CHAPTER FORTY TWO
The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;
And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.
2 - 3 of Nightal 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
“Do not bother going through those letters again, my boy. I’ve already done it at least a dozen times, and have done a more thorough job than you ever could. There is not a speck in them relevant to Jon’s present whereabouts or to the reason behind his flight. I do have my suspicions though... but let me ponder over it a wee bit longer.” Omwo leaned back in a chair that was too high for him and left his feet dangling in the air, and took a deep draw on his pipe – lately he was smoking all the time.
“I know, I know… still, it has been almost two days and we have heard no news, either from him or from my silly little sister!”
Kessen swore in frustration and threw a stack of useless papers back on top of the ransacked desk. Written lines swam before his weary eyes, red from a sleepless night and two days spent out on the streets in a relentless hunt for rumors related to his missing twin. But his reading skill had not been not particularly good to begin with, although thanks to Chyil every child in Amkethran could read and write in both Common and Alzhedo.
Most of the documents Kessen had looked through were either delivery notes from various merchants trading in magical goods, or obscure commentaries on equally obscure extracts from arcane texts; and those were only the notes written in Common. He had not even tried to make sense of Jon’s elven writings – those looked like complete abracadabra to him. They had been searching through the elf’s belongings for the last hour or so, more out of desperation than because they hoped to find anything useful, and the young man was disheveled and downbeat, unlike the halfling, whose only visible symptom of being under stress was his heavy smoking.
The missing mage’s studio looked as if it had been repeatedly looted by every street gang in Darromar. The floor was covered with a flurry of parchments, half-unfurled scrolls, and opened books. All of this had once been the contents of the two upended crates and the iron-bound chest that the elf had packed full of his belongings – in secret from the rest of the group. Besides papers and books, the containers had been stuffed with bags and boxes of funny smelling powders, dried pieces of ugly-looking creatures, flagons and flasks filled with suspicious fluids, and even more bizarre arcane equipment, like oddly-shaped wands and pieces of strange machinery carved out of bone, crystal, and metal. These latter objects looked as if they could be arranged into some sort of a rotating device.
“I am telling you, Jon has gone bonkers!” Kessen cried out in disgust, wrinkling his nose at a particularly unappetizing specimen. “He was planning to travel to the far north with boxes full of dried frogs and lizards for supplies! And look at what he packed himself for clothes.” The boy pointed at the two dingy looking robes that had been squeezed into a corner of the chest. One of them had been used to wrap the most fragile parts of the arcane machinery. “Do you think he spent all his gold on the para-magical junk, or is there something left? Because I cannot see any money in here...”
The young man looked at the halfling, who was stooped in his chair in front of the empty fireplace cluttered with shards of glass, but Omwo only waved at him imperiously, as if asking for silence. “Of course my harebrained sister would say that I have never understood the workings of her beau’s ‘refined’ mind!” Kessen continued to argue, pacing across the floor of the plundered studio.
The healing bruise on his left cheek was itching madly, so he stopped his pacing and gave it a thorough scratch; then continued sourly. “If you ask me, I think the elf is utterly insane, and has been that way from the start.” He raised his voice to a high pitch, but it still had absolutely no effect on the halfling, so he continued in a more subdued but grouchy tone. “His memory problems should have been a clear sign for Mir to stay away from him. And if she had listened to me, by now she would have been safely married to a rich and influential bigwig, not out on the streets of this rotten city, ruining herself with a scallywag who is not worthy of cleaning her shoes with his tongue!”
“I see you have finally formed the correct opinion about my friend Eldoth Kron.” Omwo replied absentmindedly. “Good. Some day you should remind me to tell you the story about Eldoth and the barmaid from the Waterdhevian Crowned Rooster, who had vanished under very suspicious circumstances.”
Kessen stopped in his tracks as his dark eyes flared wide in alarm, and Omwo decided that the boy was not a completely lost cause after all. “Don’t scare me like that, shaa'ir! What happened to the wretched barmaid?”
“She was found a few weeks later, washed up on some remote beach... quite dead I am afraid. There were also rumors that she was a few months pregnant, and my friend Eldoth was in the middle of a very steamy affair with the only daughter of a local duke. The little embarrassing detail was that he had lodged in the Rooster for almost two years... and had suddenly moved out just a few days before Bertha’s disappearance. They never proved anything... but he had to flee the city after news of the scandal reached the duke’s ears.”
“Are you telling me that Mir could be dead by now!?”
“Not likely,” Omwo shook his head in energetic denial, “unless your sister had something that Eldoth wanted badly, and he could not get it from her in any other way. Don’t worry about her. I expect we will hear from Mirriam soon enough, and my only concern is how much Eldoth will ask for letting her go.”
“What!? Did you just say that I would have to pay Eldoth for the pleasures that he, no doubt, has wrought from my sister? That is obscene!”
“If you want her back quickly and unhurt you will have to pay,” the halfling replied simply, “or, rather, Jon will have to pay – since you have not a copper to your name.”
“I have quite a different payment in mind for Master Kron,” Kessen muttered after a short period of silence. His knife hand caressed the hilt of his jambaya, and his whole posture shifted subtly into something that could best be described as the springy stance of a hunting cat. Omwo tilted his chin, ready to make a smart comment, but the boy’s expression changed again, settling into a sly, contemplative expression.
“I care not if Eldoth will make the elf pay through the nose,” the youth grinned mirthlessly, “I will deal with Master Kron on my own, but this whole mess is of Jon’s doing, and the monetary damage is the least punishment that he should take.”
“Why blame the elf for the girl’s change of heart?”
“Because it is entirely his fault that she has run away, that’s why!” Kessen sneered, showing a neat row of crisp white teeth. “He treated her like dirt all the way from Amkethran. I wonder if Jon thinks himself a ‘great magician’? Maybe even one of the Chosen, eh?”
“Wizards are all mad.” The halfling muttered in reply, letting go of his pipe and making a chuckling sound. “And our Joneleth is no worse than many. What puzzles me most about this collection of artifacts,” he pointed at the rifled chest on the floor, “is the quality and quantity of his supplies.”
“What do you mean quality? Is not all of this just a useless pile of junk?”
“No,” Omwo shook his head at Kessen’s questioning stare, “this does not look like junk to me. Not at all. And these do not look like accoutrements that a green apprentice would buy either. Look at the quality of these metal pieces – they are perfectly polished and fitted to fine precision. I would give the small finger on my left hand to find out what they are, and how he planned to use them.”
“I am not much of a mage myself,” the halfling continued pensively, “and have never pretended to be one, but I know a few basic facts about magic. The progress that our dear Jon has made over the past month is not just unusual. It is completely impossible without some serious help from powers that are beyond the scope of this Plane. Unless, of course, he is not learning his craft anew, but rather remembering what he had once forgotten.”
“Do you mean that ‘Master’ Jon is the real thing?” Kessen’s eyebrows crept up. “A true wizard of great power? A slayer of dragons?! All I ever saw him do with his magic were a few pretty sparkles. And he used a wand in the fight against the Naga, if you did not notice that yourself.”
“I saw him do a few rather tricky spells,” Omwo replied with a shrug. “By the way, do you remember that vanished soup bowl?”
“What about it? It looked like a minor trick to me. Something a hedge-wizard would do at a country fair, to amuse the public.”
“Well, let me tell you, my boy, that casting a ‘disintegrate’ spell without either a somatic or a verbal component is not something your average hedge-wizard could do. As a matter of fact, I am not sure if Elminster himself would be able to repeat that ‘silly trick’ without a few years of preparation.”
“Are you jesting? That was only a stupid dish!”
“The important fact about that little incident was not ‘what’ he did to it, but rather ‘how’ it was done. No, Kessen my lad, do not underestimate our forgetful friend. He has this aura about him... sometimes I think he is the most dangerous person I have ever met, yet most of the time I feel genuine sympathy for him.” With these last words, Omwo bent forward and began to empty the bowl of his pipe into the fireplace that was clean and empty of everything but broken glass, since Jon had always insisted it was warm enough in his room without lighting a fire.
Kessen tried to laugh at the halfling’s strange ideas, but the sound of this laughter did not sound right, even to himself.
“How much do you know about our friend Joneleth, anyway?” Omwo asked suddenly.
The halfling’s face remained neutral, as he was apparently preoccupied with extracting the remnants of the burnt tobacco shreds out of his pipe. This important task was carried out with the help of a long steel needle that Omwo had produced seemingly out of nowhere. One of the little bard’s plump hands firmly clutched the pipe’s wooden bowl, while the other poked at the foul-smelling ashes. The skin of Omwo’s bald forehead contracted and expanded in an ever fascinating pattern of creases and crinkles, and Kessen suddenly remembered that Jon had used to joke that Omwo was at his sharpest when his brow pretended it was the surf in stormy weather.
“Well, not that much,” Kessen admitted honestly after giving it some thought. “Mir has always been the one to talk to him. See, I thought she would get bored of him quickly, the same as she always does with all her other fancies.”
“I always suspected that she is the better judge of character,” Omwo replied with a shrug. “There is something fascinating about our elven friend. Fascinating and frightening, yet completely irresistible all the same. And his supposed amnesia is only part of the deal. Have you ever heard him talk to himself? He sounds like a completely different person at such moments.”
“You sound almost like you are in love with him yourself,” Kessen complained bitterly. “Why are you all so mad about Jon? Has he put you under a spell or something? And while I can laugh at my sister’s silliness, I have never been able to understand what was in it for you, shaa'ir. Why did you not leave us when we reached the safety of the big city?”
“And why did you not leave Joneleth’s company yourself, my boy? You two were originally headed for Zazzesspur, were you not? In search for your missing father, if I am not mistaken.”
“Because... because my sister was head over heels in love, that’s why! Try to talk sense into a girl when she is mooning over one man day and night.”
“I say, she showed a good taste,” the halfling replied calmly. “At least until she ran off with Eldoth. As for myself... Well, let me try to put it in a way that even you can understand. What is it that you crave most in this life, boy? What brings tears of joy to your eyes, and puts butterflies into your stomach?”
“Erhm... money for one thing, and hmm – the rolling of dice?” Kessen replied after a brief period of silence. “The feeling that you get in the pit of your stomach just before they stop spinning. Heh, I used to feel this way in battle sometimes, especially when facing an opponent almost matching me in skill. The fight turns into a gamble, but it is wicked fun.”
Omwo looked at him from the corner of his eye, and mirthlessly chuckled to himself. Both of the twins were exceedingly handsome, and in the weeks spent in Darromar, Kessen had acquired some polish that he had certainly lacked before, although the bruise that covered the left side of his face, and the three-day old dark bristle on his chin slightly spoiled his looks. However this disheveled state lent the boy a certain rascally charm. Kessen now resembled a pirate more than he ever had a nobleman, and the halfling wondered how many young Darromarran noblewomen would be left brokenhearted upon their departure.
“You are a natural born gambler, my boy,” the bard declared finally. “And you should pray that Tymora will continue to watch over you, as I feel that your streak of good luck has run out long time ago. But see, I feel the same way about stories. I live to tell them, the same as you live to hear the clatter of dice on a table. The bigger the story, the greater is my reward, and my assessment of my own merit. I have been hunting for a story big enough to make me feel complete throughout my entire life, and now I think I’ve found it. Joneleth is going to be my big story.”
The halfling stopped for a moment, as if gathering his thoughts, then continued with a strange passion, “I also want to point out that following Jon is the biggest gamble you will ever take. Trust my word, laddie – you’ll never find anything nearly as dangerous or as potentially lucrative as him and his quest. I have a gut feeling for those things, and it has never failed me before.”
“Heh, I guess that is why you ended up in a dingy hole in the middle of a desert, enslaved by a tramp possessed by a spirit worm.”
“You cannot deny that it was a great story and that if not for it, I would never have met any of you.”
Kessen was about to come up with another mocking reply, but the halfling, who by then had finished filling his pipe with fresh tobacco and was searching through his pouch for the flint and small blade he used to start fire, suddenly straightened up and raised one plump finger into the air.
“Shhh, laddie. Stop this pointless bickering. Can you hear the music?”
The young man’s ears pricked up, and he jumped from the massive clothes chest he had been seated on. The halfling’s hearing was sharp – now that Kessen paid attention, he could also hear the quiet sounds of music.
The child’s head was tilted to one side, her tongue stuck out between her pale lips, her hands stretched out and curved above her head, swaying back and forth in rhythm with the music. It was a very good imitation of the ballerina she had seen in the theater, nothing more, Kessen tried to reassure himself. Miamla rose on her toes and made a few spins, stopping only to catch her breath and to assume another striking pose. She was wearing a nightgown of white silk, but in a beam of moonlight, pouring in from the open window, the fabric acquired a strangely metallic tint; and her curls that were eerie silver even in the mundane light of day now looked like plumage of some strange mythical bird.
Miamla stood on one toe as her other foot stuck out, made a full swing and returned to the floor, only to strike out again, this time from the knee. Then the little girl made a graceful pirouette and jumped. Kessen’s jaw dropped. For a moment, he was almost sure she hung in the air, balancing a few feet above the floor with her arms stretched out wide in a semblance of two semi-transparent wings. Her chin was raised to the ceiling, her huge metallic eyes were closed but they seemed to shine with a pale inner light, bedecking her brow, cheeks, and her entire face in a mesh of tiny silver scales.
“She is not elven or human, she is something else”, Kessen thought all of a sudden, and blinked. Then the illusion passed and once again Miamla was only a little girl, dancing to the music from the gilded box that was gently tinkling on her dresser.
“Why aren’t you in bed, little one?” Omwo asked from behind Kessen’s back, and walked to the musical box to stop it with a tender yet efficient gesture of his sausage-like fingers.
That simple act was enough to break the spell. The child sighed deeply and said something in the bird-like melodious tongue that she had always used to communicate with Jon.
“I cannot understand you, my dear,” Omwo replied sadly. “See, my Elven is very rudimentary, although I can feel that you are unhappy. But Miamla, I assure you – we are trying our best to find our friends.”
“Joneleth… danger.” She suddenly said in broken Common. “Miamla takes one letter. Elves angry.”
“What letter? Are you talking about the letter that Jon received a few days back – the one that made him so angry that he threw a temper tantrum and ran out? And why did you say one? Was there another one?”
The child nodded energetically, but all her efforts to explain herself further were failing. Neither her Common, nor Omwo’s Elven were good enough to break the barrier.
“Joneleth go North,” Miamla tried to help herself, waving her hands in a good imitation of bird flight, and Kessen thought it odd – normal child would have used her fingers to imitate walking. “Elves… forest here,” she pointed at her feet. “Suldanessellar burns… elves die… Evereska burns too – elves mad, Joneleth dead!” Miamla sighed, looking at them pleadingly.
“Do you mean the elves will be angry with him if he goes to Evereska? Or if he does not? And what is this ‘Suldanessellar’?”
“No, no!” She tried to say something again, and suddenly switched to that other tongue, that Kessen now identified as Elven.
“What are you two talking about?” He tried to interrupt their turbulent exchange, but was promptly ignored by both of the participants.
After a few minutes of listening to their gibberish, the young man’s attention wavered, and he turned to the musical box that was one of the latest gifts that Mirriam had bought for the child before her elopement. The little toy was fashioned out of polished green stone, with legs and corners made of gilded bronze, and a beautiful bronze figurine of a dragon, curled around what looked like an egg, on its lid. Kessen tapped at the dragon’s head with a fingernail, and flinched at the melodic tinkle of the chimes inside.
“I have been a fool!” The halfling suddenly stopped his negotiations with the girl, and slapped himself on the forehead. “I was mesmerized by the crystal ball and completely forgot about the letter!”
“What crystal ball? I did not see any crystal ball in those crates. What are you talking about?”
“Don’t pretend to be sillier than you are,” Omwo grumbled in irritation, “I am talking about the broken one of course, the one that Joneleth smashed over the fireplace.”
“You think that was a crystal ball?”
“What else could it be? Jon had some sort of a divination spell going on, and then he smashed the crystal – most likely because he saw something he did not like. I assumed that he had seen your sister with her new paramour and that was why he had run out. Now I am not that sure…” The halfling stopped in mid-phrase.
“She is saying he received two letters from the elves… It tells me that they either tried to warn him of something… or asked for a meeting. And judging by his reaction, Jon was not happy about the letters’ content. He went out and spent the whole day out in the city. I thought he simply enjoyed some time alone with your sister but there might be more to his sudden mood swings of late than stormy love affair.”
“I thought it was bloody obvious that they were together on that day,” Kessen replied angrily, “Remember how she looked at him after they returned? And two days later he pretended she was nothing!”
“Jon started to make arrangements for the swift departure at about the same time.” Omwo’s eyes lit with sudden idea, and he looked up to share his revelation with the human. “If what Miamla is saying is correct, then the Tethyran elves might be directly involved in our Joneleth’s disappearance. I have been a fool indeed. No – an imbecile! And because of my inanity, Jon could be either dead or taken to a place where no one will ever find him.”
“So, you think the elf might be with the other elves? I say, good riddance! Is not this exactly what he wanted – to be reunited with his kin? At the moment I am much more concerned about my sister.”
“I feel sorry for the girl but Mirriam is where she wanted to be,” Omwo said apologetically. “Whereas Jon... I am not that sure anymore. Damn it, I am not that sure about anything!” He looked at Miamla, who watched them both with interest and an appreciation disturbing in a child that small.
“Why don’t you go back to bed, little one?” The halfling pleaded softly. “It is well past midnight and...”
But perhaps this was a night for interruptions, because at that very moment they heard a heavy pounding on the front door of the living room.
Kessen blinked and blinked again, but his eyes refused to stay open however hard he tried. A few hours had passed since a pair of grim and silent guardsmen had practically dragged him into a building that he remembered only too well. The youth had not been able to recognize these two in particular, but their flint-hard glances and equally menacing fists had assured him that they had heard about him. The guards had not let Omwo follow, but while he had been roughly ushered along the dark and miserably cold streets and alleys of Darromar on the way to the city jail, Kessen had caught a few glimpses of the halfling shadowing them at a discreet distance, and that sight had made him feel slightly better.
The Guard House was technically part of the same structure that housed the city jail, and at first Kessen had been certain that the guards were taking him directly back to his cell. But instead of turning left and passing through the massive ironbound door that led to the inner sections of the compound, they had taken the right turn, which, as had been briefly explained to him, led to the guards’ headquarters, offices of the prison clerks, and the interrogation chambers. That last bit of information had not pleased him at all, but since Kessen’s captors had spoken very little throughout their entire journey, and had refused to answer any of his questions, he had decided to save his righteous indignation for someone it could affect.
The rude guardsmen had shoved him into a rectangular waiting room, badly lit, and equipped with cheap and extremely uncomfortable furniture. (It is a well-known fact that seats that occupy the public rooms of courthouses and guard stations are designed by special order and with one goal in mind – to endow the visitors with as many aches in their lower quarters as possible, preferably in the shortest possible period of time.) Now Kessen was sitting on one of the hard wooden benches – most likely made by the best torturers of the Nine Hells – trying not to fall asleep and keel over, as that would inevitably have resulted in a cracked skull. Still, the young man’s spirit remained unbroken. There were very few calamities in this world that could have achieved the feat of disconcerting Kessen for good – he was too much of an opportunist to stay depressed even after the most cruel twists of fate, and at the moment his personal situation worried him much less than that of his sister. He simply viewed the arrest as yet another annoying obstacle distracting him from the task of locating Mirriam.
“I see you are back in our care, gambler. And much sooner than anyone would have expected. But you must agree – this is the place where you most rightfully belong.”
The voice that finally brought Kessen out of his miserable half-daze was familiar enough. Indeed, he would have recognized that dull timbre among dozens of other voices. Lieutenant Ratcatcher was one of the most unpleasant individuals whom Kessen had had the misfortune of encountering during his stay in the city jail, and the officer’s sudden appearance was enough to put all the young man’s senses on high alert.
“Nice seeing you again, Capt’n,” Kessen jumped to his feet and gave the guardsman his best imitation of a courtly bow, revealing two rows of pearly-white teeth in a radiant smile that could have made Sune jealous.
At that instant, the youth truly regretted that he had not shaved for a few days, and had not bothered to put on any better clothes. Ratcatcher was intimidated by the nobility, and by rumors had been stuck in a rank of lieutenant for the last eight years, without the slightest chance of promotion. Still, even Kessen’s stained and wrinkled coat of blue silk embellished with gold embroidery looked like it had originally cost its owner more than a lieutenant’s monthly salary, and that thought gave the boy some extra confidence. Not that Kessen ever needed it much, even when wearing rags.
“Oops, they have not promoted you yet.” The rascal continued with a smirk. “My fault, old chap, but you will have to forgive me: the lighting here is poor enough to make your cudgel look like a Captain’s sword.”
The lieutenant was a gangly undernourished fellow in his mid-forties, with the bony face of an old horse, a starting bald spot, and a penchant for heavy drinking. He was, perhaps, a picture perfect of an affliction widely referred to as a ‘midlife crisis’. Calling him old, right after reminding him of his failing career, was adding insult to injury, but Kessen could not stop himself, even though he knew he was setting himself up for a good beating. The bruise under his left eye was a painful reminder of their last ‘discussion’, which had resulted in Kessen been set upon by four burly guardsmen.
“You’ve brought back your bag of dirty tricks.” The guardsman nodded with grim satisfaction. “Marvelous. I did not expect you to abandon your indecent manner, but having confirmation from your own mouth makes my job easier. Remember, Freyaddin, it is much easier to enter this place than to leave it. And this time your rich and intimidating friend might not be around to get you out of trouble.”
Something in his reaction did not please Kessen at all; he had not expected the victim of his mockery to stay so composed. In the past, one joke about Ratcatcher’s hypothetic captainship had been enough to make the officer’s face, pale and doughy like an unbaked pancake, break out in a wave of patchy crimson. Now the lieutenant watched him with the expression of a snake trying to hypnotize a small rodent, and the hungry curiosity in the officer’s colorless eyes was almost disturbing.
“Am I missing the point here, lieutenant?” Kessen decided to force his opponent to show some of his cards. “Your goons dragged me in here half a night ago,” the boy nodded at the flickering lanterns on the walls. “And now you are trying to daunt me with empty threats. Why? What do you want of me?”
“So, you wish to go straight to the point, eh gambler?” Ratcatcher replied with some unease. “How very prudent of you. Very well, I shall relay the facts. I wanted you brought here almost two days ago, to identify a body, but decided it could wait until I finished my investigation. Now it looks like you will have to make two identifications in place of one.” He looked at the young Calimshite with an expression that had a hidden message, yet for the life of him, Kessen could not make out its content.
“A body?” The boy asked carefully, trying to buy some time, and hide his puzzlement at this new riddle. A vague suspicion began to form in his mind, but Kessen chased it away. “I have not heard about any recent killings in town,” he replied lightly, “unless you count the rumors about some lamer knifed down in Madame Zyz’s cathouse. I assure you, I have had nothing to do with it.”
“I haven’t said you are a suspect yet, have I?” Ratcatcher stressed pointedly. “But you might become one… if you prove to be too uncooperative. Yet if you will see things my way, we can even agree on a proper compensation for your trouble.”
“I say I am tired of your riddles, lieutenant,” Kessen dropped onto the wooden bench, and placed his feet on top of an empty desk before him. “Wake me up when you feel like having a straight talk,” he added slyly, closing his eyes, and observing the irate guardsman from behind his lowered eyelids.
It was a risky gamble, for the boy could practically sense the waves of anger and frustration emanating from his interrogator. Yet the alternative was to let himself be intimidated by a man whom he could neither trust nor respect. Thus Kessen sat back and waited, with his every muscle tensed in anticipation of the coming explosion. Alas, he could never have expected what followed.
“You are a filthy mummer, Freyaddin, and I wish I could make you pay for your latest impunities right now, yet the Gods have decided differently.” The officer stopped, and looked Kessen over with an expression of pure hatred. “But I cannot see anything but a divine punishment in the fate that has befallen another brat bearing your polluted blood!”
The blood rushed away from Kessen’s face, as the potential meaning of the guardsman’s words reached his brain. The young Calimshite’s skin turned pale gray, his lips drew back in an ugly rictus resembling the morbid smile of a mummy’s head. Kessen came to his feet dazedly, and then in one swift motion that was too quick for the lieutenant to intercept, leaped from his seat and over the empty desk that separated him from the officer. Before Ratcatcher could raise his baton for a strike it had been knocked out of his hand by a vicious blow.
Two prison guards standing by the door tried to rush to their commander’s defense, but Kessen already had the luckless officer by the throat, and the boy’s other hand was pressing a razor-sharp jambaya to Ratcatcher’s bare neck, drawing a thin trickle of blood.
“I will skin you alive you like the vermin you are, if you don’t give me straight answers.” Kessen’s voice, usually soft and flippant, sounded like the screech of a rusty iron hinge, and his captive shuddered at the deadly certainty in the boy’s voice.
Ratcatcher had always considered the Calimshite to be a bit of a clown, spiteful and full of himself, but generally harmless, and that was why he had not taken any serious precautions for this meeting, yet now he was truly scared for his life.
“If you don’t want to end up with another opening – one across your throat – you shall tell your lackeys to back off. And then you will answer my questions,” Kessen continued in an equally menacing tone.
The officer made a gurgling noise, frantically waving to the guardsmen to move away from them. They could deal with the madman later, he decided wisely, after he was out of the young Calimshite’s grip.
“Good,” Kessen issued through faintly chattering teeth, and eased his grip slightly, allowing the lieutenant to speak. “Now, tell me, what by the Abyss did you mean by your last comment? Does it have anything to do with my missing sister?”
“We have had her in custody for the last two days,” Ratcatcher croaked with visible effort.
“Mirriam has been locked in one of your damned cages for two days and you did not send for me right away?” Kessen asked incredulously, relaxing just a little. Thousands of disastrous scenarios, each more despondent than the last, began to play in his head. “You cretin!” He shook the guardsman by the neck. “What was it? You could not get the stupid scissors case pinned on me and decided to go after her instead?”
“She was apprehended for a murder,” Ratcatcher hissed angrily, “caught red-handed, you might say, right at the crime scene, and with plenty of evidence!”
“Murder? Of whom?!”
“Of a renowned artist and honest citizen who had the misfortune to run across you two troublemakers!” the lieutenant croaked into Kessen’s face. “My old acquaintance, Master Eldoth Kron was killed most viciously, and I have all the proof in the world that it was her doing.”
“I spit on your bloody proof, you son of a black scorpion and a two-headed hyena! What does she say herself?”
“The wretched girl has been catatonic since the moment of the murder,” the policeman admitted reluctantly. “So, we could not get a confession. And now she is dead. I…I only learned of it a few hours ago!” He screamed, feeling further contraction of steely fingers around his throat.
“W-what did you just say?” Kessen’s voice became a soft whisper, but to Ratcatcher it sounded deadlier than the murmur of a rattlesnake. “M-my sister is dead? What did you do to her, you foul-mouthed offspring of a sewer rat?!”
“I swear on my mother’s grave that I did not do anything!” The terrified guardsman gurgled through the iron grip tightening on his vocal cords. “S-she took her own life!”
“How did that happen?”
Ratcatcher felt the blade of the young man’s jambaya dig deeper into his flesh and squirmed in the Calimshite’s hands, thrashing like a captured rat. “I vow by all that is true that we did everything required b-by instructions,” he managed to get out in a hoarse whisper, “s-she did not have any rope or belt, so she b-broke the water jar and cut her wrists with one of the s-shards.”
“That is not possible,” was the strangely calm and measured reply, “no one would do it to themselves with a dull ceramic edge – it would be too painful. You are lying to me, you son of a leprous jackal, and you will pay dearly for your lies.”
“I will take you to the mortuary to inspect the b-body if you wish! S-she managed to do it somehow... And before she got hold of the p-piece she tried to do it with her teeth… It w-was a very messy sight. But how was I to know she needed constant watching? I am telling you, the girl was catatonic – she just sat there staring into space for near two days, and then this!”
“I would know what was done to her, to drive her to such a horrendous act.” Kessen’s hands were now shaking badly, but he still held the guardsman tightly enough to refute any ideas of breaking free from his grip. He took a better hold on his jambaya and the guardsman shrieked at the sharp bite of pain in his neck. “Was she harmed in any way by your men, Ratcatcher, while they were arresting her? The life of anyone who touched her is forfeit – this I swear on my blade. Their blood will be drained drop by slow drop, but not before I cut off their male parts, with a very dull knife.”
“N-no!” the denial was vehement enough to shake the officer’s entire body. “My m-men are professional guardsmen. D-don’t be a fool, Freyaddin! Something l-like that could have happened a decade ago, b-but not since Queen Zaranda was raised to the throne! You know how harsh she is with crimes of that kind... l-less than a month ago a palace guard was n-nearly hanged after a complaint from a maidservant. N-no, if any offence has been committed against your sister, it happened b-before h-her arrest, n-not after.” His teeth were chattering badly and his speech was nearly incoherent, from fear.
“You told me she was arrested for Kron’s murder, yes?” Kessen asked thoughtfully. His head was oddly empty, yet he knew the pain was simply biding its time. “But… but I thought that she went with him of her own accord... What did he do to her?!” The shifty look in the lieutenant’s eyes was enough to confirm Kessen’s worst suspicions.
“How much do you know about the case?” He shook the skinny man so violently that the guardsman’s limbs flailed helplessly in all directions. “And did you just try to bribe me into staying mum about her… about what was done to her? I knew you had a dirty mind Ratcatcher, but that… is this how you see me?” The expression on the guardsman’s face was enough of an answer, and Kessen uttered one of the ugliest swears he could think of, making the errant officer flinch.
“I need to see her… her body,” he muttered after a pause. His head was spinning badly, yet his voice sounded controlled. “Afterwards, you shall tell me more,” Kessen prodded Ratcatcher with the hilt of his blade. “And don’t try to do anything funny. I have no doubt that your thugs would overwhelm me in the end, but it would not matter to you, since you would be dead anyway.”
“Why don’t you let me go, Freyaddin?” The lieutenant asked, suddenly catching a subtle change in his captor’s voice. “Let’s stop this foolishness – I was going to take you to the mortuary anyway.”
“And why should I trust you after you’ve kept me in the reception room for half the night, and then tried to mislead me with your lies? No, I believe it is you who are acting like a fool, lieutenant. At this point, my only hope for justice is to hold you hostage until I find who is responsible for my sister’s death. And, by the way,” the young man added after taking a deep shuddering breath, “I assume you have had a priest summoned to check the body? Maybe she can be brought back yet. I would be willing to pay anything it takes, for the ritual.”
“I don’t think so,” Ratcatcher shook his head, and for the first time since the beginning of their confrontation Kessen heard a genuine note of regret in the guardsman’s voice. “Your sister has been stone dead for many hours when we found her… I am afraid it is too late for her, gambler boy.”
They walked through the hollow corridors, narrow stairways, and reverberating halls of the old building for what felt like eternity, and the distant clangs of metal followed by the rhythmic steps of prison guards were the only sounds to disturb the eerie silence of the night. In reality, the trip to the mortuary was fairly short, but Kessen was in no state to properly judge distance. Mirriam had always been an inseparable part of him, and the very thought of seeing his twin dead filled him with anger and sadness the likeness of which he had never felt before. The worst part of it, however, was the sense of personal guilt, as deep inside his heart Kessen knew he was at least partially responsible for Mirri’s continued association with Eldoth. Now he dearly wished he had listened to Omwo, but alas – it was too late. On top of it all, he was denied even the bitter satisfaction of rightful vengeance, for if Ratcatcher was not lying, Mirriam had already killed Eldoth Kron with her own hands, and he could not begrudge his sister that small token of revenge.
“She is right here, at the end of this passage,” the lieutenant suddenly stopped in front of a massive door plated with metal, with a rusty iron ring of a handle hanging from its middle. “Now, why don’t you let me go, gambler boy? I promise not to report your reckless actions, and everything will be forgotten.”
Kessen was still holding the guardsman’s collar, but it was more of a reflex than a real threat. The two guards were following them at a discreet distance, but the corridor was sparsely lit and Kessen could not see far enough in the dark to find out if they had managed to call any more of their comrades for support. He knew that Ratcatcher was not to be trusted, but he also realized that he had no chance of getting out of the Guard House alive if it came to a confrontation with its entire contingent.
“Show me my sister, and I will let you go,” Kessen offered after a brief hesitation, “but only after I have seen the body.”
“I told you, Freyaddin, that was why I summoned you here,” the officer grumbled, picking up the ring of keys that was dangling on his belt and selecting one, “I was going to take you to the corpse when you jumped me like so much of a devil. Now, tell me, what have you gained by threatening me and cutting my neck with your blade?”
“The truth,” Kessen replied simply, grabbing the torch from one of the stands and forcing it into Ratcatcher’s shaky hands.
They entered an even darker stairway, which by the look of it led deep into the very bowels of Hell. It was mortally cold in there, and the air smelled faintly of the sweet stench of decay, which often accompanies death. Kessen’s heart sank – there was no doubt now left in his mind that his sister was dead.
At long last, they reached a small nearly empty chamber, faintly lit by a few torches smoldering in their brackets. Mirriam lay there on a big slab of gray stone, utterly naked, and so very cold and alone that her brother’s heart wept at the sight of her. Kessen shoved the whimpering guardsman through the doorway back into the dark and empty corridor, and rushed to the stone table. His first and utmost desire was to cover her with something – a blanket or cloak, anything to lessen that feeling of forlorn and cold nakedness that troubled him so.
Then he noticed the ugly bruises on her face and neck, and the terrible bleeding wounds on her wrists that looked like they had been torn open by an angry beast rather than induced with a cutting instrument. Mirriam was covered with blood; even the stone slab under her looked wet. That troubled Kessen a little, for he felt she should not have bled so profusely if she had indeed been brought here after her death. But the thought about blood was secondary, and it trembled at the very edge of his perception even as he climbed on top of the stone slab, put his arms around his sister’s cold body and cried, shaking with violent sobs.
Yet, just as he lifted Mirriam from the stone, taking her into his embrace and shuddering in anticipation of the cold rigidness of her corpse, he heard a sigh. His sister was icy cold, but her limbs were flexible, and her skin was covered with goose bumps, which was utterly impossible if she were truly dead. Mirri’s whole slim body ran with shivers, and as Kessen held her closer, yelping from the pure joy at his discovery, he could hear the chattering of her teeth, and another quiet moan that escaped her pale-blue lips.
“She is alive, you bastards!” The young man cried out, tearing off his coat, and nearly ripping it apart in his frantic zeal. “Why have you put her in here? Can’t you see she is dying from cold and loss of blood? Send for the priest this very moment, you murderers!”
He gathered Mirriam in his arms, wrapping her quivering frame into his coat as best as he could, and lifting her from the stone slab with the assiduity of a parent carrying a small child. One of her bloodied hands slipped out of his grasp, and in the weak light of the fading torches Kessen noticed something glimmer on her middle finger – the emerald eyes of the cat ring, which Jon had given her as a part of Addazahr’s treasure, seemed to glow with an odd green light of their own. What surprised him most though was the fact that no one had stolen the bauble yet.
They burst in when he was half way to the door – a whole squad of prison guards, armed with halberds and crossbows.
“Your game is over, Freyaddin. Put the corpse back on the table and give yourself up!” The young man heard Ratcatcher yell from behind the backs of his solders.
“I am telling you she is alive,” Kessen replied with a calmness that surprised him. Truth be told, at this stage of the ordeal his emotions were completely burnt out, and the only thing he could think of was how to relay his urgent need for a priest.
Luckily, that was when Mirriam stirred in his hands, giving a small pitiful whimper befitting a wounded kitten. The effect that it had on the soldiers was much stronger than any of Kessen’s likely admonishments: most of them recoiled, lowering their weapons, and making various holy signs against evil. Yet the outcome of the whole affair might have still been questionable, but at that precise instant, a few things happened at once.
The torches in the wall brackets around the room flared all at once, filling it with light bright enough to blind eyes used to semi-darkness, and at the same time the corridor of the prison mortuary was flooded with rough voices, the stomping of many feet, and, finally, with more people than it could hold. A fresh platoon of guards marched in, led by a burly red-faced man wearing a dented breastplate.
“C-captain Podley, what brings you here in the dead of night?” Ratcatcher squeaked shrilly, and Kessen could swear that his enemy’s eyes were about to pop out of his head.
“I have been informed of some rather strange happenings around here, lieutenant,” boomed the red-faced veteran. “Botched arrests, missing valuables, and witnesses found dead. And here is Captain Haemon, who is looking for the missing children of his late friend. He told me they were in your care, and I decided to relieve you of this duty which is far out of the scope of your ability.”
That was the moment when Kessen began to question his hearing, but as he looked sharper, straining his teary eyes against the smoldering light of the many torches, he finally recognized the tall red-bearded man standing in the doorway, next to a beautiful pale-skinned woman in black, and a halfling in green. His father always chose the most theatrical way to make his entrance, Kessen thought scornfully, even as a crazy smile of relief began to tug at the corners of his quivering mouth.
shaa'ir – storyteller (Calim.)
jambaya – curved dagger (Calim.)