Those who were disturbed by the graphic violence of the previous episode will be relieved to learn that this story contains nothing of the sort.
It's never a good sign when you wake up with a splitting headache.
It's an even worse sign when you haven't been drinking.
I peeled my face off the desk and sat up; vertigo nearly took me down again. I touched the back of my head. Pain sheared out; my vision went momentarily fuzzy.
I cursed and stood up. Staggered, clutching the wall, to the jail cells in the back room.
I moaned. As bad as the night was going, the morning was going to be worse.
One moment, I was composing a response to the Mayor's livid letter. The next, I glanced up, and Barrin was standing over my desk.
No knock on the door, no clearing of the throat, no request for my attention. That was just his way. And somehow, despite being built like a six-foot brick wall, he always managed to move in complete silence.
I acknowledged his presence with an icy stare and tried to go back to my writing. This morning was just getting better and better.
"Morning, Constable. How's your brother?" Barrin's voice was calm and cheerful.
"Come back to gloat, have you?" I asked, not looking up.
"Constable!" he said, putting on a shocked front. "I don't appreciate either your tone of voice or your implication. I'm an honest businessman."
"Well, I'm an honest lawman," I said, putting down my quill. "And when thieves attack me in the middle of the night to free their fellows, it gets very bad for business very quickly."
"My sympathy, Constable," Barrin said quietly. "I agree, when thieves attack lawmen, there has been an egregious breakdown of order."
I wasn't in any mood for olive branches. "If you want to show your sympathy, you can walk out that door and leave me to my letter."
His expression went blank. "Sorry, Noname. Not just yet, I'm afraid. I'm here on business."
"Then take a seat outside. Business can wait until I finish writing to the mayor about the brutal killing of his guard dog. Then you can stand in line behind him when he storms in after finding out Dremien's third most wanted thief isn't in custody any more."
"It's just a simple request," he said. "Tell me a few things about the mercenaries that came into town last night, and I'll get out of your hair."
I stood up, sending my chair skidding backward. "Absolutely not!"
He held up his hands. "Constable --"
"Don't play games with me, Barrin. The Thieves' Guild is out for revenge against the pair that captured Alondra. The only part I'll have in this is arresting anyone who tries."
"I told you," he said, "I'm an honest businessman."
I sighed. I didn't have time for this. "Get out."
Barrin looked around, and lowered his voice. "Constable -- let me make sure that we understand each other. You don't like me. I don't much like the attitude that you take toward me. But you're an honorable man, and I respect that. So when I hear the ugly gossip that you fell asleep at your desk last night before the thieves struck ... I'd much rather put in a good word for you with the mayor than to repeat such slander."
My face burned. Shit. There it was: the blackmail card.
"You really don't want to do this," I said, dropping my own voice.
"I'd prefer not to," he said. "And I'm not even asking for what you think. So just hear me out."
I ground my teeth. "Explain."
Barrin grabbed the wooden chair on his side of the desk, pirouetted it, and sat down, leaning forward into its backrest. "Don't get me wrong, Noname. I do have an interest in those young men. But I'm not nearly as curious about them as I am about what they represent. And if you want my advice, you really ought to be too."
"By 'explain' I did not mean 'spout off annoying riddles.'"
Barrin chuckled. "You cops are the least curious people I've ever met, you know that? Everything always reduces to black and white. A question of law. Never of motive, unless it involves a crime."
I pointed to the door. "Barrin ... I'm one sentence from not caring what you say to the mayor."
He held up a hand. "Okay, sorry. So it's this: Where did they come from before riding into Dremien?"
I considered the question. What was Barrin's angle? How could my answer to that possibly help him get revenge? Perhaps he meant to send someone to harass their friends or loved ones -- but no, that could be a round-trip ride of weeks, and he'd need a far more immediate solution if he really meant to stop the mercenaries.
The question did seem harmless enough.
"Alright," I said, playing along. "I don't know. But based on what I do know, they rode in from the south."
Barrin smirked. "Trick question. They didn't 'ride' anywhere. Didn't any of your men see them window-shopping at the stables yesterday afternoon?"
"So --" he continued quickly -- "how is it that such legendary bounty hunters -- the sort that can walk into a town and haul in one of your most wanted thieves within hours -- how come they're so hard up they have to travel on foot?"
That did seem odd, I had to admit.
"Escorting that crippled businessman, no less," Barrin continued. "He was as ragged as they were. He couldn't have been paying them more than a few coppers for their protection."
"And I hear your good Samaritans also stripped down several of their thief targets before bringing them in. And changed into their clothes."
"Their excuse for that did seem a bit thin --" I stopped myself. "Wait a minute."
"I see what you're trying to do." I said icily. "You want to sow distrust. Time investigating them is time not spent on catching thieves. And if they can't trust the law as their allies, they've got that much more incentive to leave town."
"Constable --" Barrin protested.
"Not on my watch, sir. They've been fantastic assets, they've kept their noses clean, and I will not jeopardize that for the sake of a settling a few questions about their arrival."
Barrin leaned back, looking stunned. Apparently he hadn't counted on me figuring out his deception.* "Of course not," he finally said.
"Good day," I said, sitting back down and picking up my quill.
I dipped the feather in my inkwell, wrote out another sentence, and glanced up. Barrin had made no move to leave. I glared at him.
"Is it true," he asked, "that there's a band of human slavers south of town?"
"Look, you --" I started, furious.
"That's not an implication," he hurriedly cut me off. "Your heroes are not slavers, Neimand. That would be silly. I'm just asking a question."
"If I answer your question, will you stand up and walk out the door behind you?"
"Sure. You're a busy man."
I resisted the urge to throw something at him. "Then, yes, I wouldn't be surprised if that was true."
"Why? What have you heard?"
I was tempted to tell Barrin I'd answered his question, and have the guards throw him out -- but the sensible part of my brain warned me that it would be better to explain than to shut up and have half-truths fly free. "Nothing definite, so far," I said. "Some word of disappearances. And the constable of Bell asked me to investigate; he believes slaves are being smuggled west through his city, and then over the border into Dalos to be sold. Perhaps I should ask you the same question."
Barrin shrugged. "A businessman in my position hears a great many reports. This one surprised me --" he said pointedly -- "because I'd have expected to hear of a danger this alarming before now."
"Don't get any ideas," I said. "I'm not hiding anything. Nobody local has disappeared, and the most credible sighting was weeks old and two days' ride out. With so little to go on, the mayor would rather not have people panicking over overblown rumors."
"I see," Barrin said thoughtfully. "Then what do you know for certain?"
"Several lone travellers are reported missing on the road between here and Briech, and a few rural villages have had folk disappear in the forest near Ballard's River. That's all -- that and a few reports of cooking fires and scouting parties."
"Still, you'd think it would be enough for Luvine or the Priory to investigate," Barrin said, standing up to leave.
"Are you kidding? Neither care."
Barrin paused on his way to the doorway. "Why not?"
"Because the slavers -- if they exist -- are well off the major trade routes, and they've left merchants and settlements alone," I said, dipping my quill again. "Because neither the king nor the church cares enough about their citizens to investigate a few humble kidnappings. They're too busy scaring the population senseless with fairy tales of dark sorcery."
"Constable!" he said, mock surprise in his tone. "In most cities that would earn you a public whipping."
It was a harmless jab. Barrin naturally despised the church, and he took endless amusement in tweaking me over the fact we actually agreed on something.
"I'll take your complaint under advisement, citizen," I said. "Maybe I shouldn't question Lindon's priorities. In fact, maybe I should beg the church to build an Eye of Lindon here. They say it cuts crime rates in half overnight."
"I must confess, I still don't understand why you don't."
Pent-up frustration slipped out. "Because you've never understood me! Because you think my job is to arrest criminals."
"It isn't?" This time, the surprise was real.
"No. My job is to protect Dremien's citizens. The church has spent most of the last two decades trying to take over that job. I'd let them, if I thought they could do it. But they've got a stranglehold over most of the country now --" I gestured -- "and look at the state Luvine is in."
Barrin processed that in silence. "Still, it seems hard to argue with cutting crime rates in half."
I jabbed back: "Except that you'd be in the wrong half."
He broke out into laughter. "I would, at that. Your half. Good day, Constable."
I stared at him as his bulk vanished out the door like a stray breeze. Then I picked up my quill, and resumed my writing.
... Resumed my response to the mayor's furious rant about his dog's death.
I stared numbly at the paper as the absurdity sunk in. One of the city's top criminals freshly broken out of custody, the head of the Thieves' Guild breathing down my neck, and half the town buzzing about the shocking crime wave, and I was sitting here writing about a dog? What the hell was I doing?
The answer was sadly obvious: My job.
All my platitudes to Barrin couldn't change that fact. The only way to protect people was to protect my job. To please the man running the city. Cater to his stupid self-importance, pretend he mattered more than the investigation I truly needed to supervise.
I sighed deeply. "Well," I muttered to myself, "dealing with this beats the alternative."
I didn't find my argument terribly convincing.
House of Winged Words
When I arrived, the pigeonmaster's broad face was pale and glistening with sweat. He was poring over the financial records scattered on his desk.
"What is so important, Raleigh," I snapped, "that you had to call over the constable personally?"
He jumped. Is that how I react when Barrin shows up in my office? I thought.
"M-message for you," he stammered. "Sir."
"From your brother," Raleigh said, recovering.
"Oh?" That was worrying. Ballard's Hollow was a backwater town -- beyond its monastery, it largely existed to supply lumber and game to the capital. Any news urgent enough to send by bird had to be grave.
"B-but since you're here, I really feel I ought to m-mention --"
"Later," I snarled. "It has been a morning."
He nodded, swallowed, took the top paper from the message shelf, and held the thin sheet out to me. I snatched it and scanned the line of delicate writing:
"No sign of DM.** Hands graciously aiding search, keeping BH safe. P.S.: Mrs. Posley's terrier is ailing. Love, Blanc."
"DM"? And ... Mrs. Posley's terrier? It had died over a decade ago, when we were still teenagers ... Then it had to be signaling some hidden message. Things were grave, if my brother couldn't speak freely.
Then the central sentence grabbed my brain. Hands ... Hands of Lindon. "Keeping Ballard's Hollow safe." I felt the blood drain from my own face.
"Thank you, Raleigh," I said with an effort. "If you'll excuse me."
My head was fighting off an assault of foreign thoughts as I returned to my office.
"Hands keeping Ballard's Hollow safe ..."
I closed the door on my way in. Checked the window; nobody in the alleyway.
Sat down at my desk. Felt the inside panel by the drawers, pressed in hard on a nondescript square flush with the surface. Click.
"I'm not nearly as curious about them as I am about what they represent ..."
I pulled out the bottom drawer halfway. The false bottom caught and wedged open. I wiggled the drawer, gently slid it out the rest of the way, and grabbed the sheaf of letters underneath the thin panel.
A quick flip through: Nothing seemed missing.
"... And if you want my advice, you really ought to be too."
Had that been a threat? A warning? Either way -- how much did Barrin know? And how did those strange mercenaries figure into this?
"I would, at that. Your half."
For the first time since I'd taken the job, I felt doubt creep in. Something big was about to happen -- and, despite my duties, Barrin and I really were on the same side of it. Did he know? I had to assume he was bluffing -- that Barrin was trying to corner me with fear. And I couldn't give him the pleasure of confirming his suspicions.
"P.S.: Mrs. Posley's dog is ailing."
When we were kids, Blanc and I had gone exploring in some caves near town. Just as we lost the last trace of daylight around a corner and were about to head back, we heard a hollow, echoing whining from deeper inside. We yelled and screamed and made all sorts of fuss as we scrambled back toward the entrance. The whining got urgent, higher-pitched; louder and louder.
We burst into sunshine, certain some monster or restless spirit was going to leap out behind us and cut our lives short. And Mrs. Posley's terrier sprinted out of the cave after us, barking manaically, leaping into my brother's arms.
The dog had fallen into a hole somewhere and gotten lost in the caves. We hadn't even known it was missing until we brought it back to Mrs. Posley. She rewarded us with fresh-baked pie for a week.
For years afterward, "Mrs. Posley's dog" was our in-joke for an unexpected find.
My brother had gone looking for something. Probably this "DM". And he'd found ... what? Something unexpected. The dog is ailing. Something not good.
Something he didn't want the Hands of Lindon to know.
I flipped one last time through the letters Blanc had sent me. The town elders selecting him as constable over two experienced and deeply religious competitors. Hints of forbidden knowledge. The inexplicable crop abundance that sustained the town through a severe drought. The phenomenal talents of the village healer -- who vanished shortly after the Priory began constructing their monastery. The families that moved away when the giant Eye of Lindon was placed in the town square over the objections of Blanc and the elders. His profound distaste as the abbot began forcing residents to kneel for daily Prostration and moral lectures. A continuing chronicle of the abbot's excesses and the church's social, intellectual and economic depression of his beloved town.
My brother was in enough trouble already.
I dropped the bundle of letters into my metal-plated trash barrel, then took the pipe from the top drawer of my desk and stuffed it with tobacco. Lit a sliver of tinder from the oil lamp on my desk, sucked its tiny flame into the packed leaves, then dropped the tinder into the barrel. The letters caught, and shadows danced around the brief light of their fire.
I leaned back and smoked until the mellow tobacco overtook the acrid burnt paper.
House of Winged Words
This time, I brushed against the door frame as I walked in, and Raleigh heard the dull knock of my leathers on wood.
He looked up from his even more disorganized desk, and his face went from glum to pained. "Sorry, Noname, I can't send a reply ..."
"I'm not here to ..." My thoughts lurched. "What? Why not?"
"I was trying to tell you earlier. Something happened in Ballard's Grove."
"Oh. Oh my. Are your sons okay?"
"I don't know," Raleigh said helplessly. "I can't know. We got shut down. The whole Grove office." He handed me two ragged scraps of paper and buried his face in his hands.
The first one was alarming enough: "BG ATTACKED - N SW AFIRE - XS."
"Holy --" I stammered. "Attacked? Ballard's Grove is virtually at the center of Luvine! Who would -- no -- how?"
Raleigh didn't answer. So I kept reading. The second one had a word that made my blood run cold: "BY HANDS ORDER THXS."
"Lindon's heart!" I blurted out. "Has the church gone mad!?"
And I realized my mistake as soon as it was out of my mouth. Surely the Hands of Lindon were there to defend the city from whatever threat was pushing in. I was implying very dangerous things.
Fortunately, Raleigh seemed to have more on his mind than my foolish blasphemy. He remained hunched over his desk, body slightly rocking, lips moving wordlessly.
"Raleigh? Are you alright?" I asked, relief and guilt fighting.
"No!" he moaned. "We're ruined."
"Your kids will be okay --" I said, trying to sound optimistic.
"You don't understand. Even if Danny and Eli are alright, we're ruined. All our routes to the south went through Ballard's Grove."
"Oh," I said. "Can't you --"
"It'll be months before we can breed and ship enough pigeons to establish an alternate route to the capital. Months!"
"The south is three-quarters of our income. The capital alone is half. We're ruined. I don't know what we're going to do."
"I'm sorry," I said helplessly.
"Yeah," he acknowledged.
Awkward silence ensued. I rescanned the notes in search of a subject change. "How are the Hands involved in this? 'THXS'?"
"Transmissions Halt, Do Not Send," Raleigh explained. "They must have seized our office for battle coordination."
"When?" I asked, doing some mental math. The mercenaries had come in from the south ...
"The weekend, probably. I hadn't seen a northbound pigeons for three days, until three arrived last night, half dead and black with soot. Danny's two messages and yours. The birds get badly disoriented in smoke. These must be the only ones that made it home."
"It's a six-day overland hike to Ballard's Grove," I thought aloud. So the mercenaries couldn't have been involved in the attack -- not if they'd been walking.
"Yes," Raleigh said, misinterpreting me. "So we may start seeing refugees tomorrow night. If we're lucky. Or unlucky. I don't know which." He dabbed his brow with a kerchief.
I uncomfortably changed the subject again. I'd come here for a reason, after all. "So I guess you haven't been sending many outgoing messages lately?"
"Only half a dozen this morning. Had to turn away a good twenty." His face fell again.
"Er, any requests from out-of-towners? Specifically new arrivals."
"Ah," Raleigh said. "Here on the job?"
"Yes," I lied.
He frowned with thought. "Well, there was that trade caravan from Lindonesh. Wanted to relay a message south to the capital about trip delays, which of course I couldn't send. I did send a bird back to Lars town for them, though -- reporting that they successfully fought off a bandit attack near the border."
"Yes, yes. Any others? Perhaps from travellers coming from the south?"
"No more news of Ballard's Grove, if that's what you mean."
"No -- no. I'm not ... er. Who else?"
"Well," Raleigh said, "there was that one polite, limping fellow."
Limping -- wait! Barrin had mentioned the mercenaries escorting a poor, crippled businessman. "Go on."
"He sent a pigeon with some quite specific delivery instructions for some business partners at an inn in Reich. Paid return flight and tipped silver."
A businessman? It had to be the same man. But not poor. Some subterfuge, then -- good enough to fool even Barrin. How deep did these mysteries go?
"Raleigh," I asked slowly, "what did he send them?"
"Hang on, let me grab it." Raleigh sifted through the outgoing copies on the left of the message shelf, and did a double-take. "Huh. My copy's missing."
I raised an eyebrow, but stayed silent. He gave up after half a minute's search. "I can't find it. But I remember the gist of it. There was a change of plans due to a dramatic shift in grain prices. He'd lined up a big agricultural deal requiring his boss' personal attention."
That seemed a bit odd; usually gossip of big deals traveled fast, and this was the first I'd heard of a recent agricultural trade. I filed a mental note to make some discreet inquiries with Dremien's big farming families -- once I didn't have the breakout hanging over my head any more. "Thank you, Raleigh. Could you keep me posted when he gets a response?"
"Thanks. And good luck with your kids."
He nodded somberly. "I appreciate it. The way things are going these days, luck may be all we have left."
Streets of Dremien
The sharp voice rang out from behind me as I walked back toward my office along the dull cobblestones of Center Street: "Constable!"
My heart sank. Here it came.
I turned around to see Mayor Drinsch stomping my way, his corpulent form bouncing with every step. His face was red and sported an uncharacteristic thin layer of stubble. "Mister Noname," he yelled, out of breath, "you have got a lot of explaining to do!"
I stood my ground. "Mister Mayor. Did you get my letter?"
Drinsch ignored my question. "I absolutely will not let this sort of incompetence stand!" he shouted, inches from my face.
I felt my cheeks redden. "I'm sorry. But with all due respect, sir --"
"I've half a mind to have your badge right here and now!"
"Sir --" I said weakly.
"Since you don't want to arrest the buffoon, I'm just going to have to find someone who will!"
"I -- what? Wait. What?"
"Don't play dumb with me!" he snapped. "I've had a long day. That scoundrel Tanner!"
It took my brain a few seconds to place the name. Tanner and Gulovi had been the officers on duty at the mayor's mansion the previous night -- the two that had reported the sounds of a fight from his external cellar.*** Gulovi ran to our office for backup**** while Tanner guarded the cellar's only exit. I'd identified them by name in my report to Drinsch.
"Look, what's this about?" I asked. "Tanner's one of my most trustworthy men."
The mayor's face went even redder. "This is about a constabulary that does its job!" He glared around at the passers-by that were now openly staring at our confrontation, but didn't lower his voice. "There was one exit to that cellar. Tanner said he saw nobody leave. When your other men arrived, they found nothing down there but my precious Woogidie's body. Clearly Tanner is hiding something. And if you're sticking up for him, I will be forced to conclude that you are hiding something too."
I didn't know what had happened, but I knew Tanner was no stooge of the Thieves' Guild. "We can't know anything without fully examining the scene --" I protested.
"The hour before waking me up wasn't enough? How long does it take to find a hiding thief?!"
"A lot of the town's older mansions hold secrets. I'm sure there was some concealed exit --"
He shouted over me. "Don't tell me I don't know my own house! This is simple, Noname. He knows something about Woogidie's death. Arrest him now or pack your bags!"
"M-mayor, please --" I said helplessly. There was no way I could ruin an innocent officer's life. I felt the impending end of my career loom over me, a dark and cold shadow.
Drinsch's face shaded from red toward purple, and he opened his mouth to lay into me again, but his tirade was preempted by an excited bark.
We both glanced down the road, where a wagon had pulled to a stop a dozen strides from our argument. An exuberant young Doberman Pinscher -- the spitting image of Woogidie, with well-groomed fur and hyperactive tail -- was straining at its leash. The mayor's jaw dropped in surprise, but it couldn't have opened any further than mine: Barrin was holding the other end of the rope.
"W-what's this, then?" Drinsch asked, anger forgotten as the dog scampered up to him and sniffed his leg. Barrin strode up behind.
"Mister Mayor," Barrin said with a large bow that brought his head level with Drinsch's, then nodded casually to me. "Neimand. My apologies. I figured this couldn't wait."
The dog barked playfully and circled Drinsch. I flailed for words and found none. So Barrin turned back to the mayor and continued. "Isn't he beautiful? I tracked down the breeder who raised Woogidie's litter. This one will make a fine watchdog for you, too."
"For m-me?" said Drinsch, who was clearly as bewildered as I was.
"Of course, sir," Barrin said, taking the mayor's unresisting hand and curling his fingers around the leash. "I speak on behalf of the business community. We all heard the positively awful story of last night's attack. We wished to show our unity in this time of tragedy. Our faith in your wise leadership --" and Barrin gestured at me -- "and especially our faith in the Constable's diligence."
Drinsch tried to muster up a protest. "My faith in him is hardly strong today, Mister Barrin --"
"He is simply doing his job, Mister Mayor," Barrin said. "His job is justice. The wheels of justice grind slowly, and he must ensure that only those who deserve it are ground up."
It dawned on me what his game was. I shot Barrin a dirty look behind the mayor's back. Barrin smiled at me: _You owe me, now. You owe me big._
"Sometimes we may not like the process," Barrin finished soothingly, "but we must remember that it is the process that gives meaning to the results."
"Well," Drinsch said, torn, "if you say so. I guess so."
Barrin stepped over to me and draped a brotherly arm over my shoulders, smiling at the mayor. Conscious of my boss' gaze, I tried to smile too. "On behalf of your biggest backers, Mister Mayor," Barrin said, "I'm glad you do." He patted my shoulder, moved to the mayor's side, and started leading Drinsch and the dog away amid a hail of rapid-fire small talk.
I stared numbly at their retreating forms, trying to figure out whether I should be grateful for the reprieve. Then a flutter at the corner of my eye caught my gaze, and I saw a small, folded note tucked into the sleeve of my vest.
That damn Barrin.
I turned and walked back toward my office with as much dignity as I could muster. Once around a corner, against my every instinct, I opened up the note.
In unhurried, precise block letters, it read: "Because dealing with each other beats the alternative."
I tried to deny it for the rest of my walk. I didn't find my argument terribly convincing.
* Of course, we as readers know that the two "thief hunters" captured -- and then subsequently freed -- their targets in order to get Barrin's attention; and ended up joining the Thieves' Guild that night. Barrin's not stunned because he's been caught in a lie. He's stunned because Constable Noname, in dodging his research questions, is committing a tactical blunder on the order of Fool's Mate. [^]
** Dallion Maliceblade, the top name on Most Wanted charts across the empire. A legend in his own right -- and, as it turns out, related by blood to two of our characters. Shortly before this story takes place, our group had routed a bunch of slavers and freed their captives in his name; see previous story [warning: graphic violence]. [^]
*** Yeah, that was us, too. Us and Story Dice. [^]
**** And a light source. Not that they would have mentioned this fact to the Constable. Not after the following conversation that our characters overheard:
"You hear anything down there?"
"No, it's quiet."
"Then go down and check it out."
"What? No, you!"
"I didn't bring a torch."
"So you go down there."
"What do you mean you didn't bring a torch?"
"Well, we don't both need one!"
"No, but one of us does!"
"Oh, come on. You don't have a torch either?"
"We never need one!"
"We do now!"
"No we don't. It's quiet down there. Just go."
"Are you crazy? You go!"
(At which point we had to restrain one of our party members from screaming up the stairs, "What sort of incompetents are you?") [^]