DargonZine 30, Issue 3

Seeking The Stone

Vibril 9, 1019 - Vibril 19, 1019


Gilvelle Marser, Dargon’s master architect, woke to a throbbing pain in his skull. Each pulse threatened to push his eyes out from the inside. His mouth felt like he’d slept with a wool sock in it. From the taste, the sock had been on someone else’s foot for at least a sennight. He tried to raise his head, but a fresh burst of agony made him think better of it. He put his hands to his head to try to contain the agony and was met with fresh torment; his forehead erupted in searing pain as soon as he touched it. His fingers came away sticky. He forced his eyes open, wincing at the morning sunlight — late morning from the amount of light streaming through his window — and looked at his fingertips. They were coated with congealed blood.

He reached back up, more gingerly this time, and probed his forehead. There was definitely a wound there, and some sort of cloth bandage. Before he could do anything more, there was a loud pounding at his door, which was promptly echoed by his head. Through the fog of pain and grogginess he realized that an earlier knock had awakened him. From the force of the blows on his door, it seemed clear his caller was not going away any time soon.

To prevent any further knocking, he tried to bellow, “Coming!” and immediately regretted it. His voice was a coarse croak that set fire to his throat and somehow managed to increase the thudding in his head. He steeled himself against the pain and got up. He was pleased to see that he’d actually slept in his bed, though the blood on the sheets and his new upright position brought on a wave of nausea that he barely managed to contain.

The pounding at the door came again, striking him like a physical blow. It was followed by a familiar female voice calling, “Gil!” Celia? Why was Celia visiting him? He looked down to make sure all the important parts were covered and saw that he was wearing plain workman’s clothes, what he thought of as his Gillem Stonecutter disguise. It wasn’t the first time he’d slept in those clothes, he realized.

There was no time to clean up, but he did manage to gulp down a few swallows of water from a pitcher as he staggered to the door of his office cum living quarters in the New City. He pulled the door open just as a leather clad fist was about to pound on it again, and found himself face to face with Celia and another member of Dargon’s Town Guard. The man looked familiar, but Gil couldn’t place him.

“Gil!” Celia cried at the sight of him. “Are you alright?”

“Not sure,” he mumbled, and tried to lean against the door frame. He missed, and stumbled into it, and the two guards caught him before he could do himself more harm.

“Let us get you back inside, sir,” said the man. His voice was familiar, too.

They eased him in and brought him to a chair. Once he was seated, they stepped back. Both of their faces were a mixture of concern and disgust.

“I’m sorry,” Gil said. “I must look horrible.”

“You do,” said Celia. “Let me get that cleaned up.” She dipped a cloth into the pitcher he had drunk from and began to clean the blood off his forehead. The hand she used to steady his head felt wonderful. The other — the one that was jerking his head around and rubbing at the skin near his wound — more than made up for it.

“Gil,” she said, “this looks terrible. Someone got a bandage on it for you to stop the worst of the bleeding, but you need to get to a healer. Why didn’t you stay at the Inn of the Serpent last night to get this looked at?”

“The Serpent?” he asked, and then it all came crashing back to him. He’d gone there with his chief mason, Sard Rilius, dressed in his Gillem Stonecutter clothing to drink without being recognized as the man who was giving Dargon to the Doravin. Some men had come in with a story about stealing a glowing green stone from the Doravin, and then — “Great Cephas! The fight!”

The other guard spoke up. “That’s what we’re here to talk to you about, sir.”

Gil barely heard him. The details of the fight emerged: watching the crowd rush the invading Doravin, seeing Sard fall, taking a blow to the head himself, and watching Sard’s life’s blood pouring onto the floor of the bar. His stomach finally rebelled and he barely managed to turn his head away to avoid vomiting on Celia.

He groaned when he was done, amazed that his mouth could taste even worse. He looked up, his gaze shifting between Celia and the other guard. “I’ll answer anything you want, but can I have some time to … ?” He gestured to himself and the surrounding disarray.

“Straight,” said the man. “Do you think you can make it to the Old Guard House?”

“I can be there in a ha’bell,” Gil said. “I’ll get myself cleaned up and meet you there.”

“You certainly will not!” said Celia. “At least not alone, not with that wound. I’ll help you get cleaned up and we can visit a healer along the way.”

“But –” said the man.

“The hole can wait, Cael. It’s not going anywhere.”

Cael. That was his name. “What hole?” Gil asked.

“I said it can wait!” She looked at each man, her glare daring either of them to challenge her.

“Yes, ma’am!” replied Cael, with a grin and a small salute. “I’ll see you there and let the sergeant know you’re bringing the master architect.”

As Cael closed the door, too hard for Gil’s liking, Gil asked, “He was there last night, wasn’t he? At the Serpent?”

“Straight,” said Celia, going to work with the wet cloth again. “He backed you up when you said the Doravin weren’t trying to kill anyone. You probably saved some lives last night, Gil.” Their eyes met as she said that, and she looked away, blushing.

Celia worked in silence after that. She finished cleaning the blood off his head and helped him out of his rough-spun tunic. As he watched the bloodstained garment hit the floor, Gil realized he had another death to mourn. His time as Gillem Stonecutter had come to an end.

Celia found a mop and bucket and went to fetch some more water when he changed his pants, and even cleaned up the mess he had left on the floor while he finished cleaning himself up and dressing. It was closer to a bell before he pronounced himself ready to go.

As they stepped outside and the sunlight pierced his brain through his eye sockets, Gil wondered if his pronouncement had been premature. Surely with a few more bells of sleep he’d be ready — perhaps after nightfall? He was about to explain this to Celia when he felt her hand on his arm, gentle but firm, propelling him forward. She led him on a slow, stumbling, stagger, while he forced his eyes open to slits watching the street in front of him to avoid collisions.

After a few menes she drew to a halt. Gil looked up to see a sign depicting a bottle filled with liquid of a dubious purple color, surrounded by herbs. A healer, Gil realized with some relief as Celia led him inside and helped him into a chair. He rested his eyes as Celia explained his condition to the woman, and had almost dozed off when he felt gentle hands unwinding the bandage on his head. The woman tsked softly at the sight of the wound and then walked away. As he listened to bottles and jars rattling from the other end of the shop, Gil began to drift off. He was almost asleep when he felt a cool poultice being applied to his wound. Gil hissed in surprise as the wound began to sting, but the hiss became a relieved sigh as numbness spread across his forehead.

Those gentle hands wrapped a fresh bandage around his head, and then pressed a mug into his hands. “Drink this. All of it.”

Gil raised the mug to his lips, but began to pull away as the acrid smell of the liquid stung his nostrils.

“None of that,” said the healer. She placed her hands on his and guided the drink back to his mouth. “Quick as you can, now.”

He complied. A shudder ran through his body as the bitter liquid passed down his throat. As the horrible taste faded, his nausea seemed to go with it, and the throbbing in his head began to ebb. After a moment, he rose. Celia thanked the healer and led him to the door.

They continued down the street, with Celia still guiding Gil with a firm hand on his forearm. As the silence between them started to grow awkward, Gil wracked his still foggy brain for something to fill it. Celia, perhaps noticing the silence as well, spoke before he found something to say.

“How are you feeling?”

His hangover and head wound weren’t his idea of pleasant conversation, but he decided to make the best of it. “It’s hard to say — awful, really, but compared to how I felt a bell ago, wonderful. I feel like I could go dancing.” He glanced at her, bringing up one corner of his mouth in an attempt at a wry grin.

She glanced at him, and quickly averted her gaze, without even a smile at his attempted humor. “Try to focus on walking. We can save the dancing for another time.”

The awkwardness descended again. Gil struggled to find something to continue the conversation. “Well, I should probably stay out of bars for a while anyway. Besides, not sure I’d be welcome.” He winced as the last sentence seemed to spill out of his mouth.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Surely you didn’t miss the fact that I was in disguise last night.”

“I’m a Town Guard, Gil. We get trained to notice small details like that.” She laughed then, and he felt the tension slip out of him.

“And it’s none of my business, but why the disguise?”

Here it was. How was he going to explain Gillem Stonecutter to her? He tried to continue in the same bantering tone she had adopted. “Well, oh great detective, you’re probably also aware that I’m not well loved among the common folk of Dargon at the moment.”

“So, that’s all it was? A way to go out in public without someone picking a fight with you?”

He glanced at her. It sounded so easy when she said it. “That’s how it started. Sard invited me for a drink one evening, told me to dress down a bit, and the next think I knew he was introducing me as Gillem Stonecutter.”

They walked in silence for a few moments.

“And then what?” she prompted.

“What do you mean?”

“You said that’s how it started. Then what happened?”

Gil wished he’d just said yes. He sighed and launched into the explanation. “Well, it was so much easier to be Gillem Stonecutter. Not just because no one was confronting me about the ‘Marser Mansions’, though that was nice. When I put on those simple clothes, I gained a simple life. I was free from having to make decisions every other mene, and from being the duke’s liaison to the Doravin as well. They are the most difficult people I’ve ever dealt with, and that’s saying something. Have you spent any time with the nobility in this city?”

“Not my usual social circle,” she replied without even a hint of laughter in her voice. Gil wondered at this.

“You’re not missing much,” he replied. “In many ways, I think I preferred being Gillem. I could lose myself in him. Now he’s lost to me. It’s almost like Gillem Stonecutter died last night in the Serpent, too.”

He fell silent again for the next few steps, disgusted by his own self-pity.

“But I’m being too dramatic. Sard really did lose his life last night, and other people were hurt. I just lost something — my mask. It’s been stripped away and I have nowhere to hide.”

“I think you’re forgetting something Gil.”

“What?” He felt his cheeks redden. What else had he missed while wallowing in his selfish pool of misery?

“Your ‘mask’ wasn’t lost or stripped away. You had a choice. You could have remained anonymous, even slipped away in the fighting, only there was no more fighting. When you chose to reveal yourself, you saved even more people from harm.”

Gil felt a lump rise in his throat at this. He couldn’t speak. He glanced at her, met her earnest gaze, and looked away.

“I never met Gillem Stonecutter, and I’m not sure I would have liked him. It sounds like he was a drunken fool who tried to please everyone. But the man that got up off the floor in the Serpent and saved all those lives? I … I respect him. Quite a lot actually.” She patted his arm with her free hand and they continued on, in a silence grown suddenly comfortable.

When they arrived at the Old Guard House, the courtyard was a bustle of activity. Some guards practiced their sword work under the watchful eye of a stern-looking master. A few small groups were gathered in animated discussion. Individual guards hustled back and forth on unknown errands. Gil felt more than a few heads turn their way as he entered with Celia. Cael broke off from one of the small groups and approached with a wave.

“Thank you for coming, Master Marser. If you don’t mind my saying, you are looking much better. How’s the head?”

Gil offered a smile that was half wince. “Worse on the inside than the outside, I fear. But much better than it was two bells ago. And I insist that anyone who sees me that badly hung over calls me Gil.” He held out his hand and the two men clasped wrists.

“Now that you’re here, Mas –, uh, Gil, there’s something we need you to look at.” He led them toward the door to the main building, past the group practicing their sword work.

Gil considered the building as they approached, his architect’s eye automatically going to work. It was called the Old Guard House for good reason, despite the lack of a new guard house. It had survived the Great Houses War, even serving as a garrison for the occupying army during the siege of Dargon Keep, but time had taken its toll. “Cael, if there’s a problem with the building, I’ll probably need some measuring tools to do you any good.”

“It’s not a problem with the building,” Cael replied. “Well, not entirely.”

Celia put her hand on Gil’s shoulder as they entered the building. “We need your other knowledge. This is more of a Doravin problem. We need an expert opinion.”

“I’m not really an expert,” Gil said.

“You’re the closest person to an expert we have,” she said. “After the fight at the Serpent, we led that group of Doravin back here to protect them. Not that they needed it; it was at least as much to keep anyone else at the bar from getting hurt. The Doravin came calmly enough. All the fight seemed to be out of them. They wouldn’t give up their weapons, though. Since we weren’t charging them with anything, that really wasn’t a problem. We needed someplace to put them while we sorted things out. We have holding cells here on the first floor, so we put them there.”

They rounded a corner and Gil could see bars lining the next hallway. He blinked at the sunlight streaming in from behind one set of bars. “Awfully bright and airy for cells, isn’t it?”

Cael gave a short laugh. “Not normally. Look.”

They stopped where the sun shone on the bars. In the stone wall at the back of the cell was a perfectly circular hole the height of a tall man. Cael pulled the barred door open and all three stepped inside. There was a fine grey powder covering the floor of the cell. Gil wasn’t surprised to find it was the same color as the stone blocks that composed the wall. He inspected the hole. The edge was perfectly smooth. More powder covered the alley beyond the hole. Booted footprints stood out clearly in the fine grey dust.

“Sergeant Cepero actually interviewed two people who saw it,” said Cael. “They’re both drunken idiots, but the story checked out. Did you know the Doravin could do anything like this?”

Gil barely suppressed a grin. “Didn’t you?” When he was met with blank looks, he continued. “I haven’t seen anything exactly like this, but haven’t you seen what they’ve done at the river?”

Celia nodded. “Straight. They did put up that wall around their camp pretty quickly, and they made the blocks from the old causeway float in the river when they tore it down.”

“And they’re filling in Pickett’s Let,” Cael added. “I’m not sure how they’re doing that.”

Gil winced at that. The Doravin were dumping their building debris in the swamp known as Pickett’s Let. He’d been tasked by the duke to build homes for the people who’d lived in the ‘Let. Only none of them wanted to move. “No, I’m talking about the bridge itself.”

“The bridge?” Celia asked. “It seems like they’ve barely started on that. People are making bets on whether the far side will fall in, or if the two ends won’t meet in the middle.”

“Really? You should take some of those bets. I have no doubt you would win.”

Celia tugged her lower lip thoughtfully. “Why are you so sure?”

“They’re already connected.”

“They’re — are we talking about the same bridge, Gil?” Celia’s expression shifted from confused to annoyed. Cael looked like he was wondering if Gil was still drunk.

“Here, let me explain.” He crouched down and began drawing in the fine grey dust. “Look. This is the river.”

Celia’s expression shifted to a full smirk. “The Coldwell River doesn’t bend like that anywhere near Dargon. I’ve studied the maps. I would have expected the master architect to be able to draw a little better than that.”

“Maps? What …? Oh. No, think sideways. Here, this part is the riverbed. And these are the banks, here and here. Still no? Here’s us on the bank where we first me.” He drew two stick figures, giving one a spear and a ponytail.

Celia cocked her head to the side a moment, and bent closer to the drawing, causing that ponytail to flop over one shoulder. “So, the water goes here?” She pointed to the middle.

“Exactly. And on this side the bridge starts here, and goes like this.” He drew a gentle arc coming out of the ground and bending toward the river. He repeated the drawing on the opposite bank. “And that’s the other side.”

“Straight. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You know more about this stuff than I do, but they spent months working on this side before they started building on that side. They just started over there, and that side of the bridge is almost as big as this one. What if it falls over?”

“I’d wager the section on that side is exactly as big as this one. The Doravin love their symmetry almost as much as they love circles. I doubt they’d be able to sleep at night if they left their work uneven. And that side is no more likely to fall over than this one. They’re anchored to each other.”

“But how …?”

Gil bent to his drawing again, and completed the arc, connected the two sides together in a circle that passed underground, far below the riverbed. “Like this.”

Celia looked up from the drawing and met his gaze. “Impossible.”

Gil’s breath caught for a moment at the sight of her bright green eyes, realizing how close she was to him. Then his words poured out in a rush. “Apparently not. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen, or even imagined, but it’s exactly what they’ve done. You said you didn’t remember the Doravin working on the other bank until recently, and you’re right. They didn’t start working on it until the other end of this ring popped out of the ground.”

Cael spoke up, causing Gil to remember he was there. “But what about all of the dirt it would have pushed through? There should be a huge mound of it over there.”

“There would be,” Gil said,” but they were drawing it back to this side somehow.”

Celia pointed to the near bank. “Then there should be a big hill over here, shouldn’t there? There would have been enough to –”

“To fill in a swamp?” The two guards met his question with stunned silence. “My point is the hole in the wall here is nothing compared to the wonders they are working on the bridge. They can do things with stone that I never imagined was possible. True, they are impossible to communicate with and they have their obsession with order and chaos … oh.”

“What is it?” Celia asked.

“Well, they actually put a hole in something. Sure, it was a perfectly round hole, but they also left all this dust. That’s … chaos. They actually created chaos. This green stone must be very important to them — important enough to violate their own faith.”

“Could the stone be dangerous in some way?” Cael asked.

“I honestly have no idea.”

“We need to learn more, then.” Cael said. “Could we ask the Doravin?”

Gil chuckled. “By ‘we’ I’m sure you mean me. I could ask, but I doubt I’ll get an answer, and I’m sure the day’s Na Chok will suddenly develop a problem understanding Baranurian.”

“Na Chok?” asked Celia. “What’s that?”

“It’s whoever has the unlucky job of having to talk to me. It changes every day, but I’ve seen it repeat.”

“You can actually tell the Doravin apart then.” Cael said.

“They have different markings on the stone plates they wear, their masks are different, and the markings around their eyes vary. Sometimes I’ll recognize a voice.”

“What about the Doravin who came to the ‘Serpent last night?” Cael asked. “Could you recognize any of them?”

“It was dark, and I was more than a few beers in. The only time I got close to them, I got this.” Gil pointed at the bandage on his forehead. “So, no. I didn’t recognize any of them, and I doubt I would if I saw them again.”

“It’s a dead end, then,” said Cael. “Unless we can get the duke to agree to our entering the Doravin camp by force to find the stone, I don’t see any way forward.”

“But the Doravin don’t have the stone,” said Gil.

“What?” Cael’s cheeks reddened. “I guess we just assumed they’d taken it in the fight and had it hidden beneath those stone robes of theirs. I certainly wasn’t about to search them. Gil, please tell me you have it.”

“No, but I know who does. He’s a scrawny guy named Navin. Friend of Hektar, the big guy with the broken hand.”

“Perfect,” said Celia. “Find Navin, and find the stone. Maybe the Doravin will be more eager to discuss the stone if we have it.”

“Straight,” said Cael. “We can take it from here, though we may need you to help identify Navin once we find him. We’ve taken up enough of your time, Gil. Go home and get some rest.”

 

***

 

There was no rest for Gil that day, though. He had to take charge of the work site for the latest group of homes, ironically dubbed Marser Mansions, for the former denizens of Pickett’s Let. There was no ready replacement for Sard Rilius, who had been a replacement himself. Without a chief mason, Gil had to manage all the details of the work. It didn’t help that his work crew was surly and difficult. Most seemed to blame him for Sard’s death, and some appeared to think his Gillem Stonecutter disguise was part of some nefarious plot to turn Dargon over to the Doravin. He actually had to dismiss one worker to get the others moving.

When he returned to his office that evening, it was in the same state of disarray as he’d left it. Servants took care of his quarters in Dargon Keep, but he was spending most of his days working on the New City side of the Coldwell River. With only ferries providing passage until the bridge was finished, it wasn’t worth crossing every day. He regarded the mess and decided it might be worthwhile to pay someone to come in and clean up occasionally, and maybe bring him some food. He certainly wasn’t going to be going back to the Inn of the Serpent, or any other drinking establishment, any time soon.

He busied himself with papers that night, penning a message to the duke about the previous night’s events, requesting supplies, and reviewing building requests. He went to bed sober for the first time in fortnights.

Gil fell into a joyless routine in the days that followed. He would meet with the day’s Na Chok to discuss the progress on the causeway. As he had expected, the two ends of the bridge drew steadily, and evenly, closer together; there was little to discuss with Na Chok unless the Doravin weren’t happy with the ferry service they were getting to bring stone to the far side of the river. He tried several times to ask about the glowing green stone, but each time the Doravin feigned ignorance and brought that day’s meeting to a quick close. The rest of the day was spent with his own work crew, and evenings were at his desk. It was hard for him to concentrate on the work, though, or at times even to care about it.

It was with some relief when he answered a knock at the door, nine days after the fight at the ‘Serpent, to find Celia on his doorstep once again.

“Gil! You’re looking much better.” She stepped closer to him and brushed his hair away from his forehead. “Let’s see that wound. Not bad, but it’s going to scar for sure.” She looked past him, into his office. “And it looks much better in here.”

He stepped aside to let her enter. “Thanks. I found a boy to come in and clean. He cooks, too. Capable, but uninspiring.” He glanced at a large pile of papers on his desk. “I just wish he could write. It’s amazing how many details Sard attended to. All mine now until I can replace him.”

“No luck with that?”

“No. I’m thinking of sending couriers to post it in other cities.”

“I’m sorry to hear you’re so busy. We could really use your help.”

“Any new holes in the Old Guard House I should know about?”

She smiled at that and shook her head.

“Good. I doubt that old place could take many more holes. So, what do you need?”

“Well, we’ve found Navin, or at least some information about Navin. He’s apparently not the brightest lamp on the street. He went to Gilliam Hytheworde with the stone.”

“Um, who?” The similarity of first names reminded him of Gillem Stonecutter. He felt his cheeks redden remembering Celia finding him in that disguise.

Celia grinned, apparently misunderstanding his embarrassment. “You don’t know who Gilliam Hytheworde is?”

“No, I, uh… I meant why? I’ve dealt with Gilliam Hytheworde before. He’s an honest businessman. Wouldn’t he just turn the stone over to the Town Guard?”

“So, there is something the master architect doesn’t know. Hytheworde is a businessman, and to all the nobility, he’s the most honest merchant in the city. In reality, he’s a lot more than that. Half of the criminals in Dargon either work for him or owe him something.”

“Wait … what? But if the Town Guard all know he’s a criminal, why not take him in?”

“Not that simple. We’ve no proof. There are whispers and rumors, but never any evidence, and he’s lined too many pockets.”

“So now Hytheworde has the stone?”

“Not exactly. Even Navin isn’t that dumb. He has the stone hidden somewhere. Hytheworde is helping Navin put the stone up for sale. They’re using the shadow boys to put the word out.”

“And how did you find this out? I know the shadow boys don’t just volunteer information to the Town Guard.”

“You’re right, they don’t. But I have …” Celia looked at her feet, let out a deep breath, and made eye contact again. “Here it is. I used to be a shadow boy. Well, I always called myself a shadow girl, but there are no shadow girls, really. Sometimes it’s best to blend in and be a boy. Safer. When I joined the Town Guard, a lot of my old mates took it as a betrayal, but I still have a few that I’m friendly with, especially if I have some coins or food available.” Her rush of words ended and her eyebrows raised in an unspoken question.

“Celia, what’s wrong?”

“It’s just that you’re practically a noble, and you were so friendly to me, and I never even told you I grew up on the streets …”

“That’s nothing to be embarrassed about, Celia. And I’m not practically a noble. It’s true I inherited my position, but there are no titles or lands that go with it. And despite my position, and my money, I was the one lying in a drunken heap on the floor of some bar. You were the Town Guard who came and saved me.”

He put his hands on the shoulders of her uniform to emphasize her position. That small amount of contact was all it took. Somehow, she was in his arms, and he was bending toward her. Their lips touched and then he was kissing her. Her lips were soft and gentle, and her hands caressed his back. Then she broke the kiss and pushed him back.

“I’ve wanted to do that for a long time,” she said, “but I’m still reaching above my station.”

“Celia …”

“Gil, that’s not why I came. It would only complicate things. I have work to do, and I need your help.”

Seeing that he would get nowhere, Gil brushed his hands down the front of his shirt to compose himself, and took a deep breath. “Straight. What do you need me to do?” He could still taste her lips and remember the feel of her hands on the muscles of his back. When he looked up their eyes met for an instant, then they both looked away.

Celia cut through the suddenly uncomfortable silence, her voice all business. “There’s no way Navin or Hytheworde would believe the Town Guard would want to purchase the stone. We need a credible buyer.”

“And you thought of me?”

“Who better? You understand stone, and you work with the Doravin. You were at the bar, so you actually got to see the stone. And there’s an air of intrigue about you now. Everyone knows you were at that bar disguised as someone else, but no one knows why.”

“You’ve convinced me. I’ll do it.” He would be able to do something other than his tedious job, and it would give him time to convince Celia that a master architect wasn’t that far above the station of a Town Guard.

“Straight. Now we just need to find you a shadow boy.”

 

***

 

They only had to walk a block and a half before Celia spied a small figure lurking in a doorway. A few words were exchanged and Gil slipped a few coins into a dirty palm. Then the boy — girl? — was off, promising that Gil would be contacted within the next few bells.

It was a short and somewhat awkward walk back to his office. Until word came back about the green stone, there were no next steps to discuss, nothing to distract Gil from the memory of that kiss, which hung like a heavy curtain between them. Their goodbye was equally awkward, and Gil was in his office, with nothing to do but wait. Gil pored through stacks of documents and drawings without really reading them, listening for the peal of the next bell. After months of working with the Doravin, it was good to have something other than his job to distract him. Three bells had passed, and he was beginning to wonder if the shadow boy had taken his coins for nothing. Then there was a knock at his door. He opened it to find a grubby child on his doorstep. The same one? He thought back to Celia’s comments about blending in. The child held a roll of parchment in one hand, but it was the other hand that was extended, palm up, until Gil produced a copper Bit. The coin disappeared, the scroll was pressed into Gil’s hand, and the child was gone in an instant.

Gil examined the scroll. It was sealed with a shapeless blob of wax. He broke the seal and read.

 

Sir,

We have been made aware that you wish to purchase the item we have for sale. If your intentions are serious, bring this letter and ten Marks to 112 Sumner Street at sixth bell tonight. Should we come to terms, these coins will be left with us as earnest money while you obtain the balance of the negotiated price.

To ensure the safety of yourself and your money, you may bring no more than two armed guards to our meeting. We guarantee both your safety and your anonymity

We look forward to doing business with you.

 

He read the scroll again. It was unsigned, of course, as anonymous as the wax that had sealed it. He knew the address. It was a house in one of the wealthier sections of the Old City, where dwelled Dargon’s richer merchants and poorer nobility. He wondered how much the sellers knew about the building they had chosen.

Gil rolled the scroll up, and pulled his cloak on as he left his office. He walked up the Street of Travellers toward the Doravin work site, with more purpose in his stride than he’d had in months. He crested a final hill and descended toward the river, past two Town Guards who stood sentry, keeping onlookers and disgruntled townsfolk away from the Doravin. He stopped just inside the guards’ perimeter and surveyed the progress on the new bridge. A gentle arc of stone reached toward the opposite shore, where its twin stood, reaching back, like fingertips straining to touch. When they met, the enormous circle, formed through Doravin magic and ingenuity, would be complete. Competing waves of awe and bitterness washed over him, as they always did.

Behind him, a man’s voice spoke. Cael. “Have you been contacted?”

“Yes.” Gil related the contents of the note.

“Ten Marks?” ask Cael.

“Straight,” Gil replied. “That seems to be the cost of entry. There’s no way I could lay my hands on that, not by sixth bell tonight.”

“We wouldn’t ask you to.” The sound of Celia’s voice made Gil’s breath catch for a moment. “We can take care of it.”

Gil stared at the Doravin, swarming over the outstretched stone fingers. “Do we have to talk back to back like this? I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.”

“You know we do. You’re no doubt being watched. And I’m not joking. We’ll have ten Marks, or at least something that looks like ten Marks. Your part in this is done. We’ll send someone for some of your clothing. Cael’s about your build. He should be able to pass as you well enough in the dark. Hand me the note as you go by.”

“I’ll do nothing of the kind. You can’t go in there with fake gold and a fake … me. If you’re so sure I’m being watched, I can’t just go back into my office and hide for the rest of the day. I need to look like I’m getting that gold together.”

“He’s right, Celia,” said Cael.

“We can’t risk his life for this,” she replied. “We have the address and the time. I’m sure Captain Darklen will let us take it by storm. He likes that kind of thing.”

Cael chuckled. “Straight, but that won’t work here. They’ll see us coming and disappear like smoke. We need to get inside. That’s our best chance.”

“Gil, are you sure you want to do this?” Celia asked.

He longed to take her hand as he replied. “I’m sure. For the first time since the Doravin arrived, I feel like I have a purpose again. I’ll meet you in the Court of Trees in Old City a ha’bell between fifth and sixth. It’s a short walk from there to Sumner.”

Hoping he sounded more confident than he felt, Gil turned and passed between the two guards, walking back up Travellers until he came to the turnoff of a new but heavily travelled path that led down to a hastily erected ferry dock. He displayed a ducal seal to the ferry man, who closed an empty palm and glared. Gil sat waiting for some oxen and carts to be loaded, and then clutched the rail as the ferry pushed off.

The deck swayed and rocked beneath him as the ferry was grabbed by the river’s current. Gil had been on a barge during the causeway accident; since then, he hated being on the river and avoided it when he could. Ever since the Doravin had torn down the jagged remains of the old bridge, he’d had no other way to cross, so he avoided it whenever possible. He held tight, focusing on the triple towers of Dargon Keep in the distance, a stationary point as well as a reminder of his family’s former glory.

It seemed like bells before the ferry docked, pushed upriver by the rising tide and steered by hands that had become expert of necessity. It was a wonder how many people and goods crossed this river, and how much Dargon’s economy now depended on the ferries that now crossed the Coldwell dozens of times each day.

Wondering if eyes were still on him — had his supposed watcher crossed the river with him? — Gil went through the motions of gathering the required funds, visiting the offices of his accountant and his banker. The latter had been somewhat perplexed by Gil’s request for a sack full of bronze Nobles, but he needed to leave with something heavy that jingled appropriately. He went to his suite in Dargon Keep to clean up and get fresh clothes, and then to the Court of Trees.

Gil arrived early, just past fifth bell. He waited in silence, huddled beneath the eaves of one of the great stone buildings that surrounded the large empty courtyard. During the day, the Court of Trees was a bustling marketplace that served the Old City. At night, all that bustling chaos was replaced by silence and shadow. The mob of haggling merchants and patrons were gone. Instead, the occasional lone figure or small group hustled through on some private business. Despite its name, not a single tree stood in the Court of Trees. Many had been cut away over the years to make room for more merchant stalls. A blight had taken all of the remaining trees but one, so that many a clever jokester had taken to calling it “Court of Tree.” That last tree had fallen on the same day as the causeway, adding credence to the rumor that ill-luck had befallen the city.

As Gil scanned the face of each passer-by, he was surprised by a gentle tug on his sleeve. He looked down to see a dirty face gazing back up at him, wearing a look too solemn for one so young. “Message for you, milord.”

The child waited in silence as Gil fished out a few bronze Pennies and dropped them into the proffered palm. “Your friend said to meet at the Gilt Raven instead of here.” The shadow boy then moved quickly away before Gil had the chance to ask any questions.

It was only a short walk to the Gilt Raven. When Gil arrived, he looked for Celia and Cael; not seeing them, he took one of the few remaining tables and ordered food and small beer. He ate slowly, watching the shadows from the fire in the hearth dance around the stone arches overhead, picking the new work out from the old. In his mind, Gil rebuilt this room from its history. All the buildings in the Old City held their secrets. As master architect, Gil knew more than most, but still very few.

Gil’s eyes went to the tavern door each time it opened. He scanned each group as they entered, but there were no signs of the two guards. It was mostly a collection of Old Town’s young and slightly well-to-do: scions of Dargon’s richer merchants and lesser noble houses out to mingle with the riff raff of Dargon and mostly mingling with each other. The Gilt Raven was that sort of place. True riff raff would occasionally wander in to cadge drinks or find work from the young and reckless. Gil noticed one such enter with a broad axe strapped to his back, a bright gold loop in one ear, and a shock of orange dyed into his beard and waxed into a spike. That fellow garnered the attention of the other patrons; some pointed and whispered, while others merely stared. Gil returned his attention to the door, beginning to wonder if he had been tricked. The shadow boy hadn’t actually mentioned Celia’s name, had he? Gil lost interest in his meal and the architecture, and began to search the crowd more intently.

A few menes later, he was surprised by a mug being set down on his table. He looked up, expecting to send the barman away, when another mug was set down. The man with the orange spike in his beard stood over him. The axeman had a companion, who was smaller of frame and dressed in a slightly ragged grey cloak with the hood pulled down to show only the lower half of a beardless face. Gil recognized the nose and chin, and especially the lips.

“Celia?”

“Straight.” She pushed back her hood, pulled back a chair, and sat, smiling.

Her companion reversed a chair and straddled it. Gil noted that he had a boiled leather cuirass beneath a burgundy silk shirt, and a mesh of fine links covered his arm where it poked out beneath his sleeve.

Gil eyed the man for a moment and turned back to Celia. “Who’s your friend?”

Celia’s smile turned into a grin. The man answered, “You dinnae recognize Balthis the Reaver?”

Gil was about to respond in the negative, but Celia spoke, more quietly this time. “You know you’re going to have to do a better job rolling those Rs if you’re going to be a convincing Comarrian.”

Balthis responded just as softly, but in a more familiar, and less accented, voice. “With any luck, I won’t have to talk much. It wasn’t my idea to pick a Comarrian. Besides, this earring hurts.” Behind the orange spiked beard, Gil recognized Cael.

“It’s not like we had a lot of well-known mercenaries to choose from,” Celia said. “You’re lucky he didn’t have tattoos.”

Gil threw up a hand to get their attention. “Wait. What’s going on? Why is he dressed like that, and why are we meeting in here?”

“Well, they’re not going to let you go to this meeting with two members of the Town Guard,” said Celia. “So, Cael’s going disguised as Balthis. Once we decided on such a loud disguise, we needed to make sure he was seen with you.”

Gil nodded. “You couldn’t warn me in advance?”

She grinned. “And miss the look on your face?”

“What about the real Balthis?”

“Currently being escorted to Connall Keep. He has a few minor charges we’ve agreed to drop, in exchange for letting us borrow his earring and his axe.”

“And his beard dye,” added Cael.

“Straight,” said Celia, with a sideways glance at the orange spike protruding from Cael’s chin.

“And who are you supposed to be?” Gil asked her.

“Why, Celia of Dargon, former Town Guard, of course.”

“What?”

“Straight. I had a very loud and very public argument — mostly about you, actually — with Captain Darklen, and then he dismissed me, right there in the courtyard of the Old Guard House. Then I met up with ‘Balthis’ here, and told him about a bodyguard job I had lined up.”

“For me, you mean.”

“Straight,” she replied. “Oh! Almost forgot.” He felt her fingers brush his under the table, then she was pressing two metal discs into his hand. “Make a show of giving those to us.”

He pulled his hand out from under the table and looked into his palm. From the size and weight, he was expecting copper Bits, but he found himself looking at two gold Marks. Then the coins suddenly felt larger and heavier in his hand. He almost dropped them in surprise.

Celia held out her hand. With her mouth barely moving she said, “Stop staring and give them to us.”

Gil passed them both a coin, holding each one up so it caught the fire light. The coins quickly disappeared into pockets.

“What was that? Those coins felt like Bits, and then when I looked at them –”

“A little bit of magic, courtesy of Tanbry Cortinas. They should pass a cursory inspection as long as the person is actually looking at them. But it won’t last more than a few bells, according to her. I hope it does last that long, or we’re liable to end up in some trouble.”

Cael rose. “We should get going. Somehow I don’t think they’ll tolerate lateness.”

Gil stood, feeling a slight tremor in his legs, and trying to keep it out of his voice. “Let’s go then.”

He led the way to 112 Sumner Street. He raised a large ornate brass knocker and brought it down three times on the heavy oaken door. The echoes reverberated down the quiet streets, making Gil expect to see every sash thrown open.

Nothing happened for a few menes, then the bell in the tower at Dargon Keep began to announce the time. As the echoes of the sixth peal began to fade, the door to the residence was thrown open, and a bright light shone in their eyes. Behind it, Gil could make out the shapes of three large men. One held up a lantern, which was the source of the light. It was directed at Gil’s face, and a gruff voice asked, “Name?”

Fighting the same tremor, Gil replied, “Gilvelle Marser.”

“Let’s see your letter and the color of your coin, Milord Marser.” Despite the honorific, there was no respect in the voice.

Gil produced the letter and handed it to the speaker. The light was redirected for a moment, but then shone back on Celia as she opened a purse and held it up for inspection. The coins appeared gold rather than copper. Gil hoped his sigh of relief wasn’t noticeable.

“And you are?” asked the gruff voice.

“Celia of Dargon.”

“In a new line of work, aren’t you, Celia? You should have known a little shadow brat like you was never going to make it in the Town Guard. You’ve picked another dangerous trade, girl. You should go back to running errands, or maybe if you’ve put some meat on that skinny frame of yours, you could come warm my bed.”

Celia made no reply, and Gil fought back a strong urge to punch the man with the lantern.

“No, eh? Shame.” The lantern swung over to Cael. “And who might you be?”

“Cael of Heahun, Guardsman of Dargon,” Gil and Celia turned to stare at Cael, who looked as surprised as they were. To his credit, he had rolled both Rs perfectly. The lantern remained trained on him and there was the sound of steel on leather, then the voice behind the lantern chuckled.

“Hold on, boyos,” said the gruff voice. “You’re a funny man, Balthis.”

“So funny he almost had my blade through his liver,” came another voice.

The lantern turned the other way, illuminating an elegant but dusty foyer. Gil scanned the room, admiring his father’s handiwork. He remembered watching when the tile for this floor was laid. He remembered other things, too.

“Wait here,” the lantern holder said, and the three disappeared into the next room, which Gil knew to be a study. Celia rounded on Cael as soon as they were out of sight and stared at him wordlessly. Cael threw up his hands and shrugged, shaking his head in silent explanation to her silent accusation.

A very familiar click and rumble sounded from the other room, and their three escorts returned. “This way, please, milord,” said the lantern man. They were led into a study, with book-lined shelves and a heavy oaken desk. A bookcase was pivoted away from the wall, revealing a stone staircase that descended into the ground.

Gil knew the staircase, and the tunnel beyond it. He’d accompanied his father often enough, and even played in the tunnels beyond the steps once they were safe. He’d asked his father at the time why the tunnels were there. His father had explained that sometimes wealthy people didn’t want others to know when they visited their friends. He remembered thinking that the person who owned the house where all the tunnels met must be very popular. It was only later that he learned the nature of the secret visits, and why Madame Varna was such a popular lady.

It had been years since the murder and the resulting scandal, when Madame Varna revealed the names of everyone who had visited her brothel. Many reputations and marriages had been ruined, and some of the connecting houses had changed hands, perhaps with the new owners not having knowledge of the secret passage to the now defunct brothel. The brothel itself — a high-walled, nondescript residence from the outside, hiding a luxurious courtyard within — had stood idle for many years due to its evil reputation. Gil suspected it had a new owner who didn’t care about such things. The connecting houses were another matter.

“What about the owner of this place?” Gil asked.

“Not that it’s any of your business, *milord*, but the family is away. The servants are being well paid to stay in bed and not be overly concerned about any noise. Now if there are no other questions, please come along.”

Hearing the impatience in the man’s tone, Gil responded, “Lead the way.”

They followed the lantern holder and one other man down the stairs. The third followed, after the click and rumble marked the closing of the bookcase door. The air in the tunnel was stale, and their footfalls kicked up dust from the floor. Disused sconces coated with cobwebs marked their passage. After the tunnel turned left and right, there was another short flight of steps. That opened on another passageway, open to either side. Their guide turned right, and they followed. They passed a few openings that went to other nearby houses, Gil knew. Their guide selected one, seemingly random but well-marked to the experienced eye. After another few dozen paces they came to more steps, which led up to a plain wooden door with a covered eyehole cut into it. The lantern man knocked on the door, presumably in a preset pattern. The eyehole opened, some words were exchanged, and then the door opened, admitting them.

The courtyard was lit only by moonlight, but Gil could tell it had fallen into disrepair. The elegant fountain that stood in the center no longer flowed, and the water nymphs that made up the sculpture in the middle were missing the occasional limb, nose, or breast. The railing of the balcony that surrounded the courtyard was falling down in places. Most of the doors to the “entertainment” rooms still stood, though the curtains that hid the alcoves lining the walls between each door were mostly tattered and moldy where they still hung at all. There were a few exceptions, though, including the arras that covered the alcove opposite to the door they entered. Gil recalled those alcoves had been used for quick assignations, for clients who couldn’t afford to rent a private room. Given the nature of the clientele, Gil could only wonder how expensive those rooms had been.

“Wait here,” the lantern man grunted — not a trace of “milord” left. Their three escorts, along with the doorman, left Gil and his companions standing there. The door to the stairway was pulled closed.

Gil scanned the courtyard, and saw that two other doors that led to hidden stairways were each guarded by an armed man. Within a few menes there was a knock at the one to the right and another group of three entered, escorted by more of Hytheworde’s men. This group comprised a plainly clad, slender woman of middle years with a pinched face, a younger woman with close cropped hair, and a broad-shouldered and muscular man. The man held a massive hammer in one hand. It seemed more tool than weapon — reminiscent of the rock hammers used by Gil’s masons, only larger — but Gil had no doubt from the casual way the large man gripped his weapon in his muscular arm that he could wield it with deadly efficiency.

The third group entered opposite, led by a man in a red silk shirt, accompanied by two uniformed men with the device of some noble house sewn into the breasts of their doublets, and being directed by two more guards. The man in the silk shirt glared around the courtyard at Gil and the other group, and then began a heated discussion with one of the men who had brought him.

Gil caught the words “expected an exclusive meeting,” then the other responded, “You can bid or you can go!” with a gesture toward the stairs. The man in the silk shirt just crossed his arms and glared at the other man’s departing back.

The three groups were left to look at each other uncomfortably for a few menes before a door in the wall to Gil’s left, opposite the pinch-faced woman, opened. Several figures emerged, including a grinning Navin, with a cloth-wrapped object tucked firmly beneath one arm, and a well-dressed man. Gil noticed that the arras that covered the alcove above Navin’s group was also intact. Panic gripped him as he remembered how the victim of the scandalous murder had been killed.

Fighting an urge to bolt for cover and to keep his face neutral, Gil addressed his companions. “We could be in danger. There are likely bowmen behind that curtain across from us, and the one above Navin. There’s a similar alcove above us, facing the guy in the red shirt over there.”

To their credit, neither Town Guard moved. “This is not good,” said Celia. “It will take some time to unlatch and open that heavy door.”

“Straight,” said Cael, “we’ll never get it open before they shoot. We’re going to have to take cover behind the balcony supports for the first volley and then try to get the door open.”

Gil eyed the narrow supports. “Maybe it won’t come to that.”

The well-dressed man spoke, in a voice that seemed used to commanding attention. “Welcome, friends, to our little late night transaction.”

“Friends?” spat the man in the silk shirt. “I think my friends would have let me know in advance there would be other buyers.”

The well-dressed man spread his hands wide and smiled. “Surely a little competition doesn’t scare you, my Lord — ah. I almost forgot; we assured your anonymity. For the sake of decorum, allow me to call you Lord Apple.” The silk-shirted man’s face turned as red as his new namesake.

Their host turned to the scowling woman. He appeared to study her intently for a moment, but his slight smirk revealed that it was just a dramatic pause. “Well, you are obviously Lady Stone.” The woman met his gaze impassively, until he added, “or at least you’re representing her for this evening.” At this, her mouth fell open slightly and she stole a glance at her companion, the burly man.

Gil was next, he knew. “And what shall we call you? Stone is already taken. Master Turncloak is perhaps a bit too obvious. I know! You shall be Lord Sot!”

Gil felt color creeping into his own cheeks at that. “And what shall we call you?” he asked.

“You can call me simply ‘The Auctioneer’, for that’s the role I’m playing tonight.”

“Auctioneer?” growled Lord Apple. “This was supposed to be a negotiation!”

The Auctioneer shrugged. “Auction? Negotiation? It’s all just bargaining. You are each trying to get the best deal. One of you will leave happy. And we should be able to reap a fair profit from tonight’s venture, shouldn’t we?”

“We?” asked Navin. “Let’s not forget who has the stone. You said thirty gold Marks minus your finder’s fee …”

The smile left the Auctioneer’s face and all civility left his voice. “Consider your position, Navin.

Why don’t you close your mouth and show our clients what they came to see?”

A look of surprise came over Navin’s face, and his gaze went to the covered alcove across from Gil.

“Thirty Marks, ten each. Ambush for sure,” murmured Celia. “Get ready to move.”

Navin pulled the cloth away from his burden, revealing the milky white crystal. Swirls of color pulsed gently, deep within it.

“Beautiful,” whispered Lord Apple. Pinch-faced Lady Stone and her companions whispered among themselves.

“All attention’s up front,” murmured Celia. “Here it comes.” Gil felt her hand in the small of his back, ready to propel him toward cover.

The pulse of light in the stone quickened, becoming brighter with each beat.

“What’s happening?” asked Cael “How are they –?”

“They aren’t,” said Gil. “I’ve seen this before, but not as fast or bright. It was right before –”

The sound came first. It began as the sizzle of bacon and rose rapidly to the roar of a rushing torrent. All eyes turned away from the glowing crystal to the wall behind Lady Stone. There was an area that began to look different from the surrounding stone; the color changed, and the sharp edges in the blocks began to blur. Gil was not surprised to see that the outline of this area was a perfect circle.

The roaring noise stopped abruptly, and the circular area in the wall was gone, turned to dust. Instead of drifting to ground as it had done in the cell, though, it began to swirl in the air, in a great expanding cylinder. Figures in the passage beyond the circular hole were briefly in view, and then obscured by the whirling dust. Lady Stone and her guards were engulfed as well, and became shapeless masses. The last Gil saw of Lady Stone was the stunned look on her face.

He looked back toward Navin and the Auctioneer. The surprise on their faces matched that of Lady Stone. This was nothing they had planned. The Auctioneer locked eyes with Gil then, and this seemed to bring him back to reality. “Now!” he barked. “Fire, you dogs!”

The arras above and behind the Auctioneer fell away, revealing three crossbowmen. They fired their weapons into the swirling dust toward Lady Stone and her companions. A cry of pain emerged, indicating at least one of the bolts connected. More cries erupted across the courtyard and Gil turned to see Lord Apple and his men fall, clutching bolts that had sprouted from chest and neck. Gil’s eyes darted to the arras hanging in the balcony above Lord Apple, expecting it to reveal the crossbowmen assigned to slay Gil and his companions. Instead it bulged out, as if someone had pushed against it momentarily from behind. Then it burst wide as a body came hurtling through it to crash on the cobblestone courtyard below. In the balcony formerly hidden by the arras, one man lay in a crumpled heap. Another tried to bring a crossbow to bear against a slim figure dressed in dark clothing. That person — Gil could not tell if it was man or woman — beat the crossbow aside and dispatched the crossbowman with a blow to the throat. Then the figure slipped over the side of the balcony and into the swirling cloud of dust.

“No amount of gold is worth this!” yelled Navin. Gil saw him snatch up the pulsing stone and turn to run. The Auctioneer, all pretense of civility gone, grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back, while his other hand thrust forward with a knife. Navin died, impaled upon the blade. The cloud of dust swept the scene from view.

“The Auctioneer has the stone!” Gil cried, prompting Cael and Celia to action.

Before they could get far, three figures jumped down from the balcony above them: the crossbowmen who had killed Lord Apple and his entourage. They landed with blades drawn, but one landed badly, howling with the agony of a broken ankle. Celia plowed into that one, ending his agony with a knee to the head, before turning on another.

Gil ducked a wild swing of Balthis’ axe as Cael swung the unfamiliar weapon in a struggle against the third man. Deciding that his life was in danger as much from that axe as from their enemies, Gil snatched up the short blade from the man Celia had kneed in the face and charged into the swirling dust to search for the Auctioneer.

Grit stung his eyes, causing him to throw a hand up and squint. All around him were sounds of combat: grunts of effort, cries of agony, the clash of steel, and the clacking of stone on stone from the overlapping plates of the strange Doravin armor. Gil had no doubt they were the source of the hole in the wall and the swirling dust, so he was not surprised to hear them in combat. He immediately regretted leaving his companions. He had no allies in the dust cloud. The Auctioneer and Hytheworde’s other men would kill him for his supposed gold. Lady Stone and her companions, whoever they were, had no reason to trust him, and he knew the Doravin would kill anyone in their single-minded pursuit of the crystal. There was one potential ally, though, he realized. The slim figure had saved Gil and the guards by taking out the crossbowman in the opposite balcony. Whoever that person was might be a friend, Gil reasoned.

Gil tried to pick his way through slitted eyes toward the Auctioneer’s table, with one hand up to shield his face and another clutching the hilt of his sword in an iron grip. At the same time, he tried to steer clear of the sounds of armed combat taking place all around him. The result was an almost immediate loss of his sense of direction. He edged his way slowly, not knowing if he was moving in the right direction or wrong, or just moving in a circle. A sudden pain in his shin made him cry out and swing his sword in a great arc. It struck something solid, almost knocking the blade from his hand. Reaching down to find out what had struck his shin, he realized he’d just been attacking the fountain in the middle of the square.

The noise he’d made must have attracted some attention. The pounding of footsteps and the clack-clack of stone on stone announced the charge of a Doravin. Then the armored figure was upon him, slashing with same sharp-edged torus he’d seen the Doravin wield in the Inn of the Serpent. The weapon described a circle in the air, and the Doravin added another circle by whirling himself as he closed. Gil fell back, holding his blade out for protection, more to keep the Doravin at a distance than with any hope of parrying that deadly ring of stone.

Backing too quickly, he stumbled and landed on his back, the blade dropped from his hand with the shock of impact. The Doravin’s next slash passed harmlessly above him, but then the stone-clad figure was standing over him, arm raised for a death blow. Gil grasped for his sword, found it, and with an awkward grasp that was half hilt and half blade, thrust upward. With the Doravin standing over him, Gil’s arm was under the layers of overlapping plates that served as the Doravin armor. His blade found flesh, and the Doravin hissed in pain. The wound was not deep, because of Gil’s awkward grip, but it was enough to make the Doravin step back. Gil scrambled away on his back until his feet found purchase and he rose, trying to lose his attacker in the swirling dust.

A resounding thud to his right startled him. It was followed by a groan and a short, booming laugh. Gil saw a massive silhouette through the dust that could only be the burly man with the hammer, dispatching an opponent. Wanting no part of a conflict with that man, Gil turned and ran to his left, away from both hammer-man and Doravin, and where the swirling dust was beginning to thin. He immediately stumbled into another conflict. A swordsman, maybe one of Hytheworde’s men, made a horizontal slash at his opponent, the slim figure who had been Gil’s savior. The figure ducked beneath the blade and came up inside the swordsman’s guard, striking multiple blows with elbows, knees, and palms. The swordsman crumpled, and the slim figure moved away.

Having no idea which direction to move, and suspecting this person did, Gil followed. In a few steps, he heard thudding footsteps to his right and saw a massive shape through the dust. The hammer-man was charging ahead, and his path was going to intersect Gil’s savior. Gil leaped and tackled the slim figure. They landed together in a tangle of arms and legs, with Gil on top. He caught a glimpse of the hammer-man lumbering by through the thinning dust, blood flowing freely from a deep gash in his leg. Then an elbow struck Gil’s jaw and all he could see were flashes of colored light. Feet thrust against his stomach and Gil was airborne for a moment, then landed in a heap. He rolled onto his side and saw the figure — he was almost sure it was a man after the tackle — flip neatly to his feet just as two more of Hytheworde’s men rushed him.

The slim man sidestepped the first attacker, causing that man to careen into the other one. While the second was off-balance, the slim man batted the weapon from the man’s hand with an open palm, and kicked him in the throat. While he crumpled to the ground, the first attacker regained his footing and thrust with his blade. Gil thought at first that the slim man had been run through, but he redirected the strike, and slipped behind his opponent, so that the two men were back to back, but with Hytheworde’s man overextended and on his heels with his back arched. The slim man then hooked a hand over his shoulder, around and under the chin of Hytheworde’s man and straightened his legs. Gil heard a sickening crack as the man’s neck snapped.

The slim man released his grisly burden and looked in the direction the hammer-man had run. Gil followed his gaze. The Auctioneer’s table, now clearly visible through the thinning dust, stood empty. The hammer-man was gone.

Gil climbed slowly to his feet. The chaos of battle had ended, and with it, the swirling wind. As the remaining dust settled to the ground, Gil could make out other figures. Cael and Celia stood back to back, each in a defensive posture. Cael had abandoned his axe for a sword, doubtless claimed from a fallen opponent. Celia wore a panic-stricken look that fell away as she saw Gil. At the far end of the courtyard, two Doravin helped a third to get up. All the fight seemed to have gone out of them.

As Gil began to sigh with relief, his erstwhile savior was upon him. A sharp blow to his midsection took his breath and he dropped to his knees. He felt his hair grasped in a fist, and his head was pulled back painfully and then he was looking up into a face that could only be described as beautiful, despite the look of rage it wore.

“Where has he gone with the stone?” The voice was soft, almost feminine, with an edge of menace.

“Let him go, now!” Celia demanded. Gil heard footsteps behind him and assumed his companions were closing the distance.

The man froze for a moment, perhaps considering options.

The footsteps halted. “Hurt that man,” said Cael, “and you earn the enmity of the duke. You’ll spend the rest of your life hunted, or in gaol.”

“Gaol?” said the soft voice. “You’re Town Guard?”

“Straight,” said Celia.

The pressure on Gil’s neck increased for a moment, and then the hand was out of his hair and he was falling onto his back. Celia and Cael moved to either side of him protectively, and Celia helped him to a sitting position.

The slim figure stared down at him. “Why did you get in my way?”

“In your way?” asked Gil. “I was trying to save you. That man with the hammer –”

“Was well in hand, until you landed on top of me! Now the stone is gone to who knows where, and I have to begin again.”

“Why do you want the stone?” demanded Celia. “Money?”

“That’s none of your concern, guardsman. You’ll regret it very much if you try to follow me.” He stalked off.

Cael started forward, but Gil put a hand on his leg to stop him. “Trust me, he’s more dangerous than he looks.”

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