know about, so it was best not to mention that profession unless in trusted company. But he trusted her, and Ariel, of course, wanted to know more about air wizardry. So he taught her a few basics and she mastered them easily. Impressed, he began to teach her more seriously and more thoroughly and those days on the road were bliss. There was the work of absorbing these new thaumaturgical intricacies every day. But there was also Stefan’s touch and his smile and his flashing blue eyes and his commanding voice and sparkling sentences. There was love and magic; it began well. Twice, Ariel’s story began well.
She had to hold onto that: It did begin well.
Then, Haargon intervened. Rather, priests of Haargon — or followers or goons. There was no difference among the terms, not where Haargon was concerned. Agents of Haargon all, they shattered Ariel’s happiness.
Stefan, while teaching her the disciplines of air magery, had described to her the rivalry between the Air Mages who worshipped Iliara, and the Earth Mages who worshipped Haargon. He’d warned her that the conflict was turning deadly and had even mentioned a few instances of murder. But those cases, he’d said, had been far away and, when she’d shivered at the gory details, he’d soothed her fears with kisses and assurances that they themselves were hardly significant targets for the lumbering god of earth.
Nonetheless, there came a night that proved she and Stefan mattered more than they thought. They’d set a camp in a grove of pines and bedded down together as usual after a typically full day of walking study. They were both asleep when the dirty, shambling men attacked, grabbing Stefan and then herself, pulling her away from her lovely beloved.
If they said anything to Stefan before they killed him, it was very brief and she didn’t hear it. But it was perfectly clear to her what was going on when the knife flashed in the light from the single torch and Stefan screamed. These were the grotesque followers of Haargon and she could expect the same treatment from them that Stefan had received.
She expected it and they no doubt expected to administer it. But an angry mist seemed to cover her vision and a furious rage welled up within her even though two of the filthy men were restraining her arms. She screamed with Stefan and a whirlwind swirled up, stirring the pine needles and flinging them about — at everything and everyone save her. Men shouted and covered their faces and eyes against the showers of needles. And Ariel was free.
She ran to Stefan, but he was still. Needles struck his wide open eyes, but he ignored them. Life was no longer there in him. Ariel shrieked at him to come back to her; she shook his corpse. But only her whirlwind answered her. The goons of Haargon, though, were calling to each other; her whirlwind pleaded with her to flee them. Acceding to it and to Iliara, she ran away into the night.
After that came the sad time. She’d run that night until she collapsed. Then, after she recovered consciousness again, she’d continued her flight, though not with any clear plan nor with more than tatterings of arcane energies. The magical power she eventually regenerated after weeks more on the road, but all her plans had died with Stefan. They didn’t regenerate, except that she knew what she didn’t want to do: Any interest in staying in her father’s inn in her father’s town had died in her life with Stefan. Though he was now dead, Ariel’s former life remained still moribund in her mind.
She had no plan, only a solitary misery and a sense that Haargon wasn’t finished with her. But one had to decide on awakening or encountering a crossroads what to do next. Since Stefan had talked some about a place named Dargon and she thought perhaps there would be priests of Iliara there who could shelter her, she steered more or less toward that city. It wasn’t a plan, only a direction.
The minions of Haargon had dogged her all the way across Baranur until she’d finally come to Dargon. They’d not clung close to her heels, but she knew they were trailing her. It was nothing obvious, but she knew they were still after her. She recognized the lingering stares of disheveled passersby on the road, the muttered exchanges of other folks with innkeepers after she passed by, the murders of crows that she saw with ominous frequency on the roads as she came closer to the city. They were after her; she knew it.
But she did get to Dargon, and she did find an inn that was pleasant though too expensive. To pay for her lodging, she’d managed to find work quickly at Camron’s Trading House as a bookkeeper. A good air mage, Stefan had said, took copious notes of all the manifestations of Iliara in the world, and it had been well for her that she had also kept accounts for her father’s inn before Stefan spirited her away from that old life. Camron’s books were complex, well-nigh unfathomable, but she’d been better qualified than most to sort them out and make sense of them. They still held some puzzles, though.
But the work at Camron’s didn’t worry Ariel. It was the rest of her life that was perilous — even in the city. She’d found cheaper lodging easily enough. Camron had happened to have a cousin, Karina, who was looking to rent a spare room in her house. The landlords, Karina and her husband Marcus, were very nice, the price was low, and the location was convenient. Ariel had taken the place readily.
The new home was pleasant but the trip to it after Ariel’s third day of work at Camron’s office was not. She had encountered a trio of ruffians who, she felt sure, were in the employ of the priest of Haargon she’d seen near them. She’d managed to evade them and, with the help of air magery, outrun them in a flat-out sprint home, but the incident did serve as a reminder to her that Haargon’s minions were still after her.
The next evening, Camron had sent her home with an escort, Johan. Johan turned out to be a nephew of Camron’s and Ariel concluded that Karina was attempting to put into instant effect her belief that Ariel should be finding herself a husband as quick as she could. Johan was nice and Johan was large and muscular. Ariel had no trouble on the way home, except in making it clear to Johan that Karina’s opinion did not necessarily match Ariel’s. Johan, however, didn’t act as if Ariel’s opinion was of any importance to him at all. Even after she pointedly dodged an attempted embrace, he was suggesting a picnic lunch the next day. Ariel managed to get home to Karina’s house, though, without saying anything entirely insulting. But she doubted she’d be able to come up with any message for Johan that would be both subtle and discouraging. He was just that kind of man and she didn’t want to be coarsely rude to her employer’s nephew. It was a mess. Johan was handsome but he just wasn’t what she wanted now.
And the whole matter went completely out of her head anyway, when she got to her room in the house and found a priest of Haargon waiting for her. He’d attempted, with crude magical manipulation, to turn her from her allegiance to Iliara and Stefan’s memory to worshipping Haargon. She’d managed to resist but the experience had left her even more shaken. And since the sounds of her argument with the priest hadn’t gone unnoticed by landlord Marcus, she’d had to tell him and Karina all about her involvement in the war between Haargon and Iliara. All about it, including the fact that she had been herself a practicing student of the Art.
But they didn’t throw her out of the house immediately for concealing that tidbit of information. Indeed, Karina and Marcus had offered all kinds of suggestions of help. Karina had been sure that Johan would be willing to stay by her all the time. (Ariel sighed, wishing she could work up any enthusiasm for that idea.) Marcus had mentioned some sage named Corambis and suggested that if they just knew a little bit more about this Haargon cult, they could probably break it up thoroughly. Oh, they had lots of ideas. They just didn’t understand.
Ariel sighed again and softly got out of the bed that Karina had tucked her into not too long before. She’d told them what Stefan had made clear to her, if not by his words then by his example. These minions of Haargon were not playing. They killed. Ariel could not stand the idea of anyone she liked, like Karina or Marcus, coming to any grief through association with her. It had been bad enough with Stefan, but at least there, her lover had been a target for Haargon on his own. Karina and Marcus, Ariel knew, were otherwise bystanders to this conflict except because of their sheltering Ariel. The air sorceress also was sure that, if the couple did continue to involve themselves in her troubles, then the minions of Haargon would certainly punish them for intruding on this private little war.
Quickly, Ariel loaded her pack again. She moved quietly, having had some practice at moving around quietly while still at home working in her father’s inn. Taking her cloak, she went down to the kitchen and added a simple breakfast to her pack. She found a scrap of parchment and quill and wrote Karina and Marcus a quick note:
I’m sorry, but I can’t stay here. My presence puts you in danger, and I care too much for you to do that. I am going to find myself somewhere to live where I won’t be hurting anyone. You can reach me at Camron’s, as I still have to work for at least the next couple of days. Thank you for everything. Ariel.
On her way out the door, Ariel wondered whether either Karina or Marcus could read. But that, she told herself, was silly: If neither could read, why would they leave pen, ink and parchment lying around their kitchen?
IV. Ariel In the Dark
When you’re assigned to watch someone and report all her movements, Alec reflected for the thirteenth time since grabbing supper from a street cart, you spend a lot of time watching buildings the person is in. Right now, as he’d done the last couple of nights, he was watching the house of Marcus and Karina from his post in an alley he was beginning to grow fond of. And that was something to worry about: The noisome alley was hardly a place he’d've thought to become comfortable in, let alone taking pleasure in its familiarity.
Alec loitered there, fairly close to Dargon’s Main Street and more or less in the neighborhood of Atelier Street, so that he could almost consider the digs he was watching respectable. He assured himself that he was merely making sure that Ariel wouldn’t be coming out again tonight. He was tired. It had been a long day. He’d come to this house early in the morning and followed the girl directly from there to Camron’s mercantile house where she had clerical work. Then he’d put in bells and bells of tedious time loitering outside that place. Every gull in the area recognized him by now, he was sure.
The only excitement of the day had been the large young man who’d come out of the shipping office at the same time as Ariel and, it was soon obvious, was accompanying her. Since the boy’s size made trailing her almost pitifully easy, Alec had practically sleep-walked the return trip to Marcus’ house, only having to make sure that he saw Ariel go in the door. After that, he’d settled into the vantage at the mouth of his favorite alley and waited for a reasonable amount of the evening to pass so that he could call it a day.
He was just about to do so when the door he’d been watching for those many counts of bells moved. Instantly, Alec mustered the best semblance of alertness he could manage under the circumstances and stared through the darkness to see if he could go home anyway.
No such luck. It was the girl, wearing the usual dark blue cloak over the same pale lavender dress with white edging that he’d seen far too much of lately. She couldn’t even keep him amused with a varied wardrobe — or even dress her hair differently. As always, it was rolled back from her face with a circlet. She was just the way he’d seen her before.
In fact, she was exactly the way he’d seen her before. She was carrying the same baggage she’d borne when she first came to this house the day before yesterday. So now she was running away from — home? Hardly. And it was too soon to be skipping out on the rent, wasn’t it?
Alec shrugged. It wasn’t his to question, only to follow. He watched the girl creep out into the street and look around the quiet neighborhood for someone to tell her to get back inside where she belonged. No one did, so she pulled the hood of her cloak forward and then shuffled away past the uncaring houses. Alec was about to pursue her when the door of her house moved again. In his mind, Alec recited an elaborate curse that he’d spent his lunchtime earlier in the day formulating, one that involved Haargon’s backside, the lips of Erida, and a large circlet of peacock feathers. The image had amused him but he’d not quite dared utter the thing out loud. It was just as well since he was trying to remain unnoticed.
Camron’s brother-in-law, Marcus, emerged into the street. He apparently had no difficulty picking out Ariel in the darkness, since he immediately started off after her. Alec, taking his turn after Marcus, had to assume that the other man hadn’t had any lights on wherever in the house he’d been. Marcus’ eyes were already well accustomed to the dark. Alec mused about what that meant: That he’d been most likely waiting up in a dark room for Ariel to do something, and that caution would be needed while following him. The reverie broke off when Marcus reached the end of a row of houses and stepped around the corner.
Alec cursed a much briefer imprecation and hurried ahead to make sure that he would still have at least Marcus in sight. He reached the turn just in time to see his quarry up ahead along the road. Breathing a small sigh of relief, Alec settled into a routine solution to the problem of tailing someone through deserted streets late at night. He almost relaxed too much. Marcus (and, Alec hoped, Ariel) appeared to be tracing again Ariel’s route to Camron’s office, so Alec decided he could hang back a bit more to be sure that Marcus didn’t notice him. A couple of turns before Ariel would actually have gotten there, though, Alec came around a corner and discovered a completely empty street.
Still not wasting breath or noise voicing aloud the curses he was thinking, Alec hurried forward. He paused at every alley to peer within, hoping that he would spy the familiar lope of Marcus. After a couple of failures, he was rewarded with that comforting vision. The alley was narrow and dark, but the silhouette was right. Alec eased into the alley and made his way along it. He was only halfway along it when the man ahead emerged from the other end and walked briskly away to the right.
Lightly, Alec ran forward, quickly reaching the end of the alley. He peered around the corner in the direction Marcus had gone.
A fist smashed into his face.
V. A Most Dangerous Profession
Jarvis was working late in Camron’s Trading House. There was, after all, plenty of work to be done, especially after Camron had brought in that new girl. Of course, she’d been hired to help Camron get his records straightened up and clear so that Jarvis, among others, could examine them quickly. But, in fact, she was only creating more work for him.
First of all, she was a definite distraction — far too pretty to be fluttering around his office all day and not have his gaze continually attracted to her movements. Which it was, terribly often, because — dammit — he was male and her figure was far more desirable to look at than his ledger figures were.
He smiled at the little, old, bookkeeping joke — and then frowned. Even when she wasn’t there, she was distracting him from his work. That was so annoying.
He bent to his papers again. He simply had to get them completed tonight because — well, that was the other problem with Camron’s new girl. Jarvis was actually here working for Duke Jastrik, who had a large investment in Camron’s business. From time to time, Jarvis examined Camron’s books for the Duke to make sure that the profits and losses Camron reported were genuine. With the addition of Camron’s pretty little bookkeeper, though, Jarvis was obliged to spend some time learning her methods and satisfying himself with her competence at neatening up the books. And thus far, his studies had not left him convinced. There were some discrepancies, some potentially large discrepancies. He pulled his lamp a little closer, dipped his pen in the well, and stared again at the parchment.
The parchment rattled. No, that wasn’t it. The rattle was coming from downstairs. But there shouldn’t have been any noise downstairs. It was long past the time for any shipments to be received or dispatched. Indeed, only Londron the night watchman ought to have been active down there and he, Jarvis knew, moved no more than he absolutely had to.
“Something wrong, Londron?” Jarvis called. No response came up the stairwell. Jarvis hadn’t expected any, not really. Londron was as silent as he was static. But Jarvis had now made the mistake of calling to the man. In some way, he now felt honorbound to go and look for the watchman, to prove that he hadn’t been calling to a void.
And besides, he could use the break from thinking about figures (and figures).
He got up from his desk, loudly scraping his chair on the floor. The noise he made felt necessary and comforting as well. “Londron?” he called again, still not expecting any response. The watchman, he felt sure, was going to make him come all the way downstairs and see him if the auditor wanted to verify his existence. With a heavy tread, since he didn’t want to hear just that soft rattling, Jarvis walked over to the stairs and clumped down them.
Below, Londron was sprawled in his favorite chair. He was asleep. This was his favorite way to pass the long, dull sands of supervision over the quiet building. It also, he reasoned, assured that he would be awake and alert come the morning when Camron would arrive and expect him to be able to report that everything was in order. How could he be expected to be sharp and clear, speaking briskly and firmly to his employer at dawn, he asked himself nearly every night, if he’d spent all night moping about the place. His answer was always the same; hence the long and regular naps.
And Londron was blessed with the ability to sleep through nearly anything. The scratching inside one of the barrels that had been stacked in the receiving barn hadn’t disturbed him. Neither had the presence of someone standing close beside him, someone dressed in a hooded cloak over a pale lavender dress and looking pensively at his regular breathing.
Nor, of course, did Jarvis’ ponderous descent, though it did cause the other person to seek the shadows. Jarvis, grumbling to himself, had brought his lamp with him into the darkness below. Now, he set about looking for the uncooperative Londron. He’d find the man, thank him most sarcastically for his efforts to foster others’ ability to concentrate on their lamplit work and then get back up to his damned books. Then, perhaps he’d be able to get out of here himself within a bell. He strode from the staircase toward the front of the building; the front seemed a reasonable place to start.
He was walking past the doorway into the receiving barn when he heard something break. The noise was muffled some, but he was quite sure he’d heard something untoward in that receiving area. Pottery, perhaps, but it sounded as though it might have been knocked off a closet shelf by a careless cat. Yes, that was it, except that the barn didn’t have a closet. He stopped and peered at the dark doorway, aware that the door should have been closed.
“Londron?” he called, standing at the open door. “Are you in there?”
“In here,” a very faint voice, which sounded nothing like Londron, responded.
“Where?” Jarvis demanded, taking several steps into the barn.
“In this barrel,” the faint shout replied. Jarvis walked over to it.
“What are you doing in there?” he asked.
“How about ‘Trying to get out’?” the voice suggested. “Are you going to help me or just stand there?”
Unpacking a barrel was not, strictly speaking, part of Jarvis’ job. He was there to examine books of numbers and verify in some obscure way that they were “true.” However, his charge was also more generally, he told himself, to safeguard the Duke’s interest in Camron’s business. This gave him authority to poke around in any aspect of shipping that excited his curiosity. And if Camron was moving people around in barrels, the Duke ought to know about it. Furthermore, Jarvis had seen nothing on the ledgers about this transport of people and that would indicate another serious oversight. Jarvis set his lamp on the closest neighboring barrel, found a crowbar hanging on the wall of the barn, and began prying loose the lid of the barrel.
The lid soon came off with a crash. Jarvis peered at what lay under the lid. Mouse, blinking at the lamplight, peered up at him. The auditor dropped the crowbar with another crash. “He’s shipping faeries?” he asked.
“I am *not* a faerie!” Mouse declared, as emphatically as she could. “I am Mouse.” While Jarvis continued to stare at her, she began extracting her sack of possessions from the hay. She also offered the story she’d spent the journey composing: “I was traveling with this shipment of preserves to ensure that this valuable food reached its destination safely. One of the jars seems to have broken against another though. Sorry about that. But there’s someone I have to see now, so I’ll be — Hey!”
Her speech was interrupted by the heavy thud of something smashing against the back of Jarvis’ skull and then the heavier thud of Jarvis falling against the side of the barrel and then the floor. She looked up and repeated herself: “Hey!”
Someone else was holding the crowbar now. The someone was wearing a deeply cowled cloak with the hood pulled up and forward keeping the face completely shadowed.
A third party echoed Mouse, “Hey!” and the figure instantly broke the tableau: The crowbar clattered to the floor. A hand shot out and seized Mouse at the waist, pinioning one arm. The hay she’d been wading in had made it difficult for her to dodge. Then, the assailant sprang away through the darkened barn as Londron — the latter having finally been roused by the clattering barrel lid and crowbar — lumbered in pursuit.
Mouse shouted and pulled ineffectually at the closest finger she could reach — obliging her captor to change grips — as she was carried to the other end of the room. Then, Mouse almost crashed against the ground, as the girl — judging by the dress she was wearing under the cloak — reached down to grab something before racing out a small door of the barn.
VI Breaking It Up
“Kittara,” Sylk asked, “how can you say that wasn’t a waste of our time?”
After having spent a bell poking around Duke Jastrik’s warehouse on Division Street, another unsounded bell watching her converse with Onions and his colleague, Carver, and who knew how much more time discreetly watching the Watch watch the warehouse, Sylk had persuaded Kittara that the tip was false. Not wishing to chance a late ferry across the Coldwell, the two were walking the long way around back to Jastrik’s quarters via the causeway. They had only gotten as far as Commercial Street, somewhere between Ramit and Layman and the prospect of the long remainder of the walk did not improve Sylk’s mood.
“We have a pretty good idea now what the layout is of that warehouse,” Kittara said.
“That is something I neither need to know nor want to know,” Sylk said. “If that’s the best you can do, I rest –”
“Sh!” Kittara ordered. “I hear a brawl.”
“Not our problem,” Sylk reminded her.
“You’re not even curious?”
“Then buy your own beer.” Kittara ran lightly forward and disappeared into an alley. “Now, now, what’s all this then?” Sylk heard her shout in her most officious manner. This was followed by “Hey, what the hell?” in a surprised but more usual tone. “Sylk!” she shouted.
Sylk grumbled to himself but sprang forward. As he did, a figure emerged from the alley, paused an instant to absorb the sight of the approaching Sylk, then shot off in the other direction. Though tempted to give chase, Sylk decided first to check on Kittara. He ran into the alley.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Of course not!” Kittara shouted, already getting to her feet. “I’ve just had that jerk run right through me. Nobody pushes me out of the way like that! Nobody! Now, come on! Let’s get him!”
“Why?” Sylk asked.
“Why?” she repeated. “Because he was fighting with this other guy and when I made like I was the Watch, they both cut and ran. That’s *got* to be interesting.”
“Maybe,” Sylk admitted. “Where’d the other one go?”
“Other end of the alley. Why? What do you care about him?”
“He could probably tell us as much as the one who flattened you.”
“Yeah, but he isn’t the one who knocked me down.”
Sylk took a moment to recall and admire his mental picture of what Kittara looked like and how physically fit she was. “I know,” he told her, before running down the alley after the less obviously dangerous fighter. “Coward,” Kittara muttered, going after the real prize.