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|Not everything is as it seems when a rich merchant is attacked and hires a bodyguard.||
Unbelievingly, the man stared at the three thugs standing before him. He had not expected to be robbed, as was clearly evidenced from his wide, luxurious robes and the big money bag hanging from his belt. However, the three assailants also seemed to be less than interested in the money.
"You know why we stopped you?" the biggest of the three men snarled, accentuating his speech with the point of a large knife - uncomfortably large, the rich man thought. Also, neither the missing teeth, nor the lice-filled dirty shirt, nor the numerous scars - seemingly collected in numerous pier six brawls in the city - helped inspire hope.
"I… I… guess you… want my money?" the rich man volunteered.
"Hah! Money." The second attacker snorted. He had the face and temper of a rattlesnake, the rich man thought. "We're no here for no steenkin' money."
The rich man looked at the knives again and his heart sank. If they weren't here for his money…
Suddenly, a voice rang out from the head of the dark alleyway the rich man had found himself pushed into so suddenly.
"What seems to be the problem? Does anyone need any help?" The voice sounded young and feminine, and the rich man looked in wonder at the small figure that was clearly visible against the better-lit rectangle of the main street. The woman was wearing a knee-length skirt, a shirt and woollen knit vest, and had shoulder-length auburn hair. Unarmed, she looked incredibly fragile and weak.
'Go away', the rich man wanted to shout, but couldn't, so scared was he. The three thugs, though, stopped for a moment, startled. Then, the third one, a brute whose face did little to hide his half-lizard ancestry, slowly turned around and smiled.
"Nothin' much, Miss. Jes' a small con… con-vuh-session."
The woman looked him up and down, with a bemused look. "Is that a knife I see before me?" she then asked, pointing to the oversized knife in his hands. "And… conversation… who would have imagined a croc to have so big words in him?"
The insult - clearly understood by the half-lizard - was more than the lowlife could handle. He snarled and threw himself at the woman, knife first. Lithely, she side-stepped the attacker and let him stumble over her left leg. When the half-lizard had fallen, she quickly stepped back in and hit him with a precise movement right in the middle between his shoulders. The half-lizard gave a gurgled yell, and then slumped into the dirt.
"She's taken out Chuckie", the leader hissed. "Branko, take her out."
Warily, the rattlesnake-faced man stepped forward. He had seen how quickly the woman had dispatched Chuckie, hitting him right in the sensitive spot. Few people even knew that the half-lizards had a weak spot between their shoulder blades, where a nerve knot sat exposed, and the mere fact that she knew about it sent alarm bells through him.
"My, my, grandfather, what a big knife you have", the women taunted Branko. He, however, remained calm.
"The better to carve you up with", he quipped and slowly closed in.
The woman slowly backed off, as if trying to get away. Branko quickened his pace a bit, but he was too late. The moment he reached her, and swung his knife, she suddenly dove towards her left, into the shadow of a doorway. When Branko turned around to get her, he saw a piece of wood swinging downwards at his face. He tried to fend it off, but it was too late. The stick hit his skull with a low thud, and Branko fell to the ground, silent.
The leader of the three looked on and couldn't believe his eyes. Then, with a curse, he turned and ran, almost stumbling over Chuckies body. Within seconds, the darkness had swallowed him. The rich man looked at his unlikely saviour. What he saw was nothing he could complain about. He gathered his clothes around himself, and then waddled towards her, hand stretched out.
"I have to thank you, Madam, for saving me, though I must admit it comes as somewhat of a surprise, seeing a young woman like you …"
"Oh, nothing to it," the woman replied, "you just have to know where it has most effect. And in my profession… oh, well…" Suddenly, a shadow flew over her face, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. Not quickly enough for the rich man to notice, though.
"Why? You look sad? Oh, by the way, my name is Stego di Bosson."
"The merchant? Oh, I've heard of you. But wouldn't you have a body guard? - Oops, guess I better introduce myself, too. My name is Lilli Mendor." She smiled at him shyly.
"Body guards? Never needed one until today, Miss Mendor."
"Then it looks like you need some change, right?"
"Yes, it does. What do you do for a living, Miss Mendor?"
Lilli looked at him, her lower jaw fell open. "Oh, well, I have been working as a body guard for years. But when my last employer was killed… Maybe you heard about it - Erom Molkar."
"Erom Molkar? Sounds familiar. Wasn't he killed by a mage with a fireball?"
"Yes, and if I had done my job correctly, he would not have been killed."
"Nonsense, I remember now. There was nothing you could do. Unless you were prescient and a mage, what could you do? However, how did you survive anyway?"
"I saw the mage, but it was too late. I had no weapon, and I tried to tackle him, disrupting his concentration. I wasn't fast enough for that, but my mad charge brought me out of the target area for the spell. But, it is a very bad reference for a bodyguard if his employer gets killed. So, I haven't been able to get another job. Oh, well, I better get going…" Lilli turned around.
"Just a moment, not so fast", di Bosson grabbed her arm. Surprised, he noted how firm the muscles seemed and how quick she was to react, wheeling around and yanking her arm free. "I would like to talk to you a bit more… maybe I can do something for you, in return for helping me. Can you be at my place tomorrow around the fourth hour of the day?"
"I have no other pressing engagements yet, so sure, why not? But where do I have to go?"
"My offices are in the biggest house facing Cornmarket Square. Think you can find that?"
"I better should. See you tomorrow."
di Bosson looked after Lilli as she left, smiling. When he was sure that she was gone, he resumed his journey home, planning for the next day.
* * * *
The next day, punctually, Lilli entered the office of Stego di Bosson. He watched her eyes dart from item to item in the room and noticed her priorities: first she looked for doors, then for windows, then for places someone might hide. When she was satisfied no one would suddenly crawl out from the woodworks and attack her, she accepted di Bosson's handshake.
"Please sit down. I have to admit that I had some … friends of mine … do some research about you. You'll have to admit that it looks suspicious, you turning up right on the moment when three good-for-nothings are about to harm me, and being able to beat them off."
Warily, Lilli watched him. "I know, but it was pure coincidence. I had entered the city only two hours earlier, and spent most of the time looking for a place to stay. I don't know about how fast the underworld works here, but is it really possible to arrange for a mock attack that quickly?"
di Bosson smiled. "Exactly. It'd take you at least a day or two just to find figures like these, and they hadn't left the city recently either. So, it looks like you are exactly what you seemed to be, a chance encounter that saved my life."
"Thanks." Lilli smiled at di Bosson.
"And that means that there is someone out there who wants to get rid of me!"
"Huh? That looked like a good old-fashioned mugging to me."
"Yes, but it wasn't. I had already offered them my moneybag, but they weren't interested. And then, I heard today that that croc had been found dead."
"Dead? I heard that one couldn't kill a croc by hitting him on the nerve knot, just incapacitate him."
"Ah, yes, I heard that too. But then he didn't die of that hit. Someone cut his throat later that night. He was found early this morning, I heard, on Belltower Street."
"Belltower Street? Where would that be?"
"You're not from here, I forgot. Belltower Street goes from the harbour to the East Gate. Not exactly the safest place in town."
Lilli nodded. "Thanks for telling me."
"Oh but I hadn't asked you to come here for that. I was wondering yesterday, and am asking today whether you would consider a job."
"A job doing what?"
"A job as a bodyguard. At least until we know why these three thugs wanted to attack me, and who is behind it all."
Lilli hesitated. "You know why I haven't been able to find a job recently? It's considered a sign of bad luck..."
"Which I don't believe in. Oh, yes, I know that magic exists, and that bad luck exists, but I don't believe in people bringing bad luck."
Lilli looked at di Bosson wonderingly. Then she shrugged. "Why not? It beats living on the streets, and taking whatever other job happens to come my way."
"Good. Then, let's shake on it." They shook hands.
"When do I start?"
"Hmm... of course as soon as possible. You'll live at my home of course, so once you moved your belongings, I'd like to see you back, Miss Mendor."
"OK, I'll probably be back in two hours."
After Lilli left, di Bosson looked at the closed door for a while.
* * * *
The first two days passed without any untoward incidents. No one came to di Bosson to inquire about the attack - which probably no one knew about anyway, with the exceptions of di Bosson, Lilli, Branko and the scarred leader of the attackers. Neither of which could think of any reason to alert anyone to the events.
di Bosson quickly adjusted to having someone around taking care of his security, especially as Lilli managed, despite her looks, to remain in the background when the situation made it necessary. If he was going somewhere. she would insist on checking the place out beforehand, which di Bosson considered awkward - never having had to rely on a bodyguard -, but as there were no further attacks on him, her actions were remarkably fruitless.
Then, the third night, something happened. di Bosson had had a very busy
day and everyone in the household had retired early. It was a warm summer night,
and the frogs had been clamouring in the little garden pond all night long.
Being used to it, it acted as an effective lullaby for the people in the mansion.
Then, in the wee hours of the day, the frogs suddenly stopped their croaking. Not slowly, one by one, as usual for frogs, but all at once. It was as if the night was waiting with bated breath, expecting some skulduggery to happen.
A scratching sound could be heard, like a knife going through paper. Or better, it was a knife going through paper, as an observer in the hallway connecting the servants' rooms would have been able to realise. one of the windows was being cut open - here the windows were not fit with expensive glass like in the main part of the house, but with oil paper, which still was more than many paupers in the city had. Slowly, the knife slid through the paper, with hardly any more sound than silk gliding over silk would make. It cut through three of the four sides of the windows, then a hand reached in and rolled it up, opening a hole big enough for a marching band to walk through.
There was no marching band walking through. For a heartbeat, a shadow would have been visible to the observer, rather small and wiry, immediately ducking underneath the windowsill. At the same time, the frogs in the garden slowly resumed their concerto.
Whispering sounds betrayed the movement of the intruder, as he moved along the walls, and towards the curtain separating the servants' quarters from the master's rooms. The woollen curtain made no sounds as the stranger slipped through the small gap. And even he didn't notice the curtain swaying in the breeze a bit longer than the observer would have expected.
Once outside of the servants' quarters, the newcomer became bolder. There was less danger for him to make unexpected noises, as the rest of the house was covered in deep carpets, and he slid along the carpets towards the master's bedroom. He seemed to be quite sure of his way, never pausing once to orient himself. Slowly, he opened the door and let himself in, leaving it slightly ajar, in case he had to leave suddenly.
He crept to the little table next to the bed in which di Bosson lay sleeping
and snoring. In the lights of the moon, he could be barely seen, looking over
several jewels that lay there, apparently dropped there by their owner when
he retired. Cautiously, he extended his arm and picked up a reddish stone, set
in a silver pendant. Then he turned, and went back towards the door, neglecting
the other items on the night stand.
Suddenly, the room was filled with the sounds of fighting. A dark figure had thrown itself at the intruder, and a few cries were heard. di Bosson woke with a start, but in the semi-darkness, he could only make out the rough shapes of two people fighting with each other. Quickly, he grabbed his bedpan, and swung it at the next head that offered itself.
He realised his mistake a moment later, when the other figure immediately dove through the door and, abandoning all caution, ran out of the house. At the same time, a female voice could be hard, describing someone's heritage in less than polite terms. Even though he was used to seamen cursing and cussing, di Bosson realised that he could have learned a whole new style of cursing.
Moments later, the major-domo ran in, candle in hand, looking surprised at his master, the dented bedpan and Lilli, who lay on the floor, nursing her shoulder.
"Oops!", was di Bosson's first reaction.
* * * *
"I woke when the frogs stopped their ruckus. I had had trouble getting to sleep through all that ballyhoo, but when they stopped, I was immediately wide awake. Then, I noticed someone trying to enter", Lilli explained, showing di Bosson the cut open window. "I wanted to know just what he was planning, so I followed him, ready to strike when he was committed."
"He could have killed me while you were waiting for him to act."
"Hardly, all of the time I was at most two feet away from him, and if he had taken out a dagger of blowgun or whatnot, I would have been on him immediately. But he seemed to be interested only in stealing your gems."
"And, thanks to you, he didn't get away with my wealth."
"It was strange, though... I was waiting for him to take more of the jewellery when he decided to leave again. Almost took me by surprise. But I got the piece he tried to take."
"Only one piece, you say? That's strange..."
"Unless he was sent here to get exactly that piece. But why?"
"What did he try to take? You said you got it?"
Lilli showed the pendant, wincing when the pain in her shoulder flared up again. It was the pendant with the reddish stone, At first view, it looked like a ruby, but when it caught the candlelight, it became obvious it wasn't a ruby. It was much fuller in colour, with a weird pattern, almost like a writing, deep inside the crystal. Lilli frowned.
"What is that stone? I have never seen something like it."
"Quite possible, as far as I know there exists no second stone like it in the world."
"But then it would be extremely valuable, right?"
"It would be, if it weren't for the curse that people say goes along with it."
"Curse? What curse? And just how valuable would it be?"
di Bosson laughed. "No one has ever been able to say that for sure. As far as we know, it has never been sold."
"Never? Isn't that a big word?"
"It would be, if it weren't for the curse...
"About three hundred years ago, the stone was discovered in an old and abandoned temple in Na'Rioch. Ever heard of the place?"
Lilli thought for a few moments, then she nodded. "Wasn't that one of the temple places of one of the old races - the Snake People?"
di Bosson looked at her with surprise. "That's correct. You seem to know many things..."
Lilli shrugged. "When you are bodyguard for important people, you learn a lot. The important thing is to remember them at the moment they are important, and not to bother about them until then. Erom Molkar was very much into old Snake People artefacts."
"Ahh. That explains it. Of course.
"Well, as I said, about three hundred years ago, the stone was found in Na'Rioch. The finder, a certain Jorun Kilfar, didn't have much fun with it, though. He was killed for the stone within the same week by another explorer. That was the first step in a long row of ... let us say bad luck, that has overcome the owners of the stone."
"You mean they have all been killed for it?"
"Not necessarily that. But for some weird reason, it seems impossible for the stone to change hands legally. As far as I am aware, in three hundred years, it has been stolen, robbed, people have been killed for it, blackmailed, it has been used to bribe officials at least twice, but not once was it passed on legally.
"Fifty years ago, it seemed as if the curse had been broken, when the owner at the time, Patrok Loranar, died in an accident and his wife inherited it. But some inquisitors thought it weird that the curse was broken that easily, and through long and extensive investigations they found out that his wife had arranged to have him murdered. And on the day she was arrested, the stone was stolen from her house.
"I have always laughed about this curse, thinking it was a fairy tale fit for small children. But now... it seems as if someone wants that stone, by hook or crook, and I think in the long run the curse might catch up with me as well.
"It's weird, when I acquired the stone, ten years ago, I was seriously ill, and I was told that I'd not outlive the moon. That's when I got the stone, thinking I might trick the curse by dying before something could happen. But then I miraculously recovered and haven't been ill since."
Lilli looked at the stone with a frown. "So, what do you think to do with it now? I assume just giving it away as a present to someone you like would help?"
di Bosson gave a pained laugh. "Sure, that would help. But there is no one close enough to me that would accept such a present. Everyone I know is a business associate, and would assume I tried to bribe him. Sometimes being a wealthy merchant does have its drawbacks..."
"How about trying to sell it?"
"I tried. The gods know, I tried. No one who saw the stone would make a deal for it, everyone said, 'I don't want to be responsible for something bad overcoming you while I fetch the money...'"
They sat for a while, staring at the stone.
"So, there seems to be no way for you to get rid of the stone? And it looks as if it's about to be stolen again, and let the gods sort out the collateral damage? It's good that I know this, it does help me prepare for whatever danger might come to you."
di Bosson grinned. "I am at my wits' end. I thought I might be smarter than the average curse, but it seems the curse has the advantage on me." He yawned. "Let us get back to sleep. I don't think anything else will happen this night."
* * * *
The next days, everything seemed to go its' normal way. No further attempts were made to steal the gem. However, about a week later, a letter arrived that had di Bosson almost dance with joy.
"Here, read this!", he sang out happily, thrusting a letter he had just received into Lillis face. Lilli looked somewhat unhappily.
"Ermm... sir... would you ... I mean, could you... ahh... well..."
di Bosson immediately realised what Lilli wanted to say.
"Oh, sorry, I didn't realise you couldn't read. Most people I encounter are literate."
"Most people you encounter belong to the so-called higher classes, where reading and writing are important skills. If you parents are menial labourers, there are much more important skills you have to learn, like how to survive in a brawl without your face being remodelled."
di Bosson nodded. "I see, and have to admit that that's something I would probably not be capable of."
Lilli shrugged. "Everyone has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. You cannot argue with what the gods have decided for you."
di Bosson nodded thoughtfully and wanted to go. Lilli stopped him. "Sir, if you wouldn't mind... it seems to be something important in that letter..."
"Oh, yes, I forgot. It's from the Academy in Mesafort. They want to buy the stone. That might just break the curse."
"If you can get it there I don't want to spoil it for you, but..."
di Bosson stopped to think about it. "You're right. The carrier might be robbed as well. However, this just means that I have to use a carrier that will get there with the stone." He looked at her. "And I think I know someone who might do it."
Lilli immediately realised what his look meant. "Me? But what of my job here, to make sure you live?"
"Easy, if, as we assume, the stone really is the cause for the attacks, they should end the moment the stone is gone. And if it is your job to make sure I'm not attacked..."
Lilli sighed. "Make sure you're not attacked. You had to put it that way. Well, I guess, then, there is nothing I can do about it..."
* * * *
A nondescript building stood in the streets of Miran. None of the passers-by would have guessed that the imperial Secret Service had its' headquarters here. And most neighbours wouldn't have guessed ho many people entered and left the building each day - mostly because they didn't use front nor back door.
One of the people who came in through underground hallways was the Big Boss himself, Count Dexter Dormen, though no one dared call him this to his face. But even he was surprised when he saw who was waiting for him in his office.
"Agent Ostrich? I thought you were on an assignment? Or have you already..." He saw that there was a silver pendant lying on his table. "I see." He looked at his agent more closely. "What happened to your hair?"
Agent Ostrich self-consciously touched the stubble that was her hair. "What do you mean? I always wear it this short, but you do know that..."
Count Dormen smiled. "Last time I saw you it was much longer..."
Agent Ostrich smiled back. "Yes, that was for the assignment."
"How did it go?"
"As expected. Once he had accepted me as genuine, and thought he had a way to get rid of the stone without getting killed in the way, he literally jumped at it."
The door opened, and a half-lizard brought in a few documents for the Count to read. He almost had left the room again when he noticed the second person in the room.
"Ahh. Ms. Dormen, how nice to have you back."
Lilliandarna Anturia Rosalinde Heidemarie Dormen - also known as 'Agent Ostrich' smiled back. "Good to see you, too, Chuckie". She smiled.
"Glad to help you out, especially as it meant I would have to end my stint in that backwater. Nothing beats Miran anyway." And the half-lizard who had been rumoured to have been killed in Belltower Street left the building.
"So, he did send you to bring the pendant to Mesafort. Why not have him send it here to us? After all, we wanted it, and would even have paid him."
"I'm not sure it would have worked that way. You see, the curse - if it exists..."
"Oh, it does exist, I can assure you of that."
"Well, then, the curse would not have allowed that to happen. The stone would have disappeared on its' way here. Besides, di Bosson is not someone to help us out like that. He's not even from the Imperium."
"So, he will expect the payment for the stone, and you back? What happens when he realises that you have disappeared?"
"My guess is that he would quickly forget it, as he is happy to still be alive. He'll probably write it off, as finding me will cost him much more than the stone ever did."
"Are you certain of that?"
"It's the curse, remember? He must have got it by some illegal means as well. So he cannot go to the authorities to complain, because his own crime will then also become public knowledge. And for a private vendetta - where's the profit in that?"
Count Dormen smiled grimly. "I see. But is your reaching us here not proof that the curse doesn't exist? You giving it to me..."
"None whatsoever. Why should it? I didn't take the stone for myself, to give to you as a present. I took it for the service, which means that giving it to you doesn't change ownership at all. Though, maybe there is a way how we can break that curse..."
"If we were to give it as a present to someone. Like, our beloved Emperor on his birthday. That's be a legal transfer of ownership."
Count Dormen smiled and shook his head. "The service itself is by law property of the Emperor. So, everything we own is really his. We cannot give it to him as a present."
Lilli looked stunned. "And if you present it to someone else?"
"Without the Emperor knowing it? Ever heard the term embezzlement?"
Lilli thought about it for a minute. "Oh, well... I think the public is waiting for the bard Millefleurs to reappear."
"It sure is. We'll be in contact."
With a last glance at the cursed stone, and a sense of apprehension, Lilli stepped out of the door.
|Limericks And Haiku||Bungee-Jumping in the Abyss|
The Real Reason EW Goes Down