DargonZine 24, Issue 2

The Lie

Vibril 20, 1019


Even as Baska’s eyes registered familiar market stalls, vendors, and the glimpse of customers and goods flashing past in a blur, he felt the initial stabs of pain in his lungs. His feet slapped at the cold ground, no longer the lithe running legs of the shadow boy he had been. Still, he knew these streets, corners, and alleys better than the man that chased him, and he had an incentive to speed his legs: he wanted to stay alive. He spotted a familiar cart in the middle of two stalls and ran headlong toward it. When he was fifteen or sixteen summers, he would have leaped it easily to lose his pursuer, but the past two years had him in more sedentary employment, and he no longer had the practiced skill for such dexterous activities. Instead of leaping, he turned short before the cart and bounced off an armored body before he continued running.

The Dargon town guard made to give chase, but his armored attire held him back. He was soon left behind. Only Baska’s pursuer maintained a steady distance. In fact, he was getting closer. Baska glimpsed a shadow boy standing in a corner alley and decided to turn there. He flew through another alley and into a third as he dodged through the warehouse district that ran beside the piers at Commercial Street.

The winter sun was low in the sky, but the shadows were not dark enough to offer protection. Nor did he glimpse any familiar hiding spaces from when he was a shadow boy. Baska had hoped to dart through alleys Darrin would be unwilling to follow, but that was not the case.

Baska’s lungs worsened. How was Darrin maintaining the chase? Whenever Baska glanced back, the man was still leaning forward in a sprint, determination burned into his eyes. “You can’t outrun me, Baska!” he heard Darrin yelling. “I know these alleys as well as you do!” Baska feared that might be true. But did Darrin know the insides of the buildings? He remembered he was close to a warehouse that had been abandoned since he was a boy, even before he had joined the shadow boys. He turned another corner, and saw the doorway. If by some miracle he could get in before Darrin saw him, he might escape. He ran straight for it, turned his shoulder toward it at the last moment, and broke through with a soft splintering of wood.

He skidded to a stop in the darkness, then turned and shut the door. He held his body against it in case Darrin should try the same thing. Shattered segments of the interior door frame lay scattered on the ground. He closed his eyes and tried to quell his gasping breath. He heard Darrin’s footsteps getting closer, and closer. Then they stopped. Inside the warehouse, it was dark and silent. He imagined he could hear Darrin outside, breathing deeply. Could Darrin hear Baska’s lungs gulping for air? He guessed Darrin was staring up and down the alley. “Where did you go?” he heard Darrin yell. “I’ll find you. You’re not far!” He could hear trash and debris being kicked and pushed outside the door. Darrin’s frustrated snarls moved up and down the alley outside. “There’s no place in this town you can hide from me!”

Baska knew it would only take a few moments for Darrin to try the door, so he took advantage of the commotion Darrin was making. First, he glanced around and took better notice of the building he had entered. By the wan light streaming through the cracks of the walls, he could make out a staircase to his left. There were a few old, wooden crates still littered on the floor. While Darrin kicked around the alley, Baska moved a couple of old crates in front of the doorway. They would not secure the door, but Darrin might look elsewhere if he thought Baska had not come this way. Then he crept up a few stairs and prepared to flee upward.

Suddenly Baska noticed another sound coming from inside the warehouse: footsteps on floorboard. It sounded like bare feet. He noticed the flicker of candle light coming into a hallway at the rear of the building. He could not go outside, Darrin would surely find him. Nor did he wish to be found by anyone inside this warehouse. He tiptoed further up the staircase.

Suddenly the door handle shook, and Baska could hear Darrin pushing against it. The old boxes and broken door were no match for Darrin, and he shoved them open easily to the sound of old wood grating against the floor.

“Who’s there? Who has come?” a voice rasped. The man with the candle, Baska guessed. But the voice was so dry, the man was either decrepit or had not left this building in years. Baska had thought the warehouse abandoned, but perhaps it was this man’s home. Darrin’s silhouette filled the doorway. Baska could not see his face, but Darrin’s stillness told Baska that he would not enter this building. Something about the old man frightened him. Darrin quickly closed the door, and the light in the warehouse diminished to the lone candle held by the old man. Baska retreated further up the stairs.

He heard the light tap of unshod feet climbing the stairs. Baska did not know who the old man was, but anyone who could stop Darrin in his tracks was worth giving a wide berth. He continued up to the second floor. In the dark, it was impossible to see, but the man with the candle behind him would have no problems. His only choice was to keep climbing the stairs and hope the man stopped on this level. His lungs were slowly recovering from his run, but his heart had not stopped pounding out its rhythmic beat.

On the third level, there was a soft glow of light from a room a short distance away from the landing. There were no more stairs up, so Baska went quietly toward the room. The rotting remains of a desk and chair littered the area beside the door to the room. He could hear the footsteps still climbing, and the dusty voice called out again, “Is it you, my lord? Does something disturb your rest?” Baska could not imagine anyone resting in this area. He entered the room slowly, carefully perusing its contents. There was a large window on the far wall, the source of the soft light by which Baska could see. Several unlit candles adorned the walls, some books and paintings on shelves, and a large desk with a high-backed chair.

“Ol’s balls,” Baska muttered when he had a closer look. The darkness and the chair nearly hid the body that sat in the chair, slumped over and face down on the desk. He knew immediately the man was dead by the long dagger sticking out of his back. He suddenly realized that in escaping Darrin, he had not escaped danger. There was something odd about the wound, however. Baska moved closer, and by the dim light through the window, he saw that while there was only one dagger, the body had been stabbed over a dozen times. Any one of them, he thought, would have been enough to end a life.

“Do not rise, my lord,” said the dry voice. “I am here, as always.” Baska stepped quickly behind the door as those bare feet stepped onto the third floor landing. He crouched down in an attempt to minimize the light his body would block through the gaps in the flaking wood. His heart resumed its staccato beat when he looked back at the corpse and saw its legs. The corpse’s feet and lower calf had been chewed down to the bone. Little bits of flesh and strands of dried vein dangled from the meatier, less-molested section of the upper calf and knee. Scratch marks on the floor indicated to Baska that the rodents in this building had been working on that corpse for some time. He felt something in his stomach lurch, but he swallowed hard and shuddered.

His eyes watered as he returned his attention to the man on the stairs, and he peered through a crack in the door. He saw a disheveled, balding man whose face glowed with the flickering candle light. The man’s skin hung on his skull like an unfurled topsail with no wind. Scraps of clothes revealed a still-strong body, though his mind was obviously loose. There was intensity in his eyes, however, and a single-minded focus on the room.

The man entered the corpse’s office and placed the candle on the desk. Then he moved to behind the chair, and stared briefly at the corpse. “Is it the rats again, my lord? They do seem to like you.”

The aged man placed a hand upon the haft of the blade that was sunk half-way into the corpse’s back. His fingers wrapped slowly over the handle, and he grunted softly as he pulled the blade free. He leaned over to speak in the dead man’s ear. “Here,” whispered, “this will help you sleep. I’ve done it so many times, now. But I expect you will always be restless. Sometimes, the dead do not stay dead.” He plunged the blade back into the corpse. He pulled it out and plunged it back in again. And again. Finally, he sighed, and let go of the knife, still deep in the corpse’s back. “That should keep you quiet.”

Baska hadn’t realized he had raised himself up to a standing position. The decrepit man stepped back from the corpse and saw Baska for the first time. A momentary glimpse of coherence shone in his eyes. “Cril,” he spoke softly. “Do not worry. He is merely resting. Let us retire to the anteroom.” His voice was smooth and calm, but his eyes were those of a shivaree. Baska turned his back to the man, just long enough to place his hand upon his own dagger. He heard the man grunt, he sensed his movement. When Baska spun, dagger in hand, he saw the aged man raise a dagger above his head, ready to strike at Baska’s spine. Baska’s movements were smooth, graceful, and practiced. He ducked away from his attacker’s swing, and plunged his dagger up and into the man’s neck. There was no resistance until the tang of the blade stopped against the jaw.

The blood was insuperable. It flowed like water over his arms, his chest, and the floor. The evisceration was complete. Baska was not one to kill lightly, but in his own defense he had no qualms. This life ended quickly.

His thief’s instincts took over immediately. On the old man, he found only a ring of keys that might have locked the front door, if Baska had not already broken it in. He sent a brief hope to his gods that Darrin was long gone, and continued his search. There were books on the shelves, and the corpse had a ring on his left hand. Baska pulled at it, but it would not come easily. He glanced around the room, now lit more clearly by the candle the old man had left on the desk, but he only noticed a single book. The ring on the corpse’s fingers looked to be the most valuable object.

Baska grasped the lifeless hand with his left, while he wrapped his right hand’s fingers around the ring. He moved it slowly in a circle, and tugged gently. He did not want to tear the corpse’s finger off — he had already had his fill of nausea when he noticed the gnawed feet. Thinking of that, he glanced around briefly for any rodents that might be in the room, just in case. Then he quelled his fear and tried again. The ring came slowly to the tip of the man’s finger, then released with a gentle tug.

A sudden gushing sound came from below Baska, while a stench so vile assaulted his nostrils that his stomach immediately lurched again. He stepped away from the corpse and noticed the meaty legs were now dumping a greenish, viscous liquid slowly onto the floor. The body seemed to be emptying its innards as it decomposed at a rapid rate. Its skin withered and cracked. A putrid smell assaulted Baska’s nostrils. He could no longer stave off the contents of his stomach, and he leaned forward and wretched. The stench continued. He dropped the ring in terror, lifted himself weakly from the floor, and ran out of the room. Some instinct made him grab the book from the desk.

He made his way cautiously down to the second floor, careful not to be underneath the spot where the body had decomposed. He made a mental note to never put on that ring. When he found a room that had an old broken window and a candle, he sat down and opened the book. Reading the first page stopped him cold.

Surely that name could not be correct? He shivered just reading it, and felt sweat at the collar of his neck. It couldn’t be. He hadn’t heard that name since he was a boy. His mother would frighten him with it; warn him not to go out at night. His master would use it to keep him from leaving the shop. And when his master had been murdered in front of his eyes … he was certain this man was responsible. Small beads of sweat gathered at his forehead. His fingers shook as he turned the page, and saw the names of men and women that had dealt with this legend, this myth, this ghost of evil. He recognized their names, too. Many were dead. Some were gone. A few still practiced their business in Dargon.

His heart pounded in his chest as an idea formed in his mind. Did he dare? Was it possible? Certainly, he would need more research, but the material was here, present, and available. Surely there were more books and ledgers around this building. He had a lot of reading to do. And he had to know if anyone else lived in this abandoned warehouse.

 

***

 

“Retire?” The word hung in the air like a secret everyone knew, but refused to speak. Two men sat around a desk in the office of the Captain of the Dargon town guard. Koren played absently with his silver mustache while his friend of many years, Lieutenant Darklen, stared at him in astonishment. “You can’t be serious,” Kalen continued. “You are a foundation of the law, here in Dargon.”

“And if I keep at it, they’ll bury me in the foundation,” Koren said as he smiled. “Come on, Kalen. I could have retired years ago. Should have, if not for the war with Beinison, and the gang wars we were fighting. You know how it was. There were fires every night. We found new bodies in the streets or floating at the docks every morning. Gangs fought gangs, and if you were on the street at night, you were either a criminal or a target. Patrols were six men at a time, not two, and they were armed for battle. Dozens of victims were drowned, stabbed, or otherwise killed by whatever means the killer had available. All in the name of money.” Koren leaned back and sighed. “It was mad, then. We had too few friends and too many enemies. I couldn’t retire, then. But I can, now.”

“What about the Doravin? We’re going to have problems, you know that. We’ve already got problems.”

“I don’t think the Doravin are the problem. It’s the townsfolk you’re going to have to deal with. Gods know, however, things are getting bad. That problem at the Serpent is just the beginning.”

“Me,” Kalen said. He let out a sigh. “Gods, I knew this would come my way one day. That time you were injured, and we hid you down in the catacombs to pretend you were dead. That was one of the most stressful periods I’ve ever gone through. I was happy to have you resume the post.”

“You did well then,” Kalen said. “And you’ve come a long way since, as well. You’ll do fine. Just listen to Ilona, and she’ll keep you straight.”

Kalen laughed. “You’re kidding, right? She’s crazier than I am.”

A knock on Koren’s door interrupted their reverie. “Come!” Koren shouted. The door opened smoothly to reveal a younger guardsman. The markings on his uniform denoted his rank, but Koren knew his staff well.

“What is it, Cepero?” Captain Koren asked.

“We’ve got a floater, Captain,” the sergeant replied. “We thought you’d like to hear about it.”

“Murder?” Lieutenant Darklen asked. “What makes you think so?”

“Stabbed, sir,” Cepero replied. “Just once under the chin before he was dumped, and he’s a fresh kill. We think he might be an old acquaintance of yours.”

“Yes?” Koren asked, his eyes lighting with concern.

“We need to you identify him, of course, but we think his name is Kesrin Mardos.”

Koren and Darklen exchanged a quick glance, and rose to accompany the sergeant to the morgue.

 

***

 

“Shea, darling, more flower petals,” Eliza Tillipanary said as she descended the stairs and entered the parlor of her home, The Lucky Lady. The air was suffuse with rose, cinnamon, and lilac. A musician played a soft tune in the corner, while Shea and Enia, twin girls clad in silk negligee, used soft brushes to clean the red velvet tapestries covering the walls. A blond man, clothed only a silk pair of short trousers, stared around the room, analyzing the placement of the chairs, couches, small tables, tea settings, and standing plants. His intense stare at every detail complemented the cut lines of his muscular body. Even at her age, Madame Tillipanary felt drawn to his delicious good looks.

“Delex, you’ll drive yourself crazy,” she said to him. “The room looks divine. Now go and clean up. Seventh bell will ring soon, and business will start to pick up.”

“Yes, mom,” Delex replied. Like many of her employees, he always called her mom. She thought that might be for the best. It kept a miniscule barrier between his body and her desires. It helped her pretend that she did not own him, that she could not just take him whenever she wanted. But of course, she knew that she could.

There was a brief knock on the front door before a page entered. He could not have been more than ten summers, with sandy hair and hazel eyes. The twins, Shea and Enia, immediately put down their brushes and ran over him, cooing and running their hands through his hair and squealing at how cute he was. The boy began breathing very fast; his discomfort was evident.

“That’s enough, girls! His will drop soon enough, and rest assured he’ll bring his hard … earned money … to our door. But what brings you now, young man, to my establishment?”

“M- Message, m’lady,” the boy stammered. His hazel eyes lingered on the two women standing near him as he fumbled for the letter he held in his pocket. “Madame, this comes straight from the docks for you. Ran all the way, I did, which is why I’m so out of breath.”

“Of course you did,” Tillipanary replied. “Girls, give him a tip, won’t you?”

While she examined the letter, she heard more squeals, and dramatic kissing sounds. She shook her head. “That boy will age faster than nature intended,” she thought. When she saw the seal on the letter, she caught her breath. Her heart immediately quickened. It couldn’t be!

“Girls, stop!” she barked the quick command, and they immediately ended their teasing. The boy’s face was red, and his legs were wobbling as if he could barely stand. She stepped quickly across the carpeted floor and stared him straight in the eyes. “Where did you say you brought this from?”

“The docks, lady, just north of Main Street.”

Tillipanary’s skin blanched, but she spoke calmly. “Thank you, boy. You may leave.” The girls pouted, but the boy stepped hesitantly out the doorway. Tillipanary’s fingers trembled as she broke the seal on the note. Her eyes gazed intently at the letter, moving rapidly over its words several times. One of the girls approached her hesitantly.

“What is it, mom?”

Tillipanary’s head jerked up, as if suddenly remembering where she was. She looked at her girls, and then smiled warmly. “Nothing for you girls to worry about. A weather report. Pass the news, will you? No leaving The Lucky Lady tonight.” She reached out and pinched the girl’s cheek. “I don’t want my darlings getting caught in a storm.”

 

***

 

“What is this, a joke?” the shop owner yelled. He waved the small note in his hand while stepping toward the boy in front of him.

“Don’t know what you mean, sir,” the page answered. He ducked his head while he backed away from the man. He glanced quickly toward the doorway.

“Who told you to give me this note?” the shop owner yelled again. The page backed up further, knocking into a bolt of wool. That bolt fell over and knocked into several others, and the shop owner’s apprentice ran forward to prevent an onslaught of falling material. The shop’s door opened from the outside, and the page saw his opportunity to flee. An incoming customer dodged aside as the page sprinted out the doorway.

“Good even, Master Gilchrest,” the woman said. “I didn’t see the boy carrying anything, so he can’t have stolen any goods. What brings your temper so high?”

“Mistress Mudge,” the shop owner replied. “He delivered a message I’ve no intention of responding to, is all.” His left hand crushed the note it had been holding, and he stuffed it in his pocket.

“News is what we make of it, Master,” Leanna Mudge replied. “As a seamstress, I’ve seen and heard many pieces of information that appeared to bode ill for my clients, but resulted in good fortunes when approached properly. What is it?”

Master Gilchrest put his best face on for his customer. “Nothing your wisdom can resolve, gentle lady. My father — may he rest in peace — had some hard choices in business partners when he started this shop. But all accounts were settled years ago. Now one of those partners is back in town, and wants to get back into business.”

“Ah!” Leanna’s face brightened. “An extra investment might allow you to expand your business! Mayhap you could open another store in Shark’s Cove, or Kenna, or –”

“I’m sorry, mistress. I appreciate your enthusiasm, but he’s not that kind of business partner.” Master Gilchrest waved his hands as if to dismiss the issue. “It matters not. What can I do for you today? Do you need wool for winter clothes?” He extended his arms toward the pile of bolts that his apprentice was stacking. “Or some linen for summer?” He indicated several bolts of material on the other side of his shop. Then he leaned forward and smiled slyly. “Or perhaps some silk? Eh, mistress?”

 

***

 

Baska lay in a soft bed, in one of the rooms on the second floor of the abandoned warehouse. The warehouse’s interior had not been of a design he would have imagined. Rather than have a large, open area where stockpiles of goods were held until shipped, it was divided up into two main floors, and a small office on the third floor.

The first floor held a common area and kitchen, much like a tavern would have. The second floor comprised a dozen personal rooms for sleeping, again like a tavern might, but the rooms were more lavishly furnished. There were two large rooms with several beds, and several smaller ones for individuals. And there were actual beds in the rooms, not just cheap mattresses stuffed with leaves, hay, heather, or whatever other soft ingredients a tavern keeper might find. One of the rooms even had a mirror mounted at a small desk, much like a woman’s vanity. The mirror had cracked, or been broken, at some point in the past, but it was still quite useful. This was the room Baska had chosen for himself.

As he stared at the ceiling, he considered his plan. He had sent several messages to the existing business partners he had found in the ledger. In those letters, he had passed himself off as the crime lord who once inhabited this building. He had told the business owners that they were now going to start paying him protection again, as in the days of old. He was hoping at least one of them would have delivered him some coin, but none had responded. Baska still shuddered even to think the man’s name, but it was possible that the name no longer inspired the kind of fear it once did, particularly with the Doravin in their midst. He was going to have to remind the people why they used to fear this name. Then the money would come in.

 

***

 

Darrin stared intently at the floor, not wishing to meet his master’s gaze. Gilliam Hytheworde was a merchant by trade, and was not likely to actually harm his own employees. His business sense was excellent in that matter. Darrin was still hesitant to stare his employer in the eyes, however, as delivering bad news was never pleasant.

Hytheworde sat at a large wooden desk that was completely clear of any items. His balding head was decorated with wisps of grey hair like a gentle fog. His jowls hung loosely from his clean-shaven face. His nose was unobstructed by any beard or mustache. But his thick, long, bushy eyebrows — white against his ruddy skin — partially obstructed his hawk-like eyes.

“So what you’re telling me,” Hytheworde said with a raspy voice, “is that my own employee had been cutting into my collections. You knew about it. And when you tried to bring him in to face me, he got away.”

“He was faster than I thought,” Darrin stated.

“He used to be a shadow boy, Darrin,” Hytheworde stated. “They don’t survive by being fat and slow.”

“There is some good news, sir. I ransacked his room, and recovered quite a lot of coin. Wherever he is, he’s poor. He won’t be able to leave town anytime soon, and that gives me time to find him.”

“Yes, yes,” Hytheworde agreed. “I’m more concerned about the money, of course. You did well, Darrin.”

“Thank you, sir. But I don’t like anyone else to get the same idea. An example will have to be made.”

“Only if you can find him, Darrin,” Hytheworde said. Then he fixed his hawk’s gaze upon Darrin. “So find him.”

 

***

 

Baska adjusted the pack slung over his shoulder as he stared across the muddy street at the plain, closed door to the alchemist’s shop. He had lost count how many times he had cursed himself for being greedy. Six months of skimming collections from Hytheworde’s protection money had seen a nice little pile of coin building in his possession. But he pushed that textile merchant for too much, one day, and Gilchrest had complained to Darrin. Darrin started digging, and the next thing Baska knew he had been running for his life through the streets of Dargon. Now Baska needed to buy some ingredients from an alchemist, so he could convince the populace that a long-gone crime lord had returned … but Baska had no money. Thus, the pack of valuables he had slung over his shoulder.

The sign above the door showed a sun, partially eclipsed by a moon, and a mortar and pestle. It had not changed since the day he had left, though the original owner had been dead for years. Once upon a time, he had had a master there. He had apprenticed to be an alchemist himself, until a man and a woman had entered the shop and killed both his master, and another apprentice. First he had seen Kapatil killed by the woman. Then they had locked him in the shop with his dead friend’s body lying on the floor. When they had returned, they had lain in wait for his master, Terrell, to return. Baska had been confined to the rear laboratory. He heard his master yell, “Half-breed!” There had been a short scuffle. When he was released, Terrell lay in a pool of blood.

Judging by their armor, the two had been warriors. Terrell and Kapatil had never stood a chance. The murderers had instilled a fear in Baska that he remembered to this day. Baska had sworn never to rat them out, at the cost of his life. When he was free to go, he had left forever. He had lived on the streets for a while, and eventually had been taken in by the shadow boys. His ability to read, write, and do math had helped the group, but he had learned a hard lesson: the only person he could trust was himself. Now he needed supplies only an alchemist could provide. As he stepped through the damp, unpaved street, he hoped there would not be too many questions.

He turned the door handle to the shop. The soft jingle of a bell rang as the door swung open. The interior was lit, as he remembered it, solely by the unshuttered windows. It was still daylight, after all. He could smell a coal fire emanating from the rear laboratory, and envisioned a brazier burning low and hot, distilling some mix of arcane elements. That was good. A working laboratory meant the shop owner had stock on hand, and would likely not have to go searching for the ingredients he desired.

A youngish man, perhaps a few summers older than himself, emerged from the laboratory. He wore long, heavy robes of brown wool, tied about his waist with rope. Baska thought his clothing looked more like that of a Cyruzhian monk than an alchemist. He had a look of happy surprise about him, as if he was unaccustomed to conducting business, but glad to have a customer. That thought encouraged Baska.

“Greetings, good sir,” the gentleman said. “I am Killian, the master of this shop. How can I help you?”

“Good day to you, Master Killian. My name is Baska. I need to purchase a few ingredients to solve some problems around my home. I wonder if you can help me.” Baska handed the man a note that contained the particular elements he had researched the previous night.

Master Killian’s thin eyebrows rose as he perused the list. He put the list down and looked sincerely at Baska. “The ingredients you list here can be quite dangerous, if mixed improperly,” he said. “I would be happy to mix up whatever solution you desire.”

Baska attempted his most sincere face. “I appreciate that, Master Killian,” he replied, “but I assure you I am quite skilled at mixing these properly. I apprenticed in this very shop under Master Terrell some years ago.”

“Did you?” Mardos’ voice betrayed obvious doubt.

“I did,” Baska replied. “How else would I know you are working with a coal brazier in the laboratory in back? Your wool robes, which are heavy even for this season and temperature, protect you from any accidents, so you must be working on something delicate and perhaps even dangerous. Furthermore …” Baska sniffed the air for effect. “It appears you are bringing some barley to boil.” Baska smiled. “Are you brewing beer?”

Master Killian smiled broadly. “Indeed, sir! If you can keep a secret, the proprietor of Grey Talka’s is looking to bolster his business. The Doravin spend their coin there, it’s true, but they don’t spend much, and many of the locals eschew the inn because of them.” He added in a whisper, “I can whip you up something that will protect you from those stone-fiends, if you like.”

“No, thank you,” Baska said. “But indeed I can keep a secret. And my needs are simple, I assure you. There is an aroma in one of my rooms that I wish to dispel, and some rats that need extermination in another part of my home.” Mardos nodded in understanding at Baska’s explanations. “I wonder if I might pay for these ingredients in trade. I have a few items here of some value.” Baska removed the sack from his shoulders, and placed it on the counter. He reached in and removed a few of the objects he had found in the warehouse.

 

***

 

Captain Koren watched as the fire ripped through the dark night, casting a staccato rhythm of orange light and dark shadows upon the surrounding buildings. The smell of burning wood saturated the air, and clung to his lungs. Men and women ran through the night and formed a human chain that passed full buckets of water up the line. After the lead man hurled the contents onto the burning building, he tossed the bucket aside and grasped for the next one. A runner brought the empty bucket back to the water’s edge, where it was filled and returned to the line.

Captain Koren spied Lieutenant Darklen by the light of the blaze. Kalen was organizing the fire brigade, assigning sergeants to different sections of the watery defense. He walked over to his friend and waited until Darklen was available to speak.

“Status?” Koren asked.

“Three lines, lots of water.” Kalen replied. “Thank goodness it was a building close to the docks. Something further in, and the whole block might have gone up.”

“Any known cause?”

“Not a one. The shop keeper was out at Belisandra’s, enjoying a pint and some music.”

Captain Koren scanned the building and its surrounding neighbors. “Any sign of contamination? Any of the adjoining shops burning?”

Lieutenant Darklen looked him square in the eyes. “Not a one. This fire was contained before we even set the brigade to working.”

“It was targeted, then,” Koren said. Kalen nodded. “Whose store was it?”

“Textile merchant named Gilchrest,” Kalen responded.

“Ol’s balls,” Captain Koren swore. “He was paying protection to Hytheworde, wasn’t he?”

“That’s the rumor,” Kalen responded. “I’m waiting for Ilona to … ah, and here she comes,” he said. They both looked over to a huddle of people who were sitting on a bench across the street, away from the burning building. A woman in full guard uniform walked quickly in their direction. She saluted Koren before starting her report.

“He left the shop at the second bell of the night,” she said. “Went to Belisandra’s, had a few pints. Came back just a few menes past, when the fire was well underway.”

“And his connection to Hytheworde?” Kalen asked.

“Well, he wasn’t saying anything specific,” she said. Her shoulders slumped slightly, relaxing her stance. “But I’d bet next month’s wages he was paying protection money.”

“Wonderful,” Kalen said. “So we’ve got someone paying protection money, whose shop suddenly goes up in flames, and none of the connecting buildings are touched by it.”

“Valuable shop, specifically targeted,” Koren agreed. “Think he missed a payment?”

Ilona shook her head. “Hytheworde is all about the money. It takes a lot more than a missed payment to make him mad enough to burn a building. And Gilchrest had enough stock that Hytheworde would simply have taken that in payment, instead. He could just stick it in one of his merchant ships and sell it in Narragan, or even Beinison if he wanted.”

“Which is one of the reasons we have a hard time nailing him,” Kalen added. “He exports stolen goods, he doesn’t smuggle them in. Definitely makes it harder when he’s got a hold mostly full of legitimate stock. A few coins can make an inspector avert his eyes from three or five crates that aren’t listed on the manifest.”

“This fire,” Ilona said, “do you think it has anything to do with the fact that we found Kesrin’s body yesterday?”

Koren nodded. “If it does, then we’ve got a bigger problem,” he said. “As if there wasn’t enough unrest with the damned Doravin, someone’s trying to edge into Hytheworde’s business.”

Kalen’s eyes widened. “You don’t think it’s L –”

“No,” Koren interrupted him. “He’s been gone for years. It’s someone else. It has to be.”

 

***

 

Hytheworde passed through the doors of his office to see a room full of his men, each holding back the angered cries of a different merchant. “What are you doing about this? Who’s doing this? What do you know?” he heard them calling. He slowly scanned the crowd, making eye contact with each and every plaintiff until they calmed down. His gaze finally settled on Gilchrest, but he knew Gilchrest wouldn’t stay quiet. That was alright with Hytheworde. He wanted to answer Gilchrest’s questions in public, where his words could be heard.

“My entire shop burned down, all my goods,” Gilchrest stated. “I think my apprentice might have been caught in the fire as well, I don’t know. Won’t know for certain for a few days.”

Hytheworde raised his eyebrows a little, and tried his best to soften the expression in his eyes. “My dear Gilchrest,” he said, “this is a tragedy. Truly, for all of us. You say you don’t know where your apprentice is?”

Gilchrest sighed once and nodded.

“Well, it would be a great loss if he has passed,” Hytheworde continued. “On the other hand, if his remains are not found in the fire, it does beg the question of how this little blaze started, does it not?”

Gilchrest stood up suddenly, his own fire now burning in his eyes. “That boy did not start the fire! He wouldn’t have!”

Hytheworde spread his hands questioningly. “Surely we don’t know what he might have –”

“What we know,” Gilchrest interrupted, “is that two days ago, I received a letter. A letter that I ignored, because you told us all that the man who wrote it was dead.”

Hytheworde’s mask disappeared. “He is dead.”

“Then why has my shop burned to the ground, with all my stock gone? I have to start over from nothing, Hytheworde. That business has been in my family for decades, and now it’s gone. I’m telling you, he’s alive.”

The room burst into a pandemonium of cries and outrage, louder than when Hytheworde had first entered. His guards looked nervous as well, and Hytheworde knew why. His old enemy was notorious for putting traitors through slow, painful deaths, and several of them would be on that list. He raised his hands above his head and yelled as loudly as his aging voice would allow. “Enough!” His voiced cracked with the effort. “Enough, already. He is dead, and I’ll have no one speak his name around me. But if it makes you feel any better, I’ll send Eliza.” There were several nods of agreement at that idea. “She knew him better than anyone. If he’s still alive, he’ll see her. And if she sees him, she will recognize him.”

 

***

 

Madame Tillipanary twisted the parasol in her hands. Her gown was exquisite, of course, and the parasol a perfect match. Still, she fretted. She had not seen him in … how long? Six years. He had disappeared six years ago. And now the whole town was buzzing with the idea of his return.

“Could it really be him?” she wondered as the carriage made its way through Dargon’s streets. It wasn’t far from The Lazy Madame to the alley where the carriage would drop her, but her thoughts raced quickly as she anticipated meeting him again. Would he still have that mustache? How had he aged? Where had he been? Why return now, after all this time? And what would that mean for her?

In the past, he had used her establishment as a place to force women into financial bondage, to coerce them into prostitution or thievery. One of his women had even killed a man in her rooms, and that had brought Eliza some uncomfortable conversations with the town guard. But he had also paid her well, enforced protection from any unruly patrons, and even sent business in her direction. And he had kept the likes of Hytheworde off her back. That yoke she did not enjoy.

And if it wasn’t him? What danger was she walking into now? What odds that she would be able to walk out? She thought herself well enough known and established in this town that no one would think lightly of causing her harm, and yet mistakes did happen. It was a risk she was taking, she knew that. Hytheworde was smart to send her, rather than risk his own neck.

She stepped out of the carriage and instructed the driver to wait. The sun was nearing its zenith, so she opened her parasol as she began her walk down the lane. Her heels clicked on uneven cobblestones as she thought about the last time she had come to this place. She had heard he was wounded. That annoying and pompous Kesrin had prevented her from seeing him. She regretted allowing him to force her away. No one would do that again.

When she reached the door to the warehouse, she removed a key from the purse hanging from her wrist. She was doubtful it would still work after all this time, but she wanted to know. Before she could put the key in the lock, however, the door swung open to reveal a youngish man, perhaps 20 summers, standing in the doorway. He looked familiar, yet she was certain he was not a customer of hers. He was short for a man, perhaps only a hand taller than her, and lanky. He wore clothes common to the working class. His blond hair was uncut and draped about his shoulders, and his hazel eyes were clear and calculating. She had the feeling he was assessing her as well. There was also a satisfied smile on his face.

“Madame Tillipanary,” he said. “It is a pleasure to see you, again. Quite a surprise, however. I was expecting a messenger, or courier.”

“I preferred to make this visit in person,” she responded. “May I come in?”

She noted only a moment’s hesitation before he answered, “Of course.” When he stepped aside, she entered the main floor. It had changed very little since last she was here, except that there was a thick layer of dust on the ground, and a few footprints visible going to and from the stairwell.

“My name is Baska,” the man said. “We have met before, briefly. I was in the employ of Lord Hytheworde prior to coming here.”

“I thought I recognized you,” Eliza replied. She raised an eyebrow and glanced sidelong at him. “Risky business, isn’t it, shifting employers like that?”

“You know who I work for now,” Baska replied. “It would be riskier not to accept his employment.”

“Indeed, it might be,” she conceded. “May I see him?”

Baska hesitated again before answering. “I am not certain he is in, though we can check if you like.” He took a step toward the stairs. “You do remember the way? He mentioned that you used to be close.”

This was the moment she feared. If she went up those stairs, her danger doubled, or tripled. She was almost fifty summers now, while that man was in the prime of his life. Her life was forfeit if the subterfuge she suspected was true. But she had to know the answer. She could not go back to Hytheworde with a “maybe.” But Hytheworde be damned, she could not leave the question unanswered for herself. She had to know: was he alive?

“Of course I remember, Baska. But thank you for asking,” she responded.

She climbed the first flight of stairs and looked down the corridor of the second floor. Several of the doors in the rooms were open, with light coming from within them. The same thick covering of dust on the floorboards, but she saw more activity up here. That made sense to her.

On the third floor, the same desk she had seen six years ago still sat in its usual position outside the office. There was no assistant waiting at it. The aroma up here was also pungent and heavy. She coughed lightly, and removed a fan from within her sleeves. When she opened it and fanned herself, she looked at Baska with raised eyebrows. He did not need her to ask the question.

“There were rats here, recently,” Baska replied. “This building was mostly abandoned for years, as I’m certain you are aware. I am using clove and rose to clean the air, though I am unused to their applications in this manner. If you have any suggestions …”

She coughed lightly again. “Yes, get rid of the clove. It overpowers the rose, and really … frankincense might do the job and not be too heavy. It is expensive, however.”

“I appreciate your advice,” Baska said. “If you will just wait here a moment, I’ll let him know you have arrived.” Baska opened the door to the office just wide enough to slip in, and closed it behind him.

Eliza’s heart beat faster and faster. How would she get out of the building? Should she just leave right now? “Two flights of squeaky stairs in these heels,” she thought. “Baska would be on me in a moment. But running is not an option. I need to get into that office and know — one way or the other — if he is back.”

The office door opened up, this time revealing the desk and window within, but no one beside Baska. “I apologize, Madame,” Baska said, “but it appears he is not in. He comes and goes by the back stair so often, these days.”

“Of course,” she said. She reached into her purse again and removed a small bag of coins. “You don’t mind if I put this on the desk, do you?” She could hear her own voice tremble, and felt her hand lightly shaking.

“Be my guest,” Baska said.

She saw him eyeing her carefully as she walked into that office. How many times had she been here before? The dust was not thick here, but it was still present. Someone had been sitting at the desk recently. There were several containers of herbs in the room, cloaking the air in a thick, cloying aroma. There was a ledger on the desk, with names, dates, and money paid or received. She walked to the glass window that overlooked the market. The only clean pane in that otherwise filmy window was just about her height and she could see her carriage waiting for her return. She turned around and placed the pouch on the desk. “Thank you,” she said.

Baska had already entered the room, and closed the door behind him. He was leaning his back against the door. The smile had faded from his face. This was the moment Eliza had feared.

“You are no fool, Madame Tillipanary,” Baska said. “And I am not blind to your perception. But if you don’t mind, what exactly gave it away?” Baska stepped toward the desk and slowly drew a dagger from a sheath behind his back. Eliza paled when she saw the blade’s edge in the flickering candle light.

“It was several things,” she said. She tried to steady her voice, but her suddenly dry throat was hard to control. She swallowed hard, and held the back of the chair. She could delay the inevitable, but she had only one card to play. If she were to play it, she must be calm, and appear in control. She moved around the chair and sat in it, placing her hands gently on the desk. She gave Baska her most confident stare. “The lack of footprints in the dust in the first two floors indicated little activity. That the dust was there is inconsistent with his character.” She glanced quickly at the ledger. “The last date in that ledger is from six years ago. It was an interesting ploy, but you missed the details. And finally,” she nodded toward the window behind her, “the only clean pane is about two hands shorter than he would stand. It’s about your height, isn’t it?”

Baska nodded. “As I said earlier,” he said, “I was not expecting you to deliver the purse directly. I only had a mene to prepare when I saw you exit the carriage in the market. I brought the ledger up from the second floor, where I’ve been studying it, and lit a few candles in the rooms to try to make them look occupied. Otherwise,” he shrugged, “there was little I could do.” He took another step forward. “I really do regret this.”

“You’ll regret it more, if you do it,” she replied. This was her card. She hoped it was an ace. “There’s a reason that carriage is waiting for me. Hytheworde sent me directly to see if your employer was really engaged. Whether I return, and tell him this is a ruse, or I don’t return because you’ve killed me, does not really matter. Half a bell from now, Hytheworde will be making a decision as to whether or not to attack. He knows time is short. That little fire you lit — that was you, wasn’t it?” Baska nodded. “That really angered him. You need to leave now. Flee Dargon before I return to Hytheworde. If you don’t, your death will take ages.”

Baska’s face was unreadable, except for his eyes. Eliza wondered when it was a man learned to control the emotion in his eyes, for that was truly the difference between boys and men. Baska’s eyes showed fear. His mouth, his complexion, even his body language revealed nothing. But his eyes told her everything she needed to know. She stood up and walked around the desk. “I’m sure you’ve better use for that dagger,” she said. “Keep the purse. It’s a pittance, but it might help you escape.”

She turned her back and walked slowly out of the office. She descended the stairs deliberately. “Don’t let him see you run,” she thought. She was acutely aware that at any moment, she might hear him rushing behind her. Would she feel the blade? Would it take her in the back, or the neck? Would he strangle her first? Her heart beat fast and hard in her chest, and the bodice under her dress felt tighter by the moment. If she could not reach the market quickly, she would faint. But she maintained control and walked calmly down the lane until she stepped into the carriage. When the door closed, she let out a sudden sigh. Her hands and arms began to shake, and tears formed at her eyes. She heard the coachman ask, “Where to, ma’am?”

“Old City,” she cried out. She felt the carriage jerk as the driver urged the horse onward. She hoped she had not sounded weakened and desperate to him. She was going to have to gather her strength before she faced Hytheworde.

“Hytheworde,” she called out to the driver in a firm voice. “That bastard,” she said softly. There was a thorn she would rather be rid of. If only Baska had not been lying. If only *he* had been in that office, instead of an old ledger and some candles. Hytheworde’s yoke would be gone. How much protection money did she pay him? Twice what she used to. And his free services, whenever he came to The Lazy Madame, which was often. None of the girls wanted to touch that old man, either. Eliza had to bribe them to take him upstairs.

Then an idea occurred to her. It was wonderful. It was risky, but it might kill two scree gulls with one stone. And she would be blameless. “Driver, stop!” she called. The carriage jerked to a halt. She opened the carriage door and stared around quickly. They were at the southern end of the market, and it hadn’t been but a few menes. She might have time. She spotted a dirty-faced girl in an alley, and called her over. “Quick, girl, a Bit for you if you can deliver this message instantly!”

 

***

 

Baska’s brilliant plan had failed. He stood in the office and watched Madame Tillipanary calmly walk out. His stomach dropped and the blood in his veins turned cold. He thought about following her, perhaps killing her just to buy some time. But it would have been useless, and despite his general disregard for the law, he had no wish to have her blood on his hands. Besides, he did not seem to be able to move his feet; it was as if his boots were stuck to the slime that had spilled from the corpse’s body.

He could see her carriage through the one clean spot in the window. He saw it pull away, and his bowels nearly left him at the same time. He would be dead within a bell. Then his mind started racing. What valuables were left in the building? Was there anything he could sell quickly? Who could he sell it to before they found out about the price that would surely be put on his head? Those, and a hundred more panicking thoughts burned through his brain until he heard a rapid pounding on the front door. How long had he been standing here? Surely, Darrin could not be looking for him already.

He walked calmly down the stairs. His mind had gone numb. There was no more running. Perhaps if he fought them at the door, if he could take one of their lives, they might kill him out of instinct, before Hytheworde could have him tortured. He again drew his dagger from its sheath and held it behind his back. He opened the door slowly, expecting it to be kicked in.

Instead, a small girl stood nervously at the doorway. She could be no more than six or seven summers, and she had not been eating well. Baska glanced up and down the alley before he returned the dagger to its sheath behind his back. “Yes?” he asked.

“Please, sir, tell me your name is Baska,” she whispered quietly.

Baska again looked up and down the alley. Then he looked to the rooftops for archers. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he glanced back at the girl and said, “It is.”

“Madame in a carriage just gave me an urgent message for you. She says, ‘I’ll keep your secret. You owe me.’”

Baska’s eyes went wide. “What? Where? When? Describe the woman!” Baska had to hold himself back from grabbing the girl by her ragged clothes.

“Pretty lady, fancy dress, in a carriage,” the girl replied as she took a step backward. She pointed up the alley way. “Just now, at the market.”

Baska sighed. A great weight lifted from his stomach. Then the girl said, “She also told me you’d pay me a Bit.”

Baska smiled at the girl. He opened the contents of the pouch Madame Tillipanary had left with him, and removed a coin. As he handed it to her, he leaned forward and whispered, “Go find the shadow boys, I’m sure you know where they are.” She nodded. “Find Russo. Tell him his alchemist friend has sent you to them. They’ll take care of you.” She nodded again. In an instant, she was gone.

 

***

 

Since that moment, several other visitors had knocked on that door. Four of them were ex-shadow boys — Carlo, Fleet, Farouk and Riker — looking for employment. That was good because he needed men, but he felt foolish running up to the office to have loud conversations with himself whenever he needed to pretend to be taking orders from someone else. But he was comforted by the fact that they had been shadow boys, having lived among them. He instinctively trusted them.

Yet more visitors were messengers from merchants, with small pouches of coin and a request for protection from Hytheworde. That, also, was good. But it meant problems, as well. He knew, now, what Tillipanary had done. She had gone to Hytheworde and told him the lie. She had told Hytheworde that she no longer needed his protection. And she had done it publicly in Hytheworde’s offices. Hytheworde was weakened. Many merchants were going to slip out of his fingers and become independent. Some of his men would leave. But that would also mean a fight. Hytheworde would be coming for Baska and his boss. Baska’s problem was, he did not actually have a boss.

Then a messenger arrived from Darrin. He and a partner wanted to remove Hytheworde, and wanted Baska’s help. Darrin would then declare a truce between the two gangs, and prevent hostilities. Baska agreed. He knew it was a trap. Darrin had wanted him dead for the better part of a sennight; he wasn’t about to let that go. The question was, at what point would Darrin spring it?

 

***

 

 

The wind whipped the cold spray of the ocean inward, covering Baska’s cloak and soaking into his neck. Baska stood on the dock near the edge of the water and listened to the surf as he scanned the route that led from the dock up to the northern-most part of the outer wall protecting the Old City. The path itself was treacherous in winter, its rocks and stones covered in ice, and poorly lit, as late-night ferries were few and dangerous trips. His only four men were spread out and hiding in the brush and boulders. This part of the Old City would be poorly patrolled, as no one ought to be here. While he waited, he contemplated the possibility of Darrin betraying Hytheworde, but it was unlikely. Instead, Darrin probably had two or three men with him, and they would hope to surprise him. Baska hoped his four compatriots could turn the tables.

Baska barely made out the movement of two men as they approached from the outer wall. In the darkness, they were difficult to spot, but as they neared, they became clearer. Darrin held a lamp aloft with one hand, while he dragged along a tall man with a sack over his head. Baska shook his head — that body looked nothing like Hytheworde’s. Then Baska saw his four men converging from the outside, approaching Darrin slowly and quietly. “Not yet,” he thought to himself. “Not yet. He hasn’t shown his own men. They’ll be able to surprise us.” But his men kept creeping down closer to Darrin as he walked along. By the time Darrin got to the waterfront, it occurred to Baska: this was the trap.

Darrin pulled the man to a stop at the edge of the dock, and placed the lantern on the ground. Baska heard the man whimpering and crying beneath the hood, but his eyes were tracking the men he had brought with him. Instead of surrounding Darrin, they were surrounding Baska.

“You are such a sucker, Baska,” Darrin said. “I told you to come alone. Instead, you brought the four men I sent to infiltrate your little mob. I know where you come from. I knew you’d trust shadow boys.”

Baska nodded. That had been foolish. He had been so desperate for someone else to be part of his gang that he had spent no time determining if they were loyal. He moved to draw his dagger, but four blades were raised before he could complete the action.

Darrin smiled wickedly. “Take his weapon and bind him. Hytheworde has plans for him.”

Fleet came over and removed his dagger. Carlo pulled his hands behind his back and tied them tight with twine. Baska could feel the rough edges of the strands scrape against his wrists when he tried to pull loose. It was no good. He looked at the man with the bag over his head. “Who’s that?”

“Oh, him,” said Darrin. “He’s a particular pain in Hytheworde’s side.” Darrin reached behind the covering the man’s head, and tore it off. Standing in front of them was Gilchrest, and he was gagged. “It’s interesting, really,” Darrin said. “He’s the reason I caught you skimming from Hytheworde. And, his very loud complaints are also the reason Hytheworde’s hold on the merchants slipped so dramatically. So, we’re leaving him here.” Darrin slowly drew his dagger from it’s sheath. He brought the blade up to Gilchrest’s eyes so the man was sure to see it.

“You will die more quickly than Baska, here,” he said to Gilchrest. “But I don’t think you will feel it is quick enough.” Darrin put the blade inside the man’s trousers and cut them loose. They dropped to the ground quietly, exposing his manhood to the night air. “You are going to bleed for a few bells before you die. In the darkness, no one will see you. You’ll be dead before dawn. I’m told you can feel your life slipping away with every drop.” Darrin placed the cold edge of his blade against Gilchrest’s scrotum. Gilchrest’s eyes bolted wide with fear, his gagged voice trying to plead. Darrin raised his gaze to meet Gilchrest’s, and then shoved his dagger forward.

The muffled scream made little difference this far from the castle, with the surf in the background. Gilchrest collapsed to the ground. Baska saw a flood of blood pour out from between the man’s legs, and wondered why it would take bells for him to die. He thought Gilchrest would surely be dead much sooner.

Darrin tossed his blood-covered blade into the surf. “Let’s go,” he said. He picked up the lantern and started walking up the steep hill. Fleet and Riker followed him. Farouk pushed him from behind, and Carlo carried up the rear. “Now that he’s gone,” Darrin continued as he walked, “we’ll drop you with his lordship and head on over to your place. The boys here tell me you’re all he’s got. This problem should be solved by the end of the night, and everything will be back to normal.”

Baska forced a laugh. “You have no idea what you’re up against.” It was easy for him to sound convincing when he wasn’t lying. “You won’t find him there. He’s already out of the building.”

“Straight?” asked Darrin. He stopped by a large rock and turned to face Baska.

“Straight,” Baska said. He smiled. He spoke with the conviction of truth. There was no one else at the warehouse, and they would not find his boss. He held onto that thought, wrapped his mind around it. No matter what else he said, he needed to remember that truth. Then he could tell them anything.

“And where would he be, then? I don’t suppose you’ll tell us that.”

Baska needed something unexpected and shocking. He needed to insert fear. “Hytheworde’s place,” Baska said.

Darrin laughed loudly. “And what would he be doing there?”

“He works there, of course. He’s been in your organization for five years.” Baska paused for a moment to let that idea form in their minds. “Why do you think he disappeared all of a sudden?”

Even by the dim light of the lamp, Baska could see the question in Darrin’s face. He wasn’t sure. “You’re lying.”

Baska kept his eyes locked with Darrin’s. “I’ll be free in a bell, and you five will be dead. You, Darrin, just because.” Baska nodded toward his guards. “But these four are traitors, and he doesn’t like that at all.” Baska looked at Farouk. “He has very special techniques for traitors.”

Darrin turned toward the Old City and began trekking the steep incline at a faster pace. “Keep moving,” he said.

Farouk stepped in close to Baska. “Hang on, he’s coming untied,” Farouk said. Baska felt the bindings at his wrists tug and loosen. When he felt his dagger being placed in his hands, he smiled. “I’m still your man,” Farouk whispered. “I’m no traitor!” To the rest of the group, he said, “Let’s go.”

When the group started moving, Baska sensed Farouk hanging back. Against the sound of surf and footsteps, he heard a grunt and a muffled cry, and a body drop to the ground. Riker turned at the sound, and Baska took that moment to break his bonds. His dagger was in Riker’s throat before he could utter a word, and then Baska and Farouk faced Darrin and Fleet. Darrin felt for the dagger at his waist, but it was not there. He looked down, and then over to the water’s edge where he had tossed the bloody blade. “Balls,” he muttered.

Fleet looked at Farouk and Baska, both wielding bloody daggers. He looked at Darrin, who was unarmed. Then he backed up slowly, until he was behind Darrin. He was uphill from them, but he knew he stood little chance to take out two armed men. He raised his left foot and placed it at Darrin’s back, and then kicked him toward Baska and Farouk. As Darrin fell into the two armed men, Fleet sprinted up the hill with all the speed and dexterity of a shadow boy.

Baska held his knife against Darrin’s throat. “Looks like a new game,” he said.

 

***

 

“There’s another one over here,” Lieutenant Darklen called out to the guards who were scouring the area of the ferry in the Old City. Captain Koren and Lieutenant Ilona were also in attendance. The murder rate in Dargon had risen dramatically in the past sennight, and a crime scene with multiple stabbings required the top officers to be present. “Koren, Ilona … you should see this.”

The two officers made their way to Darklen’s position. He was standing at the edge of the pier, looking under it. Kalen could sense Ilona, who was standing next to him, start to shake. “No,” she said. “No.”

Under the pier, they could make out the shape of a man’s body. His head lolled to one side, just breaking the surface of the receding tide. His eyes had bulged out, and his skin was clammy looking. His arms were tied to the posts, and his mouth was gagged. It was obvious he had been put there during the night, before the tide rose. Ilona gasped, and grabbed at her wrists.

“Who is it?” Koren asked.

“Looks like Darrin, one of Hytheworde’s hired muscle,” Darklen replied.

“Balls,” Koren said. “Hellfire, balls, and damnation.” Ilona turned away from the scene. He knew that she had barely escaped that precise execution years before. “Three of Hytheworde’s men, and his best merchant, all dead.”

Lieutenant Darklen walked up to them, and put his arms around Ilona. She buried her face in his shoulder. “And there’s only one man that kills men like this. You know it, I know it,” he placed a kiss on Ilona’s head, “and she knows it.”

Koren muttered another stream of invectives. “I know it,” he agreed. “Liriss is back.”

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5 Comments

  • Rhonda Gomez

    Nice one. Good to see you writing again.

  • Keith English

    Nice Jon. I’m going to enjoy working off of this. Your style has some great elements and the plot twists were unforeseeable and the characters are quite interesting. Looking forward to seeing what you’re going to do with Baska in the future.

  • I like the atmosphere in this one. Very nice actually.

  • Kieron

    A great piece of writing with compelling characters. I loved it.

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