I woke up with a dull headache. Then I realized that my body felt funny, in fact, my limbs felt numb, my neck sore, and my eyes grimy. I tried to open my eyes only to find that they were blindfolded.
Why am I blindfolded?
“Did you wake up, sweetheart?” a feminine voice asked. I tried to pick it up from somewhere. Why did that voice sound familiar?
“Well, love, how do ye find yer accomodashuns?” asked another voice, one that belonged to a man this time, but oddly it appeared to be coming from the same location as the first.
“Who’s there?” I heard myself ask.
“You don’t recognize me?” This time it was Jasper’s voice.
“Jasper? What is going on?” I asked, trying to loosen my bonds.
“Easy there, sweetheart. Don’t get so excited!” It sounded like Jasper, but….
“Who are you? And why am I blindfolded?” I asked, trying to pin point the voice’s owner. I heard the rustling of materials, shifting of position, footsteps approaching me, a presence, and lastly, the sound of the person’s breathing as he brought his face right up to mine.
“So that you will not be frightened, darling.” Darling?
The blindfold came off. I blinked as my eyes got adjusted to the sudden brightness. I was in the middle of an empty shed. There was a window to the left of me with its paned glass all grimy and cracked; the floor was planked and covered in years of dust; the door (which happened to be the only exit) was closed and across the room from me. Between the door and myself was a young woman. She was dressed in a yellow dress with yellow hair flowing in ringlets about her shoulders.
“Lavinia?” My eyes searched the room for Jasper and other people, but it was only the two of us: myself and the mystery woman.
“Are you looking for someone, love?” she asked, but her voice was that of a male.
I shook my head to comprehend what I was seeing.
“You look confused. Here, perhaps this would make better sense.” She strode towards me. Her eyes were green, but there was something rather chilling about them. With a smile playing at her lips, she began to undress. First she removed her hair, which turned out to be a wig, revealing short curly pale hair. Next the dress fell to the floor revealing a slender body wearing a shift with padded breasts. Next were the shoes, revealing hairy feet with hair just like the ones on her head. As I watched I realized that it was not an elven woman standing before me, but a rilud male. He bowed his head and plucked something from his eyes. Squeezing them shut for a moment, he then opened them.
“Ah, that is much better!” The man smiled.
Sunlight from the windows fell on the man’s curly hair giving it a strange glow of ash and gold, but I believe it was actually snowy white. His face was beautiful with large ruby eyes, a regal nose, the bone structure of his face was actually round, yet because he was slim his form was slender, his cheek bones high and prominent. I could not help staring at him for if he had the right hair and eye colours he could pass off as the younger version of the man in my dream.
A smile curled up at the corner of his mouth as his eyes held a mischievous glint to them. “Mind if I slip into something more comfortable?” the man said in Jasper’s voice. He walked around me; trying to see what he was up to I peered behind me. There was a sack in the far corner, the man began to take out clothing from there.
“Did you want to watch?” he teased. He turned to face me. I stared in horror at where his sex would be, but there was only an ugly scar instead. “If I may remind you, it is rude to stare.”
I tore my eyes away from his emasculated body. The man chuckled as he finished dressing. He then strode towards me with shoes on his feet.
“You’re not Lavinia,” I heard myself whisper.
There was a look of amusement in the rilud’s eyes. “No, I am not,” his voice changed again, this time a bit higher in tone, his mimicry gone. It appears this was his real voice.
“Why am I here tied up like this?” I asked, getting to the point.
He brought a low box, using it as a stool, he sat down. “I wanted to talk to you.”
“Really!” I could not keep the disbelief from my voice, “If you gave me your card and a message that you wanted to meet we could have done so over tea.”
He laughed at my sarcasm. “I could see why Aryn wanted to keep you close.” He brought his box closer until we were almost within touching distance.
“Who’s Aryn?” I asked. My voice was a whisper.
He smiled. “He didn’t even tell you, eh? Well, I suppose he had his reasons, though I have expected that since he knew you for a long time and trusted you he would tell you.”
I swallowed. Something told me to be careful with this one. He looked pleasant and innocent as most rilud men I have met, however, this one had a reek of death coming from him. I heard of stories how riluds were known for their violent wrath. Usually they keep that wrath far away by maintaining a mild nature. However, when a rilud experiences a violent loss with cruel and malevolent intent, their wrath is unleashed upon their perpetrators. These violent and raging riluds were called, “tyrns” (taken from the word “tyranny”) or “turned” as some would call them. Their naturally brown hair become snowy white, their earthen brown eyes glow ruby red, and the short stubby horns on their heads (which were an inch long) double in length and size. I glanced at this rilud’s head searching for horns, but could not see any.
“If you are looking for my horns, I have lost them long ago.” He told me with an icy smile.
“Would you care to give me your name, please, sir?” I changed the subject.
The ice briefly thawed from his smile as he put his hand to his chin. “Yes, how rude of me for not giving you my name. The name is Dickon Pruner.”
“H-how do you do? I am Cassisa Fullerton,” I introduced.
“Cassisa Fullerton,” he said as if he was savouring a sweet. “I like the sound of that, but you are a Draconian – those from the Eastern Kingdoms. How is it that you would have a Western name?” I was impressed he called us Eastern Kingdomers or “gold skins” Draconians, our official name.
“I gave myself that name.” I told him.
“For what purpose?”
“I’m sure you would understand that as one who looks different from those of the West it would be beneficial.” I explained with the same temperature he gave me.
“Shame, I would have loved to hear what your name sounds like in your native tongue.”
“Perhaps another time,” I said dully. I don’t want to give this man any more information than I already gave him.
We sat there. Our conversation became a staring match. I could understand how a frog felt when facing a snake. I told myself not to back down or look away, for if I did who knows what would come from him.
“You could know what one is thinking if you look at that person’s eyes,” my father had once told me. My eyes shifted to Dickon’s. He stared back at me unblinking – his eyes were very hard to read.
Again the corner of his mouth curled upwards. “You like my eyes?”
I was not sure what to make of this person. He was flirting with me, but it could be a ploy. I decided not to answer.
He reached into his pocket and brought out a silver pocket watch. “It is supper time. Perhaps, you would like some victuals.”
“I am not hungry, thank you.” The moment those words left my mouth my traitorous stomach growled.
Dickon chuckled. “I guess that would be a ‘yes.’ Excuse me a moment, please.”
He stood up from his seat, opened the door and brought from outside a folding table, a basin, a pitcher of water, and a towel. He set the pitcher in the basin with a towel near the door on a wooden box.
“I imagine you would like to wash up before your meal,” He walked around me, slipped another rope around my waist and tied me to my chair. Then he unbound my hands.
I rubbed the circulation back to into them as my eyes remained on his face. He brought the folding table before me, placing the basin on it he poured out the water. He draped the towel over his arm and gave me a bow, “Your water, miss.”
I peered at the water. Suddenly I felt my head pressed down, my face hitting the water as it filled my nose and mouth! I tried to struggle out of Dickon’s grasp, but his hands firmly held my head. My head was yanked back up, I coughed feeling water burning my sinuses and throat.
“Let me reminded you, my sweet,” Dickon hissed into my ear. “You disgust me!”
My face was shoved into water again. As my hands tried to claw at his hands pressing me down, then a violent tug by the hair, I gasped to breathe.
“It’s because of people like you who unsexed me!” I felt something shoved into my mouth, I gagged. I realised that it was his thumb pressing on my tongue and making me choke.
“Perhaps you are wondering what I am talking about,” his thumb slid out of my mouth. I coughed.
“Very well, I will tell you a story…” Dickon began releasing me, “Once upon a time, in a small kingdom called O’Lirr was a king who had a beautiful family. The king had a beautiful wife named Antonia, two sons and four daughters. The children’s names were Xenia, Cynthia, Naryssa, Sylvana, Gunther, and Aryn. The king was loved by his people and his subjects as he was respected by leaders and kings of other countries. O’Lirr was a rich and fertile land, both in natural resources, water, and vegetation; the people who lived there were never in want. However, despite the peaceful life of O’Lirr, the royal family had a string of tragedies that occurred within the Autumn Palace, the king’s residence.
“First it started with the eldest Princess Xenia, who drowned in a river at age 12, then came Princess Cynthia who died of poisoned sweets at age 14. Prince Gunther, who was to be the first in line for the throne, was killed in a riding accident at age 15. At age 16, twin princesses Naryssa and Sylvana died from the Spotted Fever. The doctors later discovered dresses sent to the girls carried the illness.
“The deaths of the prince and princesses led to rumours of the royal family being cursed. The queen fell into melancholy after burying her five children. The ministers, trusted friends of the king, suggested having body doubles and poison-tasters to keep the young Prince Aryn safe from any further death attempts. So the king secretly had his ministers find youths who would not only become companions for the young prince, but also body doubles and poison-tasters. Two youths were brought into the royal family: one of them was a young man whose father was a dwarf, the youth’s name was Mercury Blake; the second young man was a rilud by the name of Dickon Pruner who was the son of a local tree pruner and gardener.”
I looked up at Dickon. He smiled thinly.
“Yes, that Dickon Pruner is I.” He continued, “A year later, a young girl was adopted into the royal family who was later given the name Rayn by Prince Aryn – an anagram of his own name. The son of a dwarf, a rilud and a young girl were the prince’s playmates, they later developed a bond so strong they even made themselves blood brothers and sister. Years passed, the secret of Prince Aryn having body doubles were of course kept tightly; the ministers, and those who knew about the secret, aged until they took the secret to their graves. We grew together, making sure that we would continue to look alike. Mercury made sure he had help from the elven doctors to make his height the same as Prince Aryn’s, as did I. In the hidden inner court of the Autumn Palace, the three of us lived with the prince so that we trained, practiced and learned to behave, fight, think, walk, talk, and even have habits like Prince Aryn until no one could tell us apart. However, there was one problem. Rayn was a girl and girls become women. Her body with her monthly courses made it difficult for her to continue playing ‘prince’, so she was given the role of the prince’s ‘private maid’.”
I listened to this strange tale as Dickon continued, “One night, the Autumn Palace was set on fire by a coup. The king was killed with his queen. Prince Aryn was told by the king’s remaining advisors his life was in danger and he had to leave the palace. Immediately, Mercury and I took action. Dressed identical to Prince Aryn, we lured the rebels away from the prince. Mercury was shot as he was caught by the rebel soldiers. I put up a bit of a chase as I rode the prince’s horse out of the Palace with a fellow servant. The servant got killed by a bullet. I was captured. The rebels saw that I was an imposter and sold me to the slave market in one of the Eastern Kingdoms. There an Oronean purchased me and made me his slave where I was made sport. He later unsexed me so I could not breed.”
I shuddered at the horror Dickon painted. He smiled even more seeing me in discomfort. He approached me and grabbed my chin. I could not stop shaking for I saw a look of malicious glee in those ruby eyes.
“I was my master’s abused dog, so I had to wait until I could kill him. When I finally had the chance,” he leaned towards me and whispered, “I tore his limbs apart!” He began to laugh delighted by the memory.
I wanted to shrink away from him, but his hand had a firm grip on my chin. When I felt something wet slipping down my cheeks. I realized I was crying.
“Oh, did I scare you, my dear?” he cooed, his thumb stroking my jaw line.
“Please let me go,” I whispered.
“Let you go?” Dickon peered into my eyes, his eyes wide with madness. He gave me a toothy grin. “But that would be too easy. Besides,” his eyes suddenly saddened, “I want a woman’s touch.”
He grabbed my collar and tore my blouse, I cried out. I prayed as I had never prayed before.
“If you don’t struggle so much, I will make it painless.” He brought out something from his back pocket. It was a knife.
“Ishual!” I whimpered, “Please help me!”
He sniggered. “Ishual, please help me!” he mimicked. “Your god can’t help you just as he didn’t help me!”
The door flung open with a BANG! A shot rang through the air as Dickon’s knife flew out of his hand.
“You took a while,” Dickon commented at Jasper who stood in the now open doorway with a pistol in his hand pointing right at him.
“Jasper!” I cried out and felt a squeeze tightening around my neck.
“Don’t!” Jasper aimed at Dickon’s head.
The tyrn released me and raised his empty hands. “I was just getting acquainted with your lady friend, Aryn,” Dickon told Jasper in a pleasant tone as if we were having tea rather than holding me hostage and torturing me.
“Hands where I could see them,” Jasper commanded.
“Are you sure?” Dickon threw something on the ground. A cloud of smoke burst up. I felt myself carried in my chair. Another loud bang followed by splintering of wood. Moments later I saw the air clear and found myself staring down at a street in Oxen Basin. It was then I realized that I was still bound to my chair and Dickon, with his monstrous rilud strength, had me tipping dangerously with the front chair legs on the edge of the building top.
I shrank back as far as the chair would allow me so my weight would go to the back of my seat.
“Cassisa!” I heard Jasper call; his shoes pounded the rooftop and stopped a distance behind us.
“That’s right, Aryn. Not too close!” Dickon held me so that I would be leaning a bit more forward.
I tried to hold my panic in as I gripped the edge of my seat and focussed on staying on the chair, which was getting very difficult with gravity inviting me to fall.
“Let her go,” Jasper said.
“Really?” I felt a brief moment of weightlessness. I screamed, then felt a violent tug and was suspended over the street again.
“I didn’t think you wanted to see her go so soon.” I could hear enjoyment on Dickon’s part.
“What do you want?”
“A private word with you.”
“I will talk if you set her down safely.”
“Where? Here?” I was brought back on the roof. “Or here?” Again I was over the edge.
Dickon clucked his tongue. “You are no fun! Oh, very well! But you must drop your pistol.” I heard a moment of silence, then I was gently placed a foot away from the edge on a solid surface. My chair was facing away from the street so I saw that Jasper had the pistol on the ground a foot away from him.
Dickon approached Jasper. I watched as they spoke, but could not make out what they were saying for Dickon had his back turned to me. As the conversation progressed, Jasper’s eyes grew with concern written on his face.
Dickon stepped away from Jasper and grinned. “Remember, Aryn, they are waiting for you.” He did a quick jig and with a twirl he ended his little dance beside me. A spray of crimson burst from his chest once, then twice, he fell across my chest and pulled me over the edge with him.
“Cassisa!” Jasper shouted, grabbing the chair and kept me from going over.
I felt something grab my hair, I cried out in pain as Dickon tried to bring himself up by my hair. Immediately, a shadow fell over me followed by a sickening sound of something sliced; the weight that pulled at me fell away. Cries and screams of people come from the ground below as I was lifted back to the roof safely.
“That was a close one, eh?” It was Ian’s voice.
Both Ian and Jasper carefully raised my chair so that it would stand securely on its four legs.
“The captain’s on his way, Jasper,” Ian told him.
“Thank you, Ian,” Jasper replied.
“And, uh, Cassisa,” I looked up to see our friend looking sheepish. “My apologies for your hair.”
I shook my head. “It was a small price to pay. Thank you for saving me.”
With a nod, Ian handed the knife to Jasper. “I’ll be meeting the captain and his men,” he said as he walked away.
Jasper made quick work with my bonds. The moment I was free I stumbled out of my chair and sat on the rooftop rubbing circulation back into my limbs. Jasper removed his jacket and covered me.
“You are safe now,” he assured me.
I could not help looking at him. It was Jasper. I threw my arms around him tears of relief pouring from my eyes with my nose running just as freely as I buried my face into his neck.
“Hey!” Jasper was surprised. I guess he didn’t know what to do for a moment because it took him a full minute until he actually put his arms around me and finally pulled me close.
“You came,” I sniffled.
“Of course, I would.”
“I didn’t think you would.”
“Why would you say that?”
“You fired me.”
There was a brief pause. “When was this?”
He pulled away so he could look at my tearstained messy face. “I fired you?”
“You dismissed me.”
“I dismissed you?”
“Something about losing my temper and hitting my employer.”
There was another pause. “Just because I fired or dismissed you does not mean I will not help you. Besides, I thought that hit was well deserved (at least according to the jury at Rosemary’s).”
“I still lost my temper.” I inhaled and looked at him in the eye, “I am s–” He put a finger to my lips.
“I would rather hear the words starting with T and Y,” he told me, his tone very kind.
I tried to search the words he was asking for.
“I was saying that I want to hear a ‘thank–’” I did not let him finish as I pressed my lips on his giving him a warm kiss. When we parted, he sat there momentarily dumbstruck.
“I – I thought I needed permission to get one of those,” he stammered.
“I just gave you one.”
“Well, in that case!” He returned my kiss. Just as we were kissing, we heard a cough. We turned to see Ian with Captain Peere and some of his rangers looking at us – Ian grinning from ear-to-ear, the captain blushing a bit and some of the rangers looking every other way except us. We both moved away from each other.
“Well, Blake,” Captain Peere said clearing his throat, “Now that we have your full attention. We would like to take you to Station House 22 to write up our report on the Tiller murder, the Willowdale murder and the kidnapping of Ms. Fullerton.”
“Right away, sir,” Jasper grinned as he stood up.
“Right!” the captain turned to his men and said, “All right, lads! Let’s move along, shall we?”
Jasper held out his hand to me. I gratefully took it and allowed him to pull me to my feet. I wobbled a bit, but I managed.
“Would you like me to carry you?” he teased.
“I will be all right, thank you!” I stumbled. He caught my elbow.
“Cassisa,” his expression this time was serious, “will you please continue to work with me? Not as a secretary, something…” His eyes searched for a word.
“A partner, perhaps?”
“How about one with the possibility of becoming my future wife?”
“Your future wife?”
“I do not mean right away…I mean, perhaps in a year or two…Of course, with your parents’ permission…” He blubbered as colour rose on his cheeks and spread to his ears.
I could not help smiling. “How about we build our relationship by getting to know each other first, then we shall meet my parents?”
He looked at me as I slipped a hand on his arm. He smiled. “I think that would be a good start. Yes.”
The case of the murder of Gavin Tiller was closed with Gavin’s sister Peony’s confession. The Zenian cook who was held in custody was released for being proven innocent. As for the murder of Rineaux Willowdale, with Jasper’s investigation, and some help from Ian, it was concluded that Dickon Pruner was the one who murdered the man.
“I will compile a report for the captain and the rangers,” Jasper said as he sent me home. Good to his word, he did that within the day, all three cases solved and closed.
Two days passed since my kidnapping. I was still a bit shaken after my rescue that Jasper encouraged me to take a day off.
“How did you know it was Dickon?” I asked. Jasper and I celebrated in our office with tea and some fresh cinnamon rolls from the local bakery.
“Dickon was actually leaving hints for me to follow.” Jasper explained as he took a bite of his roll. He chewed and swallowed. “Do you remember the chess pieces?”
“Those were his calling cards.”
“His calling cards?”
“It was his way of leaving me a message that he was at the place and that he wanted me to find him.”
“And you did find him.”
“I did – with great caution, of course.” Taking a sip of his tea, he continued, “I had Ian conduct multiple searches, getting as much information as possible regarding places or events where the chess pieces were found. He had some help from Harris and Rusty, while Merl and Vanessa gave me any leads that came their way.”
“So the chess piece that you got from Merl.”
“I asked him about that. He told me that it was not from him. Then I remembered that there was a young man who worked at the morgue. I believe you saw him. He was the one who notified you that I was at the door.”
I recalled a young man in a lab coat at the morgue. I shook my head in disbelief.
“I still can’t believe that was Dickon.” Then, I added, “If that was Dickon, why didn’t Merl and Vanessa realize sooner?”
“Dickon captured Eric (the young man who worked at the morgue) and took his place. They found the real Eric knocked out in a broom closet. Dickon was also Lavinia – as you may have figured out.”
I nodded at that. The rilud was a master of many disguises. “Did he do the same with the real Lavinia?”
“Apparently, the real Lavinia had been dead for some time.”
I stared at Jasper in disbelief.
“I believe Dickon was hired to find Willowdale by someone, possibly Lavinia. Captain Peere had learned that Willowdale had made a will to whomever would claim to be his true heir. The real Lavinia had died by an illness in a hospital in Eastern Noridca.”
Jasper paused, taking a sip of his tea, and continued, “Dickon was hired to investigate Willowdale. He was given the dead woman’s identity and approached Willowdale himself. What probably was not expected was that Dickon would meet Gavin who probably saw through his disguise.”
“So Dickon…is he dead?” I had to ask.
Jasper nodded. “Merl and the captain had me examine him before they took him away. Two shots through the chest, but it was the fall that killed him.”
I found myself touching my shortened hair. After Ian had hacked me free from Dickon’s death grip, I returned home and asked Rosemary to fix the choppy ends. It felt strange seeing my reflection without my long hair. My hair was my beauty so I was a saddened at the loss. My friends at Rosemary’s told me that the new look made me cherub-like – I took that as a compliment.
"I still have trouble understanding why Rineaux Willowdale was killed," I mentioned remembering the third murder.
"Willowdale was notorious amongst the female servants for his carnal appetites. He may have approached Dickon thinking he was a woman, only to get himself killed."
“So, how do you like your new look?” Jasper changed the topic, perhaps for my benefit.
"Ian suggested that I would purchase a suit with trousers." I told him, “He said, 'It will make yer work easier'," I imitated Ian's Eastern Nordican accent, "personally, I think he felt bad about my hair so he paid for the suit. I think it will take some time getting used to.”
I stood up to show Jasper my new navy blue suit. For a tie, I used a broad piece of black satin and pinned it with a silver brooch. The brooch was purchased from my first pay on this job.
“Well, if I may remind you,” Jasper stood up from his seat. He wiped his fingers on his handkerchief and approached me. “I would like to see you with your hair long again.”
“Oh?” I tilted my head.
He brought out from his coat pocket a small slender box. “For you, my dear,” he held the box out to me.
Taking it I opened the box. Inside was a brass hairpin with a bright red gem.
“It’s not a ruby, but,” Jasper said shyly, “I would be honoured if you accepted it – celebrating our…partnership.”
“Thank you,” I smiled. “To me it is a ruby.”
“Give a dwarf a ruby and he will be your brother for life.” Jasper quoted the proverb. “Do you know why it is a ruby?”
I shook my head.
“In ancient times, dwarves gave their brothers rubies or garnets as a symbol of being blood brothers.” He then added, “Do you know why I am giving you a red stone?”
“You want to be my brother?”
“Well, not exactly. When a dwarf gives a woman a ruby it is his promise that he will treasure her.”
“Well,” I was not sure what to say to him other than, “That is quite a commitment.”
“I intend to make that commitment.” Jasper plucked the pin from the box and tucked it into my hair behind my ear.
“Jasper,” I placed my hand over his.
“Rook, or Dickon, called you ‘Aryn’. Why?”
Jasper hesitated. “Cassisa, I –”
“If you do not feel comfortable in telling me, you don’t have to. But if you want to have a relationship with me, I would like to have one without any secrets.” I was remembering my last two marriages where each of my husbands’ secrets brought me heartache.
Jasper’s other hand went behind my head and brought me closer to him. “I will be very honest with you, but I am afraid to tell you my secrets, because of what it may bring.”
“I am aware that some histories could affect people…” I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer for courage make the best choice. “But I have decided to love you regardless who you are and where you came from.”
He pressed his lips to my ear and whispered, “Aryn Phineas.”
I looked up at him.
“That is my real name,” he explained, “I was the youngest son of King Benik of O’Lirr.”
I was confused. “Aryn?”
“Dickon Pruner was my body double and personal body guard.” He continued after a pause, “I was adopted by a relative of Mercury Blake.”
“Blake? As in –” I pointed at him. Rather rude of me, but I was not sure how voice my thoughts.
He nodded. “Mercury was my second body double and bodyguard. I came to Nordica when I was twelve with his uncle who later adopted me.”
“Wait a minute! Aryn Phineas. The Aryn Phineas who was believed to be killed with his family during O’Lirrean revolution?”
“The very same.”
Recalling the initials “A.P.” left for Jasper and his panic upon seeing it now made sense.
“Cassisa,” I looked at him and saw his face sad and worn. “I want to be clear with you. I have no land, no title, and no riches that I could give you from my old background; all that is lost with my family during the revolution. I could only give you,” he stretched his arms, “myself as I am. Will you please accept me?”
“Of course I would. Besides,” I put my arms around him and buried my face in his chest. “I only know you as Jasper Blake and I will call you exactly that.”
He returned my embrace. “Thank you,” he said as he kissed the top of my head.