Tuesday, July 5, 2011


     I've decided to take a break from the story. I'm past caught up with what I wrote for NaNoWriMo, and have written very little since. I've also been very busy of late. I have a pretty good idea where the story is going, but I haven't quite pinned down how I'm going to get it there. So I need time to just write - time I don't have at the moment.

     Judging by my low traffic stats and the lack of any comments, I'm none too sure that anyone is actually reading this thing anyway, so it probably won't matter to anyone but me anyway.

     Also, this way I'll get back to American History Y and, more importantly, Avoiding Therapy. (Maybe I should change the name to Avoiding Writing, the way things have been going lately!) At any rate, both of those pages get much more traffic than this one, so I'm going to focus what time I have on those, instead.

     To anyone who might be following this tale, feel free to drop a comment, critical or otherwise.



Chapter 21: The Dvergar

     The Troop of None was new to Palonias. They had come all the way from Kelraavis at the far northern end of Rivvenland to perform for the Changeling Festival. They had arrived a week ago at the behest of His Honour, Jeremy Astra, Mayor of Ayrst and Counsel of the Royal City, and performed a private show for him and his chosen guests. The list was an exclusive one: only the highest city officials and wealthiest guild masters had been invited. They all came away impressed by the performance, so it was decided that at the end of the Changeling Festival they would perform a special show for King Jacke-Petrer and his family.
     The troupe specialized in chaotic performances. Even in the middle of a scripted play there would be juggling, fire breathing, prestidigitation, hoop dancing and even animal tricks; all included as part of the story. It was difficult for any member of the audience to see everything that was going on, therefore many people came to see multiple performances.
     The leader of the troupe was a Rivvener called Ythaine Foorster. He did his best to maintain an air of mystery about himself, as performers often do. It's the mystery that adds the spice, and the spice is what they crave, he was known to teach his understudies. He was full of what he thought of as clever aphorisms, and he issued them often, much to the chagrin of the rest of the troupe. The thing he was best at, however, was finding and exploiting talent. He'd gathered a ragtag collection of performers from all over the Colonnade region: from Ehronia, Eccosia, Rivvenland, Thur, and even further. Naturally there were members from all over Palonias, as well – some of whom had been to Ayrst – but they'd never performed in the great city as a troupe. There were opportunities here, if he played the game correctly.
     At the moment Ythaine was being bothered by Marnel Onarsa, who was upset about a Dvergar worker.
     "I don't know where he gets off to, Ythaine. But look; if we don't have reliable stagehands, we'll never be able to put on a proper performance."
     "Of course, Marn. Now which one is it, again?" He turned to one of the new dancers who they'd picked up in Rndak. "A good and pleasant evening to you, Nlika. You're looking lovely." He gave her his best smile and doffed his hat, offering her a deep bow. She returned his smile with a small wave as she passed and hurried on about her duties. I need a chance to get to know that one better, he thought to himself, before turning back to Marn.
     Marn stood with his hands on his hips, glaring at him.
     "It's the one calls himself Sticky. He goes missing of a night with no word. Comes and goes as he pleases with no thought to duty. He has contractual obligations to the troupe."
     "How many times has this happened?"
     "Three different nights now. Though, I'd call this one a day, at this point, as he's been missing since last evening."
     "Probably having a drink and a dance. We don't come to a large city like this often," he said distractedly as he watched two female Elfin tumblers practice their routine. They were wearing very tight costumes.
     "Look, Ythaine." Marn waved his hand in front of his face. "Stop watching the ladies for a moment and focus."
     "Where's the fun in that?"
     "Business now. Fun later."
     "All right, all right. Can't you just find someone else to fill in for him?"
     "I could, but he has the keys to the powder wagon."
     "Oh, I see."
     "Look, I can get the wagon open. Will that help?"
     "For now, yes. But do we really want an untrustworthy Dvergar running about with our keys?"
     "Just post a watch on the wagon for now. When he comes back, take the keys and send him packing."
     "And if he doesn't? Or if he tries to steal it?"
     "We're going to make so much coin here, I'll hire a locksmith out of my own pocket, and we'll have done with it."
     "All right. Thanks. I'll feel better once we're out of here! With these huge crowds – we can't even set up the show without a load of kids getting in our way."
     "Out of here? Are you kidding? We're going to make a fortune here, and if the final performance goes as planned, we'll never need to travel again."
     "Wait. What?"
     "Our performance for the King. Don't you see the opportunity there? If all goes well, we just might wind up with a noble patron – maybe even a royal one. Then we can perform in the same place every night while the crowds come to us, and we'll all have fat purses to boot!"
     "You dream too big."
     "Perhaps. But you dream too small!" He clapped Marn on the back. "Come on man, let's find ourselves something to eat. I'm starving!"

     As the two men made their way to the commissary wagon, Sticky watched them from behind a pile of crates near the costume trailer. Send me packin', eh? Won't much matter after tomorrow. He climbed under the trailer, opened a trapdoor and climbed inside, carrying a large bundle behind him. He would bide his time here until it was right. Starting a panic was thirsty business, so he'd spent the night drinking, and was now nursing an enormous hangover. Who'd want to work under those conditions? Besides, if the priestess wasn't going to let him have any rest at night, he'd have to get some sleep in the daylight hours.
     He reached into his pouch and pulled out a ring of keys which he used to unlock a large trunk. He put his bundle in the trunk. He'd have to burn the wagon later, but that wouldn't be a problem – he was actually looking forward to it. Fire was fun. He couldn't wait to set the powder wagon off, in fact. Tomorrow night would be one to remember. He might even try to stay sober for it.
     He pulled a cloak off one of the racks and curled up behind the chest. Probably no one would come in here for a few hours now. He could finally sleep.

     It had been nearly nine months since the cloaked woman had first approached him. He was at the Crown of Gold, and had just settled down to really begin drinking for the night. Sure, a grubby looking Dvergar such as him got a few odd looks in a nice place like that, but when he flashed a little silver around, they served him well enough. Gold goes beyond race, class or station. He'd found a dark corner and a maid who he'd arranged to have bring him constant mugs of ale for good tips. He was only on his third drink when she sat down next to him.
     At first he thought maybe she was Dvergar herself, due to her height and the way she wore that cloak close around herself. But she was human. She'd only introduced herself as Lily, and told him she had some steady work for him. It was dangerous, sure, but it would pay handsomely. That's the word she used: handsomely. Bloody high-class humans and their speech. It didn't matter how she covered herself up, anyone within earshot would know she was nobility. Ordinarily he'd have had nothing to do with a woman like that, but then she sat a large stack of gold marks on the table between them and said she'd let him keep them if he'd just listen to her. That got his attention. He agreed to meet her at the cobbler's shop a couple of doors down after he finished his next drink.
     When he'd arrived, no one was there. The shop was closed and the windows were dark. He had stepped up on to the porch to have a look inside when the door opened and he'd heard a whisper instructing him to come inside. He'd done as he was told, but not before loosening his dagger in its sheath and gripping it tightly.

     Once inside, the door shut behind him and a light appeared ahead of him. "Follow the light," the voice whispered. He stepped cautiously towards the light where another doorway was revealed – this one led to a flight of stairs down to a cellar. He followed the stairs and once more a door closed behind him.
     Two people awaited him in the cellar: one was the woman from the Crown of Gold, and the other was a tall man in a blue cloak and a mask. A third person followed him down the stairs. This one wore a brown cloak and mask. There were a pair of lamps on the wall behind the two.
     "Rest easy, Dvergar," said Lily. "If we meant you harm, you would have already Passed into The Dream by now."
     That did not put him at his ease.
     "Three strange humans pay me a stack of gold marks just to listen to 'em in the cellar of a closed cobbler's shop - and two of 'em are wearin' masks? And then you tell me not to worry?" He unsheathed a dagger. It glinted in the lamplight.
     "Only two humans," said the figure behind him as she pulled off her cloak and mask. "I'm an Elf."
     "All right, three people, then. The point is you paid me to listen." He waved the dagger around lazily. "So talk."
     "Our sources tell us you are just the sort of person for whom we're looking." Lily pulled back her hood to reveal her dark hair and deep dark eyes. She was so short she barely needed to look down to speak to him.
     "What sources are those?"
     "Not the kind of sources we'll be revealing. Not at this meeting at least."
     "Fine, then. Get on with it."
     "We need someone who is good with his hands. We need someone who can get in and out of places without being noticed."
     "What sorts of places?"
     "The sorts of places you're likely to want to be anyway. Taverns, for example."
     "Well if you need someone who knows taverns, I'm your man." He laughed.
     "We also need you to to travel. Though you will be back here in a few weeks time."
     "I might be up for that. but what do you actually want me to do?"

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Chapter 20: The Room

     Elinge was interested to note that Rikard's rooms were kept locked. Once again she reminded herself and Mr. Insel that they had been given permission to examine all of the house except for the Countess's chambers.
     The room was disheveled, with articles of clothing and various papers lying about as if they'd been tossed around at random. There were plates and bowls with sticky – even moldy – bits of food clinging to them. There were a number of empty wine and liquor bottles tossed into the mix. In short, Rikard appeared to live like a pig.
     "Eugh. How do men live like this, Mr. Insel?"
     "Not all men do, Miss," the big man replied. "Mostly those as have no female companionship, I expect."
     "It's disgusting. I'm surprised the countess allows such filth in her house. Then again, it's unlikely she's visited these rooms in years. If ever."
     "I'd say likely not."
     There was a large window in the room, but the drapes were pulled over it, so very little light came in. Elinge walked over and pulled the drapes apart. The shutters outside the window were closed, as well.
     "Get a light on, would you, Mr. Insel?"
     "Surely." He went to a dressing table where a lamp stood. He pulled the chimney off and began striking a light.
     Meanwhile Elinge examined the room as best she could in the darkness. She pulled a small wooden blackjack from a hidden pocket beneath her belt and began pushing the odd bits of laundry, playing cards and dishes about.
     "I don't think he'll notice much if we disturb things just a bit."
     "You're probably right, Miss Froske." Insel lifted the lit lamp, allowing them to see. A few flies buzzed around the room now.
     Elinge got down on her knees and looked under Rikard's unmade bed. Insel began opening drawers and tapping them looking for false bottoms.
     "You think he's that secretive, Mr. Insel?"
     "One never knows, Miss. People don't generally lock their doors excepting they have something to protect – or hide."
     Under a pile of clothing at the foot of the bed Elinge uncovered a small trunk with an iron padlock.
     "He may not be so sneaky as all that, you know. He might just put too much faith in locks." She set about picking the padlock and after a few seconds had the chest open. Inside were several books which, upon examination, proved to be account logs detailing supplies purchased for the manor. Knowing she might not have much time, Elinge only gave them a cursory look, but she found nothing out of the ordinary. "Just a registry of supplies – items bought and sold: food, tools, cloth. Nothing unusual here."
     "Did you tap the bottom, Miss?"
     "Not yet." She did so. There was a dull sound sound of metal pieces jingling. "Sounds like coins." She placed the books on the floor and pulled the bottom out of the chest to reveal a leather sack full of gold and silver coins.
     "Looks like he's been saving his wages, would you say, Miss Froske?"
     "Perhaps," she replied thoughtfully. "Or perhaps he's making some money on the side. The countess seems to think he drinks most of his wages away, and considering the condition of this room, I'm inclined to agree with her."
     "So you think these coins have a different source."
     "Likely. There must be hundreds of marks here ... no: thousands."
     "It's no wonder he keeps the room locked then."
     "Indeed." She replaced the sack and false bottom, as well as the ledger books. "I wonder, though ... is that all he's hiding? Or might there be a clue to the source of all this wealth?"
     "You know, Miss Froske, I just had a thought."
     "And what thought is that, Mr. Insel?"
     "Do you remember that thief in Uhl?"
     "I could hardly forget. He nearly sent me into The Dream when he tried to drive that wagon team over me. As I recall, it was your quick action that saved me. But I expect you have another reason bring it up other than to remind me of one of the several times you've saved me from danger."
     "I do at that, Miss." The big man grinned widely. "Though I do like to remind you from time to time that you tend to take unnecessary risks."
     "Yes, yes. But the point, Mr. Insel. Please get to it."
     "Well, you may recall that the fellow would keep a false hiding place that he would allow to be discovered –"
     "So anyone searching for evidence on him would stop once the place was revealed."
     "And would keep a greater amount of treasure in an even more secure place, yes."
     "Why, Mr. Insel, you really do think Rikard is a devious one, don't you?"
     "As I said: One never knows." He stepped over to the chest and pushed it out of the way. Where it had sat they discovered a pair of loose floorboards. Once lifted, the floorboards revealed a small wooden jewelry box.
     "Your suspicions appear to be confirmed, Mr. Insel. Remind me never to try hiding anything from you, sir."
     "You'll never have need, Miss." The big man grinned again.
     The box contained numerous letters. The first one she examined was signed "Your Loving Servant, Livinia" and addressed to Viktor.
     "I'll want time to look these over. I doubt Rikard will notice them missing if we return them soon." She stuffed the letters in her pouch and put the box back in the space under the floor.
     They replaced the floorboards and pushed the chest back in place. Elinge covered the chest with the dirty laundry that had previously covered it. Insel put the lamp out and they stepped out of the room. Elinge looked it over quickly to see that all was in order - or, rather out of order in the same way as when they'd first entered. She then re-locked the door with her picks and they returned to Elinge's room in the other wing of the manor.

     Once there, Mr. Insel stood with his back to the door as Elinge sat on the bed and spread the letters out before her. She began sorting through them and reading them quietly.

     My Darling Viktor,
     How I long to once again be in your arms. Every moment we spend 
     apart is agony. Only your touch can heal this longing pain inside me.
     When can you get away to town again?
     Your Loving Servant,

     "Many of them go on like this. Simple love notes between a couple who are hiding their passion from others."
     "I expect that's at least part of the pleasure in a relationship like that."
     "You expect so, Mr. Insel? I believe in many cases such as this the forbidden nature is the source of nearly all of the excitement. People can be strange that way."
     "As you say, Miss."
     "If not, why risk writing notes such as this? Surely they'd have had opportunities to speak privately. These notes simply heighten the thrill – they increase the risk of being caught."
     "I suppose you're right at that."
     "Very few of these are dated, and the ones that are omit the year.
     "You think they might be forgeries?"
     "It's always a possibility, though I doubt it. Oh look here's one addressed to Rikard."

     My Dear Rikard,
     I am sorry to have to be away from you these long weeks. As long as the 
     Countess insists on traveling, I must attend to her. I suspect she has been 
     taking these trips just to keep your father and me apart. She cannot stand 
     the love that Viktor and I share, and it shames her even more that our 
     love has spawned a beautiful boy such as you. She feels her own 
     daughter is threatened by your very existence.
     You must remember that even though Elinora is your sister, and you 
     must look after her, you can not let her know this. For now we must 
     protect your birthright. If that means keeping quiet about our true family 
     until the old crone is dead, then that is what we shall do. I hope it will not
     come to that point, though. Viktor has promised me that as soon as his 
     commission comes from the king he will be fully invested in his portion 
     of the Astra estates and that he can then safely come out into the open 
     about or love and your paternity.
     I'll see to it that you inherit the LaDuce name and titles. And then we can 
     be a real family, the old countess be damned.
     Until then, be patient, my son. And remember that your father and I both 
     love you very much, even though he is forbidden from expressing it for 
     now. He will make it up to you some day. You have our promise on that.
     Your Loving Mother,

     "You know, Miss Froske," said Mr. Insel, "I think the wording of that letter is almost too convenient."
     "Yes, Mr. Insel. I agree. Either the woman was mad, or this is a forgery."
     "It's a shame we don't know exactly when it was written."
     "That's the oddest thing of all. If I were going to forge such a document, I would be sure a complete date was on it."
     "The Palonian Post has been dating envelopes for at least the last hundred years."
     "Yet there are no envelopes for these letters. I expect the love notes were merely handed off, but this one from Livinia to Rikard would have to have been posted."
     "Perhaps we can ask the countess about her travels between, oh, about  764 and 768?"
     "I doubt it, Mr. Insel. You saw how little she cared for any questions that touched on Rikard or Livinia's ages. I doubt she'd answer any such questions."
     "But Miss, she must have known we would suspect Rikard was the count's son."
     "The bloody portrait over the fireplace all but gives it away on its own."
     "So that leaves another question, Miss Froske."
     "Yes, Mr. Insel. Why would she invite us here to investigate her home and not do more to hide Rikard's paternity? Why wouldn't she simply send him away, or, at the very least, have the portrait moved?"
     "Do you expect she's brought us here for some other purpose than the one she's told us?"
     "No, I think not. The dream must be real, else why would she go to the trouble of burning the whole of the Willow Wood? That must mean something to her."
     "I don't expect she goes riding in the woods, Miss. And I don't see how any willow or ash could do her any harm at this point in any case."
     "No, Mr. Insel. And somehow I doubt the dream was intended to warn her about the crystals we found."
     "About those, Miss. What should we do about them?"
     "I don't know. I am loath to call on the Temple for help. Perhaps it's time we bring our other companions in and share what we've discovered. Perhaps they might shed some light on the situation."
     "That sounds like a good plan."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Chapter 19: The Duke

    "I think this one is above my pay grade, Commander." Captain Frayg did not want to be the man to tell Lord Varyll Namadar, Duke of Borland, Master of Swords and Commander General of His Majesty's Army that his daughter had been murdered in a stable behind some run down tavern near the river.
     "I know, Ham," said Commander Brylle. "But as you were the man at the scene, you should be present."
     Frayg was pacing back and forth in front of Commander Brylle's desk. The office was small, so his pacing took on a frantic quality.
     "All right, I'll be present. But someone way over my head – by all the hells, Nef, someone over your head – should be handling this."
     "I've sent in a request to Chief Commander Lyons. I hope to hear back from him this afternoon."
     "That's good to hear. This is going to be a very delicate situation, and I don't want caught up in the middle of it."
     "I understand."
     "I'm sure you do. And what about the Temple? Now that they're involved – and not just any old Templar, mind you, but the Grand High Exalted Inquisitor, or whatever in all the hells she is – things are only going to get worse."
     "Calm down, man."
     "Calm down? Are you joking? You know what those people can be like. Once they start smelling witches or Dark Magicks they don't let go. They keep searching until everyone is seeing witches under every bed."
     "Careful, Ham. You never know who might be listening."
     Frayg paused and looked at Commander Brylle. He sat in one of the two chairs across from him.
     "You're right. I need to calm down. The Archpriestess is surely just interested because of the nature of the crimes, right?"
     "Exactly. I'm sure once you find the person responsible, the Temple will take them in for questioning and that will be the last we hear from them."
     "But you didn't see her, Nef. She wasn't just looking for witches, she was ... well, she planted that crystal, I'm sure of it!" He stood up and began pacing again.
     "You must be mistaken, Ham. Why would she want to place false evidence?"
     "That's what I'm asking myself: Why? Surely the Temple has enough witches without making some up. So she must have wanted in on this case to begin with, and just used the crystal to pull rank on us."
     "Listen to me, Ham! You can't go around saying things like that! Even if what you say is true, and the Temple has some hidden motive, you don't want to go putting yourself in a bad way with them. If they hear you making such accusations you'll end up ... well, you know where you'll end up."
     "Right, right." Frayg sat again. "So I guess I just go on as before, but make sure I send reports to Her Eminence. With any luck I can get to the bottom of this quickly – before she has a chance to make much more of it."
     "You do that. Just don't let anyone hear any more of that kind of talk from you, all right?"
     "Yes, sir."
     "Now, while we wait to hear from the Chief Commander, won't you tell me what you know so far. What about the woman? Have you come any closer to finding her?"
     "Heh. You would think so. I've run into two women that match the description in as many days."
     "And? And, nothing, that's what and. One was a student working in the library at the Wizards College and the other was the Arch bloody Priestess of Questioning Witches."
     "Oh. Wait. You mean the Archpriestess matched the description of the woman who was seen with both victims?"
     "An amazing coincidence. What about this student?"
     "She's a bookworm. Knows a lot about history and Magicks, but I don't think she'd ever harm anyone. Besides, she was very helpful in my research."
     "It didn't occur to you that she might be laying a false trail?"
     "Of course it did. But how? By showing me ancient writings about this Teuthanurae?"
     "Well, yes. Precisely that."
     "But why? Why would she want me to suspect some legendary beast had returned to Palonias? To take suspicion off herself? There are better ways. That's just too odd – even for a bookworm of a student like her. Besides, she didn't bring me the information. I went to the library for help. She just happened to be there."
     "I suppose so, but it's far less likely that a High Ranking Priestess would be involved."
     "True. But I don't actually suspect either of them. I suspect the fact that they match the description is merely a coincidence."
     "Both of them?"
     "One of them must be. And if one, why not both?"

     There was a sharp knock on the door.
     One of the Watch House pages opened the door and entered the room. "I have a message here for you, sir. It's from Chef Commander Lyons." He handed the note to Commander Brylle, and left, closing the door behind him.
     Brylle read the note thoughtfully.
     "Well?" Frayg asked. "What does he have to say?"
     "He's bringing Mayor Astra in on this."
     Frayg let out a sigh of relief.
     "Don't relax just yet, Ham. They're going to want you to come along to answer any questions Lord Namadar might have. A man such as him is going to require special attention."
     "I knew it. They're going to use me as a shield."
     "I won't let that happen."
     "And you're going to stop them how?"
     "First of all, I'll be there with you, and so will the Chief Commander."
     "Four of us, eh? And one of us the mayor?"
     "So it would seem."
     "That's a lot of men just to deliver bad news. More targets, I suppose. The better to spread out the damage."
     "That may be just what they're thinking. In any case, we had best be on our way. Mayor Astra will be wanting to get this over with. We're to meet him at the South Market."
     "He's already on his way down there?"

     They left the Watch House and grabbed a pair of liveried horses from the stable. They rode down the High Street through the Cathedral Square. 
     Frayg took a moment to examine the Cathedral of Invincible Light as they passed it. It was a most imposing building. Physically it was less dominating than Ayrst Castle or the Wizards College of Sol, or probably even the Mayor's Palace. But there was something about its design – and the unconscious knowledge of its purpose, perhaps – that weighed on the mind of the observer.
     The cathedral was constructed all in white marble. It was a round building with a square fa├žade entryway which held the enormous bronze doors. Over the entryway was a gilded sunburst, a motif which was repeated all over the building: on the doors, capitals and the domed roof. From the back a tower shot into the sky, two hundred feet in height. The top of the tower held a golden ball which could be seen from nearly anywhere in the city. It was the tallest structure in Ayrst. It gave off a sense of might that was different from that of a castle – it spoke of wealth and of power over men's destinies. Only the nobility attended the New Day services here each week. And only the highest officials of the Temple were ever allowed into the tower.
     Once past the Cathedral Square, the main road became Mayrand Way. For most of its length it acted as the division between the Commons and the Royal District, past the great Arena until it met with Old Temple Street which held the main offices of the churches of the various Aspects of the One God. From there the Way led to the South Market square which stood before the Royal Gardens and Castle Ayrst itself.
     They waited near the gates until a carriage flying the Lion banners of House Lyons arrived. It stopped before the gates and they were motioned by one of the liverymen to follow. They passed through the large outer gates of the castle and into the courtyard. Their procession continued on through the inner gates and into the drive which led to the very steps of Castle Ayrst.
     Frayg had never been on the castle grounds. He had seen the outer walls many times, as well as some of the taller spires which rose up from behind them. The building was even more impressive close up. It was truly a defensive castle and not merely a palace. Here was a building which seemed to invoke a sense raw physical power – not like the Cathedral. This building was the place where great decisions were made: decisions of war and peace; decisions of policy for an entire kingdom. And it was built to withstand a siege by land or sea or both.
     They stopped in front of the main doors of the Royal Keep. This was the centerpiece of the whole fortification, and though it was built in much the same manner as the rest of it, the keep had a slightly more inviting look. Here were hung banners and the soldiers about it wore finer livery, and there was a wide blue carpet that led up the stairs to the door.
     The Chief Commander of the Watch and Mayor Jeremy Astra exited the coach as Frayg and Brylle dismounted their horses. A guard in polished plate armor opened the doors for them, as the footman went ahead. They were told to wait a moment in the atrium. Frayg watched as various men and women passed through, most carrying books or scrolls and all dressed in finery. They shuffled about their business taking almost no heed whatsoever of the men who stood waiting. After a few moments, the liveryman returned.
     "His Lordship, Duke Namadar, will see you now."
     They were led up a wide staircase to the left and to a hallway with wood-paneled walls. Then they were escorted through a large room with several enormous tables covered in maps with miniatures of soldiers and ships surrounded by various scribes. There was a gallery above, but it was empty. They were taken through a door on the far side of this room to a comfortably appointed office which contained two desks: one to the immediate left and a large, impressive one which sat on a dais in the middle of the room. Behind the large desk sat Lord Varyll Namadar.
     He was a tall man with close-cropped blond hair that was turning white. He wore a somber black waistcoat and matching breeches. His eyes were light blue. He had a pair of long mustaches that reached to just below his chin. He wore an expression on his face that matched his dress. He whispered something to the servant that stood by his side. The servant marched stiffly out of the room and Lord Namadar stood.
     "I expect you have some terrible news regarding Aliquah."
     Frayg and the others stood silent, until the Mayor approached the dais, and with a low bow said, "I fear it is so, Your Lordship. I fear it is the worst news a man can hear."
     "Out with it then." The Duke stiffened his stance and raised his gaze toward the top of the doorway through which the four men had come. "And say it plain. I deal in death, and will have no words minced in my presence."
     The mayor faltered and turned to Commander Lyons. The commander sucked in a deep breath and blurted it out all at once: "Your daughter Aliquah is dead, my Lord."
     "Thank you," Lord Varyll replied. He turned and took his seat again. "You may all sit."
     Looking about them they saw there were only benches near the dais, and so they sat on them.
     "Why does it take four men to bring such news?"
     "Well," began Chief Commander Lyons, "we thought it fitting to bring the watchman in charge of the investigation, your Lordship, as well as his Commander. I came as a representative of all the Watch, and Mayor Ayrst came as the representative of the city government."
     "I see. So you suspect there was foul play."
     "Yes my Lord," the mayor added at this point. "Or so the Watch believes. I haven't yet been informed of the details, you see, so –"
     "You," the Lord pointed to Frayg, interrupting the mayor. "You are the only man here who has seen … my daughter's ... body. Is that correct?"
     "Yes, my Lord."
     "Please approach my desk. The rest of you may leave." He waved them away dismissively.
     This is just what I feared, thought Frayg. I am to bear the brunt of his grief and anger alone. He stood and climbed the dais, standing opposite where the Duke was seated. The others all stood, bowed and made their hasty exits.

     Once the others were gone, the Duke's face softened slightly. He motioned to the chair behind the other desk in the room.
     "Please bring that up here."
     Frayg went to the chair and carried it up the dais. He sat across from the Duke.
     "You know who I am," said Namadar. "Now, tell me ... who are you?"
     "I'm Captain Hambelton Frayg of the City Watch of Ayrst, Your Lordship."
     "Thank you, captain, for coming to me with this. Those others, they're good men in their own way, but they live apart from the world."
     "Pardon my asking, my Lord, but don't you live the same?"
     The Duke sighed. "Most times, yes. I live apart, here in this castle or in my town house or at my estates in Borland. But there are times that I live amongst the people. I try not to isolate myself from my men, for example. There are times when I must stand apart, when I must be seen as an unquestioned authority, but I try to live a real life as much as I can at other times. I like to see men for who they are. Those men see only a title or an office, or a seal."
     "As you say, my Lord."
     "I do say." He heaved a great sigh. "I have tried to teach my children to do the same."
     "And that is why your daughter was at a crowded inn last night?"
     "That may be. But more likely she was gadding about with some other young lordlings. It's the fashion these days for the young nobles to … slum it, is the term they use, I believe."
     "Isn't that much the same thing?"
     "No. Their purpose isn't to get to know life, theirs is to judge the lesser people, as they see them."
     "And you do not see them as lesser?"
     "I do not. I may command men in battle, but they are not less than me. Each man has only one life to give, the same as I do. It is my job to see that as few of them as possible are required to give it. But, unless one gets to know what life really is for most people, then the dearness of life is a lesson unlearned. I see you're surprised to hear this. I suppose very few noblemen hold such ideals, and even fewer citizens expect it of a nobleman."
     "That is very true, my Lord."
     "Now, tell me please, Captain Frayg – what are the particulars of Aliquah's Passing?"
     "I believe it was very quick, my Lord. She probably didn't even realize what happened before she Passed into The Dream."
     "I wish to know the truth, man – not the things you normally tell a grieving parent."
     "This is the truth Your Lordship. She had a wound to the back of her head - the kind that usually … kills instantly."
     "Very well. What else can you tell me? How close are you to finding the man responsible?"
     "Well, Lord … we're not entirely sure it was a man. In fact, our primary suspect is a woman."
     "A woman? Another woman … killed my Aliquah? But why?"
     "We don't know, sir. We only know that she was last seen with a woman, and that the two of them left the Seabreeze Tavern together. We found her … her remains ... in the stable, along with an empty mead bottle and two broken glasses. We suspect the two of them left the tavern due to the crowds and decided to find a quieter place to have a drink."
     "And you suspect the woman with whom she left of killing her?"
     "Well, sir, two days ago we found the body of a young man at the Carter's Rest Inn. He was last seen with a woman matching the same description. And their remains were in a similar state."
     "Both had the same wound to the back of the head?"
     "No, my Lord." Frayg hesitated. "There were other … details. Details we'd rather not make public."
     "So you refuse to tell me?"
     "No, sir. I'll tell you. But I'd ask that you'd not discuss them with anyone. And I must warn you – they are unpleasant to contemplate."
     "I've seen men disemboweled on the field of battle. I've seen men trampled by horses and run through with pikes. I doubt there is any description you can give me that I cannot top."
     "But this is your daughter, my Lord."
     "As you wish, my Lord. But please bear in mind that we have strong reason to believe that both victims were dead before their bodies were … mutilated."
     "Out with it!"
     "Both their eyes were missing. And their brains."
     The Duke's jaw slackened. He stood up and began pacing the floor behind his desk. "But, why?"
     "We simply do not know, your Lordship."
     "But you have some suspicions?"
     "Yes, Lord."
     "And what are they? I want them all – every possibility."
     "I'm not sure I know them all, my Lord. I suspect that the Temple may have some ideas that they won't share with a simple Watchman."
     "The Temple? How are they involved in this?"
     "A Temple representative arrived on the scene this morning, Lord. In fact it was the Prime Examiner herself."
     "Halissa MacMorgen? She examined my daughter's remains?"
     "Not as such, Sir. Her Eminence simply came to the scene and began ordering us around." Frayg hadn't thought of the potential advantages of letting a Duke in on the investigations. With any luck the Duke and the Archpriestess will be so busy watching each other I might be able to continue this investigation properly.
     "Did she give any indication as to why, though?"
     "Only one thing, Lord. She seems to believe that there is some witchcraft involved."
     "Of course she does. The Witch Finders always believe there are Dark Magicks afoot. Did she have any evidence for this?"
     "Only the missing … parts, my Lord. She suspects they are being collected for some Dark Ritual. I suspect she may have other reasons to believe this, but she hasn't told me of them."
     "And what are your suspicions, Captain Frayg?"
     "To be honest, the thought of Dark Magicks had crossed my mind."
     "What else?"
     "Well, my Lord, this is going to sound strange, but have you ever heard of a creature called a Teuthanurae? Or an Eye Reaper?"
     "The Eye Reaper? What nonsense is that? Nursery tales from the north. My nursemaid told me such stories as a child. 'Behave yourself, or the Eye Reaper will come and blind you for life,' that sort of thing."
     "Yes, lord, as you say. Only … I did a little research."
     "On the Eye Reaper? Are you joking?"
     "I wish I were. I doubted myself for a moment, Lord. But the research was quite ... compelling."
     "All right , then. I'll humor you. What did you find?"
     Frayg described his trip to the library for the Duke. By the end of it, the Duke was astonished.
     "I've heard of strange things, Captain. I've even fought against some strange things. But I've never heard of this Teuthanurae - at least not by that name. And you say it was known to … eat the brain as well as the eyes?"
     "Yes, Lord."
     "And the witch crystal gave it its power?"
     "Not precisely, sir. It was said some of them could work Dark Magicks without the crystals, but that they used the crystals to enhance their power. And one other thing – the Archpriestess found a glowing crystal in the stall where your daughter's body was found."
     "You didn't discover such an important clue yourself?"
     Frayg took a deep breath. Time to put all my chips in.
     "I would have, your Lordship, but I don't believe it was there before she arrived."
     "Wait. You are accusing an Archpriestess of the Temple of the Invincible Sun of placing false evidence at the scene of a murder? You play a dangerous game, Captain."
     "As you say, my Lord. But I am certain of it, or I wouldn't have said this to you. I haven't told anyone else this, either, but you are a man who deals in reality, and so I feel I can trust in your confidence."
     "You may do so, Captain Frayg. I'll not breathe a word of your suspicion to anyone. Halissa MacMorgen bears watching, though. I've always believed she had designs above her place – in the Temple and in the Kingdom. If what you say is true, this may be the first time the woman has ever tipped her hand."
     Frayg did his best to cover his surprise. Considering all the deference given the temple, he was surprised to hear such talk. He supposed that people with enough power treated others with power as equals, no matter the varying sources of their power.
     The Duke reached across the table to Frayg and shook his hand.
     "Thank you, again, Captain Frayg, for your forthrightness. It is a refreshing change from all the scurrying and toadying I see on a daily basis."
     "Thank you, My Lord," replied Frayg. "I only wish we hadn't had to meet under such circumstances."
     "Agreed. When you leave, tell my secretary that I wish to be alone for half an hour. I've kept my composure for your company, Captain Frayg, but I need some time to be alone with my grief."
     "As you wish." Frayg bowed and replaced the chair behind the desk before leaving. Looking back, he saw the Duke sitting in his chair, back to his desk and facing the wall. He almost didn't believe it when he heard the sound of soft choking sobs coming from behind the chair.
     I will find the person responsible for this, he vowed once again.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Chapter 18: The Hunter

     Owerst Aerik Nandliss was a patient man. He had waited out countless enemies, both men and beasts. He could track the passage of anything that walked. He could go without sleep for long periods. Some said he was the finest hunter in all of Palonias, others said in all the world.
     So it was with some measure of frustration that he'd spent the night in a pear tree watching the cellar door. No one had come anywhere near the place. He suspected Rikard had known about the crystals, for his were the only prints that seemed to have gone into the copse multiple times. The tracks he suspected of belonging to Ms. Froske and Mr. Insel entered only once and left. He'd gone back to check this hypothesis after Rikard had accompanied him back to the house. Rikard must believe that his secret had already been uncovered, or he would not have brought attention the way he had when he'd invited Nandliss into the cellar. Rikard had also been far too quick to throw suspicion on the others. Nandliss had nearly been taken in, but after some reflection he'd decided to re-examine the scene on his own. He'd expected some sort of ruse, but his tracking skills had confirmed his suspicions.
     If Rikard was involved in hiding the crystals here, surely he would move them or arrange to have them removed quickly. It was on this belief that Nandliss had decided to watch the cellar. So he sat in the tree, two loaded crossbows at the ready, while nothing continued to happen. But he was a patient man. He would wait.

     Merrik Trammer spent the evening with Countess Amelia LaDuce. He'd asked her further about her dreams, but she either had no more details to share, or had decided to hold something back. He'd asked her to breathe on a mirror and had examined the pattern of her breath, but he saw nothing of any use, with or without the divining powder. He even told her of his own dream of the fool on the rock, but nothing in it had any meaning for her.
     After supper he suggested that he be allowed to sleep near her that evening. At first she was scandalized but when he explained to her that he would be on a couch or bedroll on the floor and not actually in the bed with her, and that she could have a small partition between them she accepted the arrangements. He explained that he may actually be able to share a dream with her and even revisit her earlier dreams – for dreams left an impression on the mind that lingered for a long time. The impressions of particularly important dreams might even last a lifetime. So he spent the night in her chambers, hoping for some clue, but all he'd received was a repeat of the vision he'd had earlier in the day.

     Elinge and Mr. Insel had excused themselves from the estates. They said they wanted to have a look at Lunelton. They returned late, having eaten at the Black Horse, and retired to their chambers. The next morning they awoke early and began to examine the interior of the house together. Most of the rooms of the house were now empty and hadn't even been dusted for months. It was an enormous house, and with only two permanent servants, proper upkeep was impossible. They took care to keep an eye on Rikard whenever possible, for it was his room they most wanted to examine.
     First, however, they spoke with the maid. Nansi was a kindly-faced woman who was devoted to her duty. She had dark hair with more than a few streaks of white beginning to show. Her hair was down this morning, though she normally wore it in a bun during the day.
     "We're sorry to disturb you so early, Nansi," began Elinge, "but we wanted to have a word with you before your daily duties took up all of your time."
     "That's quite all right, mistress. Do come in." She opened the door wide for their entrance. "You'll see my quarters are quite a bit larger than is typical for a servant, but there's the advantage in working in such a big empty place as this. The Countess allows us any rooms we wish, excepting for the guest chambers she keeps in her private wing. Them she likes to have empty. As if we ever had any guests here. Not for near on a decade, we haven't."
     "I see." Elinge & Mr. Insel entered and looked around the spacious room. "Yes, quite lovely and roomy."
     "Do sit down." Nansi motioned to a small couch against the wall between two large windows. "I expected one or the other of you lot would come calling before long."
     "You did?"
     "Of course. You're here about the countess's dream, I expect. And the note."
     "Yes, we are."
     "Well, I expect you have questions, and I'll be happy to answer any you might have."
     "Thank you, Nansi. That makes our job much easier." Elinge smiled at the maid. "That being said, then, I suppose I'll come right to it and save you some time."
     "As it please you, mistress."
     "Please, call me Elinge. Your mistress claims not to stand on ceremony here, and so neither shall we."
     "Thank you, Ellinge."
     "You came to work here when you were sixteen, yes?"
     "Yes. That was in 769. I've been here eighteen years as of this year."
     "So you worked with Livinia for what? Five years?"
     "Between four and five, yes."
     "What can you tell us about her."
     "You do get right to the point, don't you?"
     Elinge merely tilted her head to the right and arched an eyebrow.
     "I mean, it's clear you think there's something the countess didn't tell you, but we've all suspected. And yes, I believe Rikard is the bastard of Count Viktor."
     "But you're not sure?"
     "Can anyone ever be right sure? I know Livinia talked of a man she'd met in Lunelton – this was before she got with child – and how he was so wonderful and rich and handsome and how he was to some day take her away from all this." She made a sweeping gesture around her. "Wasn't long after that we noticed that her trips into town matched up, often as not, to the times when the count was out hunting, or away on estate business or some such. Tongues began to wag among the servants, as they are wont to do."
     "Then when she showed her bump, there was fighting between the count and countess. They tried to keep quiet, but we all suspected."
     "So, just guesses, then?"
     "Now you haven't let me finish, Elinge. No, it's more than guesses. One night in the time when Livinia was with child she got herself drunk in the cellar. At first we thought maybe she'd just run off, but I was the one that found her. The wine had loosened her tongue, and she told me all about how men are liars and how the count was the biggest liar of them all. She said she'd soon have his baby and how all his promises were empty. Her curses all ran together, and she changed the target of them quickly, as them that are deep in drink often do. She had more than a few choice words for the countess, as well."
     "Yet she stayed on here for years afterward, even after the count's Passing."
     "That was the countess's doing. I don't think she wanted anyone to see the resemblance between the count and the boy. She also feared what Livinia might do or say if she was turned away. She wanted her honor kept, or at least the guise of it. And since Livinia Passed into the Dream, she's built up stories around the count. To hear her tell it now, he was the perfect man: the most devoted husband and kindest of fathers."
     "But that's far from the truth?"
     "Oh, I don't suppose so – at least not after the fighting ended. No, I don't believe he ever strayed after that. Whether that was because of the leverage the countess's family had over him, or because of his own daughter being born the next year, or for some other reason, I don't know. He definitely loved his girl. And he never acknowledged Rikard."
     "So what does Rikard know of all this?"
     "I expect he knows a lot, though I've never discussed it with him."
     "Really? In all these years, you've never let on to Rikard that his father was the count?"
     "I value my job here. I only tell you all this now because I expect my time here is nearly over. This estate has seen better days, and the countess is in poor health. I don't know what will become of the place when she Passes, but I don't expect there will be much call for servants after that. Besides ... I expect you're the type to find answers. I've no doubt you'd have discovered all this one way or another without my help."
     Elinge smiled. "You're a very perceptive woman, Nansi."
     "It pays for a servant to be so."
     "I think you may be holding back a little something, anyway, but that's quite all right. You've been most helpful."
     "Oh, I've never been good at keeping secrets, Elinge." Nansi chuckled softly.
     "As you say, Nansi." Elinge and Mr. Insel rose from the sofa. "Thank you for your help. I won't keep you any longer." Nansi opened the door for them, and they exited. Just before the door was closed behind them, Elinge turned back to Nansi.
     "I have one final question, if you don't mind?"
     "Which room is Rikard's?"
     "Down the hall here and to the left." She pointed them in the right direction. "Last room on the right, just before the stairs."
     "And where is Rikard this morning?"
     "I expect he's out at the garden house. He goes there first thing, since the workmen came."
     "Thank you."

     Rikard approached the thicket and looked around. He failed to think of looking up, or would likely have spotted Nandliss in his perch. Seeing no one, however, he pulled out his key and entered the cellar. Once inside, he began moving crates until he got to the one containing the crystals. He lifted it with some difficulty, and  moved it closer to the door. There he sat and waited. Grigsby had better send someone soon, he thought. I'm through taking risks for those fools, no matter what they pay. He knew that extricating himself from Grigsby's bunch would be difficult at best. People like that didn't generally let you walk away once they had their hooks in you.

     A few minutes after Rikard entered the cellar, Nandliss spotted a Dvergar. He looked like one of the fellows that had been working at the logging camp. He, too, looked around before knocking sharply on the cellar door, and like Rikard, he failed to think of looking up at the trees. The door opened to reveal Rikard.
     "About time you got here," he said.
     "Keep yer britches on," replied the Dwarf. "Grigsby sends word you need a package moved."
     "Yes. It's these nosy guests of he countess's."
     "They spotted 'em yet?"
     "At least one that I know of for sure has. Two of the others seem likely. The fourth one I'd guess no."
     "Want we should take 'em out?"
     "What, you mean kill them? Are you mad? That would just draw more attention you fool!"
     "Not if we make it look like an accident."
     "An accident that kills three healthy adults, one of whom is well-known all around the kingdom?"
     "Or maybe they just disappears."
     "I don't think we're quite that desperate just yet."
     "Nay? I thought you said they seen 'em."
     "Yes, but I made it look like I was surprised to see them myself. I can play it off as though someone else put them here. I can also get the guests suspecting each other."
     "I dunno. I'm thinkin' –"
     "Just tell Grigsby," Rikard cut the Dvergar off, "I can handle this end, all right?"
     "Whatever you say."
     "Also, tell him it's best if we don't send anything through here for a while."
     "Oh, he's not gonna like that, nay – not one bit."
     "I don't care if he likes it. It's too dangerous right now. If we get caught, we'll all end up on an Examiner's Table, and then likely on a Witch's Pyre. You tell him that if we try to move anything else through here that's the likely outcome."
     "As you say." The Dvergar heaved the crate over his shoulder. "I'll get this on the cart. It'll be in Ayrst by tomorrow night."
     The Dvergar stepped out of the cellar and began to climb the stairway. Rikard followed and locked the door behind them.
     "That quickly?"
     "Yea. We got a man standin' by near Lunelton."
     "Good. The sooner they're away from here, the better."
     "Have no worries. We'll take care of everythin'."
     It was then that Nandliss heard some rustling sounds from below and behind him. He turned his head to look. There was a man with a horse and cart coming up next to the house. The Dvergar made his way over to the cart as Rikard  headed in the opposite direction, towards the garden terrace. As the Dwarf began loading the crate into the back of the cart, the man said something to him. Suddenly they were both looking straight up at Nandliss.
     The Dvergar dropped the crate and reached for a long dagger strapped to his thigh. The man in the cart pulled a bow from behind his seat and nocked an arrow.
     Nandliss reacted in a split second, He knew he couldn't let the cart driver get away, so he launched his crossbow at the driver. Even at this distance and from this angle Owerst Nandliss was as sure a shot as had ever raised a crossbow. His quarrel took the man right through the throat.
     The Dvergar charged at the tree and screamed something in his guttural native tongue, while Nandliss dropped his crossbow and reached for the other. The Dwarf moved quickly for his short stature and was halfway to the pear tree before Nandliss had taken aim. Just as he loosed his second shot the tree shook with violent force, and the bolt went astray. Nandliss dropped from the tree in an attempt to tackle the Dwarf, when his leg was caught from behind and he fell forward to the ground. His vision was filled with the white light of pain as his face struck the turf. He rolled over quickly, just as the Dvergar landed a blow with his long dagger. He missed Nandliss and struck the point into the ground, instead.
     Something still held the hunter's leg. He looked up, but all he could see was a shadow. He felt himself being pulled away, and then the Dvergar was on top of him. Whoever held his leg let it drop to the ground.
     "Thought you'd spy on us, did you? " Nandliss felt the point of the dagger against his throat. His vision began to clear. He looked past the Dvergar's shoulder to see Rikard standing over them. He must have come back when he heard the Dwarf shout, thought Nandliss.
     "I was merely investigat-," began Nandliss, but he was cut off.
     "We know what yer doin'," replied the Dvergar. "What we wanna know is how much you heard."
     "That hardly matters." His mind raced. I have to think quickly.
     "You think not?" The point of the dagger pressed against his throat. He could also feel blood flowing from his nose.
     "No. You see my companions know all about your little operation here. I was just here to observe."
     The Dwarf turned to Rikard. "See? I told you we'd have to deal with 'em. No choice now."
     "Wait!" Rikard exclaimed. "We'll need to-"
     Those were the last words Nandliss heard as the Dvergar decided to ignore Rikard's pleas and drove his dagger into Nandliss's throat. His world went black, his hearing faded, and he drifted into The Dream.