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Hired Sword II: Lord Togon

I paced restlessly to the window and looked out.

Where was Leon?

I paced back across the room, tripping over an expensive rug crumpled untidily on the floor. I kicked it. Dania would never have let things get like this. But my wife had been dead for five years. I glared at a mahogany table covered with fine china. What use were all my expensive things? They couldn’t tell me where my son was.

Why are you so worried? I asked myself. Leon’s probably met a friend. You know how talkative he is.

I’m worried because I know how easily a son can vanish, I answered the nagging voice inside my head. Because I don’t know where Dorega went.

I kicked the rug furiously into a corner. Leon usually returned from his walks minutes before he said he would. Now he was almost fifteen minutes late. I glared at the priceless clock that ticked peacefully in a corner and fought the desire to kick it, too.

A young man hurried down the road. I quickly opened the front door of my mansion and went a few steps down the gravel path. The man went by. It was not Leon.

I was just turning back to the house when a movement in the bushes caught my eye. My muscles tensed instinctively as I strained to see better. An assassin? They were ever-present dangers to anyone with an enemy, and I had more enemies than most.

Whistling nonchalantly, I took a few paces down the path, then suddenly darted toward the bushes and reached in. My hand closed on someone’s wrist. I jerked them out, my own dagger drawn.

It was a girl. Her long gold hair was hanging down in untidy strands where twigs had caught it, and there was a long scratch along one elegantly sculpted cheekbone. I released her and stood back.

“Clarissa of Hibbert, what are you doing in my hedge?”

She straightened, managing to look defiant in spite of her disheveled state. I noticed a tear in the hem of her embroidered gown. “None of your business.”

“My girl, anything that goes on in my hedges is my business. Doesn’t your father have hedges enough? Being an Earl and all that, I’d think his hedges are far more extensive than mine.”

“If you must know, I was waiting for someone.”

“In my hedges? Were you waiting for me? Or are you in love with one of my servant boys?”

I had hit near the truth; I saw that by her quick flush. “No.” Her eyes were on the ground. “I was out by the road, but then one of Father’s friends came by. He didn’t see me, but I realized anyone could tell Father where I was. So I hid.”

“And what was so important that you had to retreat to my bushes instead of going home peacefully?”

“If you insist, I was waiting for Leon.”

“For Leon? But I’m only a lord. Your father will never allow a marriage, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Why else would I be sitting in your hedges?” A sly smile spread over her face. “So shall I return to my twiggy hideout, or will you invite me in for a cup of tea? I’ll stay here either way.”

“Actually, I’m waiting for Leon, too. But I imagine your father has noticed your absence. You’d better start home before he gets suspicious.”

“Then how am I to see Leon today? And how am I to explain my appearance?”

I rolled my eyes. “Come in and my maids will help you straighten up. And then you must leave.”

“Before my father comes roaring up and accuses you of kidnapping?”

I drew in my breath slightly and shifted my gaze to the hedge. How much did she know about my past? How much had Leon told her?

I returned from my uncomfortable speculations to find Clarissa staring curiously at me. I forced a smile. “I doubt it. That would do wonders for his reputation--and for mine.” I sighed. “Come in, then. You’ll get sunstroke in this weather.” The sun reflected blindingly off the whitewashed stucco walls of the city.

“It keeps the plants alive, though. Or is that the rain?” she remarked.

“Both. Mostly the rain, though.” I led her in.

Clarissa took only a few minutes to get presentable and set off home. I escorted her down to the gate, “Just to make sure you don’t assail my greenery again,” I told her with a laugh, and saw her set off for her father’s house.

I paced across the room three more times, then kicked the wall next to the placidly ticking clock and grabbed my cloak. Leon was later than he had ever been. If he was on his way home, I would meet him; if not. . . I ignored the possibility.

But five minutes later, I was forced to consider it. None of his friends had seen Leon. No one in town had, either. He had vanished as completely as Dorega. Dorega. Perhaps the final clue lay with him.

I don’t want to go through all that again! I told a wall. It didn’t answer. After a few seconds more, I turned toward the middle class section of town and started walking briskly, glad that unlike many nobles I had retained most of my wiry strength. Too many feasts had not added much to my weight, and my hair was still an un-grayed pale brown. Brown like Leon’s.

I paced quickly through the streets. I had avoided this section of town since the day six years ago when I visited Dorega’s home with two trusted servants. My stomach knotted, remembering how furious I had been that day. Shame at my memories constricted my breathing as I approached Dorega’s neighborhood. When I reached the corner, I paused for several seconds before I looked down the street toward the house.

Dorega’s house appeared to have been converted into an inn. Washing hung out of one window; a child peered from another. I knocked until an old woman finally answered the door. “Do you know where the former inhabitant of this house lives?” I enquired.

“He left six years ago. A tragedy with his son--the poor child died suddenly. He took it hard. Last I heard he’s off at the other end of town. But you don’t want to be going there. It’s bad.”

When I reached the other end of town I heartily agreed with her. Tall, unpainted houses leaned inward as though attempting to rest their sagging weight on the opposite roof. I imagined Dorega coming here, wasted by grief into a different man. What must he have felt, looking around his new neighborhood?

Rats scuttled in the alleys. A short, stocky man was hurling a dagger at them, attempting to skewer one. I thought I recognized him as a hired assassin, but I went over anyway. “Do you know a man called Dorega?”

“Aye.”

“I want to talk to him. About a job.”

He nodded and winked. “Sorry, he’s taken. He was summoned to the Earl of Hibbert’s place about an hour ago. Came back in a black fog. Just stalked in, got his suit on, and stalked out. I could help you, though. For a modest fee.”

“No thank you, I just wanted to talk to Dorega.” Without waiting for his reply, I left the area. I was careful not to turn my back to any dark areas until I entered more respectable parts of town. But the assassin’s words stayed with me.

The Earl of Hibbert had hired Dorega. Dorega, who must have turned assassin since his son vanished. Dorega, who had every reason to hate both me and . . . my family. And the Earl, who had a reason to dislike my son, had hired him.

I started to run.

When I reached the Earl’s mansion, I paused to catch my breath before I rang the doorbell. A maid showed me into his parlor. Dorega must have sat here. And left, furiously angry. And gone to do what?

The door opened and the Earl of Hibbert stepped in. I noticed that he had gained considerable weight since I saw him last, though an air of menace still hung about him. He froze when he saw me, then slowly came forward. “What is it?” His voice held just the faintest edge of contempt, perhaps for my tousled state.

I came straight to the point. “Where is my son?”

“Who?” I was growing to hate that smooth voice.

“Leon Togon. Where is Leon Togon?”

“How should I know?”

“Father, what’s this?” The new voice came from Clarissa. She was standing in the door to his study, holding a small sack of coins. “It was on your table. You don’t usually leave money lying about--”

“Give me that!” he snarled. “It has nothing to do with you.”

“Yes it does.” I could feel my face setting with furious anger. My words came quickly. “Wise of Dorega, to demand an advance payment. You’ve ruined his life, ruined mine, ruined your daughter’s, and you’ve got the nerve to talk to that girl?”

He spun round. “This is no concern of yours! Get out!”

“No concern of mine? I loved that boy like a son, Hibbert. Can you say the same for your daughter?”

“Father, what are you--”

“Hush up, girl! Get up to your room! You have no concern with his rotten family.”

“Yes, I do.” Her quiet words brought a sudden dead calm into the room. Hibbert froze. I stopped in mid lunge, either for his throat or the blood money, and felt my anger slowly ebbing away. It was replaced by a cold, icy dread.

Hibbert spoke first, in a hoarse, furious whisper. “What did you say?”

“Togon’s family has everything to do with me. I intend to marry his son.”

“I thought as much.”

I came abruptly out of my trance and moved swiftly forward. “Please, everyone, calm down. Clarissa, be careful. Hibbert, don’t do anything you’ll--”

“Shut up!” he bellowed at me. “I warned you before to leave. Now go! And as for you, you snake,” he turned back to Clarissa, “you’ll get no inheritance from me. You go too, with your future father-in-law. If you hurry, you might catch your fiancé’s last words.” He spun around and realized I hadn’t left. “Get out! Both of you! Now!” He seized Clarissa’s shoulder and shoved her out the door, then turned to me. One of his fists slammed into my face as the other hand gripped my arm and hurled me headlong into the street. The door slammed behind us.

Clarissa was kneeling beside me in an instant. “You’re hurt! Oh, this is all my fault.”

“No it isn’t.” I was gingerly investigating an unexpectedly loose tooth. “It’s nobody’s fault. But that won’t make it any better if--” I broke off.

“If what? Togon, I heard what my father said about hearing my fiancé’s last words. And I think you know what it means.”

“I may. But there’s no time to talk. I have to get to the path by Dunley Creek, and quickly.” I scrambled up and set off at a run. Clarissa followed me.

“While we go, couldn’t you explain at least a little bit of what’s going on?”

“I’ll try. You may know that most of the noble’s power comes from the illusion of being greater than the average person?”

“I guessed.”

“Then you’ll understand that anything that diminishes our dignity is a threat to our power?”

“Yes.”

“Well there was a man, Dorega, who caught a glimpse of me after a dinner. There had been much food, and wine, so I was-- not at my best. He exaggerated certain points of my appearance and ignored others. By the time he was through, I sounded like a clown from some third-rate comedy. And he sent this description to another man.”

We leaned against a wall, panting, then started off again. “I read the letter--never mind how, conspiracies are unpleasant --and realized how much of a threat it was. I was younger then, and power meant more to me than it does now. So, I took my revenge.”

“How?”

“I visited his house, out for blood, but he wasn’t there. So as he had threatened the thing I most cherished, I took his most precious possession. His son. The boy was only ten at the time.” I paused, then looked solemnly at her. “His name was Leon.”

She stared at me in wide-eyed amazement. “Leon isn’t your son?”

“No.”

“Then my father sent Dorega to kill--”

“Leon, yes. And Dorega believes that his own child is dead--that I murdered him six years ago, in fact. And he hates me for it. I left a note, you see, pinned to the back of his door where he wouldn’t see it until the last.”

She stumbled and fell. I knelt to help her up. We were both gasping for breath--neither long dresses nor a sedentary lifestyle contribute to speed. “Leon never told me,” she finally said.

“He probably knew that your father would dislike a match between an earl’s daughter and a lord’s son. How much more would he hate a match between his daughter and an assassin’s boy?”

“Yes.” After a second she asked, “Why didn’t you bring Leon back?”

I sighed and felt my shoulders slump in defeat. “I tried. It took me a week to humble my pride, but I went back to Dorega’s house. It was empty. He’d left, and I couldn’t bring myself to find out where. I wish I had.”

“At least you tried.”

“And now I’m trying again. Hurry.” She scrambled up and we raced onward.

When we reached the footbridge I knew we came too late. The scenery was lovely--tall trees, flowering vines draping them, surrounded a softly rippling brook. But the scene by the footbridge, like a spot of ink on a colorful picture, spoiled the whole view. Two figures lay there, both perfectly still. Clarissa ran to the brown-haired one and bent over it, weeping. I followed her.

“It’s Leon,” she said softly. “There’s a dagger in his chest.”

I knelt beside her. My son’s face was peaceful, even happy. I gazed down at his face for a long moment, then turned my attention to the rest of his body. When my gaze turned to the jeweled dagger hilt I stared fixedly for a stunned moment. Then I carefully reached over and drew it out of his chest.

There could be no mistake. I recognized every detail, down to the small chip in the jewels of the handle. It was my dagger. The one I had used six years ago to pin a note to the back of Dorega’s door, telling him that his son was gone.

Suddenly I remembered the other figure. Clarissa was still bent over Leon, not weeping aloud but shaking with inward sobs. I slowly walked over and stood examining the man who lay behind them.

He was clothed all in black. His face was turned down, dark hair laying across it. The point of a sword protruded from his back. An empty scabbard hung by his side, its shape that of the sword in his chest.

Very gently I reached down and turned him over. As his hair fell back, I recognized the proud, aquiline features, the dark eyes. Dorega. His mouth was set in a bitter smile, as if at the last he had seen all life’s perversity and laughed at it. For an instant, our eyes met and I thought he still lived. I knew that if he could speak, he would undoubtedly pour out a host of accusations, blame for those six years of misery.

“Never fear, my old enemy,” I told him gently, “I’ll think of all the accusations you could utter. Know this, though. I loved your boy as well as any father. And I’ve never stopped regretting the day I took him from you.”

He didn’t answer. He had been dead since before I arrived; since, apparently, he had fallen on his own sword. I looked over at Leon. Clarissa was still huddled over him protectively. I thought of the peaceful look on his face, of the bitter smile on Dorega’s. I looked back down at the still figure in my arms. “Yes, you knew. You both knew.” I remained there for some time, holding the man I had ruined as Clarissa held the one she loved.

Finally I set Dorega back down, closed his eyes, and went over to Clarissa. “We need to return to the city. I’ll send the carriage and we can bring them both back.”

She looked up, tear marks shining on her cheeks. “And what then? I can’t go back--I wouldn’t anyway. But how can I provide for myself?”

“You’ll move in with me.” She stared at me in surprise. “The house is going to be far too big for me now. And I had hoped to welcome you as a daughter, anyway.” She nodded, fresh tears filling her eyes. I laid a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s go.”

Clarissa reluctantly laid Leon’s head down and stood up. “What now?”

I stared at her in puzzlement. “We go back to my house.”

“No, I mean what will you do now? Your adopted son is dead. You’ve been insulted and struck by his killer--oh, Father is far more responsible than Dorega. You’ve every right to pursue revenge until the Earl lies dead.”

I contemplated this for a moment. A dangerously inviting thought of the stocky assassin back in the city appeared in my mind. Then I pushed it aside. “I don’t think I’ll do anything. This episode has cost too many lives already. I’ll just leave your father to be haunted by memories. Believe me, it’s a very effective punishment.”

She nodded and smiled slightly, then looked down at Leon. With a sudden quiver in her voice, she asked, “We will come back, won’t we?”

“Just as soon as I can bring the carriage. Come on, now.” I put an arm around her shoulders.

“It’s time to go home.”



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acmcintosh said...
Jul. 19, 2011 at 2:31 pm:
A very well written story!  The plot is intriguing and the characters have a unique depth.  I can't wait to read more!
 
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