We are always pleased to welcome you, but remember, you may never leave.
Tales of extraordinary good versus extraordinary evil in a complex and often confusing, but beautiful world where nothing seems too strange.
Come with Officer Serbius and tour the towering city of D'n Arg, and the Protected Quarters. Visit the unregulated quaysides ruled over by the ruthless Kayal Rab and take your chances in The Iblus.
'Unlike most port bars which are pokey little holes, The Iblus is a vast cavernous cellar containing numerous bars, restaurants (for want of a better description, but the food is always good), rooms with beds, fighting pits and betting dens. The atmosphere is alive with the laughter, shouting and singing of drunken mariners, the screams of excitement and moans of disappointment in the gaming dens, the calls of countless hawkers, the solicitous calls of the whores, the groans of the injured and dying, and the music of numerous buskers who wander around playing an assortment of instruments.
The air is always thick with the smoke of the cooking fires and
many kinds of burning vegetation, some of it quite intoxicating,
which mingle with the smells of stale ales, vomit, cooked meats
and the cheap pissy perfumes of the whores, to name but a few. It
is a heady atmosphere, which makes fresh air distinctly boring in
Excerpt from: 'The Iblus - Chronicles of Serbius: Pt I'
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The Iblus - Chronicles of Serbius: Pt 1
Serbius and Delio were occasional visitors to The Iblus. This was the seventh occasion in four days that they had visited the cavernous cellar bar, situated on, or rather beneath, the largest of the quays in the sprawling quayside area of the great port below the City of D’n Arg (pronounced DINARG with a roling ‘R’).
The Iblus is a favourite with visiting ships' crews. It is the first bar they come to as they head towards the bars and fleshpots of the quayside area, and for those who venture no further it means they do not have far to stagger back on board once they have had their fill. Quayside bars are generally expected to be seedy dens of intoxication and immorality of the worst kinds, but The Iblus is renowned as the seediest of them all. Thieves, murderers, pickpockets, beggars, pirates and whores mix with, and prey on, the hundreds of foreign seamen, merchants, mercenaries, travellers and gamblers who patronised the bar. Many of the latter leave the bar penniless or maimed or quite possibly both, if not dead.
The Iblus is more than just a bar though. Unlike most port bars which are pokey little holes, The Iblus is a vast cavernous cellar containing numerous bars, restaurants (for want of a better description, but the food is always good), rooms with beds, fighting pits and betting dens. The atmosphere is alive with the shouting and singing of drunken mariners, the screams of excitement and moans of disappointment in the gaming dens, the calls of countless hawkers, the solicitous calls of the whores, the groans of the injured and dying, and the music of several buskers who wander around playing an assortment of instruments.
The air is always thick with the smoke of the cooking fires and many kinds of burning vegetation, some of it quite intoxicating, which mingle with the smells of stale ales, vomit, cooked meats and the cheap pissy perfumes of the whores, to name but a few. It is a heady atmosphere, which makes fresh air distinctly boring in comparison.
Despite the risks to life, limb and wealth; the pirates, ships crews, travellers and merchants come to take their pleasures with some of the most beautiful and exotic whores to be found anywhere in the world, to drink, eat and most of all to gamble. For it is widely known that if luck is with them, if they can avoid being robbed before reaching the door, the occasional sailor can go back to sea very very wealthy indeed.
There are many forms of gambling which take place in the flaming torch lit half light, between the massive stone pillars which disappear into the darkness high above the heads of The Iblus’ customers, where they meet the roof they support, which in turn supports the warehouses and fish markets above. Many involve betting on the outcome of combat between anything from insects to whores, battling viciously, for the right to prowl a pitch at the base of one of the great pillars. But the most popular and richest game of all is Lo Turry, a game that involves placing six bone pegs into any of forty-nine small holes in a wooden tray. Next to each hole is carved a different symbol. A games-master will then throw forty-nine small stone spheres onto another larger wooden tray in which there are six shallow holes in a row. The spheres each bear a symbol matching the ones on the game player’s trays. If the six spheres which roll into the holes match the symbols marked by the bone pegs, the player who has placed those pegs wins ten million times his stake. There are lesser prizes for matching three, four or five spheres. A simple enough game, but, it is one that allows the players to dream of riches almost beyond imagination. It even, very rarely, makes those dreams come true for the odd individual. The games masters work in shifts and the game is played constantly through night and day.
There is a serious down side to the game though. In the corner of the tray is a seventh hole into which will fall what is known as the onerous sphere. If a player has got five of his or her bone pegs to match five of those in the row of holes, but the sixth matches the symbol on the sphere in the seventh hole, they have to pay ten thousand times their original stake to The Iblus’ owner, Kayal Rab. If they can not, which is invariably the case, they become his property.
It had happened to more than a few. Nobody knows for sure what happened to the males, although there are various rumours ranging from them being sold into slavery or sent to work far inland in mines owned by relatives of Kayal Rab, through being galley slaves on one of the ships in Kayal Rab’s great pirate fleet, which may or may not actually exist, to ending up in the pies served up at the tables in The Iblus. The latter rumour surprisingly, having no negative effect on the sale of said pies. The females however, whatever their age or appearance, are put to work as whores, the younger and better looking ones in the bar, the older and uglier ones on the quay sides. Those who try to escape are cruelly crippled by having the hamstrings behind one knee severed. A second attempt warrants a repeat of the process on the other knee and the unfortunate women are then given the choice of begging on the quaysides or skivvying in the vast kitchens at the rear of The Iblus, their legs bound to iron rods so that they can stand to do their work and even walk with stiff short steps.
Not only is The Iblus renowned for its gambling, whoring, and violence, it is also a place where the finest wines, ales and exotic foods are served. It is a place where merchants from far lands come to sell their cargoes. The ownership of anything, from a ship load of exotic oils destined for the perfume factories of D’n Arg, to a herd of pack ponies, can be exchanged with a few hand gestures and the passing of bags of gold, or bundles of docs. (Docs, a form of promissory note, the basic unit of D’n Arg currency issued by the Bank of Arg, the official bank of D’n Arg, can be exchanged for goods or gold at any port.) It is also not uncommon for exotic animals to be brought in to the bar to be sold there and often consumed there too.
The reason for so much trading taking place in The Iblus is that once anything has moved beyond the boundaries of the quaysides, duties are levied and, depending on the type of goods, these can be very punitive. Taxes in general are very high once outside the quayside area and tax on wines and ales is extortionate, which makes drinking in the tax free haven of quayside bars very attractive.
Gambling is the biggest attraction though. It is heavily taxed in other lands and it is strictly outlawed in the city and all other parts of the Protected Quarters. Even so, very few citizens of D’n Arg have ever come to The Iblus. This is due to a high morality driven by strictly enforced laws and inbred snobbery born of wealth and a very good educational system. Those who do come are mostly outcasts or misfits, the type of people who do not fit perfectly into D’n Arg society. Many are deformed or disfigured in some way their appearance making them outcasts in a society which highly values physical perfection and aesthetic beauty.
The whole quayside area and The Iblus especially, is looked upon by the good citizens of D’n Arg as being a dark and dangerous underworld where unspeakable evils lurk. Where death waits at every corner and where lost innocents are lured into a moral cesspit from which they can never escape. They are actually, as it happens, pretty near correct, despite the fact that almost none of them have ever been to see it for themselves. Those that require passage by ship to other lands come to the quayside in covered and heavily guarded carriages, pulled by teams of galloping horses, which are driven up ramps straight on to the decks of the waiting ships. Such swift and unhindered passage through the quayside area will have been pre-arranged, at some considerable cost, with Kayal Rab’s associates.
It is unusual to see people from the city on the quaysides and virtually unheard of to see them actually inside The Iblus. Given what goes on in the half light between those vast pillars and the type of people, and in many cases the term ‘people’ can be used very loosely, it is possibly verging on unbelievable that Serbius and Delio are actually officers of the D’n Arg City and Protected Quarters Police Force. What may seem even more amazing is that the two officers of the law are standing amidst all the worst kinds of criminal behaviour and base immorality, in full uniform.
Despite the easily recognised long black tunics with shiny silver buttons and gold breast badge, tall custodian helmets and swords of office sheathed in gleaming black leather scabbards, they were, apart from the occasional uneasy glance from a criminal who had originated in the city, virtually ignored.
It is an unspoken but long accepted rule that, despite the fact that the quaysides are within the protectorate of D’n Arg, the police and other city authorities will not interfere in the daily life of this deregulated area. In return, officers in uniform can come to the quaysides to apprehend any person who has committed offences in the city or anywhere else in the protected quarters, and who is trying to flee to foreign parts; provided they turn a blind eye to anything, no matter how unlawful, that goes on in the quaysides. Officers who had ventured on to the quaysides in civilian clothing and had been discovered, which they nearly always are, as they all, according to many members of the criminal fraternity, have a distinctive smell of roast pork and cider apples, met horrible deaths. Their bodies or bits of them, ending up as fish food.
The quaysides do not need the services of the D’n Arg City and Protected Quarters Police Force. It has its own alternative set of laws with its own enforcer – Kayal Rab.
Kayal Rab is by no means a disciplinarian. He does not care one jot what anyone does on the quaysides, provided there is no loss of profit for him. However, Kayal Rab provides many services which benefit the quaysides and its occupants. For instance, the whole area would be piled high with the bodies of the murdered if he did not organise the discreet disposal of the unfortunate remains, for a financial consideration of course.
He is very protective of the traders and dealers who operate on the quaysides, and they in turn are happy to donate a percentage of their incomes to him, ‘for the overall benefit of the quaysides and its community’. The captains of the many ships which dock are also very happy to accept the kind offer of protection made by the tall dark haired men in grey suits, who are always the first on board after docking and are the ‘business’ representatives of Kayal Rab. These very polite and well-groomed men are always gracious in their thanks when accepting the offered bags of gold and percentages of cargo. There is always much smiling and shaking of hands. Yes, the traders, dealers and Captains are always happy to donate to Kayal Rab. There again, anyone would be happy not to have their arms ripped out of their sockets and be beaten to death with the soggy ends.
Serbius was uncomfortable. Not with the situation, he had been to The Iblus enough times now not to let ultra violence and vice at its worst worry him. He was physically uncomfortable. His uniform tunic was too small and the collar pinched at his Adam’s apple. It was hardly surprising as it belonged to an officer who was slightly slimmer than him. Serbius did not normally wear a uniform, he was a detective, but he had had to borrow the ill-fitting clothes in order to ensure his safety whilst he waited in The Iblus.
Delio was uncomfortable. Not with the situation, he had been to The Iblus too few times yet to fully understand how dangerous it could be. Not physically, he had had his uniform specially tailored. Delio was uncomfortable because he firmly believed that the uniform, despite its quality cut, did not suit him. This troubled him more because he was in close proximity to some of the most gorgeous females in the whole world, and he didn’t like the thought that any woman, even a whore, might think he looked even slightly less than drop dead handsome.
They were standing at the foot of the pillar nearest to the bottom of the long flight of stone steps that runs up to the heavy dark wood door with its many iron studs, which is the only entrance to The Iblus. (There are many exits, most involving excursions through sewers or secret passages). They had positioned themselves so that they could see the door, but anyone coming in, their eyes adjusting to the dimness, would not see them for the deep pool of shadow they stood in.
They were there because a very prominent merchant banker in the city had contacted the police a few days earlier, stating that a senior member of his staff had gone missing along with several bags of gold and a great many docs. The investigation had been placed in the hands of the Office of Commercial and Fiscal Crime Investigations, of which both Serbius and Delio are members.
They were now acting on a tip off received from one of Serbius’s contacts in the quayside underworld. Word had got round that someone from the city needed passage abroad rather hastily and was willing to pay handsomely for a discreet exit from D’n Arg. This person would be coming to The Iblus to try to find a ship’s captain willing to take him. Unfortunately the informant could not remember whether it was midday or midnight, or even which day this important person was supposed to come to The Iblus. Hence the twice daily visits by the two officers. It was now fast approaching midday on the fourth day since the information had reached Serbius and both officers had agreed that midnight would be the last time.
Word had obviously got round that someone who was prepared to pay a ship’s captain well for discreet passage would be arriving sometime in the not too distant future. There were a number of senior seamen standing around making themselves as obvious as possible. Every single one of them sporting a gleaming white beard, some outrageous in their obvious falseness, and they were all wearing white caps with black peaks, some with bold anchor logos on the front.
Serbius wasn’t quite sure, because of the poor light, but he thought one of the caps had a band round it with ‘Kiss me…something or other’ on it, he couldn’t make out the last word. It could be a mark of respect he reasoned, for a famous General of the Defence Flotilla, whose statue stands atop the Arg overlooking the harbour. His dying words, during a famous battle, which prevented the invasion of D’n Arg, confirmed the well publicised suspicion that he was indeed a homosexual, and paved the way for statutory recognition of same sex relationships.
A couple even had parrots on their shoulders and one had a junior member of his crew with him who replied loudly, “Aye aye Cap’n,” to everything he said. No self-respecting ship’s captain would dream of dressing in this manner normally. But they were all aware of the city dweller’s misconceptions and the chance of a good fair was not one to be missed. All of them turned to look at who was coming in every time the door opened.
Serbius spoke quietly to Delio. “If he does come in we’re going to have to make the arrest and get him out fast before that lot realise who we’re escorting away.”
“You’re not wrong. Uniform or not we’ll have our throats cut and be fed to the fish before we have time to shout for help.”
The door opened again and a group of very large and rough looking foreign sailors came in. Serbius glanced up and was just about to start ignoring the sailors, (it is not a healthy activity making eye contact with anyone you do not know in The Iblus) when he noticed another figure dart in through the door behind the sailors. This person paused at the top of the stairs allowing the sailors to get to the bottom before starting to descend slowly, surveying the bar as he did so. As the cloaked figure passed under a flickering torch, its flames still dancing in the disturbed air in the wake of the passing sailors, Serbius saw a pale, bespectacled and very frightened face. He instantly recognised the bank senior from the description supplied by his employer.
Serbius gently nudged Delio and they waited until their target was off the steps but still had them between him and everyone else in the bar. Serbius spoke quietly, “Mr Bagbin?”
Before he could stop himself he had turned to peer through the thick lenses of his spectacles into the shadow and said, “Yes?”
He didn’t even have time to recognise the uniforms before he was spun round and had both his arms forced high and painfully up his back. As the three of them quickly ascended the steps towards the door, Serbius, with his mouth very close to Bagbin’s right ear, was saying, “We are police officers. You are under arrest for crimes against the fiscal and commercial well being of the City of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters. You do not have to say anything now, but refusal to speak during formal questioning later will be detrimental to your defence should the matter be brought before the Chancery. You may engage the services of a Judicial Arbitrator. If you do not know one and if you so wish it, one will be appointed to act on your behalf. A record will be made of anything you say from this point in time and may be used as evidence against you.”
By the time all that had been said they had reached the door and Serbius used his free hand to open it. Realisation of what had just happened had begun to spread through the bar, and with shouts of protest an angry mob of white bearded seamen was already half way up the steps, a variety of daggers, cutlasses and cudgels appearing.
The angry mob burst out into the sunlight, those at the front expecting to see the two officers of the law and the potential equivalent of next year’s salary, just a few paces away. The fact that they were no where to be seen stopped the front runners in their tracks. Those at the rear, not knowing what was happening, collided into the back of their swifter colleagues and within seconds there was an untidy heap of bodies on the cobbles of the quayside. The odd false white beard flew off, as did two brightly coloured parrots squawking in alarm.
After a few moments of cursing and the odd exchange of blows, the ship’s captains managed to get to their feet and split up into two groups which went off in both directions along the quayside. As it was quite obvious that not a single one of them would be willing to share the steam off their piss let alone money, blood lust had very quickly taken over as the main reason for the pack hunt.
It was a good job that neither of the parrots had vocabularies greater than, “Shiver me timbers”, and, “Pieces of eight”. If they had they would have reported back to their owners what they had seen as they had flown up to roof top height. There, floating in mid air, were the two police officers still holding on to the unfortunate and terrified peculator, who now had a very large corner of his cloak rammed into his mouth. The two officers were also holding hands with a small dark skinned man whose eyes were tightly screwed shut with concentration. This was Tak Lin, a levitator, or rather a part time levitator who didn’t practice as much as he should, hence the need for the extreme concentration. By the time the two groups of captains had disappeared into the crowds on the quayside, the veins on Tak Lin’s forehead looked as if they were about to burst and he and his hovering group had already descended to first floor level.
“Thank you Tak,” said Serbius, “you can let us down now before you lose it altogether and we fall and break something.”
The group gently descended to the cobbles. Tak Lin blew out hard like someone who had been holding their breath for some time, which he in fact had been doing while straining to concentrate. In between gasps he protested, “You didn’t tell me….there….would be….three of you….I’ve never….done more than two….and then I only….got knee height from….the ground.”
Serbius grinned. “I had total faith in your abilities Tak, especially as I knew our lives would depend on them.”
People were beginning to stare. “I think it’s about time we got out of here,” said Delio a note of urgency in his voice.
“And just how are we supposed to do that?” asked Tak Lin. Delio looked at Serbius with a questioning look on his face too.
Just then the gathering crowd parted to allow passage of a fishmonger’s cart pulled by a black and white pony which plodded along at little more than a man’s walking pace. The driver, wearing a blue fishmonger’s apron, smeared in fish blood and scales, and a filthy old oilskin hat pulled down over his ears, looked half asleep, a long straight clay pipe hung, unlit, from his mouth. As the cart approached, Serbius spoke quietly to his companions.
As it drew past, Serbius and Delio with the still gagged Bagbin, leapt onto the back closely followed by Tak Lin. Instantly the driver came to life and with a sharp flick of the reins the pony, hooves slipping on the cobbles, accelerated to a gallop.
People leapt out of the way as the cart sped along the quayside, some actually ending up in the water. The cart passed one of the groups of captains who quickly gave chase as they recognised the occupants. Serbius kicked a barrel of fish guts off the back of the cart and laughed out loud as the white bearded seamen slithered and fell amongst the stinking mess.
They sped off the quayside and onto the short road towards the entrance to the Arg Helical. The great fortified gates opening as they approached. The guards had been briefed.
The City of D’n Arg stands atop a massive pillar of rock which rises vertically more than a thousand averages on the sea side and half that on the land side, where it is joined by the towering cliffs which, all bar the narrow entrance, surround Arg Bay. Their height gradually dropping to little more than a hundred averages at the entrance. (An average is the standard unit of length and height, having, somewhere back in the little remembered parts of history, been deemed to be the average height of a man. For some reason it appeared that through the passage of time, citizens of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters had grown taller. The average man was now a good head above average.)
The bay is massive. It takes a fast ship in full sail with a good wind from aft, half a day to sail between the mouth and the quaysides. The edge of the pillar of rock, known as the Arg, upon which the city stands, would take a fit person a full day to walk round. The Arg Helical is a road tunnel, which spirals steeply, close to the outer edge, three and a half turns, up through the Arg, to the city. It is also accessed half way up on the landward side.
As the guards closed the gates behind them the driver slowed the horse to a steady trot. It is a long ride up the Helical.
“It’s a good job fish smells stronger than pork and apples,” commented Serbius, as he shook hands with, and thanked, the officer from the Streets Offences and Transport Safety Office. This officer had risked suffering a horrible death by going onto the quaysides in disguise, in order to extricate his colleagues and their charge. Then he settled down in the back of the cart with the others.
Delio unplugged Bagbin’s mouth, but he just sat in stunned silence, the last few minutes having been too much for him. The other three chatted as they journeyed up the torch lit tunnel.
“You could have got us killed,” chided Tak Lin. It was a token complaint as he had recovered enough to realise he had pulled off his best ever levitation and was much too pleased with himself to be really angry.
“I was very impressed,” said Delio. “I’ve heard about levitators, but I’ve never actually met one before. Do you do a lot of it?”
“Well actually I’ve only been studying it for a few seasons in my spare time. To be honest, when three of you came out of The Iblus I thought we’d never get off the ground.”
Delio looked horrified. He turned angrily to Serbius, “If I’d’ve known you were placing our lives in the hands of an amateur I’d never have agreed to the whole scheme.”
Serbius grinned, “Stop fretting, I had every faith in Tak’s ability, and anyway, if he hadn’t managed it we’d have gone to plan B.”
“Oh yes, and what was that then?
“I don’t know. I didn’t have to think of it, did I?” His sweet smile annoyed Delio even more and he sulked for a while.
“Is that some sort of mystical head wear you’ve got wrapped around your head?” Delio eventually asked Tak who had his head swathed in folds of white cloth.
“No, silly, it’s a bandage. I was getting a pot out of a bottom cupboard in the kitchen when my wife opened the cupboard above and left the door open. Seven stitches. I tell you, the headache I’ve got didn’t do a lot for the concentration.”
Delio shook his head in disbelief.
“I was just wondering about the brooch and feathers?” continued Delio enquiring about the ornate jewelled brooch and three brightly coloured feathers pinned to the front of the bandage.
“Oh that was my wife’s idea. She thought it might look sort of….well, you know, exotic.”
“You never know, it may catch on.”
The City of D’n Arg is a city built upon itself. Far in the past it had expanded to the outer edges of the Arg and from then on all building has been skyward. Having a population of two and a half million, the city is now much taller than it is broad. Great towering buildings reach upwards in a totally non uniform manner. Thousands of different shapes and architectural styles stand side by side or one on top of the other. Many joined by bridges, some wide enough for the parallel passage of six carriages, and some just narrow walkways, little more than a plank’s width.
Spread between the buildings is a web of millions of thin cables. They are actually loops of cable attached at each end to pulley wheels, along which are sent small round containers which contain written messages. Any citizen can send a message to any other citizen, anywhere in the city. As the containers reach the end of a cable, the pulley operator at that point will read the address tag attached to the container. There will be a number of other cables attached to pulleys at that point, and the operator will attach the container to the cable that will take it one stage nearer to its final destination. Once a container has reached the building or area it is destined for it will be given to a runner who then delivers it by hand to the addressee. The runners also collect outbound containers from ‘message drops’. These are large metal containers with holes in the top just large enough to insert one container at a time. There are thousands of these ‘message drops’ placed at convenient places all over the city. For obvious reasons the system is known as ‘The Spider’s Trap’.
Interwoven through, but at no point joined to the Spiders Trap, is another network of cables, with its own set of pulley operators. This is for the exclusive use of the City officialdom and judicial services, including the Police. Purely for the sake of differentiating it from the Spider’s Trap, this system is known as ‘The Fish Catcher’.
It was over the Fish Catcher that the message was sent informing Ar Galpin, The Chancellor of Judicial Affairs, of the arrest of the embezzling Bagbin. It is Galpin’s duty to oversee all matters concerning criminal justice and to report on such to the City of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters Forum of Supervision. He would be pleased, in due course, to report this matter to the Forum. Right now he took great pleasure in handing the message to his good friend Bal Bundl, one of the wealthiest Merchant Bankers in the city and by far the fattest. He is also the former employer of Bagbin, and his thick lipped little mouth pouted into the nearest thing to a smile he could manage.
“Aren’t our police just wonderful?” beamed the Chancellor as he refilled Bundl’s wineglass.
“Oh yes,” said the fat man in his squeaky effeminate voice, as he shuffled his immense bulk round to face the other ten men who sat around the marble topped conference table in the Chancellor’s private office, all men of influence, power and wealth. “Gentlemen, a toast: To Law and Order.”
Twelve expensive crystal glasses were raised and there was a chorus, punctuated with giggles and stifled laughter, “LAW AND ORDER!”
“I am so pleased that this news of the progression of our plans has arrived whilst we meet.” The Chancellor addressed everyone in the room. “At the next meeting, which will be in ten days time, I will be introducing a new member to our group. I feel quite sure that you will be pleasantly surprised at the identity of this person. Unfortunately I am not able to stay to socialise, right now I have pressing judicial affairs to attend to. My servants are at your disposal and will hail your transport when you wish to leave. So, if you will excuse me.”
As he strode from the room, his maroon and black silk robes of office billowing behind him, the Chancellor had his head slightly cocked to the left and appeared to be talking quietly and nodding, as if in conspiratorial conversation with someone at his side. However, those who knew him, including those in the room, just thought it was one of the Chancellor’s idiosyncrasies, as he was often seen to be walking along like that. After all, don’t people in stressful occupations often become a little eccentric?
The main police office is an annex of the Chancery Halls, an ancient complex of grey stone buildings situated at the heart of the city. The Chancery Halls, with their high arched windows and numerous stone carvings of strange and ferocious mythical creatures perched at every angle and corner, are grand and imposing, despite the fact that they are dwarfed by the massive buildings all around them. Brightly coloured cloth banners bearing the intricately patterned badges of the various courts within, hang down from the roofs on either side of the grand entrances, where armour vested guards in plumed helmets, holding tall lances, stand statue like.
Having travelled through the afternoon and night, Bagbin had spent the following day and night in a spartan but warm and dry cell below the ground floor of the police office. On arrival at the office he had asked for his Judicial Arbitrator to be called. A message had been sent via the Spider’s Trap to the chosen representative’s home. The return container informed the custodial officer that he would not be available until the next morning. So Bagbin, choosing to remain silent until the arrival of his JA, was shown to his temporary accommodation, given a drink and some soup and left to sleep, if he could.
Unable to do anything constructive until the arrival of the JA, Serbius invited Delio and Tak Lin to join him for a drink in one of his favourite taverns. There, the three of them sat round a table in a quiet corner of the tap room by a window with a view over the edge of the Arg out to sea. As they drank their mugs of Polon’s Old Stinky, a ‘fine cask conditioned ale of distinction’, which gained the latter part of its name because of the flatulence that inevitably followed a few mugs, Delio tried to find out about the mysteries of levitation by questioning Tak Lin.
“So, how did you first discover that you could levitate?”
“Well it was by accident really. My wife and I had been talking about our last holiday in the Far Quarter, we go there as often as we can, it’s very peaceful and the scenery is magnificent. Anyway, we had been talking about a couple we met there from the Arable Quarter. Real country types, never even been to the city, but very nice all the same, although he did swear quite a lot, but it never seemed offensive, it was just his way and it sort of suited him. I suppose it’s a pretty hard kind of life farming and it brings on a rough edge. But he was very gentle, a sort of rough gem really. ”
Serbius was used to the way his friend from school days would talk. Tak Lin could not say “Yes” or “No” in less than thirty words. He would sometimes go on for so long about something that he and those listening to him would forget what he had been talking about in the first place.
Delio began to drum his fingers on the table. Tak Lin noticed.
“Oh, yes. Well, we were talking about this couple, my wife and I that is, and she asked if I could remember his name, her’s was Offul. His name was just about to trip off my tongue when it went. Well you know how annoying that is. My wife says to me that it doesn’t really matter, but it’s really got to me. All that evening I was trying to remember his name. I was trying so hard it gave me a terrible headache. When we went to bed I couldn’t sleep for trying to remember. It was there, but just out of reach. I got myself all tensed up, y’ know, jaw aching, fingernails into the palms and eyes all tight shut. Then, all of a sudden it came to me, just like that. I opened my eyes and fell from just below the ceiling back on to the bed. Well actually, right on top of my wife. It gave me a real fright I can tell you, and it gave her three broken ribs and a bloody nose.”
“So how long ago was that?”
“Only about three seasons ago.”
“And you’ve been doing it ever since?”
“Well not really, no. I didn’t know how I’d done it at first and I was pretty frightened. So I got a book on the matter out of the Citizen’s Library.”
“So you could learn how to do it properly?”
“Well no, not really. I’m scared stiff of heights actually, and I’d have been happy never for it to have happened again. In fact I doubt if I would have ever told anyone. But, after the physician had been to see her in the morning, my wife packed her bags and went back to her mother, accusing me of attacking her. She even threatened to place charges against me before the Civil Chancery. When I tried to tell her what had happened she just screamed at me that lying would just strengthen her case. I had to prove to her that I really had levitated.”
“I take it she believes you now.”
“Oh yes, as soon as I’d managed it a couple of times I went round to her mother’s. When my wife came to the door I was floating half an average above the welcome mat. She rushed straight home that very same day. Unfortunately I had somewhat taken advantage of my enforced freedom and my wife found a rather pretty silk and lace ladies under garment in our bedroom. I was doing really well at persuading her that the strain of our separation had caused me to do some rather strange things, until she made me put it on. It wouldn’t do up at the back.”
“And that’s why he’s been shacked up with me ever since,” added Serbius.
“Yes,” continued Tak Lin, looking rather crestfallen, “she was too embarrassed to go back to her mother’s. So, she threw me out instead.”
“But I thought you said you’d been in your kitchen with your wife when you’d banged your head?” said Delio.
“No, that was in my kitchen,” said Serbius. “Tak’s good lady had come round for her regular wad of docs. He decided that he would cook her dinner and when he went into the bottom cupboard for a pot it was too good a chance for her to miss. Opened the cupboard door above and laid the poor fellow out, blood all over the floor. She didn’t even stay to see if there was any permanent damage, just walked out with a smug look all over her face. Not one to be messed with our Mrs Lin.”
“That’s terrible,” sympathised Delio. “By the way, just out of interest, what were the names of the couple you met on holiday?”
“Her name was Offul and his was…….bloody hell, not again!”
Later that evening as the two off duty police officers ambled back to their quarters, they appeared to be holding on to a rather large balloon that had the appearance of a screwed up little brown skinned man wearing a funny hat with feathers.
“Wo’ I wanna know,” slurred the slightly swaying Delio to his colleague, “is wash so terr’ble abou’ the farmer’s wife’s name?”
“An’ another thing, wossa’ ‘orble smell?”
Chancellor Galpin had just finished reading the last of the messages that had arrived at his office during the previous night, when the large, ornately carved double doors to his office were opened by his private secretary. The diminutive and aged aide, who was about to announce the arrival of a visitor, was knocked to one side, and almost right off his feet, by the large brightly robed figure who strode in to the Chancellor’s office.
The Chancellor opened his arms in a grand gesture of welcome. “My dear Archbishop, do come in. I have the covenant ready for you to sign.”
“Unfortunately,” said Mr Merendicus, the JA appointed by the Chancery to act on behalf of Bagbin, “Mr Algarin-Bugbal, Mr Bagbin’s own representative, died last night. He suffered a heart attack so I am lead to believe. Mr Bagbin has no other preferences, so I will be representing him throughout.” Merendicus’s smile was thin and sly.
“That will be nice,” smiled Serbius sweetly, not caring a jot that the tone of his voice made his sarcasm glaringly apparent. The skeletal figure standing before him in his deep crimson robes of office was an object of hate for every law enforcement officer in the city. His methods of defence, which included the threatening or bribing of witnesses, or both, had been the ruination of more than a few officers’ careers. He detested the police and would take any opportunity to throw a whole toolbox into the cogs of law and order. His speciality was turning trials around so that the arresting officers could end up standing accused of anything from gross professional misconduct to acts of criminal dishonesty.
J A Merendicus
Serbius was also not a little saddened by the news of the death of Algarin-Bugbal. He had been everything that Merendicus was not; honest, decent and a firm believer in the fact that the justice system is basically fair to all, and innocent people are proved so without their Judicial Arbitrators resorting to dishonourable practices.
Bagbin, who was sitting next to the slime filled bundle of robes, on the other side of the table from Serbius, looked tired but he no longer looked like a man whose life, in all but the mortal aspect, had come to a nasty end. No doubt Merendicus had guaranteed, for a large percentage of the stolen money, to obtain the ex-bank employee his freedom, thought Serbius. He was finding it difficult to control a sudden urge to thrust the pencil he was holding into one of the eyes which peered at him over the gold rimmed half lens spectacles, perched low on the long and pointed nose of the corrupt JA.
Merendicus spoke again, “My client and I have discussed the matter at some length and after having listened to my qualified advice, he has decided that the best course of action is to make a full and frank confession.”
The pencil hit the floor and Serbius’s jaw came very close to following it. The most crooked legal defence representative in D’n Arg’s legal history was advocating a guilty plea! It was very likely that at that very moment, members of the swine-herders co-operative of the Arable Quarter were busy building a runway- whatever one of those is.
Serbius retrieved his pencil and paused, waiting for Merendicus to start laughing at his own joke. But instead the JA maintained a straight face. As straight as someone as crooked as he was could without fracturing something, and said with, effected politeness, “If you would be so kind as to provide us with the necessary forms, I will assist my client in making the confession in the form of a written testament.”
Serbius’s gob had never been so smacked. His gast so flabbered.
The paperwork and administration of judicial matters are generally blown along by a gentle whisper of a breeze, with seasons passing between the arrest and eventual sentencing. The cases of Bagbin and the other seventeen embezzlers, from various banks and fiscal departments, who had been arrested by Delio and Serbius in the ten days following Bagbin’s apprehension, had been propelled by a hurricane.
Even given the fact that every one of them had made a full written confession, things had moved along with an unbelievable swiftness. Chancellor Galpin had expressed deep concern over the, ‘anomalous increase in financial crimes of a fraudulent nature’, and had summoned the Supervisor of Police to his chambers.
A written order, bearing the seal of the Chancellor of Judicial Affairs, was received at the Office of Commercial and Fiscal Crime Investigation. It was passed to Serbius and Delio by The Principled Gan Pullwright, a senior Advocate of Civil and Criminal Prosecution, the most senior legal rank below Member of the Panels of Judicial Assessment. Although not an officer of police, he is, amongst other things, the Supervisor of the Office of Commercial and Fiscal Crime Investigation and therefore Serbius’s and Delio’s boss.
The order signed by the Chancellor himself, read:
It is very much in the interest of commercial and fiscal stability that all eighteen case files are swiftly prepared and are ready for presentation to the Central Panel of Judicial Assessment as soon as possible, certainly within the next thirty days, so that the matter can be dealt with expeditiously. These crimes have already generated a lot of interest throughout the populous of The City of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters, and ill founded rumours abound.
It is very important that people are shown that the Chancellery of Judicial Affairs, on behalf of the Forum of Supervision, is maintaining the security of City and commercial investments.
It must be shown that all crimes against commercial and fiscal welfare will be dealt with firmly.
That last line made Serbius feel uneasy. If he didn’t know better he would think that the Chancellor, a representative of the Forum of Supervision, was trying to exert some pressure on the impartial Members of the Panels of Assessment. But no, the full combined weight of the commercial and supervisory powers could never even slightly influence matters of criminal justice. The total impartiality of the Panels is the very cornerstone of the whole civil and criminal law system. No, it was just a bad choice of words.
“Someone is going to pay dearly for this!” Lord Bloodcuttler was not happy, and when the Senior Arboreal Wiserman was not happy, being anywhere within a hundred averages of him was a risky business. He was prone to swing his arms around wildly when he ranted, and as he seldom let go of his withe of spells, sparks of unrequested magic would fly off in all directions causing anything in their path to undergo changes. Once calmed, his Lordship would have to wander around for hours changing three headed dogs back into rocks, fire breathing dragons back into cottages and most common of all, the numerous disgracefully arrogant and outrageously handsome heirs apparent to non existent thrones, back into frogs.
Occasionally the Senior Arborial Wiserman would miss a few of these princes, as there were so many of them because of the vast numbers of tree frogs living in the forest. However, they would eventually bump into one another and, shouting strange words and phrases like, ‘Varlet’ and ‘Have at Thee,’ they would draw their swords and hack each other to death, their bodies disappearing as the spells wore off due to reduced existence.
The Treasurer of the University of Pure Knowledge, of which Lord Bloodcuttler is the Dean and senior lecturer in thaumaturgical physics, was feeling distinctly uncomfortable and was trying to work out how long it would take him to reach the cover of the nearest tree. This had been made slightly more difficult because, as they were standing in the middle of a forest, The Forest, working out which was the nearest tree had to be done first.
Realising that the chances of reaching the edge of the clearing, in which they were standing, before changing form, were very slim, the nervous Treasurer spoke for the first time since handing the Senior Wiserman the message he had received that morning. “My Lord, I can see how the contents of the letter are liable to cause an emotional outburst in even the most placid and even tempered wiserman, but can I urge you to maintain a cool head.”
The veins in the Senior Arboreal Wiserman’s forehead stood out like the branches of the near by trees. His eyes were black pools of thunder.
“Or could you just put your withe in your pocket?” pleaded the Treasurer. It was not that changing form involuntarily bothered him very much, as a wiserman himself he could change back instantly, but it always left him with such a terrible headache.
But instead of witnessing a magical firework display, the treasurer watched the expression of rage, on the Senior Arboreal Wiserman’s face, turn to one of deep concern as he held the note he had been handed, just below his nose. He sniffed gently a few times, as if trying to recognise an elusive fragrance.
Suddenly he strode from the clearing, saying to the treasurer; “Come, come, Caldipus, there is no time to be wasted. We must summon the council. This is terrible, dreadful, absolutely horrendous. Hurry along Caldipus, don’t dawdle so.”
The Treasurer, checking to see that he still had only two legs and fingers not claws, stumbled after Lord Bloodcuttler.
Having been dragged away from various family and social activities, members of the Council of Arboreal Wisermen were more than a little displeased. The mood in the vast triangular, wood panelled chamber was sullen. To cap it all, the Senior Arboreal Wiserman was making the Council wait. There was much muttering and impatient shuffling on the three tiers of benches, which ran along two sides of the triangle.
Some of the older Wisermen had been rudely aroused from afternoon naps by members of the University portering staff, banging on the front doors of their personal chambers. The Treasurer was moving along the font row of benches, apologising and trying to assure members of the Council that the ‘Senior’ would not be long and that this meeting was of utmost importance.
Just as it seemed that some of the angrier members might get up and leave, the great doors situated at the point of the triangle, between the rows of benches, were opened by two porters and Lord Bloodcuttler strode in and crossed the floor of the chamber. As he did so the Treasurer hurried to his seat on the far right of the front bench. The Senior Arboreal Wiserman took his seat on the platform mid way along the far wall of the chamber, facing the rows of Council members. He was wearing his green robe of office and a tall pointed hat, as he always did at Council meetings. His wife had obviously insisted on combing his long silver hair and beard, which were very neat. Lady Bloodcuttler is a formidable woman and a stickler for neatness. Lord Bloodcuttler had learned many seasons ago that the phrase ‘Don’t fuss so,’ was interpreted by his wife to mean, ‘Please make me as late as possible for my very important meeting’.
“This had better be good,” called out a voice from the front left of the Council benches. Lord Bloodcuttler looked across and recognised one of the older Wisermen, one who had recently been roused from slumber. He smiled inwardly. None of the younger Wisermen would have dared to talk to him that way. His demand for respect and obedience was legendary. But some of the older Council members had been his teachers when he was a student. He would not dream of undermining their status by chastising them in front of other Wisermen.
“Good, my Lord Barchette?” he replied. “Good it most certainly is not. It is bad, very bad, as bad as it can be and very probably much worse.” His voice was quiet. He would speak this way when ever he addressed the Council as it assured silence as he spoke and the Council members would have to concentrate that little bit harder. It ensured that anything he said was properly taken in.
He turned to his left. “Treasurer Caldipus, please relay to the Council the contents of the message you brought to me earlier this afternoon.”
The Treasurer stood and turned to face the Council of Arboreal Wisermen. “My Lords, it was with no little surprise that I received this written message from the University’s bank in D’n Arg.” He unfolded the piece of paper, which Lord Bloodcuttler had returned to him earlier in the afternoon. “It reads;
My cherished friend Treasurer Caldipus,
Following your recent large withdrawals from all three of the accounts held with our bank in the name of The University of Pure Knowledge, there was a minus credit balance in two of the accounts, namely the Salaries and Pensions account, and the Maintenance and Welfare account. Having discovered that this situation had arisen without authority being given for drawings in excess of credit balance, I took the step of returning the two accounts to a nil balance by transferring money from the General Income account.
After charges for bank administration, the University of Pure Knowledge, General Income account has a credit balance of thirty-two docs.
The Treasurer paused. The silence in the chamber was tangible.
This is a very unusual situation and I trust that none of the University’s accounts will be allowed to run in to minus credit in the future without the bank’s prior approval. Also, I would like to bring to your attention the fact that as the balances of the accounts have fallen below one thousand docs, administration charges will be due soon. Please can you arrange to have sufficient funds in each of the accounts to cover these charges.
I am gratified to be your servant and hope to be of lasting assistance.
Senior Supervisor of Accounts Administration
Treasurer Caldipus re-folded the piece of paper and looked up at fifty-two stunned faces. The Treasurer felt very small and very exposed as he waited for the inevitable barrage of questions. But, before it could begin, Lord Bloodcuttler raised a hand. “You will all, no doubt, have questions you wish to put to the Treasurer. But I can assure you that he will not have an answer for any of them.”
As one the Council shifted its gaze to the Senior Arboreal Wiserman. “I can also assure you and I have checked thoroughly, that no one with authority has removed any large sums of money from the University’s banking accounts. Our accounts were amongst the largest in any of the D’n Arg banks. There was a credit in each account of many millions of docs. However, the missing millions, which I am sure we will eventually get back, is the least of our problems at present. Treasurer Caldipus is going to move amongst you with the piece of paper he has just read from. I want each of you to smell it.”
By the time the piece of correspondence was returned to Lord Bloodcuttler there was silence once again in the chamber. All eyes were upon the Senior Arboreal Wiserman as he tucked the well-sniffed piece of correspondence up the sleeve of his robe.
“Judging by your collective reaction I can tell that every member of the Council has been able to detect the faint trace of a smell I noticed soon after receiving the message. There is no doubt that there is a great evil loose in the City of D’n Arg and we all know who is responsible for it.”
The Treasurer had retaken his seat and was looking somewhat puzzled. As he had passed amongst the Council members, holding the paper to their noses, he thought he had detected a very faint smell of something acrid and burnt, but it was not a smell he was familiar with. It was obvious though, that whatever it was the smell was of considerable significance to the Council of Arboreal Wisermen and looking at their faces, it was cause for a great deal of concern.
Lord Bloodcuttler continued; “Not in many hundreds of seasons and certainly not within the lifetime of even the eldest Wisermen, has there been a problem of this magnitude. We have had to deal with evils of all kinds, but all of a lesser nature, residual to previous and ancient visitations. If I am not mistaken, and I have to say I never am, this is evil which is new and direct from the root.”
“I want you all to go back to your lodgings and gather up your books and records. We need to arm ourselves with all the knowledge we can amass. We will gather first thing in the morning in the great library. Make sure you say farewell to your wives and loved ones this evening, because, for the foreseeable future, you will have little time to even think of them.”
Without another word, the Senior Arboreal Wiserman strode across the chamber and out through the still open doors, closely followed by the still puzzled Treasurer. The members of the Council filed out through the doors, talking quietly, and headed off in various directions across the vast central courtyard of the University of Pure Knowledge, towards, in some cases, their lodgings and in others, their individual research facilities.
Once they had reached his personal chambers, Lord Bloodcuttler turned to the Treasurer, “Caldipus, it is quite clear that you are somewhat puzzled by the olfactory sampling which occurred in the Council Chamber. You are a mathematician and have a mind trained in matters of logic. For that reason you were trained as a Wiserman Temporal and therefore have limited knowledge of matters Incorporeal, especially matters Demoniac. Every member of the Council is a scholar of matters Temporal and Incorporeal as well as being professors of thaumaturgy, which we all are. One thing that Wisermens Incorporeal learn very early on in their studies, is to recognise the smell which is, albeit extremely faintly, impregnated into the piece of paper you took amongst the Council today. It is brymstein, the smell of utmost evil, the odour of the root itself.”
“What does this mean, my Lord?” asked the Treasurer, still unsure of the enormity of the situation.
“What it means my dear Caldipus,” said the Senior Arboreal wiserman, as he walked across to the window of his office and looked out towards the tree covered horizon, beyond which stood the great City of D’n Arg, “is that the black lord of the root is abroad in D’n Arg.”
Lord Bloodcuttler then indicated a pile of books, some very old, which were stacked up in a corner of the room. “Caldipus, I want you to spend the next two days reading through those books. They will give you a basic insight into matters Incorporeal, especially concerning the root and the black lord. I have instructed Lord Arnaldem, a senior professor and Arboreal Wiserman Incorporeal, who is the foremost authority on defence against root evil, to join you shortly. He knows as much as there is to know about the black lord and he will prepare you as much as he can in such a short time.”
“Prepare me for what, my Lord?” The Treasurer suddenly had a horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Three days from now you will travel to D’n Arg. I want you to assess the situation. I want to know how bad things are. D’n Arg is a city of commerce, a centre of finance. You are a man of numbers and are therefore well suited to gauge the damage at this early stage. Also, you are a scholar of logic and will not, therefore, be dogged by superstition and unreasonable fear of the unknown.”
“My Lord, the thought of being in a city where the black lord is at work, fills me with dread the like of which I have never known.” As if to reinforce the statement, the Treasurer was visibly shaking. “Surely there must be someone more suited than me, for it is well written in legend that the black lord will tear the very soul from a wiserman on sight, on account of the fact that he sees all wisermen as a threat to his dark powers.”
“He has every reason to be wary of wisermen, for without the intervention of wisermen, his last visit would have been permanent and his banishment would not have been possible. How he has overcome the spells barring him from entering this world I do not know. We must all work hard to find out and put things right, if we can. But, my dear Caldipus, you have no need of fear.” The Senior Arboreal Wiserman patted the Treasurer reassuringly on the back. “You will be in disguise.”
The Treasurer was not reassured.
Serbius had never seen anything like it. The eighteen defendants stood shoulder to shoulder in the central floor space of the great circular Central Court, facing the seven members of the Senior Panel of Judicial Assessment, awaiting sentence.
Throughout the hearing the public gallery, which was at first floor level and swept around half of the circular courtroom, had been empty. Lord Roanne Carboswynn, The Most Respected Senior Judicial Assessor, who was chairing the panel for this case, had ordered the exclusion of all public, including news reporters. The reason he gave for ordering the exclusion of the public was:
‘That the reading of the facts by the prosecuting JA would give details of complex fiscal crimes, which may give rise to further offences being committed by like minded criminals who would otherwise not have the knowledge required to perpetrate these types of offences’.
Reading the case for the prosecution had taken all morning and half the afternoon. The defence, Mr Merendicus, had, in view of guilty pleas, declined on behalf of his clients, all eighteen of them, to make a statement of defence, but had requested that he be allowed to make representations of mitigation prior to sentencing. Lord Carboswynn had agreed and now that the eighteen accused had filed from their seats to stand on the mosaic floor amidst the multicoloured patches of light below the stained glass central dome, situated high above their heads, Merendicus spoke. “My Lords and Most Respected Assessors, if it pleases you I now wish to ask of the Panel what their decision is as to the pleas of my clients.”
This was a formality, in the case of a guilty plea the Panel would always accept it, but it had to be done formally, just as it would be after the decision on a not guilty plea.
The Senior Judicial Assessor turned first to his right and then to his left and the members of the panel on either side nodded as he did so. He then faced forward again and addressed the eighteen, surprisingly calm and composed, accused, all wearing the bright orange smocks issued to prisoners of the City Gaol.
“The Panel, having heard the information of prosecution in each of the eighteen cases presented in this court today, is unanimous in agreeing that the pleas of guilty shall be accepted in all eighteen cases. There will now be a short recess while the Panel has conference. The prisoners will remain in court.”
At that the Panel, in a flurry of green and red silk robes, filed out behind the Senior Judicial Assessor, through a door directly behind the Panel bench. Just before the door closed, Serbius, who was standing behind and to the right of the prisoners, at the edge of the central floor well, got a glimpse of the interior of the Assessor’s chamber. He could have sworn he saw Chancellor Galpin standing by the large round table, around which the Assessors would sit and discuss sentencing. Surely he must be mistaken though, only the Assessors and their clerks were allowed in the chamber at such a stage of the proceedings.
Just as everyone in the court was retaking their seats, having stood as the Assessors left, a court guard approached Serbius and gave him a sealed message. “It didn’t come via either the Fish Catcher or the Spider’s Trap. Someone just left it on my desk in the citizen’s gallery. Didn’t see who I’m afraid, left it while I was helping an old lady up the steps.”
Serbius took out a small knife from inside his tunic and cut away the wax seal around the lid of the cylindrical leather container. Opening it he found a single rolled up sheet of paper upon which were written the words; Citizen’s Library, Law Section reading room, just before closing. Be alone, tell no one. There was no signature.
As he put the message away one of the Assessor’s clerks re-entered the court and beckoned for Mr Merendicus and the prosecuting JA to go in to the Assessor’s chamber. They were not in there for very long and had only just returned to their seats when the panel also returned to the courtroom. Merendicus was expressionless but the prosecuting JA had the pale complexion and glassy stare of someone who had just received a very nasty shock. The Senior Judicial Assessor again addressed the eighteen prisoners.
“Before hearing mitigation and considering sentencing, the Panel feels there is a further matter which requires investigation. This will be done by means of a Panel interrogation of the defendants in Court. This Judicial Assessment will reconvene tomorrow morning. The prisoners will be returned to the City Gaol and I will see the prosecuting Judicial Arbitrator, the defending Judicial Arbitrator and the investigating Officer in my personal chamber for breakfast.”
With another flurry of green and red silk, the panel again retired. The prisoners were led away by guards and the courtroom emptied. Serbius made his way straight back to the Office of Commercial and Fiscal Crime Investigations. He was puzzled, not just because of the mysterious message. The information laid before the Court by the prosecution in all the cases brought against the eighteen defendants had been read out in court and had been extremely detailed. That, along with the guilty pleas, should have meant that sentencing would have taken place immediately. Mitigation would have been minimal and the sentences would have ranged between eight and fifteen seasons imprisonment. It had all seemed so straightforward. What else could the Assessors need to know about? What else needed investigating? He had been as thorough as was possible. Was that Chancellor Galpin he had seen in the Assessor’s chamber? Did he have anything to do with this?
Officer Paol Delio was slouching in his chair with his feet up on his desk as Serbius entered the office. As he slumped into the chair behind his own desk with a sigh, Delio asked, “What’s the matter old boy, surely they didn’t change their pleas and get let off?” He had a cheeky grin on his face, which slowly faded as he realised that his friend and colleague was looking more than a little concerned about something.
“Tell me I’m not right, Serbius,” he said as he swung his legs and let his feet drop to the stone floor. “Tell me that the population of convicted prisoners has just increased by eighteen.”
“Don’t worry Paol, they’re all still under lock and key. But they have not been sentenced yet.”
“What, did the informations drag on a bit? Did their Most Respectednesses need their beauty sleep before deciding on sentences?”
“You should be more respectful of senior members of the Judiciary, Paol.”
“I would be more respectful if they got rid of some of their pomposity. You know I think that all that ceremony in the courts is unnecessary and that the Assessors, to a man, are past it and out of touch.”
“That is common misconception fuelled by the small page public news briefs. The Assessors are chosen for their knowledge and wisdom.” Serbius stopped himself before starting on about traditions steeped in history which assured the continuity of the law, and the lack of respect shown by some of the younger citizens. Delio was grinning again and Serbius realised he was being wound up.
“Are you incapable of taking anything seriously?”
“Only the season’s catalogue from Alberon Dorice, Merchant Tailors and Outfitters to the Gentry,” replied Delio, as he stood up and began looking his reflection up and down in the full-length mirror he had fitted to the wall by his desk.
“What you need is a stint as an instructor at the training school, having to wear strictly regulation uniform.”
“You, my friend, have a very sick mind,” said Delio, visibly paling at the thought of over tight tunics with high, itchy collars.
Although he often ribbed Delio about his enthusiasm for fine clothes, he was well aware that his friend’s attention to detail where his attire was concerned was carried through to his work. As individuals and as a team, Serbius and Delio are highly respected at all levels of the Judiciary. Serbius trusted Delio implicitly, but decided that he would, for the moment, keep his worries to himself and follow the instructions on the mysterious note. If there was to be any danger he did not want to put his friend and colleague at risk.
“Any way, what is it that’s worrying you?” asked Delio.
“Oh nothing much I expect. The Senior Judicial Assessor wants me to join him for breakfast, along with the defence and the prosecution. It will just be a couple of ambiguities that they want clearing up.” He did not believe a word he had just said.
The Citizen’s library is one of D’n Arg’s most ornate buildings. It is a great stone ‘H’ lying in the centre of its own beautiful gardens, laid out symmetrically with regularly raked gravel paths running from each corner of the multicoloured square to the two entrances on each side of the middle of the cross piece of the ‘H’. The gardeners maintained flowerbeds, which screamed with colour in the summer. They contained flowers not only native to the Protected Quarters, but also exotic blooms from foreign lands. The beautiful aromas would waft around the nearby streets, enticing citizens to come and stroll along the paths between the beds and the immaculate lawns. Some stopping occasionally to admire a statue or watch the exotic fish with colours as bright and varied as the flowers, swimming in the many ornamental ponds. Some have fountains, the spray from which, on sunny days, would often cause small rainbows to be formed. The park is an oasis of shimmering beauty, soothing sounds and exotic perfumes, surrounded by the soaring mass of the city.
In the winter the wild colours of the flowers would be replaced by the more subtle yet no less beautiful colours of heathers and evergreens bearing brightly coloured berries. There would also be the smells of the gardener’s incinerator burning the dead summer blooms and autumn leaf fall. The smoke would mingle with the mist, which would cling to the trees and shrubs and, depending on which flowers and plants were being burned, it would sometimes make the air in the gardens mildly intoxicating. Library goers could be quite light headed by the time they entered the building.
As Serbius strode along the path towards one of the entrances to the Citizen’s Library, he barely noticed the cocktail of aromas being emitted by the summer blooms. The white stone building glowed orange in the bright evening sun which shone directly along one of the four wide main avenues which cut the city into four. The intricately carved facias and high arched windows reaching up to the red tiled, high pointed roof were interlaced with deep shadows. His mind was on other matters as the stone eyes of countless dragons and gargoyles blindly watched his approach.
Serbius was early, he wanted to be there first and position himself so that he could see everyone that came in to the Law Section reading room, a place he was not unfamiliar with. He had spent a lot of time there whilst studying for his law exams and he still visited regularly to carry out research. On entering the library he took the great stairway on his left and climbed six flights to the third floor. The entire third floor of the ‘H’ is given over to law and every wall was lined with shelf upon shelf of books, right up to the high ceilings. Despite the torches burning atop poles positioned at regular intervals along the centre of the corridors between the rows of shelves, it was quite dingy. Here and there there would be an attendant carrying a candle lantern, searching for books on behalf of clients who would be waiting in the reading room at the centre of the ‘H’, directly above the entrance hall.
The reading room is well illuminated by torches on poles and candle lanterns with crystal lenses placed on the reading tables for clients to position how they want to. There were only two people at the tables reading and two attendants, standing by each of the two doors, situated at both ends of the room.
As Serbius walked across the room he accidentally knocked into a chair causing it to scrape loudly on the wooden floor. Four faces turned to look at him and there was a quartet of, “Shh!”
“Sorry,” he mouthed as he carefully repositioned the chair under the table. He then sat at a table near the wall half way between the doors with his back as near to the wall as possible, facing across the room so that the doors were on either side of him and he could watch them both. One of the attendants came over and bending at the waist, whispered in Serbius’s ear, “Do you have a particular title you would like me to find or is there a subject you would like to research?”
Serbius thought that he might as well not waist his time. “Yes, I would like to see a volume of the up to date Balderry’s References for Clerks to the Judicial Assessor’s. It’s the volume which covers evidence and procedure in court.” The attendant nodded and slipped quietly from the room. Whilst he was waiting Serbius had a look at the other two people using the reading room and quickly decided that neither of them was likely to be the person wanting to meet him. One was a young man with a pile of books on the table before him. He was busy writing notes and frequently referring to the books, which had numerous bits of paper sticking out of them as page markers. He was obviously studying for law exams of some kind.
The other person was a well-dressed middle aged man with grey hair and thick lensed spectacles. He was reading from one very large book and making occasional notes on a large pad. Serbius decided that he was probably a fairly senior JA checking up on points of law for a case. Then he noticed the robe bag hanging by its cord from the back of the chair and that clinched it. As he did not recognise him he decided he must be a JA working in matters civil rather than criminal. Serbius knew every JA working in matters criminal, at least by sight.
The attendant came back, slightly out of breath, with the very large Balderry’s volume nine, and placed it on the table before Serbius. Then without a word, he returned to his position by the door.
Balderry’s volume nine contained all the information Serbius needed. But, rather than answering his questions, it gave rise to more consternation. He was going to have to wait until morning to find out what was happening. One thing the book did confirm, though, was that during pre sentencing conference, only the Panel of Judicial Assessors and their clerks were allowed in the Panel Chamber. Why then had defence and prosecuting JAs been summoned and who was the other person in there? Was it Chancellor Galpin he had seen? If so, why was he there?
The law student gathered up his notes and left. One of the attendants then gathered up the books he had been using and left the room with them. The other attendant began straightening chairs and checked that the windows were secured. It was obvious that it was closing time and Serbius began to wonder if the meeting was actually going to take place. The JA closed the book he had been using and stood up. Instead of leaving though, he picked up the book and came across to Serbius’s table. Putting the book on the table he said, very quietly, “I could not help noticing the volume you were reading. I think you will find some useful information in here,” he tapped the red leather cover of the book. “Page four hundred and three.” At that the JA strode quickly from the room, gathering his robe bag from the back of the chair where it hung as he did so. The remaining attendant opened the door for him.
Serbius looked at the gold embossed title on the book. It was ‘Sharlick’s Interpretations, A guide to Judicial Terminology’. It had nothing to do with the subject he had been looking up. Quickly turning to page four hundred and three he found a small piece of paper inserted between the pages. It was the same handwriting as on the note he had received in court. Go to somewhere quiet where we can talk without risk of being over-heard. Not your home! I will follow.
Serbius quickly pocketed the note and left the reading room. As he made his way down the stairs and out of the library he did not see anyone other than the attendants. He did not see anyone behind him as he walked along the path and out of the gardens. He avoided the busy avenues and made his way along quiet streets, dimly lit by the occasional torch burning in a glass bowl, fastened to the walls of buildings. It was dark now, and the few other pedestrians were shadows passing by anonymously. He kept up a brisk pace, heading away from the centre of the city. Eventually he came out from amongst the great high towers of the city onto the rim road, a paved road wide enough for two carriages to pass, which ran right around the outer edge of the city.
Serbius waited for a large cart pulled by four ponies to pass, then crossed the rim road to the grass verge, which separated the edge of the road from the long drop to the sea. He turned to his left and walked for a short distance to a small brickwork platform upon which was a semicircular wooden bench, facing out. It was one of the many viewpoints, popular with the citizens during the day, when those who had the time would come and gaze out across the harbour and watch the ships coming and going. Not many would come during the night, for fear of falling over the edge in the dark. There would just be the occasional foolhardy drunk or courting couple.
Serbius sat at the extreme left of the bench, his left side to the edge and looking back in the direction he had just come from. He glanced at the bright lights of the quaysides far below, a world apart from his own. Down there was chaos and lawlessness beyond the belief of those who had never seen it. Here in the city, up on the safe heights of the Arg, was order and civility, a place where good people lived and worked hard to make honest livings. There were rules and laws, some quite restrictive, but these gave freedom, freedom from fear and persecution. Laws may sometimes be a little inconvenient to individuals, but they are for the common good. The law is equal to all citizens of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters. Serbius believed in the law, lived his life by the law and earned his crust by upholding the law. The law is the very backbone of society. Without it - well just take a look. He glanced again at the quaysides.
Despite its softness, the voice made him jump. He had not seen anyone approach and had heard no footsteps. But there, standing in the middle of the platform, was a man in a long black hooded cape. “Hello Officer Serbius, I am grateful to you for bringing us here.”
Serbius stood up and walked across the platform towards the figure. As he did so the hood was pushed back and Serbius saw that it was the JA from the library, although he was no longer wearing the thick lensed spectacles. “You asked for a place where we could talk without being overheard. There is no where more suited in the city. I have followed your instructions, now I will be grateful if you can avoid further mystery and quickly explain why we are here and what it is that a Judicial Arbitrator and I need to speak about so secretively.”
“Well that is a relief,” smiled the caped figure. “If a Police Officer of your calibre and experience can take me for a JA, my disguise must be good.”
“Disguise, what do you mean disguise?”
“My name is Caldipus and I am the Treasurer of the University of Pure Knowledge.”
“Then you must be a wi….”
The Treasurer put his hands up to silence Serbius, and looked around nervously. “Please, do not refer to me by that title at all. I am disguised as a JA for a number of good reasons, one of which is that it will not be out of place for you and I to be seen talking together occasionally. Please, let us sit and I will explain all. I do hope you are not expected anywhere soon, as what I have to tell you will take some time and will take some understanding. By the way, can we sit in the middle of the bench, I’m ashamed to admit it, but I am absolutely terrified of heights.” The treasurer looked nervously at the edge and took hold of Serbius’s sleeve.
Serbius did not interrupt Treasurer Caldipus as he explained about the missing funds, the message from the bank and the faint smell it brought with it. Serbius had learnt about the legends of the black lord of the Root at school. The tale of the black lord’s final banishment was a popular story of good conquering evil and was the main theme of several classical dramas performed in the City’s grand theatres.
Like most people he had always believed that the legends were mainly fiction and that any evil afoot in D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters was generated by people’s greed and lust for power. As a child he had been terrified by stories of the black lord of the Root taking control of people who harboured wicked thoughts and turning them into his slaves, making them do terrible things for which they would be caught and punished, sometimes very cruelly. But he had reached adulthood realising that these tales had all just been a way of getting across to children the difference between right and wrong and the consequences of wrongdoing.
“I can see by the look on your face Officer Serbius, that you are finding this all a bit hard to believe. You can check with the bank, the fact that the University of Pure Knowledge’s accounts have been emptied. I will give you a signed authority for access to that information.”
“That’s all very well, but I have no proof that you are who, or what, you say you are, and you expect me to start believing as fact, ancient myth.”
“By the very nature of your work, you are a man who is naturally suspicious. Information is not fact until it has been thoroughly investigated. I cannot even prove to you that I am what I claim to be, as any act of magic would very likely warn the dark lord of my presence here in D’n Arg. I truly wish that he were just a character of fiction. After spending your entire adult life believing otherwise I cannot expect you just to accept what I am telling you. But, within only a short space of time you will begin to see that things in D’n Arg are not as they should be and that many people in positions of great responsibility are acting very strangely, and in many cases, outside the law.”
“So, what you are trying to tell me is that the black lord is taking control, by means of demoniac possession, of the City hierarchy?” Serbius did not realise that he was smirking.
“I must urge you to take this more seriously, Officer Serbius. What you have just said is only theory at the moment. But it seems to be a likely explanation for what is currently happening.”
“I’m sorry, but this is so far fetched. You are telling me that the black lord is in D’n Arg and is taking over the minds of influential people in order to take control.”
“That is a very simplistic way of explaining it, but possibly not too far from reality.”
Caldipus reached into his gown and brought out a message container. “This is a letter from Lord Bloodcuttler, Dean of the University of Pure Knowledge and,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “Senior Arborial Wiserman.”
He looked over both his shoulders before continuing. “It will explain a lot better than I can and gives you the title of some useful books should you want to do any research. I must say that your misconceptions are very typical. The black lord cannot actually possess people or take over their minds. He simply manipulates the wickedness that is already there. He plays on greed and the lust for power. He is in D’n Arg, that I promise you. But he does not want to take control. He wants to destroy.”
Caldipus handed the message container to Serbius then stood. “When you have realised that what I am telling you is fact, return here and I will tell you why I contacted you and what I,” he looked at the container in Serbius’ hand, “we want you to do. I must beg of you, as much for your own safety as for any other reason, not to tell anyone about this meeting or what I have told you. Do not leave it too long. Good bye Officer Serbius.”
Serbius looked at the message container then put it inside his tunic, speaking as he did so. “How will you know when I-,” as he looked up he realised he was quite alone. There was a stiff breeze coming in off the sea and it made him shiver. He got up and walked quickly back in to the City.
Tak Lin was waiting up for Serbius when he got home. His eyes were red with tiredness. “Am I glad to see you, I’ll be able to go to bed now.”
Serbius looked puzzled.
Tak Lin yawned and continued, “A fellow came here earlier, much earlier, wanting to see you. Said he was the prosecuting JA. He was very upset about you not being home, said that he needed to speak to you urgently. Made me promise to stay up to tell you and emphasise that it could not wait until morning.”
Tak Lin handed Serbius a piece of paper. “This is his address he wants you to go straight there. Good night.”
At that Tak Lin turned and stumbled off to his room, exactly what Serbius wanted to do. It was very late, had been a long day and he had an early start in the morning. He looked at the address on the piece of paper and was dismayed to discover that it was across the City and at a very high level. Right now a poke in the eye would have been preferable to this excursion.
It was starting to get light by the time Serbius had walked across the city. He had climbed via the many steps, which clung to the sides of the towering buildings, and had passed from building to building across many of the bridges stretching between the continually moving wires of the Fish Catcher and the Spider’s Trap.
The prosecuting JA’s apartment was in a residential area, high above the streets of the city and away from the industrial and commercial areas. Save for the endless whirring of the wires carrying their countless messages, it was quiet. There was a short private bridge to cross from a communal entrance lobby. The bridge was not even wide enough for two people to pass on it and there were no railings. Below was a drop of over three hundred averages to the street. However, Serbius did not give it a moment’s thought as he strode across to the open fronted porch at the rear of which was the door of the apartment. In common with all people who had been brought up in the City of D’n Arg, he had no fear of heights. The porch was illuminated by a small oil lamp set in a recess behind a glass panel in the wall to the right of the door, which was made of dark wood inlaid with a floral pattern in a lighter wood. It was highly polished and told of a resident who was proud of his home.
Serbius knocked and the sound echoed in the quietness of the suburban dawn. Almost immediately he heard the sound of footsteps from within, and the door opened silently on its well oiled hinges. The prosecuting JA, Asher Canverry, a tall elegant man with silver hair and very pale skin, was dressed in a dark blue house robe and carried a candle on a small plate. He beckoned Serbius in, led him down a short unlit passage and into a comfortably furnished living room which was well lit by numerous candles and a crystal chandelier which greatly magnified the light of the oil lamp at its centre.
Canverry indicated a high-backed leather chair. “Please be seated Officer Serbius.” He had a soft, slightly musical voice, which Serbius had thought was very pleasant while listening to him reading the prosecution case the day before.
As Serbius settled into the softly upholstered chair Canverry sat on a wooden swivel chair by an ornate desk upon which were numerous papers he had been working on through the night. There were also two large books on the desk, which had been taken from the shelves lining one wall of the room. These shelves were filled with books of all sizes, mostly about law and judicial procedures.
Canverry continued, “I am very grateful to you for having come across the city to see me, especially as it has meant that you have had no sleep and will not have had the chance of any before we breakfast with my Lord Carboswynn. I am only sorry that you were not at your home when I called there last night.”
Serbius was feeling tired and wanted to get to the point as quickly as possible. He was well aware that he would have to return home to wash and change before going to the breakfast meeting with the Senior Judicial Assessor. “It is fortunate that I currently have a house guest. Had he not been there to emphasise your anxiety to see me I would certainly have left it until the meeting. I trust that you need to see me for a reason of great urgency and import.”
“I can assure you Officer Serbius, that I would not have deprived you of your sleep unless it was absolutely necessary. Now I shall get straight to the point.”
Serbius had to stifle a sigh of relief and a yawn.
The JA continued, “As you will remember both the Defence JA and I were called in to the Assessor’s chamber just before the end of the proceedings yesterday.”
Serbius nodded. “I noticed you didn’t look too happy when you came out and it did give me some cause for concern, but I was rather busy and didn’t have time to stay to talk to you.”
“Not too happy is an understatement, dismayed and deeply shocked is how I felt and still do. According to my Lord Carboswynn, the prosecution has not focused on the real issues and the charges brought against all eighteen of the defendants are insufficient.”
Canverry picked up a document from the desk and read from it. “The collective opinion of the Panel is this: That all eighteen defendants had offended in collusion. They had conspired to cause grave and massive damage to the fiscal and commercial well being of the City of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters, therefore also causing harm to its reputation, amongst trading nations, as a pillar of financial stability and centre of secure investment. This conspiracy would undermine the security and peace of the City of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters, and is therefore no less than an act of Treason.”
It was Serbius’ turn to be stunned. “Treason! From where did they get that idea? I have to admit that the time constraints placed upon the investigation left it much less thorough than I would have liked. But there is no evidence to suggest that all eighteen conspired. I looked into that very carefully because of the fact that all the offences were committed within such a short time span. Not one of those men knew each other before they were placed in custody.”
“Officer Serbius, your reputation is widely known and as a prosecutor I would never question the thoroughness of your investigations. However, I was told that the Panel had been informed of some new evidence which they were to review last night and question the defendants about today.”
“New evidence? From where?” Serbius’ voice was getting louder as he got angrier. “All evidence for the prosecution must be presented in court by the prosecuting JA and you certainly didn’t mention anything other than what was in the prosecution papers.”
“No I did not. I am as surprised as you are. As you well know, information and evidence from any source, which may undermine the case for the defence, other than the information laid before the Court by the prosecuting JA or evidence given directly by witnesses, must be disregarded by the Panel. When I tried to voice my concern I was told I would have my say today and was promptly dismissed from the Panel’s presence. What also surprised me was that JA Merendicus did not appear to be in the least bit concerned.”
Serbius thought for a few moments then asked, “Was there anyone else in the chamber other than you two, the Panel and their clerks.”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“No specific reason. I’m just trying to look at all angles,” he lied. He wanted to be absolutely sure before telling anyone that he had seen Chancellor Galpin in the chamber.
“I can take it from your reaction to all this that this additional evidence did not come from your department, therefore I intend to raise an objection in court today, based on incorrect procedures. I will have no part in raising charges which are, at the very least, unnecessary and unsafe.”
“Especially as there is only one punishment for treason,” added Serbius.
“Precisely,” nodded Canvery, “and this could put both of us in an awkward position. If they are found guilty of treason and word gets out that I did not raise those charges and you did not investigate the matter, our reputations could be severely damaged.”
Serbius was somewhat disappointed that Canvery was so concerned about his reputation when there were much more important issues at stake. “Being constantly criticised and unpopular are part of my job, my reputation does not come into it.”
“Well mine does”, said Canvery raising his voice. “I have been a JA for over sixty seasons and I aspire to the Panel. The last thing I want is to be criticised in court over my handling of this case, especially as there is so much public interest.”
Serbius stood. “My main concern is the lives of those eighteen men, criminal as they may be, and I would have hoped that that would be the main reason for you raising your objection today. I will see you at breakfast.”
Serbius was annoyed as he strode from the apartment and across the bridge. As he walked through the communal lobby towards the stairs he thought he caught a faint whiff of something burning. Perhaps someone had been in the lobby earlier smoking a pipe. Whatever they were smoking though had probably once been alive and squeaking. That combined with his tiredness and what he had just heard made Serbius feel quite nauseous.
The Senior Judicial Assessor obviously enjoyed his food. His jowls wobbled as he chewed ferociously on Serbius’ breakfast. Having consumed two plates full of salted swine back and hot pickled apple, Lord Carboswynn had, without asking, helped himself to the detective’s breakfast, having noticed that it had remained untouched. Serbius was once again fighting nausea and made do with a glass of warm fruit infusion.
Merendicus finished his plateful, but declined a second one when asked by the attendant who had served the meal. Canvery had chewed half heartedly on a couple of mouthfuls and was now toying with his food. So far he had not even glanced across at Serbius, who got the feeling that by the time he had been ushered into the Senior Judicial Assessor’s private chambers, the other persons present had already been there for some time. He felt distinctly uneasy.
There was a log fire burning in the grate, which was making the room unbearably warm. That seemed to be the way Lord Carboswyn liked it though. He sat at the large table wearing black silk britches and a white singlet, which was becoming stained at the front by the juice that dribbled from his mouth as he ate. He was a large man and his bare arms were dimpled with flab. He was sweating profusely as he shovelled in more swine back. Serbius thought it was the nearest thing to cannibalism he had ever seen.
The Senior Judicial Assessor when dressed in his finery was a figure who commanded the utmost respect. Serbius was deeply disappointed, for the second time in the space of only a few hours, to discover that away from public gaze this man, who he had been practically in awe of, was nothing more than a fat old glutton with the table manners of a quayside dog.
Having finished that third helping Lord Carboswyn belched loudly and pushed the plate away. He picked at his teeth with the fat little finger of his right hand as he began to speak.
“No doubt you are wondering why I have summoned you here to see me this morning.” Although Lord Carboswyn was not looking at anyone in particular, Serbius got the feeling that he was the only one being addressed. He was certainly the only one that made any response.
“Yes my Lord.”
Lord Carboswyn briefly inspected a scrap of food on the end of his finger, which he had scraped from his teeth, then popped it back into his mouth. “As I told you in court yesterday, further information came to the attention of the Panel. Officer Serbius, I am quite sure that by now you know about the discussion I had in the Panel chamber with my two educated friends here.”
Serbius looked over at Canverry who nodded slightly.
“Yes my Lord, I spoke briefly with JA Canverry earlier this morning.”
“Good, then you will know that I and the Panel are somewhat displeased to discover that the case for prosecution was brought before the Court incomplete.”
“With the utmost respect my Lord, I must disagree. I will admit that the unusual time restraints I had to cope with made the investigation rather more hurried than I would have liked. But, as I explained to JA Canverry earlier, because of the short time span within which all eighteen defendants committed the crimes I took a good look at the possibility of a conspiracy. I found no evidence to suggest that was what it was though. Prior to their arrests those eighteen men had no connections.”
“I have to say”, said Lord Carboswyn, as he wiped away a bead of sweat, which was about to drop from the end of his bulbous red nose, with the back of his hand, “that I am greatly disappointed. To discover that a police officer of your reputation can overlook membership of the same lodge of the Guild of Mercantile Journeymen, glaringly obvious evidence of conspiracy, is quite shocking.”
“With the greatest of respect, my Lord, I did check with all professional bodies associated with the professions of all eighteen of the accused, and not one of them is qualified for membership of that guild. They are members of a variety of professional associations, but none of them has even attended the Seasonal General Meetings.”
“Did you actually enquire with the Guild?”
Serbius felt his face begin to redden. “No, my Lord I did not. I have made many enquiries with the guild in the past and I am fully aware of what the professional qualification requirements are for membership. Even with the required qualifications, membership is by invitation only and is very selective.”
Although he knew that there was no way that any of the eighteen accused could be members of the Guild of Mercantile Journeymen, Serbius was beginning to feel very uneasy. There had already been too many unexpected twists in this case.
The Senior Judicial Assessor wiped his fat and dribble smeared mouth with a large napkin which he then dropped unceremoniously onto the floor for the attendant to retrieve. He then looked at Serbius as a teacher would look at a pupil who had not done his homework. “Had you taken the time to contact the guild secretary you would have discovered that the guild has recently started an associate membership for which all eighteen of the accused had applied for. They were all accepted and they all attended the same enrolment meeting.”
Before he could stop himself Serbius blurted, “That is absolutely preposterous. I have seldom heard such concocted rubbish.”
The startled silence was tangible. Lord Carboswyn and the two JAs stared, mouths agape, at the now standing police officer. His disrespect for the Senior Judicial Assessor was beyond belief. Had they actually heard him right? Was he accusing the man responsible for ensuring the impartial delivery of justice in the most important court in the whole of the City of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters, of contriving to falsify evidence?
After long moments the silence was broken by the voice of Lord Carboswn, quiet almost to the point of being a whisper, a hiss even. “Would you like to quantify that remark, officer Serbius?”
Serbius remained standing. There was no doubt in his mind that he was right, but he wished his thoughts had not come to voice in such an uncontrolled manner. He needed to back track and quickly.
“My Lord, I apologise for that disrespectful outburst and I truly hope that it did not give cause for any of you to think that I should doubt your absolute integrity.” Serbius was thinking on his feet.
“I am fully aware that it is not without reason that you, my Lord, are renowned for your ability to pick the truth from troughs full of lies. But with the utmost respect, I feel that someone is presently giving you information, which may well be extremely plausible, but cannot be correct.”
Lord Carboswyn folded his arms tightly causing a sweaty cleavage to form in the middle of his obese chest. Cocking his head slightly to one side and raising an eyebrow he said, “Is that so officer? Before I accept your apology for your insolent outburst you may like to enlighten me as to why the information I have received is incorrect.”
“As I have said, my Lord, the Guild of Mercantile Journeymen has very stringent entry requirements. Even people, who have more than the required qualifications, may not be considered for guild membership. Every fourth season a short list of people who may be suitable for membership is drawn up. From that list, which may be ten or fifteen names, only one or two will be invited to become members. Each person named on the short list has certain checks made into their character and background. One of those checks is to ensure that they have not come to the attention of the judiciary for any wrongdoing or even suspicion of wrongdoing. The guild secretary, who incidentally I know quite well, contacts my office each time the list of potential members has been drawn up and gives me the list of names in order that I can check the records. Obviously, should I find any information I cannot give out details. However, I can let the secretary know if no information is found. So far the latter has always been the case. Naturally the list of names always remains confidential and I am the only police officer to have sight of the lists.”
“Could it not be the case that as the membership was only associate, the guild did not deem it necessary to have the usual checks made?”
“That, in my opinion, would never be the case.”
Lord Carboswynn slammed his hands, palms down, on to the table, making everyone else in the room wince with surprise. His face reddened and his jowls quivered as he shouted, “In your opinion? It is not your opinion that I want officer Serbius, it is the facts. Now get yourself to the guild secretary’s office and get a statement. I want sight of it by the time proceedings start this morning.”
Serbius was in a state of near shock as he all but ran from the courts. He could not believe that the Senior Judicial Assessor, a respected figure of portly elegance and renowned intelligence, was, behind the facade, nothing more than a fat vulgar slob. He also found it hard to believe that Lord Carboswynn was seriously jeopardising his position of impartiality by allowing himself to get involved in the investigation.
Serbius went to his office to pick up paper to write a statement on. Delio was not yet in, so he left a note on his desk asking him to meet him at the court just before the start of the day’s proceedings. Knowing that the guild secretary would not yet be at work, Serbius wrote a message asking the secretary to wait for him, and knowing that it would get there before him, took it directly to the nearest Spider’s trap pulley station. There he handed it to the pulley operator telling him that it was urgent. He then headed for the secretary’s rooms high up in the centre of the city, in a block owned by the guild. The guild in fact owns a large amount of property in the city, which it leases to businesses for offices and as private apartments to some of its members.
The city was still fairly quiet as Serbius made his way up through its towering asymmetry. There were few people on the bridges and in the passages. Punctuated by an occasional slamming door, or the squawk of a bird flying from its nest perched precariously hundreds of averages up on a ledge, was the constant drone and rattle of the ever moving cables, taking the countless containers with their lexical passengers, on criss-cross journeys to all parts of the vast, towering metropolis. Here and there would be a runner, dressed in dark blue uniform with yellow piping on both tunic and trousers, carrying a satchel full of messages, either just starting out or nearing the end of their journeys.
Despite the much lower salary, Serbius, at this very moment, was jealous of the stress free simplicity of the runner’s work. Up until late the previous night, Serbius had felt that he was part of the fairest and most incorruptible judicial system in the world. Now - well, he just could not make sense of the sudden changes and he certainly did not like the idea of his professional capabilities being brought into doubt. Still, he would have it all sorted out when he had seen the secretary of the Guild of Mercantile Journeymen, who would surely be able to disprove the lies the Senior Judicial Assessor had been fed. Those lies had to be disproved as they could bring about the deaths of eighteen men. Yes, they were dishonest but they were certainly not traitors.
Serbius reached the top of a long flight of steps and started to walk along a wide stone walled corridor. On either side were the entrances to a number of prestigious apartments. At the very end of the corridor, facing him was the set of double doors, which would open onto the home of the secretary of the Guild of Mercantile Journeymen.
As he was about half way along the corridor, the double doors opened, a runner stepped out and closed the doors behind him. The runner then came down the corridor and past Serbius without even looking at him. Most runners are lean built, but Serbius noticed that this one was quite stocky with well developed arm and chest muscles clearly showing through the ill fitting uniform. He carried on along the corridor for a few more paces before it struck him that the runner was not carrying a satchel. He turned and called after the runner, “Hey you, just a moment!”
The runner looked back quickly then he was off, sprinting along the corridor and disappearing down the steps. The runner had a good head start so, realising something was seriously amiss, Serbius decided not to give chase, but quickly went to the double doors and pushed them open.
He stepped into a paved courtyard, surrounded by a low wall on three sides, allowing a magnificent view of the city. Directly across the courtyard, in which there was an ornamental fountain at the centre and a number of exotic shrubs growing in well tended and stocked flower beds, was the entrance to the apartment itself. The early morning scent of the flowers was strong and heady.
The ornate door of the apartment was open. Serbius took a couple of steps inside and called out. “Hello, is anyone there?”
There was a slight sound from his right. Turning, Serbius saw that the door to the bedroom was slightly open. He called out again. “It’s officer Serbius, I sent a message.”
Again the sound, faint, Serbius thought it was like the sound of a thick broth bubbling on the stove. But it definitely came from within the bedroom. Serbius gently opened the door further. What met his eyes made him flinch back and bang his head on the doorframe. Sitting on the large bed, propped against the pillows, was the secretary. The bed was covered in blood, as was the secretary himself, whose hands were in his lap trying to hold on to his guts which had spilled from a gaping wound in his abdomen. The sound of bubbling broth was actually his blood bubbling as he tried desperately to breathe through his slit throat. His eyes were wide with pain and terror.
Serbius knew straight away that there was nothing he could do to save the secretary’s life, but he went over to the bed and cradled the dying man’s head in his arms. It was no use trying to ask any questions, there was no way he could talk. Serbius spoke softly, “You’re not alone, you can let go now. Leave the pain behind.” He wanted to ease the man’s terrible suffering.
The secretary looked up into Serbius’ eyes. For a moment he looked calm, then the eyes dulled and Serbius knew he was dead. As he stood up, Serbius noticed something shiny just under the edge of the bed. He bent down and retrieved a sword, most of its blade covered in already congealing blood. It was a police officer’s sword of office. He turned it over and looked at the hilt, which was engraved with his name and the date of his appointment to office. “What the - ?”
Serbius span round as a voice behind him said, “Yes, I am afraid that it is your sword.”
Standing in the bedroom doorway was Treasurer Caldipus, no longer wearing the robes of a JA, but a long blue tunic over matching breeches, red socks and a pair of extremely good quality ankle boots. The ensemble was topped of with a fine white lace neckerchief and a black wide brimmed velvet hat with a blue band, which matched the tunic and breeches. He looked quite the gentleman about town. There was a look of pity on his face as he regarded the torn and disembowelled body. “A painful start to a wonderful journey, but you did a marvellous job of helping him to step through.”
Serbius, in a state of shock, stood holding the sword, with blood dripping from his clothes, staring speechless at the Treasurer.
“Oh dear, officer Serbius, it appears that you have fallen right into their trap. Fortunately I foresaw something like this and I have made arrangements.”
Serbius took a deep breath. “How did you get here and what do you mean by trap?”
“If you had just walked into a room where some poor soul had been sliced open and there was a man standing next to the still warm body, covered in the victim’s blood and holding on to the murder weapon, which incidentally is his own, what would you think?”
Serbius looked down at his blood soaked clothes, then at the sword. “Ah, yes I see what you mean, but there is no one else, except yourself that is, to see me like this.”
Suddenly from outside there came the sound of voices and many feet running across the courtyard.
Caldipus smiled sweetly and said, “At a guess I would say that if you remain standing like that you will, in but a few moments, be arrested by your colleagues.”
Serbius dropped the sword as if it had suddenly become very hot.
“Follow me,” said the treasurer with just a hint of urgency in his voice. Serbius took a step towards him then turned and bent as if to pick up the incriminating weapon.
“No, leave it,” said the retreating Treasurer. “It will serve our purpose better if it is found.”
Realising there was no time for discussion Serbius left the sword and darted after Caldipus. They entered the kitchen and shut the door just as the first uniformed police officers burst through the front door. Seeing the bedroom door open, they went in only to come back out again in an instant, retching.
Meanwhile Serbius and Caldipus made their way through the kitchen to a lavishly furnished dining room. They quickly and quietly crossed the wooden floor and out through a set of glass panelled doors onto a large veranda. A set of steep wooden steps, built as a means of escape in case of fire, ran down from the veranda which, in several flights, descended fifty or so averages to a communal passage.
They clattered full pelt down the steps. As they stepped off the last flight they heard a voice from above shouting, “There he goes, come on!”
As they sprinted along the passage then down more flights of steps Serbius panted, “Why he and not they?”
“They can’t see you, can they?”
Caldipus, who did not seem to be out of breath at all, replied, “We only want one suspect.”
“You’re invisible to them. I thought you said it was too risky to do magic?”
“Calculated risk, now slow down a bit, we don’t want them to lose you.”
The Treasurer’s voice seemed a little distant. “Make your way to our meeting place, but do not let them lose sight of you. When you get there I will tell you what to do.” At that the Treasurer was gone.
As he ran along passages, across bridges and down countless flights of steps, it dawned on Serbius that he had become a desperate fugitive and that he had no choice but to trust the Treasurer. He reached Arg top level and ran out into a narrow street almost knocking a young woman over as he did so. Seeing his blood covered clothes she screamed and ran off in the other direction. There were a few people on the street. Some just stopped and stared, others cowered back in fright. Serbius just hoped he did not come across any ‘have-a-go heroes’.
His instinct was to dart into a quiet side street, but following Caldipus’ instructions he ran on along the street he had come out onto which was a main thoroughfare. A couple of turns brought him onto one of the main avenues which led out to the rim road.
After about a hundred averages he glanced back over his shoulder and saw a group of officers in uniform just coming round the last corner onto the avenue. They spotted him instantly and came after him.
Serbius prided himself on his high level of personal fitness, but, right now his heart was pounding and his legs were beginning to feel very heavy. Some of the officers chasing him would probably be a good deal younger and the avenue he now pounded along seemed to be endless. He hoped he could make it to the meeting place before he was caught.
With great relief he reached the Arg rim road and turned left. He could see the raised seating area just a couple of hundred averages ahead. Some of the pursuing officers were so close now that he could hear their panting breaths.
He hoped that when he got to the meeting place there would still be time for Caldipus to give him his instructions. He also hoped that they would enable him to avoid capture and arrest, but he could not see how.
As he ran the last few averages towards the raised area, Caldipus’ voice whispered in his ear, “When you get to the edge, turn, tell them that they will not take you alive, and then jump.”
“What? Are you mad?”
He could not see the Treasurer, but he felt a sharp and painful slap across his right cheek. Caldipus’ voice was a hiss. “Just do it, don’t question me.”
Serbius leapt up onto the semi-circular seat and ran to the end. He turned to see three uniformed officers run up on to the raised area and stop. There were several more officers running along the rim road towards them as well.
One of the officers, who he vaguely recognised, took a few cautious steps towards him. “Officer Serbius, please step away from the edge. There is nowhere for you to go and you are putting yourself in danger.”
Serbius was about to speak, to tell the young officer, in his sweat soaked uniform that he had been set up, when Caldipus’ voice again whispered in his ear, “Do not deny it. Just say what I told you to and jump.”
“You told me you had no head for heights and here you are on the Arg edge with me, telling me to launch my self off it.”
“I promise you, I am nowhere near the edge, now get on with it will you, and get down here.”
The young uniformed officer looked puzzled. “What are you saying?”
Serbius looked over the edge, but there was only a layer of thick cloud to be seen. He looked at the officer, a wicked grin spreading across his face. “Please excuse the amateur dramatics, but I said that you’ll never take me alive.”
Serbius leapt out into space. “Aaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrgggggghhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!”
The first moment was the worst as he felt a sickening lurch in his stomach then there was just the wind. He could feel himself tumbling, but could see nothing but the greyness of the cloud enveloping him. It was just at the point where he realised that there was nothing there to stop his fall and that he was going to die, a sacrifice to the plans of Treasurer Caldipus, that he felt something tug at the belt of his trousers. He had screwed his eyes tight shut in anticipation of the final impact. But just as he realised that he had stopped tumbling he heard a low continuous groan close to his right ear. Opening his eyes he turned and looked straight into the face of Tak Lin.
Tak’s eyes were tightly shut and the groan was his as he strained with the exertion of slowing their very rapid descent. “Hello Tak old boy, fancy seeing you here.”
Tak opened his eyes and smiled briefly. His concentration broken they both plummeted out of the clouds, the rocks and crashing sea at the base of the Arg rushed up to meet them. Tak’s eyes shut and the groan started again. Serbius’ eyes closed again too, “Aaaaaaaaarrrrrrrggggghhhhh!!!!!”
Serbius’ feet were cold and wet. He could still feel Tak’s grip on his belt and hear the groan, but he could also feel cold wet feet. If he could feel cold and wet he must still be alive. He opened his eyes and looked down. They were hovering with their feet just breaking the surface of a deep rock pool.
“Well done Tak, you did it.”
Tak opened his eyes and laughing they splashed down into the cool salty water of the pool.
“I often wondered why it was called the Arg, now I know. Now, if you two have finished messing about,” Caldipus stood on a flat rock at the edge of the pool, “I would like to get on. This damp air is not good for my chest and the salt will leave white marks on my boots.”
Tak and Serbius swam to the edge of the pool and climbed out. Lying at Caldipus’ feet was a large canvass bag. “There are towels and some dry clothes in there for you. Make sure you bring your wet clothes with you. They must not be found. You will have to be quick the tide is on its way in.”
Dried and dressed, the wet clothes in the canvass bag, which Serbius carried, they made their way across the rocks at the base of the Arg, towards the quaysides. Serbius had many questions, which required answers, but for the moment he concentrated on keeping his footing on the slippery rocks. They had to be off the rocks soon or they would be trapped by the tide, which, if they did not drown first, would carry them out into the harbour as it went out again. Which meant they would drown any way or be eaten alive by the sharks, which come in to feed off the waste food tipped into the sea from the ships and quayside hostelries.
A small boat was moored for them at the base of the quayside below where it joined the Arg. They rowed along the quay, until they were out of sight of the guards at the entrance to the Arg Helical. Caldipus pointed out a set of stone steps leading up to the top of the quay. They tied the boat to an old rusty ring set into the stonework next to the steps, and ascended to the quayside. As they came off the steps, Serbius saw, directly opposite them, across the narrow cobbled roadway, the familiar entrance to The Iblus.
He turned to Caldipus, “Are you determined to get us killed?”
The Treasurer, fussing with his neckerchief and smoothing down his now creased tunic, said, “At this very moment in time my dear officer Serbius this is the safest place you could be at.”
Looking down and satisfying himself that his clothes were as neat as they could be in the circumstances, the Treasurer strode across to the heavy studded door and pushed it open. Turning to the two shocked friends, he gave a beckoning nod and called, “Come along, before someone who shouldn’t, sees you.”
At the bottom of the steps Treasurer Caldipus was greeted by a tall, slim, dark haired man, wearing an elegantly tailored grey suit. They shook hands briefly and then the man in the suit ushered them quickly through a door off to the right. He led them along a short, torch lit passage to another door. This one was heavily reinforced with metal plating. He knocked twice, and a small hatch, two thirds of the way up the door, slid open. Two eyes looked out and the man in the grey suit said something in a foreign language. The hatch closed and there was the sound of bolts being drawn back. The door opened and an extremely large bald headed man stood across the opening. He wore a similar suit to the other man, but because it stretched across bulging muscles, it certainly looked no where near as elegant. Again the two men in suits spoke briefly in a foreign tongue and then the bald giant moved aside and let them through.
The change was quite startling. They had emerged from the cave-like stone surroundings and sawdust covered floors of the bar into a large room with plush cream coloured carpets on the floor and ornately carved wood panelled walls covered in places by intricately woven silk tapestries. There was a large oval shaped highly polished dark wood table in the centre of the room, surrounded by eight matching high backed chairs, upholstered in silk similar to that used in the tapestries. The tabletop reflected the bright light of the huge crystal chandelier, which hung directly above it from the high ceiling, beautifully painted to look like a star studded night sky.
The more elegant of the suited men spoke with an apologetic look on his darkly tanned face. “Pliz scooza eet eez justa precautiona.” At that he swiftly and skilfully frisked the Treasurer, Serbius and Tak. Then speaking again in the foreign language to the bald giant, who took up a position near to the table, legs slightly apart and massive hands clasped in front of him, their escort disappeared through another door on the opposite side of the room.
Under the unwavering stare of the giant, the Treasurer self consciously fussed with his neckerchief, Tak began to make a detailed study of the nearest tapestry which depicted a hunting scene with men in red coats on horses following a pack or large dogs which were chasing after a large strange looking horned creature which had eyes wide and white with terror. Serbius, after his experiences of earlier in the day, felt some empathy.
However, his interest in the tapestry was only cursory as he glanced around the room looking for an escape route, should it be necessary. He also made a quick appraisal of their guard, as the giant obviously was. Serbius decided that behind the unwavering stare was a very basic intellect. This monster was probably virtually incapable of taking any initiative and probably only ever acted under orders. He wondered what those orders were in the case of any of them trying to leave this room. Surveying the bulging muscle contours, thick neck and spade like hands, Serbius decided not to try and find out.
“Do stop fussing with that ridiculous neckerchief Caldipus.” The voice was soft but seemed to fill the entire room. It did not emanate from one place and its source could not be seen. Serbius, Tak and the giant were startled, but Treasurer Caldipus, whose hands had snapped away from the offending lace, had reddened with embarrassment.
The voice continued, “I see it has not taken you very long to fall into the ways of the vain citizens of D'n Arg, Caldipus. Have you actually any idea how ridiculous you look?”
Caldipus appeared to have developed a slight stoop, “Ah, my Lord, er, I thought it would be better to take on a disguise.”
Again the voice, “It is well known amongst the population of the Protected Quarters that the citizens of D’n Arg are in constant competition with each other as to who can dress the most ridiculously, although they would interpret ‘ridiculously’ as ‘fashionably’. You, my dear Caldipus, are very close to winning that competition.”
The voice no longer filled the room and, without any of them having seen it happen, Lord Bloodcuttler, Dean of the University of Pure Knowledge and Senior Arboreal Wiserman, had materialised sitting in a chair on the opposite side of the table. The bald giant, realising that he was in the presence of something much more powerful than his own awesome brute strength, nervously moved away from the table and took up a position by the door, as far away from the man in the chair as possible. He was unable to comprehend what he had just witnessed, so he channelled all his concentration into maintaining a ‘solid but non aggressive stance’ as he had been taught.
Caldipus’ stoop became a little more apparent, “I-I’m terribly sorry if my Lord does not approve of my attire. Of course I will change into something more fitting as soon as possible.”
“Just because I think you look like an overdone festive table dressing does not mean that you are not doing the right thing Caldipus. You are the man on the ground after all. You must do as you see fit, even if it means looking silly.” Lord Bloodcutler was smiling, amused by the successful teasing of his Treasurer.
Caldipus smiled sheepishly. Then, straightening himself out, he turned to Serbius and Tak, “Gentlemen, may I introduce you to-”.
“Lord Bloodcuttler, Senior Arboreal Wiserman and Dean of the University of Pure Knowledge.” It was Serbius who completed the introduction.
“Indeed, officer Serbius, I have the honour of that title and those positions.” Lord Bloodcuttler stood and came around the table, hand outstretched, to shake Serbius’ hand.
“It is an honour to meet you my Lord,” said Serbius, “There can only be a few from outside The Forest who have had such an opportunity.”
The Senior Arboreal Wiserman, who was dressed in a simple long green robe with its hood pushed back, pumped Serbius’ hand. “Alas you are so right. My duties allow me little time for travel and I am much dependant on my students to bring news of the outside world to me. However, I have heard much about you officer Serbius, and all of it good.”
“Thank you my Lord. But I cannot understand why you should take an interest in me.”
“Oh, I have followed your career with great interest. In fact I have kept a distant eye on you since before you were at school.”
Serbius had a puzzled frown creasing his brow and was about to ask a question, but Lord Bloodcuttler stopped him with a raised hand, and said, “I will explain all to you shortly, but first I must thank your good friend Tak Lin for his invaluable assistance.”
Tak was looking awe struck. He, like all the citizens of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters, knew about the Senior Arboreal Wiserman and the amazing magical powers he possessed. Lord Bloodcuttler shook his hand.
“My dear Tak Lin, you have a very rare and valuable gift. Despite the fact that you have not come anywhere near to understanding it, let alone mastering it, you have been willing to risk your life for your friend and in the service of D’n Arg. For that I and the entire Council or Arboreal Wisermen are very grateful.”
Tak beamed with pride. “I am overwhelmed by your gratitude my Lord.”
Lord Bloodcuttler continued, “I appreciate that you know little of the problems we all face at present and it would only endanger you to know any more. There is no doubt that your assistance will again be required in the very near future. However, because you are known by some to be a levitator and that you are a semi permanent guest in officer Serbius’ home, it is very important that you return to the city before you are missed. You will I’m afraid have to go back up the same way as you came down.”
Tak looked a little nervous at that.
“Do not worry,” continued Lord Bloodcuttler, “Caldipus will return with you and give you any assistance you may need. However, I think you will surprise yourself.”
Tak did not look entirely convinced. He had barely been able to control his and Serbius’ descent from the Arg top, and an ascending levitation of a thousand averages seemed pretty impossible.
Patting Tak paternally on the shoulder, Lord Bloodcuttler turned to his Treasurer. “Caldipus, you must go with Tak Lin immediately. The tide is well on its way in so he will have to start from the boat. We cannot afford to announce his return so it will be encouragement only I’m afraid.”
Tak had paled. Caldipus took him by the arm and led him out through the door which, unnoticed by anyone in the room, had opened. The bald headed giant wondered if he should stop them from leaving, but looking at the gentleman in the green robe he decided it would be better just to stand still.
As Caldipus and Tak disappeared down the torch lit corridor Lord Bloodcuttler called after them, “By the way Tak Lin, that’s a very nice hat, very becoming. Oh, and Caldipus, I want you back here as quickly as you can please.”
Lord Bloodcuttler then invited Serbius to sit in one of the chairs around the table and sat in the one next to him after telling the bald headed giant, in his own language, to go and ask his master to join them. He disappeared through the door on the other side of the room.
“You must still be reeling from the day’s events officer Serbius.”
Serbius nodded in agreement. “This morning I was a highly respected officer of law, now I am probably the most wanted fugitive in the whole of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters and I find myself sitting in a room off The Iblus with the Senior Arboreal Wizard. With respect, despite your presence my Lord, as a police officer out of uniform, I don’t know if I wouldn’t be safer back atop the Arg.”
“Yes, I have heard about what could happen to under cover officers who are discovered in the quayside area. Kayal Rab’s men can be quite imaginative when it comes to pain and death. He has trained them very thoroughly.”
“Why thank you Lord Bloodcuttler, you honour me with such compliments.” The voice was soft like the Wiserman’s and that of someone obviously well educated.
The door through which the bald headed giant had gone was again open and a figure was striding into the room, silhouetted against a bright light from beyond the door. The bald headed giant and the man who had met them at the base of the entrance steps followed the speaker in and closed the door. No longer silhouetted, Serbius could see a man in a long black cape, his facial features hidden in the shadow of the hood.
He spoke again. “Officer Serbius you can rest assured that no harm will befall you whilst you remain here or anywhere else on the quaysides. I can personally guarantee your safety.”
Serbius noticed a strong and not particularly pleasant smell was beginning to fill the room. He had smelt it before, recently. Lord Bloodcuttler spoke to him quietly. “I know you have had to put up with a lot of shocks today, but this is likely to be the biggest of them all.” He then stood and raising his voice said, “Officer Serbius I would like to introduce you to Kayal Rab.”
Serbius could not see why he was supposed to be shocked he had already guessed that he was in the presence of the master of the quaysides. Someone who very few people had ever met and most of those who had were not alive to tell of it. The two of them faced each other across the table, Serbius a representative of the law and Kayal Rab who represented all that was the very worst of lawlessness.
Kayal Rab’s fingers snapped from within the cape and the man in the elegant grey suit came forward and undid the fastening just below the hood. He then went behind and eased the cape off Kayal Rab’s shoulders. As the hood fell away Serbius could not stop himself from gasping, mainly in shock but partly in horror.
Kayal Rab was tall and slim, elegantly dressed in a black velvet suit over a black silk shirt with a large ruby fastening at the collar. His face, suavely handsome with its neatly trimmed spade beard and thin waxed moustache, was ageless and there was a slight smile warping the thin lips. His hair, also black was slicked back from his forehead and there, protruding from just behind the hair line, were two small horns. His eyes, which surveyed the stunned Serbius, were dark black pools.
Serbius could not resist it. He looked under the table and was surprised to see that Kayal Rab was wearing a pretty ordinary looking pair of black leather boots. Kayal Rab laughed.
“Do not be fooled by appearance officer Serbius, they are specially designed to look normal and hide what you obviously expected to see and that is my cloven feet. Am I right?”
“I know the quaysides are a place of evil but I had no idea that they were actually lorded over by a devil.”
“Not a devil,” interjected Lord Bloodcuttler. “You, officer Serbius, are now in the presence of the black lord himself.”
Serbius discovered that he was sitting again although he did not remember actually doing it. He was in a daze. Standing little more than an average from him was the embodiment of his childhood nightmares, someone, or something, which throughout his adult life he had firmly disbelieved in.
This morning the world as he knew it had all but turned on its head. Now it had practically ceased to exist. His three dimensional ordered existence was being torn apart and replaced by a melee of corruption, evil and strange magic. It was all becoming too much and Serbius, for the first time since he was a young child, began to weep.
Lord Boodcuttler sat down next to him again and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “You poor chap, your nerves and emotions must be red raw.” He fished a large red silk handkerchief from the sleeve of his robe and handed it to the sniffling police officer.
Kayal Rab snapped his fingers and said something sharply in the same foreign tongue as the grey suited men had used. The elegant one disappeared back through the door and returned a few moments later with a large glass of brandy. He walked round the table to where Serbius sat trying to regain his composure.
“Pleez yooah dreenk zis, ita good fora di shock.”
Serbius blew his nose loudly, took the glass and downed the brandy in one. He sat for a moment gathering himself together. Then after wiping his eyes said, “In my time as a police officer I have seen things that would curdle the blood of many men. Just this morning I watched someone I know, a friend, die in agony, his body having been ripped open. But this,” he looked across the table at Kayal Rab, who was now also seated, “on top of everything else that has happened today, is just too much for even me to handle. I did not believe Treasurer Caldipus when he told me at our first meeting that the black lord exists and that he was abroad in D’n Arg. Now my doubts are shattered and I am sitting in the same room as that which is responsible for trying to destroying the very fabric of the society I believe in and have loyally served for nearly all my adult life.”
Kayal Rab’s face was expressionless as he spoke. “Officer Serbius, do you actually think that you would be alive now if I had anything to do with what is happening in the city at this time? Despite what Caldipus told you, and he had no reason to doubt his own words at the time, I have not been into the City of D’n Arg since I was banished. In fact I am unable to enter the city as a result of that banishment.”
Serbius vaguely recollected the stories he had heard as a child about the wars between good and evil and the eventual expulsion of the evil forces from D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters. “So the legends are true?”
It was Lord Bloodcuttler who now spoke. “Oh yes, they are all true. Many have been dressed up through romanticism or diluted for juvenile consumption, but they are all tales of real events from way back in time.”
Serbius thought back to his early school days when he and his class mates had sat for hours, enthralled, as their teachers had read to them stories of powerful wizards, evil witches, dragons and demons. He remembered how he and his friends had clung to one another in fear as they heard tales of the dark wars and about the marauding ghost armies. How the demons of the Root would steel the souls of the sleeping and take them away to eternal torment and slavery.
He remembered being told how the Arboreal Wisermen had been forced to flee The Forest and how, with nowhere else to go, they had stood their ground on the Arg Top, where at that time only a small unnamed village had stood. How they had faced the oncoming dark hoards and the black lord himself, and by using the purest white magic had beaten evil and banished the black lord from the Arg and a vast area of the surrounding countryside which was placed under a protective spell.
As if he had been reading Serbius’ mind, Lord Bloodcuttler said, “You, like all other citizens of D’n Arg, have thought that the Protected Quarters were so named because of the protection afforded them by D’n Arg’s central administration. Not so, it goes back to the protective spell which was cast all that time ago and which still holds power today.”
“It certainly does,” said Kayal Rab with a touch of bitterness in his voice, “or they would be whoring and gambling in the tall towers of the city now.”
“That, I am sure, would be the least of it,” said Lord Bloodcuttler, “and is the reason why I and the Council ensure the spell maintains its strength.”
Kayal Rab looked at Lord Bloodcuttler and for a brief moment Serbius saw unfathomable hatred in those black pools of malevolence, which were Kayal Rab’s eyes. It made him shudder. Then the thin smile reappeared as Kayal Rab spoke again.
“Now is not a time to dwell on our differences though. We have a common cause, a necessity to fight side by side.” The smile broadened. “How does it feel to be in league with the Devil, Bloodcuttler?”
For a moment Lord Bloodcuttler looked as if he was going to throw up, but he swallowed hard and taking a deep breath said, “Sacrifices must be made.”
Kayal Rab laughed loudly and slapped the table. “It does me the power of evil to see your discomfort, Bloodcuttler, but I shall not revel in it. We have not the time for petty squabbling, have we? Right now officer Serbius needs to be told what is going on and why he has been brought here.”
Engel Amberlan, the Senior Officer of Police, stood erect and uncomfortable in his full dress uniform, his plumed helmet held correctly under his left arm, his right hand gently grasping the hilt of his sheathed ceremonial sword.
He was standing in front of Chancellor Galpin’s desk, on the other side of which sat a very agitated Chancellor.
“Would you like to tell me, Amberlan, which part of my instructions you did not understand?”
“As per your instructions, Chancellor, an operation was carried out to locate and arrest Officer Serbius. He was located and after a short pursuit he was cornered. Unfortunately, rather than facing arrest he decided to end his life by jumping from the Arg Top. However,” the Senior Officer of Police puffed out his chest slightly and allowed a slight smile of satisfaction to curve his mouth, “on the whole, despite officer Serbius’ demise, I consider the operation to be a success.”
He barely had time to register that the Chancellor had stood and dashed around his desk before he was knocked to the floor. The blow had been open-handed, but with the momentum of the Chancellor’s movement and his sheer rage, the force had felled Amberlan and left him seeing stars.
As he picked himself up from shock and the floor, Chancellor Galpin screamed at him; “You consider it to be a success? A success! I specifically told you that Serbius was to be arrested. You do know what arrested means do you not?”
“Yes Chancellor but-”
The Senior Officer of Police was once again on his feet and the Chancellor was standing with his nose almost touching his. As the Chancellor ranted Amberlan could feel a spray of saliva hitting his now very sore face.
“Arrest. Take hold of. Capture. Restrain. Take into custody. Take away liberty. Not stand and watch suicide!”
The Chancellor’s face was deep red and what saliva didn’t spray out of his rage twisted mouth frothed around his lips.
“I wanted Serbius brought before Lord Carboswynn. You and your imbecilic police force have thrown away the chance of bringing the worst traitor ever known in the history of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters to justice.”
Galpin turned suddenly and walked slowly back around his desk, his fingers pressing at his temples. As he sat back down he appeared to have regained most of his composure.
The Senior Officer of Police, having taken the opportunity to retrieve his helmet from the floor once again stood erect but somehow diminished in stature.
Galpin sat for a long while deep in thought, his elbows on the desk and his fingers still pressing his temples. Then he suddenly sat upright and cocked his head to one side as if listening to something difficult to hear.
After a few moments he looked across at Amberlan; “I want you to have Officer Delio arrested. Make sure you are absolutely clear on what I mean when I say arrested.”
The Senior Police Officer frowned in puzzlement; “Arrest Officer Delio? For what, Chancellor?”
Amberlan knew better than to ask any more questions. He turned smartly and strode from the Chancellor’s office.
It seemed like the entire adult population of the city was in a state of shock. The Arg Sentinel and the City News, the city’s two most popular daily newsbriefs, had carried headlines screaming about treason, murder, corruption in the police, the suicide of Serbius and the arrest of Delio.
The citizens had always had absolute faith in the machinery of law and order in the city. To discover that the entire banking system of the city had been riddled with organised criminals was bad enough, but to discover that two police officers had been conspiring to ruin the financial wellbeing of the City and Protected Quarters was shocking beyond belief.
The crowds outside the Courts when Delio was appearing to make his plea were the biggest ever seen in the city. There was no unruliness or mob behaviour. The citizens do not tolerate disorder in public. The worst excesses of public disorder brought before the Courts involved such matters as drunks having been caught urinating discreetly in public places or people late for appointments being caught running across ‘Walk Only’ bridges. This huge throng was drawn by curiosity.
Chancellor Ar Galpin looked down on the crowd from the window of Lord Carboswynn’s chambers. He had a smile of satisfaction on his face as he turned and spoke to the Senior Judicial Assessor.
“It’s better than I expected. It seems as though half the city has turned out.”
“Apparently the public gallery in the Central Court is full to overflowing,” said Carboswynn between bites from a huge meat pie he held in both hands.
“It was such a coincidence that representatives of our city’s newspapers had been invited in to Court just at the time officer Delio was being arrested,” continued Galpin with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “This trial is going to be followed word for word by the whole population of the city and will be widely reported throughout the Protected Quarters. This is where the people get to know all about how the City of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters is really run. It will show them how they have been betrayed by those charged with protecting them. How the very system of supervision almost allowed the removal of the city’s entire wealth.”
“Yes, my dear Galpin, a publicity dream. But the trial must be impeccable, the course of justice seen to be true and unerring.”
The Senior Judicial Assessor frowned slightly and looked thoughtful for a moment.
“What is it that troubles you?” asked Galpin.
“I know it is extremely unlikely, but what if, in hoping for mercy at sentencing, Officer Delio pleads guilty?”
“I should have to tell you?” Galpin’s voice menacingly quiet, “You and the Panel will not accept a guilty plea. This matter will go to full trial. Unless, that is, you wish to stand before your colleagues on a charge of treason, alongside Officer Delio. Am I absolutely clear on that?”
Carboswynn swallowed hard. “Yes, of course.”
Galpin then smiled again. “I have, however, made sure that Officer Delio is given the strongest advice to plead not guilty.” He winked at Carboswynn who had resumed chewing on his meat pie.
It was Lord Bloodcuttler who had suggested that Serbius be allowed to rest before being briefed fully about what was happening. Serbius had been shown to a comfortable bedroom by the smaller of the men in suits.
He was, as Lord Bloodcuttler had correctly surmised, dreadfully tired. Within moments of lying on the soft fur covering of the large bed he had fallen into a deep sleep.
He was woken when an elderly woman entered the room. She was wearing a torn and faded pale blue dress over which she wore a white apron. She carried a tray upon which were a bowl of fruit, a plate of assorted thinly sliced cured meats, some bread and a large mug of hot fruit infusion.
She smiled toothlessly at him but did not speak as she placed the tray on a small table by the bed. As she turned and left the room Serbius noticed that she walked awkwardly with short shuffling steps and without bending at the knee.
Serbius also noticed that, although he was still dressed, his boots had been removed and one of the furs had been put over him. He pushed it off and sat up taking in his surroundings as he did so. The room was round with stone walls over which hung a number of intricately woven tapestries. The floor was covered in luxuriously thick foreign carpets over which lay rugs of rare furs. Torches burned at three points on the walls. A log fire smouldered in a grate in the wall to the left of the bed. The bed itself was made of a dark wood carved with random swirls.
Serbius reached for the mug and took a deep swig of the infusion. “I trust you slept well Officer Serbius?” Serbius looked over the rim of the mug as he continued to drink and saw Lord Bloodcuttler standing in the doorway.
He put the half-empty mug back on the tray. “I must have done my Lord someone removed my boots without my even noticing.”
“And you have a splendid breakfast I see,” said Lord Bloodcuttler as he strode across the room and helped himself to a slice of the cured meat. “Kayal Rab is proving to be a good host.”
“People travel from all over this world to sample my hospitality.” Kayal Rab was now standing in the doorway. He was dressed in a bright red silk dressing gown trimmed with black fur and wore a black cravat with a ruby pin.
“Yes they do”, said Lord Bloodcuttler, “and many pay a heavy price for it.”
“Oh come now my dear Bloodcuttler, everyone makes their own choices. No-one is forced to come into my premises and they are not captive when they do.” The look of indignation was feigned.
“But there are many who come through your door and never see the outside again.”
“Then they are prisoners of their own desires.”
“Victims of your temptations more like.”
Kayal Rab chuckled. “However you wish to look at it Bloodcuttler, but all I do is give people what they want.”
“Then make them pay with their souls, literally in some cases.” Lord Bloodcuttler had instinctively taken his withe from the pocket of his robe and his knuckles were white from gripping it so hard.
Kayal Rab glanced at the withe and smiled again. “Come come Bloodcuttler old chap, we must not fall out. There is a common cause and our champion to be,” he nodded towards Serbius who was still sitting on the bed, “needs to be told what is what and what is expected of him.”
Serbius looked towards Lord Bloodcuttler, a puzzled frown on his face. The Senior Arboreal Wizard spoke gently to Serbius, the harsh tone he had used with Kayal Rab gone. “Yes Officer Serbius, we have plenty to tell you. Have yourself a bath. I believe there are some clean clothes prepared for you.” He looked towards their host who nodded.
“Then”, said Kayal Rab, “we shall meet up in my kitchen for a proper breakfast.” At that he turned and strode off down the corridor leading from the room and disappeared around a corner.
Serbius had watched him go and turned to speak to Lord Bloodcuttler only to find that he was no longer in the room.
Almost the entire floor space in the room next door was given over to a sunken bath that was filled with hot water scented with oils and spices. Scores of scented candles burned in niches in the stone walls. Under normal circumstances Serbius could have luxuriated in the bath for hours. However, his curiosity made him bathe quickly. He shaved sitting in the bath, holding a small mirror he found next to the bath with the razor. He wanted to get to the breakfast meeting and find out what was happening. Find out why his world had come crashing down around his ears. Why had Kayal Rab referred to him as the ‘champion to be’?
His new clothes were laid out on his bed, his old ones nowhere to be seen, presumably taken to be cleaned.
When he had finished dressing himself in the white linen shirt, suede singlet and soft leather breeches, a grey suited man who he had not seen before entered the room. “Pleez youah come withah me.” Serbius was then led down a number of corridors and a couple of long flights of steps until they eventually reached a large wooden door, studded in a similar fashion to the one at the entrance to The Iblus. The man in the grey suit opened the door and bowed his head slightly as Serbius went past him into a vast kitchen.
On the far side of the room was a large fire place over which hung a number of cooking pots tended by three stiff legged women in torn and faded blue dresses over which they wore white aprons. In the centre of the room was a large scrubbed wooden table at which sat Lord Bloodcuttler, Kayal Rab and Treasurer Caldipus. On the table was a large platter of sliced hog’s back, several dishes of assorted fruit pickles and a basket full of sliced dark bread from which they helped themselves.
As Kayal Rab saw Serbius he gestured towards an empty chair and invited Serbius to sit down. As he did so, one of the wenches brought over a mug of warm mulled ale. Two large black shaggy coated dogs ambled over from where they had been lying by the fire and sniffed around Serbius’ feet before returning to their warm spot. Occasionally small brightly coloured birds would swoop down from their perches high up on the walls, nervously collect a few dropped crumbs from the floor and fly off again.
The three others seemed to be concentrating on their breakfasts so Serbius helped himself to a few slices of the hog’s back and a couple of scoops of spiced apple pickle. As he began to eat Lord Bloodcuttler finished his plate-full and wiped his mouth on a napkin. Then he placed both hands palm down on the table and began to speak quietly.
“It has been many seasons since I travelled out of The Forest. In fact it has been a long time since I was more than a few score averages from the University campus. My work there has always been of the greatest importance. However, there has never been a greater need for me to travel to D’n Arg, although, for the moment, I cannot enter the city itself.”
He looked over at Caldipus. “Fortunately I have eyes and ears in the city.” Then he turned to Serbius. “And fortunately I have at my disposal the most skilled investigator ever to have worked for the D’n Arg and Protected Quarters Police Force.”
Serbius, who had stopped eating and was listening intently, couldn’t stop himself from blushing.
Kayal Rab interjected, “The way you avoided being caught by that mob made up of the captains of nearly every ship docked in the port, will go down in quayside history.”
“Thank you, but it was very much a team effort,” said Serbius modestly.
“Yes but it was you who put the team together and did all the planning,” said Lord Bloodcuttler. “That is an example of the ability which has made you the fine and skilled officer you are.”
Again Serbius blushed.
“However, we are not gathered here just to tickle your ego Officer Serbius. We are here to tell you what is going on and what is going to be done about it. Needless to say, whatever is said here stays with us and only us.” Lord Bloodcuttler glanced over towards the three serving women. At the click of Kayal Rab’s fingers they all shuffled out of the kitchen closing the door behind them.
Lord Bloodcuttler was about to speak again but Kayal Rab stopped him with a raised hand. A few moments later another of the grey suited men opened the door and came in. Kayal Rab spoke to him in a low and menacing voice. “Stay outside that door. If anyone comes in before I say so I will make sure you are still conscious to see the sharks eat your innards.” The grey suit nodded curtly and went out closing the door behind them.
“I’m not sure about your methods but thank you,” said Lord Bloodcuttler.
“My methods ensure results, he knows I mean it,” grinned Kayal Rab.
Lord Bloodcuttler turned again to Serbius. “What do you know of the history of the city of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters?”
“All the history I know is what I learned at school. Also, whilst studying for my law exams I wrote a paper on the history of the judicial system from prior to the founding of the Forum to present day.”
“Ah,” continued Lord Bloodcuttler, “I remember that piece well.”
“You read it?”
“I not only read it, I discussed it with the Council. A very informed piece, a little over one hundred and twenty thousand words if I remember rightly. Should’ve had it published. It was refreshing to see a research student not afraid to express opinion.”
“Why would the Council of Arboreal Wisermen be interested in any of my research papers?” asked Serbius in amazement.
“One of the duties of the University of Pure Knowledge is to maintain an accurate history of the City of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters. When the College of Arg law faculty provided us with a list of the topics chosen by the stage two students of that season it was very interesting to see that you had chosen to move away from the topics usually written about. There have been countless papers on the ‘History of the Courts’ or ‘How the Judicial System has developed over the last two hundred seasons’. No, you were the first student to have gone back beyond the foundation of a formal system of law, right back to the ancient system of collective mentoring and its development into the Forum of Supervision, which still exists today.”
“I have to admit that my original intention was only to cover the history of the Forum,” said Serbius, still amazed that his paper among the hundreds of others submitted that season had generated so much interest. “But, once I started my research it became clear that the time leading up to the formation of the first Forum was a bit of a grey area historically speaking, not very much was known about it. I felt that to get the whole picture of how our laws came about I had to find out what went on during that period. It was very difficult tracking down documents from that period and without the patience and temerity of the research staff at the Citizen’s Library I would have got nowhere. They managed to find documents that had not seen the light of day for many thousands of seasons.”
“But at the end of the day,” continued Lord Bloodcuttler, “it was you who put it all together and consequently plugged up a few holes in the history of that period. The Council of Arboreal Wisermen discussed awarding you a scholarship at the University, something unheard of for those without thaumaturgical knowledge. The Council wanted you to join the historical research team. However, a group of the more senior Council members, me included, discussed the matter. Knowing that it was your intention to become a Police Officer and that you aspired to the Office of Commercial and Fiscal Crime Investigations, we decided that your skills as a researcher if honed into those of an investigator, would serve the City of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters better. We therefore vetoed the award of a scholarship and the matter was never discussed outside the Council chamber, until today that is.”
As Lord Bloodcuttler paused Treasurer Caldipus took the opportunity to speak. “I have to say Officer Serbius, I have read every one of your papers and they have all been fascinating especially the ones on matters off commercial and fiscal crime. I thoroughly supported the motion for awarding you the research scholarship. The reason for you not being granted the award has remained a mystery until today.”
“Thank you for that,” said Lord Bloodcuttler, a slight tone of impatience in his voice, “as I said we are not here to service Officer Serbius’ ego.”
“No my Lord, I’m sorry,” replied Caldipus looking slightly crestfallen. But, as Lord Bloodcuttler turned his attention back to Serbius, Caldipus winked at him.
Serbius, struggling to stifle a grin and maintain a serious expression, spoke next. “I am undoubtedly honoured by the fact that any of my papers have been read at the University of Pure Knowledge, let alone that I had been considered for a scholarship. But what I really would like to know is what is happening in the city and why I have become so involved?” He glanced across at Kayal Rab who was chewing slowly as he listened. “I am also more than a little interested to know why two of the most prominent personifications of Good and Evil are sitting around a table together in apparent agreement?”
Kayal Rab swallowed, dabbed at his thin mouth with a napkin and smiled, “Personification of Evil eh?” He looked down at his slender hands and thought for a few moments. “No Officer Serbius, I am no more a personification of Evil than the drunken pirates, the cheating gamblers or the whores who you find in my bar. No one person, no one creature, no one entity can be Evil. Evil in the way you describe it has a capital ‘E’. It is a tangible thing with a name. But I can tell you, and there are none more qualified than I to do so, evil exists only in the thoughts and deeds of people. There is no one thing that can be identified as ‘Evil’. Evil as a word is attached to things. For instance a person who murders is considered to be evil. But, he is not evil, what he does and the thought processes which cause him to murder are evil.”
“But what of the battle between Good and Evil which we were told so much about when I was a child and which is still discussed every day in the churches?” asked Serbius.
“Oh for sure there is a battle between Good and Evil, but it is a battle that rages in the minds of people. Evil doesn’t reach out and grab people. No, it is a matter of choice. If a person sees that their neighbour has dropped his purse at his doorway he knows that to take the purse and keep it is an evil act. But to give it back to the neighbour is an act of good. It is that person’s choice. They either do the evil thing or the good thing.”
“But what about when many people act in unison under the influence of Evil?” asked Serbius. “For example, to quote the holy texts, ‘The Evil hordes which poured forth from the Root to cause havoc, mayhem and destruction across the land.’”
Kayal Rab smiled again. “You obviously chose that example because of my involvement in that part of history. I do not see you as being a religious fundamentalist Officer Serbius. So, it will probably not come as any surprise when I tell you that the way it is portrayed in the texts is little more than superstitious nonsense. Bloodcuttler will bear me out on that point.”
Serbius looked over at the Senior Arboreal Wiserman who was nodding in agreement.
Kayal Rab continued. “It is a fact that an invasion of what is now the Protected Quarters was launched from the Root. But it was not crazed hordes acting under some strange power called Evil. It was an, albeit ruthless, but extremely disciplined army of netherworld warriors acting under the control of an influential leader and his lieutenants.”
“Could not an influence so powerful that it causes many thousands to carry out acts of unspeakable evil in unison be itself described as being Evil?” asked Serbius.
“Firstly ask yourself, ‘what is influence?’” said Kayal Rab as he pushed his chair back from the table slightly and stretched out his legs. “Is it some sort of power similar to how you would have described evil?”
Serbius thought for a moment before answering. “It is not power in the omni potent or omni present way that I would have thought evil was. However, it is the power one person has over another or others.”
“So, as an officer of the law you have power over others?” Kayal Rab raised an eyebrow questioningly.
“Yes I have a number of powers. For instance I have a power of arrest or a power of seizure.”
“But those, Officer Serbius are powers as determined by statute. Setting those specifics aside, do you actually have power over the citizens of D’n Arg?”
Again Serbius paused before answering. “I am certainly able to influence the way they behave, therefore I must have power over them.”
“There”, said Kayal Rab sitting forward and pointing at Serbius, “lies the crux of the matter. You are able, as a result of your office, to influence people’s behaviour. They choose to do the right thing, the lawful thing because they know they could be arrested by you. But, you are not making them behave in a certain way. They have a choice. They can choose to abide by the law or break the law. Your presence and perhaps advice influences their choice but it can never make the choice for them. Do you see what I’m getting at?”
“So what you’re saying is that to be able to influence people puts you in a position of power but influence is not in itself a power.”
“Exactly,” said Kayal Rab sitting back again. “It’s all a matter of knowing how to get people to make the choices you want them to. When temptation is thrown in it becomes a fairly easy job.”
“Manipulation through temptation is something you are very good at,” said Lord Bloodcuttler placing his knife and fork onto his plate. He had been eating as he had listened to the exchange between Kayal Rab and Serbius.
Kayal Rab beamed. “Ah yes, but that is because I always offer what people want most. I cater for their deepest desires.”
Lord Bloodcuttler had a look of distaste on his face. “And for that they will give you anything you want in return, even their souls.”
Kayal Rab’s smile thinned to a sly grin. “But no-one knows for sure if that is true, for no mortal, not even you and your woodland wisermen can see beyond this life.”
“And you can?” asked Serbius.
Kayal Rab turned to face him and his eyes seemed blacker. “Of course, am I not the dark lord of The Root, am I not immortal?”
“You are immortal only because I and my forebears allow you to be,” interjected Lord Bloodcuttler, a stern look on his face.
Kayal Rab stood up suddenly knocking his chair over as he did so. His black eyes pools of malevolent rage. “And don’t you just love to remind me Bloodcuttler! I am a prisoner of wisermen’s trickery and treachery.” He jabbed a finger at the Senior Arboreal Wiserman and almost hissed as he said, “But one day you or one of your successors will drop their guard.”
At that Kayal Rab strode angrily to the door which was opened by the grey suited man who was knocked out of the way by the furious demon. Serbius could have sworn that Kayal Rab’s horns had grown bigger in the last few moments.
Caldipus appeared to have shrunk in his seat and was looking decidedly pale. Lord Bloodcuttler still had a very stern look on his face as he turned to face Serbius. “I am sorry about that Officer Serbius, but he does need to be put in his place every now and then, especially when he starts on about his immortality.”
“What do you mean when you say he is only immortal because you allow it?” asked Serbius. Caldipus turned to Lord bloodcuttler, obviously as puzzled as Serbius.
“Because when that small band of wisermen having been chased out of The Forest stood atop the Arg, their backs to the sea facing the baying hordes lead by the black lord of the root. When the land they had been pursued across which now make up the Protected Quarters, had been ravaged, the villages aflame, most of the population having been killed or mortally injured. Then, at what seemed the moment of doom; the wisermen summoned up a power, a force of good, from the very rock of the Arg. Those creatures of the black lord’s army, which did not turn and flee back to The Root were cast into the sea.”
“In all that confusion one wiserman seized the dark lord by his horns and forced him to his knees before his fellow wisermen. As the echoes of the screams of the last beasts to be cast from the Arg, and as the last of the fleeing creatures disappeared over the horizon, the dark lord begged for his life. He whined and snivelled. He grovelled with his face in the dirt as he pleaded to be spared.”
Lord Bloodcuttler had stood up and was now pacing the room gesticulating enthusiastically as he spoke. “That creature which had raised such a huge army of malevolent beasts and had come so close to destroying all that was good. That demon who had proclaimed himself master of all, sprawled in the dirt atop the Arg and pleaded for his miserable life.”
“The other wisermen wanted to destroy him there and then, but the wiserman who had brought him to his knees stopped them. He knew that if the dark lord was destroyed another would take his place. The power to destroy the dark lord came from within the Arg. So, it was sensible to imprison the demon close to the source of that power, letting him live yet keeping him far from The Root, therefore depriving the inhabitants of The Root of any form of leadership, for no other demon can take on the mantle of the dark lord of The Root whilst he lives.”
“So, an area of land adjacent to the Arg was given to the dark lord for him to live in. Using the power summoned from the Arg a spell was created setting the boundaries of that land in which he could live. Creating the spell was an inexact piece of magic the boundaries within which he was supposed to stay should have been much smaller. He got more than he deserved. However, should he move outside those boundaries the dark lord will be destroyed. Unfortuntely, as the City of D’n Arg grew, its population initially increased by those who had fled with the wizards, it became apparent to the citizens that the area designated for the dark lord was ideal for the docking of sea going vessels, and the quaysides grew. The Wisermen could not warn those who developed the quaysides. They could not tell the people of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters, the families and friends of those who had been killed or maimed by the dark hordes, that the dark lord had been allowed to live. They would not have understood and the Wisermen would never have been forgiven. ”
“So the citizens had no idea that the dark lord resided there, they still don’t. He was very clever, taking on a more human form and giving himself an acceptable name. His influence grew steadily with people barely noticing. Then after many, many seasons Kayal Rab had complete control of the quaysides.”
“So why didn’t the wisermen stop him?” asked Serbius.
“They had withdrawn back into The Forest and worked hard on helping to rebuild all that had been destroyed by the dark lord and the hordes from The Root. It was during that time that the Council of Arboreal Wisermen was founded along with the University of Pure Knowledge. When it was eventually realised what the dark lord, by then known as Kayal Rab, was up to, the Senior Arboreal Wiserman came to the quaysides and confronted him. He said that if the wisermen tried to stop him he would walk away from the quaysides therefore destroying himself and allowing a new dark lord to emerge from The Root.”
“So, it was better to allow him free rein within the confines of the quaysides than allowing The Root to regain its power,” said Serbius.
“Precisely,” said Lord Bloodcuttler, spinning on his heels to face Serbius. “But Kayal Rab knows there are limits. If he ever tries to use his influence and power within the quaysides to harm anyone or anything outside that area we have the options of either destroying him and taking our chances with The Root, or destroying the quaysides and leaving him in a barren area. Both options are extremely distasteful and could lead to the eventual downfall of D'n Arg and the Protected Quarters. However, it is unlikely in the extreme that such action will have to be taken as Kayal Rab is in dreadful fear of losing his life and he knows he is on to a good thing here.”
Serbius looked thoughtful for a moment then asked, “What did Kayal Rab mean when he said that one day you or your successors would drop their guard?”
Lord Bloodcutler walked back to his seat and sat down again. “Despite his fairly harmless appearance and the fact that he has been held captive in the quaysides for such a long time, Kayal Rab, or should I say the dark lord, for we must never forget that is who he is, is still extremely powerful. The spell which holds him here requires phenomenal power drawn from forces understood by only a few. It requires constant attention and the magic used has to be exact. Thaumaturgy is a very inexact science and even after thousands of seasons much of what the Arboreal Wisermen do is based on calculated guesswork.
Serbius sat thinking for a few moments whilst Lord Bloodcuttler poured himself another cup of the hot fruit infusion from the large spouted pot left on the table by the serving women. As he took a sip Serbius looked across the table at him and spoke again. “I have not yet even begun to understand what is going on and what role I have to play in all this but it does strike me as strange that Kayal Rab, who has every reason to hate you and do all he can to make things as difficult as possible for you, is actually assisting you. Why?”
The Senior Aboreal Wiserman put his cup down and looked back across at Serbius, his features taking on a slightly harder edge, his eyes unmoving bore into Serbius. “Have absolutely no doubt Officer Serbius, Kayal Rab, under normal circumstances would rather mince his private parts than sit in the same room as me, or any other wiserman. However, there is something afoot in the city which could threaten the very existence of D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters and could therefore destroy Kayal Rab. It would appear that whatever evil it is that is at work stems from the Root itself. With Kayal Rab confined here that should not be possible. He not only fears for his life but also fears that his powers are being usurped. He believes that one day he will be able to return to the Root and regain his power and then once more lead his vile armies out into the world to destroy all that is good. But it now seems that some other evil being is holding power in the Root and that that power, a malevolent force, is already having influence amongst the highest echelons of D’n Arg society.”
“Kayal Rab knows he needs us to fight this evil in order to ensure the security of D’n Arg, the Protected Quarters and therefore the Quaysides, and in so doing safeguarding his life. We in turn know that if Kayal Rab is destroyed there will be no control over the Root. We also need to use the Quaysides as a safe place to operate from. My calculation is that whoever it is that has come from the Root would not dare to set foot on the Quaysides, in other words within the confines of the holding spell, as Kayal Rab will then be able to destroy them.”
“It seems there is a lot of very powerful magic being used something I know nothing of,” said Serbius. “So why is so much faith being placed with me being able to help?”
Lord Bloodcuttler took a message container from his sleeve and held it out for Serbius to take.
“This is the letter Treasurer Caldipus gave to you when he first spoke with you. We found it in your pocket when your clothes were taken for cleaning. It is clear you have not had time to read it yet. Read it, it will begin to answer your questions. When you have read it I will answer any questions you have and we will then discuss your role in all this at length.”
Serbius took the container and taking the knife from his plate he cut the wax seal, took out the letter and began to read.
Delio stood in amongst the bright shapes of colour below the stained glass dome of the Central Court. He was shackled hand and foot. It had been two days since his arrest and he was still in a state of shock. He had been waiting for Serbius in the entrance hall of the court, chatting to the desk guard when he had been arrested and seized by four burly uniformed officers of police. Before he had even been able to start protesting he was roughly bundled out of the building and into the back of a caged carriage. Then, instead of being taken to the police cells, he was taken to the City Gaol where he was stripped of his clothes, given an orange smock and thrown into solitary confinement.
When a warder had brought him some food he had asked for his JA to be contacted. The warder had said nothing. In fact, apart from the caution on arrest and the barked order to strip, no one had spoken to him until this very morning as he was brought into court. He had been pushed into a small room containing two wooden stools and a small table. After a few minutes JA Merendicus had come in. He informed Delio that his own JA had suffered some sort of seizure which had caused him to fall from a high bridge fatally injuring him. As there was so little time the court had appointed Merendicus to act for him.
Having not been given a reason for his arrest at the time of the arrest, which Delio knew to be a serious breech of procedure, he was dumbfounded when Merendicus told him that he stood accused of treason. Merendicus had not had to persuade Delio to plead not guilty as he was sure he had done nothing wrong. There had been no time for Delio to be briefed on the evidence on which the allegations against him had been made as a court usher had knocked loudly on the door and announced that the proceedings would begin in five minutes. Merendicus just had time to inform him that he was unable to accompany him into court as he had to attend to other matters before two court guards had come into the room and manhandled Delio to his feet and into the court, rather more roughly than was necessary.
The occasional cough or sniffle of the court guards echoed in the large emptiness of the central court room. The public gallery was empty. Delio stood head bowed, deep in thought. So many questions to be answered: Why had he been arrested? What could he have possibly done to give rise to allegations of treason? Why was no one talking to him? Had his clothes been hung neatly in the gaol store? Where was Serbius? Had he been arrested too?
He looked up as the door of the chamber of the Senior Panel of Judicial Assessment opened. A clerk in dark blue robes came through the door first, went to his seat at a desk before the row of seats where the Panel would sit, and turned to face the chamber door. A few moments later Lord Carboswynn strode in with a flurry of red and green. As he took his seat the clerk bowed then turned and took his seat.
The door to the chamber was closed quietly by an unseen attendant. The clerk flicked through some papers on his desk for a few moments then stood and glared at Delio over the half lenses of a pair of reading glasses.
“Are you Paol Delio, an Officer of Police with the Office of Commercial and Fiscal Crime Investigations of the City of D’n Arg and Protected Quarters Police Force?”
“I am, sir,” replied Delio in a clear voice. He stood as straight as his shackles would allow him to and stared the clerk in the eye.
The clerk held his stare for a few moments then looked back at his papers his ears reddening.
When the clerk again looked up from his papers to speak he fixed on a spot on the floor just in front of Delio.
“You stand before this Court without the representation of a Judicial Arbitrator. Are you willing to hear the charges against you and to give reply in the first instance without a Judicial Arbitrator present?”
“No. I am not willing to undergo any further Court proceedings without a JA to represent me. Also I am not happy with the JA the Court has appointed and I would respectfully beg time to find a JA of my own choosing.”
It was Lord Carboswynn who spoke next. He asked the clerk, “Who has been appointed to represent the accused?”
“JA Merendicus, my Lord.” The clerk bent slightly at the waist as he spoke.
“Ah,” said Lord Carboswynn with a slight smile, “and why, may I ask, is JA Merendicus not presently in attendance.”
The clerk picked a sheet of paper from the bundle on his desk. “I have a note here from JA Merendicus, my Lord. He gives humble apologies to the Court for his absence but he has been urgently called away to attend to matters on orders of Chancelor Galpin.”
Lord Carboswynn continued to smile. “I see. Well, there is no real reason why, as this is only a pre-plea hearing, we should not continue.”
Delio was aghast. “My Lord, I must protest, I am entitled to have representation at all times. I cannot make reply without having access to proper advice.”
The clerk went pale and stood with his mouth wide open. All the court guards seemed to have taken a step back. Lord Carboswynn’s face darkened. He began to repeatedly bang the palms of his hands hard onto the desk in front of him. He looked like a very fat child having a tantrum.
“You must protest?” he screamed. “You’re entitled? Cannot reply?”
He stood up still slamming his hands down repeatedly. “Considering why you have been brought before me you want to be extremely grateful that you have the opportunity of any representation at all. YOU are not entitled to anything. This hearing will proceed and I don’t give a damn whether you give reply or not.”
The slamming of his hands stopped and the Senior Judicial Assessor sat his large bulk back down. He continued to glare at Delio who was himself now visibly bending at the waist and trembling slightly.
His voice back under control Lord Carboswynn continued. “Officer Delio, may your God have pity on you if you ever again address me or any member of this panel directly before being asked to. You will wish you had had the opportunity to take the same course of action as your late colleague Officer Serbius.”
The word “late” was like a punch in the stomach and Delio suddenly found that he had dropped to his knees. Two court guards hurried over to haul him back to his feet and hold him up whilst he listened to the clerk reading out the charges.
He barely understood what was being said as his thoughts raced uncontrollably.
As Serbius read the letter Lord Bloodcuttler gave a barely discernible signal to Caldipus and they quietly slipped from the kitchen leaving Serbius alone.
The letter written by Bloodcuttler was just one page of fine neat writing on best quality paper. With it was another much older letter written on old parchment, the ink browned with age. There were six pages in all. Serbius read it and re-read it over and over again. Each time the pauses between each read got longer as he tried to mentally digest the contents. By the time he finally rolled up the sheets of parchment and returned them to the container it was mid-afternoon. He then sat in silence staring at the dying embers of the fire beneath the large blackened hanging cooking pots.
As the afternoon turned to evening and the shadows in the kitchen began to merge into a general gloom, two of the stiff legged women came in and quietly moved around lighting candles and lanterns. Serbius did not appear to even notice them. He was very deep in thought.
As the women built up the cooking fire with split logs Serbius began to once more become aware of his surroundings. He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands and then arched his aching back; he had been sitting very still for several hours. One of the women came over and with a shy smile placed a mug of steaming fruit infusion on the table in front of Serbius. He nodded his thanks and took a few sips.
“We thought it best to give you some time alone to digest the contents of the letter Officer Serbius.” Neither Serbius or the two women had seen Lord Bloodcuttler enter the kitchen, but he was now sitting across the large table from Serbius. He was studying Serbius’ face intently. Serbius took a few more sips of infusion without looking across at Lord Bloodcuttler. He then placed the mug back on the table and after staring at it for a few moments looked across at the Chancellor. “If you are waiting for me to start asking questions my lord, you will have a long wait.” He looked back at the mug and there followed a long silence punctuated by the occasional clatter of a cooking pot or dish as the women began to prepare for the evening meal.
It was Bloodcuttler who eventually broke the silence. “I am the only person alive who knows the contents of that letter; until today of course.”
Serbius looked at the Chancellor again. There was a coldness in his eyes as he spoke, “If you think that is a reason for me to discuss the contents of it with you, you are wrong. The letter makes one thing very clear though, I have no choice in what I am going to have to do next.”
Serbius took a few more sips from the mug. He then again looked at the Chancellor, the coldness still in his eyes. “One day, hopefully in the not too distant future, you and your kind will have to account for this,” he gestured towards the container lying on the table, “and I will ensure it is done publicly. In the meantime I clearly need your help and, it seems, that of the dark lord.”
As if on cue the kitchen door was opened by a grey suited man and Kayal Rab strode in looking directly at Serbius. “So, Officer Serbius, how does it feel rubbing shoulders with the devil?” The smile appeared warm but there was the ever present glint of malevolence in those dark eyes.
Serbius smiled back, but with the coolness in his eyes turning icy, “Oh, I can get along with you just fine, but if during the course of this,” he paused to find the right word, “adventure, you misdirect or betray me Kayal Rab, even an army of grey suits,” he nodded towards the man standing silently by the kitchen door, “will not stop me marching you to the edge of the quaysides and pushing you into oblivion.”
Kayal Rab held Serbius’ stare for a few moments before his smile widened, “So, there is more about you than the snivelling wretch I encountered in my anteroom.” He glanced towards Bloodcuttler, “Perhaps we may even succeed.” He then turned and headed back through the door, again opened by the grey suited man. “Come, come both of you. Let’s take a walk together before dinner. We have much to talk about and there are things I want to show you.” He strode from the kitchen. Serbius and Bloodcuttler followed him. As Serbius reached the door Bloodcuttler touched his arm. “You should keep the letter with you.”
Serbius returned to the table and retrieved the container. As he walked back towards the door the grey suited man closed it and stepped in front of it. He stood with his hands loosely clasped in front and his expression was relaxed. He was not a large man but the well fitted suit showed that he was lean and fit. Serbius noticed his weight was shifted forward onto the balls of his feet and his knees were slightly bent. He was poised to attack.
“I nowa teechah you soma respect, eh?”
Serbius did not break step and just at the moment the man started to spring forward, both feet leaving the ground, Serbius swung forward and upwards with his right arm. He struck his would be attacker hard in the throat with the end of the letter container. The man fell backwards against the door then collapsed to the ground clutching at his throat, making strange wheezing noises as he desperately tried to breathe through a partially collapsed windpipe.
Serbius stepped over him, opened the door and left the kitchen without a backward glance. The man in the grey suit would not swallow without pain for the next few days.
Bloodcuttler and Kayal Rab were waiting at the end of the corridor for him. As he approached Serbius noticed Kayal Rab was watching him intently. Serbius raised the letter container and smiled apologetically. “Sorry, it’s not like me to be forgetful. Please, lead on.”
Kayal Rab led them round a corner and opened another of the heavy studded wooden doors which seemed to be a feature of his abode. He then led them up steep stone steps that wound up the inside of a stone shaft illuminated by small glass oil burners placed in niches around the circular wall. They climbed for several minutes before reaching another of the heavy doors. The door was opened from the other side. Serbius was not surprised to see a man in a grey suit holding the door open to let them past.
They stepped out onto a large veranda with a view across the quaysides which were a hundred or so averages below. The veranda circled the tower they had just ascended. Serbius walked to the balustrade and looked towards the Arg. Looking up he could see the lights of D’n Arg. Bloodcuttler came and stood next to him and said quietly, “It may be a while before you are up there again”.
“If I ever get up there again,” he replied.
“You will,” said Bloodcuttler, “I am sure of it.”
“You place a lot of faith in just one man, my lord.”
Behind them Kayal Rab chuckled, “So, the man who reckons he can overcome an army of my men single handed is having a crisis of confidence?”
“No, I’m just being realistic,” said Serbius turning to face the dark lord, “and even an army of your men could not hope to succeed in what I have to do.”
Kayal Rab gave a slight nod. “You are right Officer Serbius, and I shall mock you no more. But be very mindful of who it is that will be providing you with much of the help you will need.”
They eyed each other for a few moments before Bloodcuttler interjected, “I don’t know about you two but I am starting to feel rather hungry. So, show us what you want us to see and let’s get back down for some dinner.”
Kayal Rab then led them round to the other side of the tower and then up a ladder which climbed vertically ten averages up the side of the tower to the top where they clambered through an open hatch onto a small square, covered wooden platform. There was barely room for the three of them. Propped against the balustrade in one corner was a large swineskin tube from which Kayal Rab took a telescope. “I like to come up here a couple of times each day and keep a personal eye on things,” he explained.
“Not much use in the dark though,” said Bloodcuttler.
“Not normally, I will agree,” said Kayal Rab as he extended the telescope and raised it to his eye, “but, what I want to show you can only be seen when it is dark.”
He was facing inland and spent a few moments focussing the telescope. He then handed it to Serbius, indicating that he should stand on the same spot as he had been standing. He pointed his arm only slightly above horizontal. “Can you see that group of stars, three in a straight line and four spaced widely around them?”
“The Jeger constellation,” said Serbius.
If Kayal Rab was impressed he did not show it. “Yes, centre your field of vision on the left star of the three and then drop straight down to the horizon.
Serbius followed the instructions. It was a dark night with little moonlight so it was hard to spot the horizon. When he did so he saw a very faint glow.
“I see a very faint light.”
“Good, you’ve spotted it,” said Kayal Rab. “The source of the light is actually beyond the horizon. You would not see it even from as high as the Arg Top as there is a mountain range in between. From where you are standing you are sighting through a gap in the mountains, a huge valley actually. Move a few inches left or right and you will lose sight.”
As he continued to look through the telescope, which was more powerful than any he had ever looked through before, he asked, “So, what is it?”
“Where is it, would be a more appropriate question,” replied Kayal Rab, “that is By’n Klovn, the City of Clowns”.
Serbius took the telescope from his eye. “Never heard of it,” he said.
“I doubt if anyone else in D’n Arg and the Protected Quarters outside the University of Pure Knowledge has either,” said Bloodcuttler.
Serbius handed the telescope back to Kayal Rab then turned to face Bloodcuttler, “It’s not much of a wild guess when I say that’s where I’ll be heading?”
“Yes, you will,” replied Bloodcuttler as he stepped back onto the ladder, “though why I needed to come all the way up here I do not know.” He disappeared from view.
As Serbius stepped towards the ladder Kayal Rab caught his arm and stopped him. Serbius looked into the darkness of his eyes, darker, much darker, than the surrounding night. “Officer Serbius, I will afford you this warning; there will come a time when you must decide who you trust most. Get that decision wrong and you will wish it was me who had taken your soul.”
Serbius replied with no hint of fear in his voice, “You have had your warning about the consequences of lying to me. Bloodcuttler will get his too.” At that he pulled his arm free and descended the ladder.
Delio sat on the bed, actually a stone shelf jutting out of the cell wall covered with a thin straw filled canvass pallet which afforded little more comfort than the stone itself. He leant back against the wall with his knees drawn up to his chin. This was the second night since his appearance before Lord Carboswynn. Apart from the warder who had brought bowls of greasy broth into the cell, once that morning and again a short while ago, placing them on the stone floor near the door and leaving without saying a word, Delio had seen no one. He felt crushed; accused of treason, seemingly denied any proper representation and worst of all, his best friend was dead.
It was dark in the cell, he had not been provided with a candle or a lamp. The only light came from a small gap at the bottom of the door where a little light from the lamps in the corridor outside seeped in. Every now and then he would detect a shadow moving across the light. He guessed it was when the warders walked past the cell door. There was no sound though. Delio had visited the gaol many times in order to speak with prisoners on remand and it had always been a noisy place, with warders clicking along the stone floors in their military style boots, doors slamming, keys rattling in locks and prisoners shouting to one another through thick walls. But since Delio had been brought to this cell after the pre-plea hearing there had been almost total silence. He figured he had been brought to a separate part of the gaol away from the main gaol population, but he did not know why.
For a moment he thought he heard a slight sound, like a tiny whisper. He thought it must be someone in the corridor. Then he heard it again. He strained to listen, holding his breath. There it was again. Three discernible sounds. Were they words? He wasn’t sure. He was just about to get up to go and listen at the door when he heard it again, but this time it seemed close to him; “Do not speak”.
He turned to peer into the darkness but could see nothing. He swung his feet off the bed and on to the floor preparing to stand. “And do not move either”.
The voice was right by his left ear; “Please, do not give any indication that you can hear me.”
There was urgency in the voice which made Delio resist the temptation to whisper back.
“Please, just listen. Make no sound. They are listening in.”
The voice was still very quiet and Delio had to concentrate hard to catch every word.
“D’n Arg is in great peril and your help is greatly needed. It is imperative that you escape. You are due before Carboswynn again in the morning. Afterwards is when you must escape. You will know when the moment is right.”
Questions were almost bursting out but Delio managed to remain silent and listened on.
“Once you have escaped we will meet and I will explain. You have an important role to play and Officer Serbius will depend on you.”
The relief was so great that Delio couldn’t help himself, “He’s alive?”
A shadow came across the light at the foot of the door. There was the loud click of a key turning the lock and the door was flung open. Bright lamplight filled the cell and Delio squinted and shaded his eyes with a hand.
“Who were you talking to?” a voice boomed.
“No one,” said Delio. He was grabbed roughly by two burly warders and hauled to his feet. One of the warders slapped him hard across the side of his face and shouted, “You were talking. Who to? What did you say?”
Delio repeated, “No one”. He was slapped again, and it really hurt.
“Look, there’s no one here,” he said. He could taste blood in his mouth.
One of the warders punched him in the stomach winding him. They let go of him and he sank to his knees gasping for breath. The warders then proceeded to repeatedly kick and punch him about the head and body all the time shouting, “What did you say? Who were you talking to? What did they say?” He tried to protect himself with his arms but the blows came from all sides and most hit their target.
Delio tried to curl up on the floor but he was wrenched back up to his knees by his hair. The warders took an arm each and forced them painfully up Delio’s back. He cried out with the pain but there was no release.
A figure in a dark hooded cloak stood in the doorway. The voice was soft but very clear, “Officer Delio, and I shall out of courtesy continue to address you as such until you are officially stripped of office, you are a man of honesty, lying does not come naturally to you. So, do the simple thing and tell me the truth. We were listening and we heard you speak. What did you say?”
“I didn’t say anything.” His arms were yanked higher and he cried out again.
The voice remained soft, chillingly calm, “You spoke and I want to know what it was you said.”
“But there’s no one here to talk to,” Delio pleaded. He then cried out as his arms were wrenched upwards again.
“You will tell me what you said.”
Delio spoke through gasps of pain, “I was asleep, I’d just woken when you came in. Perhaps I was dreaming, I don’t know.”
In just a split second the hooded figure, features concealed in silhouette, covered the distance from the door to Delio and grabbed him around the throat. Delio couldn’t breathe, bony fingers pressed into his windpipe. He tried to struggle free but was held too firmly. There was a loud rushing in his ears and he lost focus. The light faded as he began to lose consciousness. He believed in that moment that he was going to die. Suddenly the grip around his throat was released and the warders let him drop to the floor. He drew in great gasps of air, his head spinning. After just a few moments he was hauled up to his feet. The hooded figure came up close, so close Delio could feel his breath on his face as he spoke, “Tomorrow you go out of here for a short while and Lord Carboswynn will want you to be in a fit state to understand what is happening. But after that there will be a long time before you are brought to trial, maybe even as much as two seasons. So, we will have plenty of time to discuss your dreams Officer Delio.” The hooded figure then turned and strode from the cell. The two warders pushed Delio to the ground and gave him several kicks to the body, arms and legs before leaving and slamming the door behind them.
Delio managed to crawl across the floor of the cell and pull himself up on to the bed where he curled up in pain and welcomed the unconsciousness that quickly enveloped him.
Serbius stepped off the ladder and walked around the veranda. As he got near to the door he found three grey suited men blocking his way. He stopped a few paces from them. Kayal Rab came past him and one of the men opened the door for him then closed it again and turned to face Serbius with his colleagues. Serbius noticed that the two who had remained still were holding large black coshes. He felt the letter container in his pocket but realised it would be little use against three assailants. Suddenly he turned and dashed back around the veranda and quickly climbed the ladder. Before he was half way up he could hear the first of the men starting to climb the ladder below him. He had only a couple of seconds lead on them.
He reached the platform and grabbed the telescope in its hard swineskin container. As the first of the men reached the top of the ladder Serbius raised the telescope container up above his head, holding it with both hands, and brought it smashing down on to the top of the man’s head. The man fell instantly and there was a shout as he knocked the second man from the ladder. Serbius looked over the edge. The man he had hit lay motionless at the foot of the ladder. The one who had been knocked from the ladder lay writhing in pain, both his legs clearly broken.
The third man stood by them looking up at Serbius. He reached inside his suit jacket and brought out a locking knife. As he unfolded it Serbius could see that it had a large blade. The man made no move towards the ladder. Serbius continued to look down at him while behind his back he undid the end of the telescope container and let the telescope slide from it. He then waved the empty container at the man below, shouting, “Come on then, up you come. You can have some of what they got.”
The man remained motionless looking up at him. Serbius then stepped out on to the ladder and with the container held under his arm climbed down a few rungs. He then let the container fall, but grabbed at it as if he had not meant to. “Oh no!” he cried, and then clambered back up the ladder as if in panic. The man took the bait and came up the ladder at speed the knife between his teeth. As his head came over the edge of the platform Serbius, holding on to the thin end of the heavy telescope, swung it in an upwards arc catching the man under the chin. The force of the blow lifted him upwards and out. Seconds later there was a thud and crunch as his already unconscious body hit the veranda. Serbius, keeping hold of the telescope just in case, climbed down. The man with the broken legs was still and quiet having passed out from the pain. Serbius could not tell if the other two were alive or not and he cared little as he walked round to the door. He opened the door quickly and took a step back holding the telescope ready to swing, but there was no one there. He made his way to the kitchen. He suddenly felt very hungry.
Serbius was on his second helping of the delicious fish stew when Kayal Rab spoke. “Do you know anything about Il Assazzionati, Officer Serbius?”
“No”, replied Serbius before taking another mouthful.
“No, I don’t suppose you have”, continued Kayal Rab, “you will have only known of them as my ‘Associates’”.
“Ah, you mean that bunch of foreign thugs you’ve kitted out in fancy suits.” Serbius took another mouthful, put down the spoon and dabbed at his mouth with his serviette. He looked across at Kayal Rab. “I’m afraid I may have damaged the tailoring of two or three of those suits.”
Bloodcuttler, who had been sitting quietly, having finished his meal, allowed his lips to form a subtle smile. Kayal Rab’s face was unreadable, but his dark eyes bore into Serbius.
Serbius looked away and took some fruit from a large wooden bowl. He wasn’t in the mood for a staring match, nor did he want to give his host the satisfaction of getting him engaged in mind games.
After a few moments Kayal Rab said, “When you have finished your meal Officer Serbius I shall take you up to The Iblus bar where there is someone I want you to meet.”
Serbius turned to face Kayal Rab once again his eyes narrowing with suspicion.
“Don’t worry Officer Serbius, he does not wish to harm you. In fact, he is under strict instructions to afford you every protection.”
Serbius turned to Bloodcuttler who gave a subtle nod.
Serbius put down the remains of the sweet tasting yellow fruit he did not recognise. He then stood and said, “Right, let’s get this over with, it’s been a long and unusual day and I don’t want to be away from my bed for too long”.
As Kayal Rab led them from the room Serbius glanced back and noticed that Bloodcuttler had disappeared. He also wondered where Treasurer Caldipus had got to.
Serbius followed Kayal Rab up flights of stone steps and along torch lit passages until they came to a wooden door with black iron studs. It wasn’t a large door. He would have to stoop slightly to go through. Kayal Rab produced a key from inside his robes and unlocked the door. As he opened it the noise that assaulted Serbius’ ears took him by surprise. It was a noise he was familiar with though, the cacophony of voices, laughter, screams and music he had had to endure while he and Delio had waited for the arrival of Bagbin.
As he stepped through Serbius noticed that the door was more than a quarter of an average in thickness. It was no wonder the noise had not penetrated to the passageway beyond.
Kayal Rab placed a hand on Serbius’ shoulder and said, “The person you are to meet will make himself known to you”. He then stepped back in to the passage and closed the door.
Serbius found himself standing at the far side of the bar from the steps leading down from the quayside entrance. The bar was very busy. He could see two large groups of sailors singing drunkenly, each group trying to out-sing the other. He knew it would not be very long before that competition degenerated into a brawl.
Suddenly a man in a hooded brown robe and clutching some sort of wooden box ran past him. He looked terrified. Serbius watched him change direction to skirt round the singing sailors and head for the steps. Then a group of about six very angry looking men in stained white vests and black leather breeches ran past and after the first man. Serbius saw the man with the box trip over his robe and stumble. The chasers were upon him and began to beat him mercilessly, one wrenching the box from his grip and holding it in both hands brought it down repeatedly on the victim’s head. The outcome was inevitable. Serbius new much better than to intervene.
He then had a feeling he was being watched and turned to see a long legged beauty with the exotic features of someone from a very distant land, wearing nothing except a translucent satin gown fastened only at one point just above her navel, sauntering out of the shadows at the base of a near-by column towards him, swinging her hips provocatively. Her large brown eyes were fixed on him. Her black hair was drawn back into a long pleat revealing the stunning beauty of her face.
Serbius knew what she wanted and was just about to tell her that he was not interested when she made a half turn and flicked her head. Before he realised what was happening the large crystal fastened into the end of her pleat crashed into Serbius’ temple. He fell to his knees shaking his head to clear the stars he was seeing. Through blurred vision he saw his beautiful assailant bearing down on him. He saw the quick half turn again and threw himself to the right. This time the crystal caught him painfully on the shoulder. He rolled over a couple of times to try and put distance between himself and the attacker. But she was as quick. Again the half turn but then she very suddenly went over backwards. Serbius saw that a tall lean man in an immaculate dark grey suit had hold of the pleat. One hand at her head the other just by the crystal. She tried to stand but was yanked back hard so that she could only get as far as her knees. Her beautiful face had transformed into a mask of venomous rage. Suddenly she dropped to all fours and lashed out at her captor with a vicious kick aimed at his knee. In what seemed like one swift motion he side stepped the kick, pulled her upright to her knees, braced his knee against one of her shoulders and yanked sideways on the pleat. He then let go of the pleat and she fell lifeless to the floor.
Reaching into a pocket Serbius’ rescuer produced a small locking knife and cut the crystal from the pleat. He then tossed it to Serbius who caught it. It was clear, multi-facetted and was the size of his fist.
As Serbius got back to his feet two men in long blue aprons appeared, lifted the body and carried it away. Serbius expected a crowd to have gathered around but no one, except the man in the dark grey suit, was paying any attention. The singing, shouting, screaming and music continued as before.
Serbius felt the trickle of blood down the side of his face. The man in the suit handed him a neatly folded white handkerchief and said, “You come”.
Serbius pressed the handkerchief to his temple as he followed the man towards a small side bar. He noticed that the suited man was easily an average and a half tall and slim. He walked smoothly with an economy of movement, his pace slightly shorter than normal for a man of his height, constantly maintaining optimum balance. Serbius recognised an experienced fighter.
It was much quieter in the side bar, only one small group of well dressed merchants sat quietly talking around a table upon which were bags of docs, some papers and large glasses of wine. Serbius was guided to a table at the far end of the room close to the small bar tended by a single barman. He was glad to be able to sit as he felt unsteady on his feet. The side of his head throbbed painfully.
The man in the suit spoke briefly to the barman then sat down opposite Serbius. There was a lantern on the wall above and behind Serbius. He could clearly see the features of the man sitting opposite. He was not a young man, his face bore some deep lines of age, but his features were sharp and handsome. There was a scar that ran almost the entire length of his left eyebrow. He had dark hair but despite it being cut close Serbius could see there was plenty of grey at the temples and that the hair line had receded slightly. He looked to be in extremely good physical condition. He also had the same tanned features as all the others who wore the grey suits, Kayal Rab’s ‘Associates’. But, strikingly unlike any of the others this man had cold pale blue eyes.
After a few moments the barman came over with a tray on which were three glasses. He placed a glass of red wine in front of the suited man and a large glass of ale and a small glass of brandy in front of Serbius.
Serbius downed the brandy in one. It was a fine brandy and he felt its warmth spread through his body. After a few moments his head began to feel clearer and the throbbing dulled.
“You feel better?”
Serbius noticed the familiar accent but it wasn’t as strong as the others.
“Yes, thank you, and thank you for what you did out there.”
“All the same, you probably saved my life.”
Serbius’ table companion gave a slight shrug and took a sip of wine. Placing the glass back down, he looked across at Serbius.
“My name is Stranjeri. I am Assazzionati.” He held Serbius in a cold stare.
Serbius wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be impressed, but he wasn’t.
“So Kayal Rab buys your suits,” he said with a shrug before taking a long drink of the ale.
Stranjeri continued to stare at Serbius. After a few long moments Serbius sighed.
“Listen my friend, I really am tired and not a little fed up of men in grey suits trying to give me a hard time. If you have something to tell me, as Kayal Rab says you have, please get on with it and you can start off by telling me who the woman that attacked me was.”
“I am not your friend.”
Serbius shrugged again and took another drink.
“No one here is your friend. You are police.” He said the last word as if he was spitting.
“Ah, I see. It was the old pork and apples thing.”
“Perhaps I should have said ‘were police’. You smell of nothing.”
Serbius took a moment to absorb the truth of what Stranjeri had said. He really was no longer a police officer. As far as the D’n Arg City authorities were concerned he was a corpse.
“Alright then, why did she attack me?”
“Because you were going to say ‘No’ to her.”
“How could she possibly know that?”
“Because she was of the Sirene.”
Stranjeri saw the puzzled look on Serbius’ face. He shook his head. “You people from the City know so little about the rest of the world. The Sirene have powers of telepathy.”
“She could read my mind?”
“Only in a very rudimental way, but enough for her to know you were going to refuse her. They believe themselves to be completely irresistible because of their beauty and because they can also affect your mind to make you want them. To her there could be no greater insult than refusal and as far as she was concerned you should die for it.”
“Are there any more like her out there?”
“A few, they are the most successful at their trade. The other whores are frightened of them.”
“That’s hardly surprising. What a bunch of bitches.”
“Bitches who make riches,” said Stranjeri.
Serbius wondered if that was a stab at humour, but could detect no sign of it in Stranjeri’s face.
“Kayal Rab asked me if I knew about Il Assazzionati. When I said I didn’t he said that there was someone I should meet. I presume that someone is you and that you, being Assazzionati, are going to enlighten me?”
Stranjeri’s eyes narrowed to slits and he spoke through tightened lips. “I am under direct instruction from Kayal Rab to protect you. If I fail my end will be unspeakable.” He leaned forward slightly. “But, if you ever say the name Assazzionati again without a tone of respect in your voice I will kill you.”
Serbius held Stranjeri’s stare for a few moments. Then he again shrugged and to break the deadlock took another drink of his ale.
Stranjeri sat back, his face more relaxed.
“I am told that you are a man who weeps. That fact, along with what I just saw that whore do to you, would make me think you are weak and worthless. If that were the case you and I would never share the same air. However, you have killed one of my men and seriously injured three others. So, I have to ask, are you weak and worthless or is there more to you than would meet my eye?”
Serbius took the crystal from the pocket where he had stashed it. He held it up into the light between finger and thumb, turning it slowly. It sparkled and spots of refracted light danced across the table.
“I’m like this crystal, multi-facetted, brilliant and very hard.”
There was the faintest hint of a smile on Stranjeri’s face. “We shall see, we shall see.” He downed his wine and nodded at the barman.
They sat in silence as the barman prepared and brought over another wine and ale. Once the barman had returned to the bar Stranjeri began to speak.
“Now I tell you about Il Assazzioni.”
Serbius leant forward with forearms on the table to listen.
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