“I’m afraid we’re not the same Dargon we used to be.”
– Kalen Darklen
A large wagon pulled by an overworked horse rumbled down the street, a misaligned wheel rattling unevenly against the rough cobblestones. The driver’s whip snapped in the dark, causing the horse to speed up, the clicking of the bad wheel developing a more even rhythm as the wagon rushed off into the distance.
Quiet once again settled in the deserted street and a dirty-orange tabby braved the darkness, rapidly crossing the street before some other contraption decided to cut across his path. A crashing noise sounded behind him and he froze in mid-trot, looking up and down the street. It was dark and quiet. The tabby glanced back to the alley in which he had settled down to rest in a warm pile of debris, where two noisy men had disturbed his peace, causing him to flee. He paused, deciding if he should run further or wait them out. The sound of footsteps up the street made his decision for him and in a streak of orange he disappeared under the steps of the building on the far side of the street.
“You hear that, Kiney?” a whisper sounded in the alley. “Kiney?”
“Shut up, you fool!”
Silence fell on the alley as a lantern light floated down the street. It rocked back and forth in a careless grasp and for a moment threatened to enter the alley. In a moment the light faded and a mene later so did the sound of the footsteps. The shadows again moved.
“Was that the guard, Kiney?”
“What was it?”
A man stood up and reached for the windowsill above his head. His fingers deftly played with the shutters and they came undone. “Never so easy!”
“Kiney, what if the owner’s home?”
“Then you’ll kill him.”
“I’ve never killed anyone, Kiney. I don’t know how to do it.”
The man’s hands wrapped around the window’s ledge and he started to pull himself up. His feet aided his efforts and in a moment he was inside the dark room.
“Kiney, where are you?”
“Shh! Give me your hand.”
A shadowy hand reached out the window and helped the other man up, then both figures disappeared into the house. Quiet again ruled the dark alley, but the calmness did not remain long. There was a clank and a crash and yell and not long after a man hopped out the window and reached up to accept a bag.
“Is he really dead, Kiney?”
“Just shut up and give me the bag!”
The large bundle was passed down, followed by the figure that held it.
“Do dead people go to heaven, Kiney? Mums said they die and go to the Stevene.”
They moved to the edge of the alley and Kiney paused, looking for and listening to any signs of others. As he stopped, his larger companion bumped into him and lost his grip on the bag. The overfilled sack slipped out of the man’s arms and tumbled to the ground, spilling the pilfered items at the mouth of the alley. Silverware clattered on the ground around the two men, including one adventuresome platter that decided to roll out of the alley and down the street.
“You idiot!” Kiney hissed, spinning about. His exclamation was accented by a sudden gasp — only then did the two men notice a woman hiding in the shadows of the old structure. “Grab her!” Kiney yelled as she bolted. She was close enough for him to get a good grip on her cloak and they both tumbled down among the spilled contents of the bag.
Jerid Taishent looked down into the castle courtyard from the long stone balcony halfway up the facade of the fortress. The massive stone wall of the keep rose a hundred feet ahead of him, its top rampart level with the balcony. Two guards stood talking on the wall and his gaze paused on them. Through no fault of their own, the guards were never where they were needed most. The entire time since war had come and gone from Dargon, all his time had been dedicated to keeping the Duchy running. It was not his job, but with Clifton Dargon battling the Beinison fleet, Luthias Connall fighting the Beinison army and Lansing Bartol recruiting and training troops in the south of the Duchy, the lieutenant of the First Dargon Militia found himself performing a job never meant to be his.
“I understand your concerns, Lord Arstead,” Jerid said to the young man sitting at the table behind him. “I had a sister myself …”
“What can you do to help?”
Jerid turned. “Right now not much. There’s a war on. This town is in ruins and it won’t begin to be repaired for a long time to come. I wish nothing more than to order a squad of men to track down those who killed your sister, but I have not the troops to spare. We are extremely shorthanded here and the public knows it. Some choose to use this opportunity to plunder the city and the citizens.”
“So you say there’s no protection even for noble blood?”
“My Lord …” Jerid shifted uncomfortably. The answer was ‘yes’, but he was not about to use that word. “We are only a quarter of the force we were before the war. The town guard is barely a half. And all the remaining troops are green. We do what we can. What we have the power to do.”
Arstead shook his head. “Maybe you’d use different words if you had known my sister … or if you had to tell our mother how she died.”
“I’m sorry. We’re doing all we can. I wish we could do more.”
“You’re the law here. You can do what you want.”
“My Lord,” Jerid faced the noble across the table, “with the power I hold comes a responsibility for things far above and beyond what the nobility may need. My first duty is to the Duke, to his lands and his people and I must protect his interests to the best of my ability. My responsibility is to the living. My second duty is to avenge the dead. When I have the time and the troops, that shall be done.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Arstead stood up. “My grandfather shall be mentioning that in his letter to your Duke.”
“The Duke’s ship is the Shining Star. Send your letter through the Port of Armand and it will get there faster.”
Arstead stiffened up at the response. “Good day, Sir Taishent.”
Jerid returned to the edge of the balcony and listened as the departing footsteps fell somewhere behind him. The letter, he knew, would be worthless, save to aggravate Lord Clifton at a time such as this. He did the best with what he had and the Duke had known that when leaving for war. A door slammed loudly in the chambers.
“Page?” he called into the room.
“Yes, my Lord?” soft footsteps were followed by a young girl’s voice.
He had not intended to turn, but this was unusual enough to warrant his attention and Jerid took his eyes off the distant green forest beyond the castle wall. In the doorway stood a young girl, thirteen or fourteen, the crest of the House of Dargon proudly displayed on a guard uniform that was a little too large. The girl’s long blond hair made him think of his own daughter. She was only six now, but where would she be if she were ten years older and where will she be in ten years with the war now on?
“You called, my Lord?” the girl asked again.
“Yes. Tell Madame Sepagary I will see her now and have Vogel bring his parchment and inks.”
“Right away, my Lord.” And she disappeared behind the curtain.
A shadow of a man blended into the scaffolding at the base of the castle wall as a dying lantern hurried down the walk. It was carried by a guard and followed by another, both armored and armed, the Ducal crest displayed on their clothes.
A heavy fist fell on the castle gate. “Sarge!” The gates creaked open.
“Out of oil,” someone said.
“Come on in.”
Shuffling footsteps sounded, followed by the doors creaking closed. The shadow again emerged from the wall, followed by a tall lanky man dressed in sandy-grayish clothes. He looked towards the castle gates, then up the road leading into town. All was once again quiet.
He gripped the scaffolding and rapidly ascended to the crack in the wall where a lucky catapult or ballista round must have penetrated the castle’s defenses during the siege. The opening was now mostly repaired, only needing the proper stones to be laid so the style of the wall remained the same. He looked up to the top of the scaffolding, some six or eight feet short of the top of the castle wall. They probably made it short on purpose, but short was fine, too. He finished his climb, waited for the guard above to pass and then jumped, letting his hands wrap around the edge of the battlement. He would not have been able to do that in armor.
The footsteps on the wall lost their rhythm and paused. Only the crickets below disturbed the quiet of the night. The guard muttered something and went on.
Another moment passed and the thief climbed over the embrasure and landed softly on the castle wall walk. No one was in sight. A few flickering lights in the castle revealed the windows of those who could not sleep, but the one window that was important was dark, as it was supposed to be.
The man quickly crossed to the other side of the wall and glanced down. Three soldiers stood talking below, a dying lantern held in their midst. He judged the distance between the wall and the castle. It was too far to get across by any means other than crossing the courtyard. It was not to be done.
Returning footsteps alerted the thief to hurry down the wall to the west side of the castle where the roof of the stables rose better than halfway up the castle wall. It was a good fifteen foot drop, but it was the best and quickest way to get down the castle wall. As the guard’s footsteps neared, he flung himself over the edge and landed softly on the stable’s roof. The footsteps again paused and the thief attempted to blend in with the darkness.
Something slammed on the roof, hit against his shoulder and fell over the edge of the roof. Startled, the thief rolled over, just in time to see a rock hit the roof where his head was a moment before. Startled at his discovery, he rolled over again, backed up to the wall and felt for his dagger. It was a long blade, since a full sword would get in the way, and under normal conditions it was more than enough, but now, discovered, he feared it would not keep him alive long enough to finish the job.
Another rock bounced across the roof and rolled over the edge. There were footsteps above. “Rotten cats!” a curse floated down. “STAY OFF thE WALL!”
A pained smile spread across the thief’s face as he rubbed his sore shoulder. Quiet as a cat. Mistaken for a cat. At least he was not drowned like one.
Once the guard had passed, the man once again started moving. He hopped off the roof of the stables into a bale of hay and proceeded across the dark side of the castle’s courtyard. Along the roof there were no customary gargoyle heads or weather-protecting ledges or even statues of the local heroes. That would make the scaling of the wall more of a challenge, but the dark of the courtyard and the reduced guard were an added bonus to making the theft a success.
“I had not realized that unfortunate girl had been one of yours, my dear,” Liriss muttered, pacing the length of the rich carpet. “I wish you had told me sooner. I am not sure what I may be able to do to help now.”
The plump, matronly Eliza Tillipanary remained in her chair as the crime lord circled the room. “I thought the girl had returned home as she kept saying she wanted to do,” the woman explained. “It was not until recently that one of the other girls, who also cleans in the Duke’s castle, brought to my attention that a noble from Arvalia has been looking for the unfortunate’s killer.”
“Noble. What noble?” Liriss stopped.
“I believe his name was Arstead.”
“Arstead … Arstead … from Arvalia?”
“That’s what she said.”
“Never heard of him,” Liriss shook his head. “Should I find the killers, what do you want done with them?”
Tillipanary shrugged. “You know I take no interest in your work. Do what you will. I just want them and their friends to know that even frontiers have justice.”
Liriss laughed. “If they hang me, my dear, they’ll hang you right next to me. Everyone knows my work.”
The matron shook her head. “I don’t. You merely offer me a service I can not obtain from the town guard.”
Liriss laughed again. “I will look for the killer and be sure to tell you who they are.”
“See about finding them first,” Tillipanary warned. “We will discuss who they are then.” She stood up and adjusted her dress. “Now, I still have plenty to do, so I’ll be going. Be sure to let me know your progress.”
“Good evening, my dear,” Liriss saw the woman to his office door and closed it after her. As he returned to his desk, he made a mental note to ask Kesrin to look into the murder and see if he could locate who had committed it. If it were one of his own people, the search would be easy and fast, but the punishment would be more difficult to mete out. If it were someone outside his organization, the search would take more time, but the punishment would be a pleasure. Others must know that the city belongs to one man.
A knock sounded on the door just as he sat down and the perky nose of his assistant Rene appeared through the crack. “I’m sorry to bother you again my Lord, but there’s a ‘Pike’ here to see you.”
“Yes,” Liriss stood up. “Send him in.”
“Straight,” the girl disappeared.
Liriss prepared himself for the visitor.
The door again opened and a tall young man walked in. His dark hair was carelessly brushed back and he had a slight limp, but he did not let it bother him and rapidly crossed the room to the desk. “A pleasure as always, my Lord,” he nodded to Liriss.
“You’re back soon,” the crime lord commented. “And with a limp …”
“A minor mishap,” the young man admitted. “Dargon Castle was not built for scaling.”
“You’ve been there already?”
Pike removed a pouch from his belt and placed it before Liriss. “I’ve been there.”
Liriss quickly snatched up the offering and pulled open the strings. From inside he removed a cloth-wrapped box and from that a flat headed ring. He examined it, then removing a burning candle from a girandole, dripped some wax on the table and imprinted the ring in it.
Pike took a step closer to the table to take a look as Liriss worked. The crime lord produced a parchment from the stack in the corner and compared the impression in the wax to an impression on the parchment.
“You had doubts?”
“I am impressed by your speed.”
Pike smiled. “You do realize the seal is worthless for official business without the appropriate signature.”
“Don’t concern yourself with that,” Liriss laughed. He opened a desk drawer and took out a pouch. “Impressed with your speed, but ready for the delivery.”
Pike accepted the pouch and placed it on his belt where the other had hung. The contents jingled as they passed hands.
“You won’t check?”
“I trust you. And if it’s not there, I’ll steal the signet back.”
Liriss concealed a smile. The world had too few honest thieves. “I have another task for you, if you feel up to it.”
“If it requires no climbing for a few days …”
“That’s up to you. I have no interest in the process of execution of the job.”
“All right, then.”
“I have … I *had* a lieutenant who fell into the hands of the guard. I want him back.”
“I assume he’s larger than the signet?”
“My prices rise with the weight.”
“Where is he being held?”
Liriss sat down, indicating for Pike to do the same. “In the Old Guard House, in the center of town. The prisoners are held in the basement.”
“You’re talking about high risk here, my Lord,” Pike took the offered seat. “There’s the entry and exit I have to take into consideration and your man’s willingness to leave.”
“He’ll die if he doesn’t,” Liriss said. “You’ll get two Marks if he does.”
“Two and a half.”
“And a half?”
“I like odd numbers,” Pike explained.
“That is rather odd,” Liriss agreed. He considered for a moment. “Two and a half it is. I need him back.”
“… or …” Pike suggested.
“Or one Mark and the name of the man who killed Miriam Arstead.”
Liriss’ eyes betrayed surprise. “A popular girl.”
“Have others asked?”
“The question is, have others asked you?”
“A contract, my Lord. I merely need a name.”
“A contract by whom?” Liriss demanded.
“A brother, a father, a lover … Does it matter?” Pike shrugged.
“Not when money is paid, my Lord, just like in your agreement with me. I was offered money for a name. I did not ask why.”
“Revenge’s the usual motive,” Liriss explained.
“So I suspect,” Pike agreed, “but it’s none of my business. If you get me the name, I’m willing to do the job for less. Is that to your satisfaction?”
Liriss rubbed his chin. Eliza implied she wanted the killer punished. Pike implied someone was ready to do that. That only left Liriss as a broker of information with reduced expenses on his part. “I believe that deal is more than fair, Pike. One Mark and I will look into the murder personally.”
Pike smiled. “A deal, then. Now, my Lord, who is it that you need rescued?”
“In here,” a guardsman pushed open a second floor office door for the young noble and let him in. Arstead entered the small cluttered office and paused patiently before the desk loaded with papers and an empty scabbard. The dark-haired, dark-eyed officer wearing lieutenant pins indicated for a moment’s time and completed an entry in his journal. “What can I do for you?”
Kalen stood up. “I am.”
“My name is Janos Arstead. I understand you were the one looking for the killer of Miriam Arstead.”
“You’re her husband?” the Guard Lieutenant asked.
“Brother. I came to Dargon as soon as my family was notified. My father is in the war and my grandfather is far too old to travel. I have to be responsible for the family now.”
“Please, sit down.” Kalen again took his seat and closed his journal, using the scabbard to hold his place between the pages. He had no good news to give and plenty of bad. He had been far too busy in the past few days to make any sort of progress on the increasingly violent incidents that had been surfacing around the city and barely managed to hand out assignments to junior officers, most of whom were barely qualified to wear swords, much less do investigative work. Perhaps an offer of hospitality would make things easier.
“Would you like anything? Mead? Ale?”
“I would like to know who killed my sister.”
Kalen shook his head. “I’m sorry. As of the last report I received, this morning, we had not found the killer. Our resources are stretched and time is an issue. It will be a while longer before I can give you a definite answer.”
“The trail may grow cold by then, Sir Darklen.”
“I realize that, but there are dozens of crimes taking place every day. We don’t have the men to do the job right and I’ll be the first to admit that. Have you requested assistance from the Duke’s Adjutant? Right now Lieutenant Taishent is in that position.”
“I met with Sir Taishent yesterday,” Arstead answered. “When we learned about the death, my grandfather gave me a letter of introduction to help expedite the matter, but that was met rather coldly. I had hoped the House of Dargon would be of help, but clearly ties of nobility do not stretch across the Duchies of Baranur.”
“I’m sorry,” Kalen shook his head. “The system worked much better before the war. Hurt as we are, with as many men as we’ve sent off to war, I’m afraid we’re not the same Dargon we used to be. I wish I could do more to help.”
“Perhaps I should be the one to offer help, Sir. It is my sister, after all.”
“What could you do to help us?”
“Investigate? Just how short on men are you? Perhaps I can help to fill in?”
Kalen let a ghost of a smile escape. “Lord Arstead, we’re half the force we used to be before the war. One more man will not make a difference, particularly if he is new to the city and not trained in our methods. The offer is appreciated, but not feasible.”
“Are you saying justice will go undone?” Arstead’s tone became more demanding.
“No. I’m saying justice will need more time.”
“That’s unacceptable, Sir,” Arstead set his jaw.
Kalen’s soft expression melted away. He stood up, the journal falling off the desk. “Unacceptable? The same men who killed your sister, killed a renownd scribe, a personal friend of the Duke’s family, yet the crime receives no greater priority to be solved. Your family is part of the masses that come through this city. Do not make the assumption that noble blood will make a difference in a shattered duchy.”
Arstead stood up as well. “I see I may have request assistance from the Duke himself.”
The chair behind Kalen tumbled over. “I’ll be more than happy to forward that letter for you, along with my report that a dozen of my men were killed or injured in a raid last week. Don’t make assumptions that your lineage matters to a duchy crippled by war! Get out of my office!”
“Told you it was our lucky day!” One guardsman slapped another on the back and took a few rapid steps, leaping on the back of a waiting horse. His companion also quickened his pace and mounted the steed near the first.
“Horseback duty for a week! I think I can get to like this job!”
“Let’s go get ‘em, boy!” The first man’s heels connected with his horse’s sides and they disappeared into the night.
“Hold on there!” the other guard yelled, trying to adjust the saddle. “Wait for me!” The second horse jumped into a trot and also disappeared into the night.
Silence descended on the dark street and a shadowy figure drifted across the alley behind the guard house. It crossed the street to the Dargon Town Guard Stables and disappeared inside completely undetected.
In the dim light of the stables, Pike discarded his black cloak in an empty stall, revealing the blue and grey uniform of the town guard. It was a great risk showing up here dressed as a guard. Reduced as they were, the guards would probably know one another, but this was for a quick job in the night, one that would be discovered no more than a bell or two after being done, if that long. When put into the right perspective, the impersonation of a guard was the least of his concerns.
He checked a few horses, working his way towards the rear door to the guard house and calmly walked through. A woman in a guard uniform passed him, nodding a hello. Pike responded in kind and slowly walked down the corridor to the back stairs. Liriss’ directions were rather specific. Offices and storage upstairs, holding cells downstairs. He quickly glanced up the stairwell and descended into the basement. A lone sleepy guard stretched at the sound of footsteps and shifted in the creaky chair.
“Yes?” the soldier asked as Pike approached.
“I have it right here,” Pike reached into his pouch, drawing the guard closer by his curiosity. His fists connected with the guard’s chin and the chair tipped over, the unconscious guard rolling up against the wall.
Pike paused to take note of the room. Small, dark. Stairs leading up on one side, a heavy metal door on the other. A small table and a chair for the guard. There were four candelabras in the walls, three candles each, but they produced barely enough light to see the metal door and the unconscious guard on the floor. Pike pulled the guard up and replaced him in the chair, removing the ring of keys from his belt in the process.
It took a few moments to find the proper key and pause to listen for sounds both on the other side of the door and in the corridor at the other end of the stairs. Satisfied with the lack of activity, Pike turned the key in the lock and pushed open the door. The well-oiled hinges made no sound as the door swung open and Pike quietly stepped inside, carefully closing the door behind him.
A wall candelabra served as the only source of light. Removing a single candle, Pike proceeded down the long corridor, looking at the sleeping prisoners and the occasional names on the wall. About half of the cells were populated, although not all with prisoners were tagged. At one such cell, when Pike brought the candle close to the wall to see if there was a name, the prisoner jumped out of bed and rushed the bars. He collided with the door with a wild scream, arms reaching for the blue and grey uniform before him. Pike hurried to back away as one of the muscular hands grabbed his shoulder and was able to pull away only when the hair on the prisoner’s arm caught fire from the flame of the candle.
“I’m gonna kill you, you damn bastard!” the prisoner roared.
“Next time,” Pike forced himself to keep his cool, “I’ll douse you with oil before taking the candle to you.”
The man fell silent and took several steps back.
Satisfied with the results, Pike continued down the corridor of the semi-awake prisoners until coming to a cell carrying the name he was looking for. He banged his arm on the door. “Get up!”
The body on the cot stirred and a man sat up. “What?”
“Interrogation. Let’s go.” He unlocked the door and pulled it open. “This way.”
The man in the cell hesitated.
“Kuvan Ovnik?” Pike asked.
“Yes, yes.” The man stood up and came to the open door. He looked to be in good shape, although very dirty and unshaven. In the dim candle light Pike could barely see the remnants of an old bruise on the man’s cheek. “Not enough entertainment at night?” the prisoner spat.
Pike gave him a shove forward. “Spit again and you’ll be cleaning the floor with your tongue.”
Ovnik stopped and gave his captor a chilling look. “I’ll remember your face.”
“You do that.”
They made it to the end of the corridor and went through the door. Pike closed and locked it as Ovnik glanced over at the unconscious guard.
“Take his clothes.”
“I was sent to get you out. We won’t make it out of here with you dressed like this. Take his clothes.”
Ovnik chuckled. “Oh, I knew they’d send someone.”
Liriss matched his gaze with Kesrin, waiting patiently for his lieutenant to react. Kesrin, in his usual style, gave no hint of surprise at having seen Ovnik just a moment before. Even as the footsteps of his old friend faded down the corridor, he calmly sat in the chair across from his lord.
“Any reason he’s in chains?”
“He lied to me, Kesrin,” Liriss picked up the half full wine goblet and took a sip. He swallowed with satisfaction. “I don’t like it when people turn on me, Kesrin. When they do, I have to go to a great expense to make sure others know what a bad decision that is. Lord Dargon may be losing control of his city, but I’ll be damned before I lose control of mine. Make sure I don’t have to do this again, Kesrin. It pains me so to see trust misplaced. And good men, too. This shouldn’t be.”
“Of course, my Lord,” Kesrin answered in his usual calm voice.
“Good. Now go and make sure that Ovnik’s fate is not shared by others.”
Kesrin rose slower than usual. “And that fate, Lord?”
“I feel good today, Kesrin. He will have a slow death.” The crime lord’s laughter trailed his lieutenant into the corridor and as the door closed, the older man’s face sombered up. “Put a little fear of me into you, Kesrin. Loyalty must be unconditional, even if it stems from fear.”